To Plant a Garden

In California I always had a large organic garden…and fruit trees….and chickens. When we moved to Israel in 2015 (has it really been this long???) I wanted to be able to at least have a small plot for growing veggies. We were fortunate enough to rent a home with lots of room for gardening. Outside each window of this house we have large, deep, concrete planter boxes. Outside the kitchen I grow my herbs. Outside our den/family room window I have all my lettuces. In our front yard there is a very productive lemon tree. In the back we have oranges, pomelos, grapefruits and clementines. And I hope to add two avocados by early spring. Plus we are blessed with a magnificent pecan that I harvest every October. Yes. We are truly blessed.

In Israel, it is pretty much a given that every home or apartment has at least one mirpesset, which is an outdoor balcony/patio. Israelis love to have their coffee on the mirpesset in the mornings and spend sultry summer evenings hanging out of doors on the patio in hopes of catching a cool breeze. Plus so many places in Israel have these glorious views. There’s even a Hebrew song, “Bashana Haba’ah” where one of the verses speaks about peacefully sitting on the mirpesset counting the migrating birds overhead and listening to the laughter of children playing down below and eating grapes just picked off the vine (Steve Lawrence & Eddie Gormé made it famous in the 1970s). Our bedroom is upstairs in this tall, skinny house. That’s the third level, and wrapped around our bedroom is a huge mirpesset with sweeping views of the rolling mountains, the Mediterranean, Haifa, and sprawling Arab villages in the adjacent valleys surrounding our city. It’s all quite breathtaking, and our blessings overflow. To cap all this off, the mirpesset is bordered by deep concrete planters: my garden!

Last year was a year of shmitah, which happens once every seven years in Israel. It’s actually an ancient law from the Bible. Interesting aside: how many times in America did I hear people say how completely impossible it was for people to keep ALL the 613 laws in the Torah? In actuality, some laws are so specific they are just for men or just for women. Some laws are exclusively for people of the priestly tribes of Cohen and Levites, i.e. Cohen, Kahn, Katz, Cone,Kahane, Levy, Levine, Levenson. Some laws are only applicable in the Holy Land, like letting the fields lay fallow every seven years. It’s really smart actually. When the land rests, it has a chance to replenish. So here, the religious Jewish people honor that law. Driving the countryside last year, many of the fields owned by observant Jewish farmers were unplowed, unplanted, and covered in weeds. I also let my little plots go. Planted absolutely nothing. It’s amazing how way up on the roofline balcony, weeds quickly took over. How did they get there???

Lately I’ve been spending about an hour each day weeding the spaces, adding compost and new soil and gradually planting seeds. Over the past seven years for me, it’s been hit or miss in growing, but I can start some seed outside year long since it really doesn’t get cold enough for frost. I order my organic, nonGMO seeds from the States and bring them back with me. I try to grow things not available here like yellow and chioggia beets, parsnips, rutabagas, and different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, Japanese radishes, Russian pickling cucumbers, Brussels sprouts and colorful carrot and bean varieties. So far, I’ve had reasonably good luck.

They say that the best way to connect with the land is to dig in the earth and plant a garden. It was one of the first things I did when we moved here. To plant a garden is a sign of permanence and hope, an expectation of tomorrow. For me, it was also a link to the past. And yesterday, as I was clearing out the weeds, with my hands sunk into the rich dirt, I thought about all those who were here, in the Galilee, long ago. People in biblical times. What were they growing? This was a lush country abundant with dates, grapes, olives, barley, wheat, pomegranates, figs, spices, herbs, and vegetables. Did they, too battle with hungry snails at night and powdery mildew on their vines? Were they aware that in a few years they would also be battling Babylonians or Greeks, Syrians and Romans? Who planted on this land after that? Did it lay fallow during the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land in 70AD? I know our area was trod upon by Byzantines. In this town there are remnants of that early 300’s – 600’s civilization on every hilltop. Then came the Mamelukes, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the wandering Bedouin. Mark Twain traveled through this country in the late 1800’s describing it as a vast and arid wasteland, full of rocks and good for nothing. Barely a tree for shade. It lay like this until the early 1900s when Jewish pioneers from Russia and other parts of Europe returned to their ancient and ancestral homeland. They cleared rocks, drained swamps, succumbed to malaria and other disease, defended themselves from marauding Bedouins and tribal chiefs and their bands of men seeking plunder. They diverted streams, planted trees, irrigated the land and sowed crops. They waited for the earth to become fruitful once again. And it has. Today, I am planting.

The other day I heard Rolling Stone put out their list of the top 200 singers of all time. Checking it out, I was shocked to see Israeli singer, Ofra Haza, of blessed memory, was there. I used to listen to her music in the 1970s. It was a time when much of the music here was about the love of this land – its natural beauty. It was about the people living in the land. Songs of thanksgiving and wonder. Working in the soil, even if it was in raised planters, I began to feel that connection with the past as I listened to those songs once again. The lyrics were about dependence on G-d, of the privilege of being alive at this time despite all history has dealt, living and planting in the ancient and ancestral homeland after 2000 years. They are songs of hope above all else.

And then BANG! It happened! I started this blogpost a week ago, and had hoped to put in a recipe or two, proof and post. But my husband took a turn for the worse with an intestinal obstruction. I rushed him back to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. John is currently under observation awaiting surgery as soon as his doctor returns from the States next week. The good news is that the cancer doesn’t seem to have returned. The operation isn’t an easy one and healing process will be long, so field tripping is out for a few months. In the meantime, I have a few left over from last year to share with you. Also look forward to some really interesting and culturally diverse recipes. Plus, there are a few people I’d like you to meet and a few fascinating subjects onto write about. So stay tuned. Wish me luck on cultivating those recently planted seedlings. And prayers for John for a complete and speedy recovery or as we say in Hebrew: refuah shleyMAH.