Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Since 2020, farmers and organizers within the Jewish Farmer Network have increasingly engaged in seed work. We see seed work as collective exploration and documentation of seed keeping and storytelling. With this, a question has consistently been brought up: what is a Jewish seed?
Inspired by seeds cared for by other peoples, we identify stories about the three sisters (corn, squash, and beans) that are tended by some of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Also, people of the African diaspora have stewarded and held ancestral stories about the Black rice, Black eyed pea, okra, and other seeds that were carried across the Atlantic on slave ships. There must be something similar for Jewish peoples, right?
Well, it might not be so simple! Seed worker and founder of Hudson Valley Seed Company, K Greene shares that ““when I think about just how splintered our diasporas were, that is part of why we lost touch with our seeds, because the multiple violent uprootings and resulting climatic changes and didn't give people time to figure out what they're taking with them or for the seeds to adapt to new regions.”
It is clear that our peoples left a lot of seeds behind. The Jewish Seed Project has spent the last year reintroducing ourselves to the hairy melon, a seed that may be related to the quishuim in our ancestral texts. K identified several varieties of this seed, which has clearly documented Jewish historical uses and meanings, in their personal collection. Some of the seeds were sourced from gardeners who connect this hairy melon with their Italian ancestry.
Why are we starting this inquiry with the hairy melon? Starting with just one seed is a practical and, indeed, simple form of organizing around the ‘What is jewish seed?’ query. Most of us involved in the project never heard of the qishu'im, and have never eaten it, or grown it. However, the qishu'im seems to enchant us through its many references in the Torah and Mishnah, which include remarks about how they are fit for a king’s table and how to tax the fruit only after the thin, “down-like”, hairs are removed.
After growing and documenting the first season of this communal seed project, it was a curious surprise to see on social media that the Experimental Farm Network, run by Nate Kleinman who has been involved with this project all along, was advertising something very similar and called the 'Palestine Fakous' Melon. The website explains that “by offering these seeds, we're hopeful that many more Palestinian-Americans and other people whose ancestors loved fakous will get the chance to experience it once again.”
Noah, a Jewish community seed grower, reacted when seeing the picture by saying “‘That's what I grew!’ And so I'm like, ‘Is this project relevant?’ Sounds like the work has been done to source, grow out, stabilize the variety, and be ready to sell the seed. So, I'm just confused. What would that look like for us to claim this seed as ‘Jewish’ when there's a Palestinian activist selling this as a ‘Palestinian’ variety?”
It seems like just growing one seed did not turn out to be so simple at all. As another grower, Sonia, points out there is enormous complexity and tension around Jewish communities working with seeds that are associated with Israel/Palestine land. While Jewish farmers are reflecting upon where the hairy melon seeds come from, there is a powerful story in the making of how seeds are (re-)introduced to peoples, especially those who are interested in land and food relationships, that can perhaps provide powerful healing and ritual making.
Asking ‘What is a Jewish seed?’ holds myriad tensions, political implications and social implications for Jewish farmers and seed growers. Jews have been telling stories of diaspora for millenia. Perhaps it is these stories of diaspora – how people have been expelled, migrated, and remade homes in new places– that provide a helpful way to think about seed stories too. As collaborators with the JSP, we actively reflect on how Jews have complicated relationships with peoples and lands that they inhabit in diaspora, whether those lands are places of temporary refuge or long term places that become home. This project shows how inevitably messy our relationship is with our ancestral lands in Israel.
The hairy melon seeds have been kept by others for a very long time, whether they are Italian gardeners or Palestinian farmers. While the Jewish stories of qishu'im might be older, they are only available to us because of other people who tended to the seeds.
For us, calling a precious kernel or pod a ‘Jewish seed’ doesn’t mean that Jews have exclusive property rights to it or to its journeys through time. Indeed this labeling assumption is one that is pushed by the capitalist agroindustrial biotechnology complex that patents pieces of nature and discourages sharing and stewardship. Just think about Monsanto patenting Roundup Ready seeds.
By contrast, to call a seed Jewish is to relate to the plant in a complex cultural way, and to form stories and ritual connections with efforts to steward collectively. A seed can be Italian, Jewish, Palestinian all at the same time. Perhaps telling these different stories together can bring great wholeness and connection between people, too.