seed project blog
May 2022 | Iyar 5782
Longing for Qishuim in the Desert: A Torah Story
Telling by Sonia Brin
A long time ago, there were a people, perhaps our people, who endured generations of suffering and oppression in a narrow place, Mitzrayim. And then they were freed, and they began their journey of liberation out of Mitzrayim, that narrow place. And part of this journey involved wandering for years and years (40 years to be exact) through the desert. And I don't know if you’ve ever trekked through a desert, but it was hot and dry and they were tired, thirsty, and grumpy.
For these people, the place they used to be, that contracted place of suffering, was the only place they knew, and the unknown of what was ahead was scary. Getting free is scary. So they held onto the memory of the comforts of what they used to have and they yearned for them.
The Torah tells the story in Numbers/Bamidbar 11 of how the people cried: “We remember the foods we used to eat in Mitzrayim, the fish and the “cucumbers” and melons and garlic and leeks. And now, our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!”
One of the things they yearned for was this “cucumber”, the “qishut” or “qishuim” (plural).
What we’re doing with the Jewish Seed Project as modern day Jewish farmers is reaching so far back into our own history to pull these seeds into the present, so we can share them with the future.
May 2022 | Iyar 5782
Planting Qishuin* by Magic: A Talmud Tale
Telling by Jack Kellner
Rabbi Eliezer was a great Rabbi who lived in Judea (the Land of Israel) thousands of years ago. He was such a great Rabbi that he is the 6th most frequently mentioned sage in the Mishnah (oral Torah). Rabbi Eliezer had many students and was known for being very wise on many topics.
At the end of his life, Rabbi Eliezer is on his deathbed talking to a student. He thinks back to all of the things he knows and all of the things people asked him about and one thing really starts to bother him.
“You know what,” he said. “I know 300 [and some say he actually said 3,000] halachot/laws about planting qishuin and nobody asked me about it except for that one time when Rabbi Akiva asked…”
“Once upon a time, me and him were walking along a path and he said to me, ‘Rabbi teach me how to plant qishuin.’ I said one [magic] word and the whole field became filled with qishuin!
After seeing the field get full of qishuin, Rabbi Akiva asked me ‘Rabbi, teach me how to plant them but also can you teach me how to pull the plants out when they’re done?’
At that moment I said another single [magic] word and all of the plants became gathered in one place!”
*Note: In Aramaic, plurals end in “in” instead of “im”
January 2022 | Shvat 5782
Haikus by Alex Thompson
Alex grew qishuim in the 2021/5781 season
A seed is planted
Attention in high demand
Grandpa is dying
Connection is made
So much past in this present
I greet my neighbour
A seed was planted
Can a soul fully ripen?
He dies on the vine
Connection is made
Our blood carries oxygen
Our love carries life
Envelope of seeds
Filled with opportunity
Insects feast on fruit
December 2021 | Tevet 5782
By Masha Vernik, Seed Project Coordinator
Coming Full Circle
A few months ago, I saw something that made everything click: a circular Hebrew calendar. The year, laid out as a circle – not a row of squares – with months like slices of a pie.
This calendar was screen shared to our online class by Yesod Farm+Kitchen Scholar-in-Residence Justin Goldstein, as he taught us about the Jewish calendar and its connection to the sun and the moon. He shared that if you view the Jewish calendar as a circle, not rows of squares, the timing of the
holidays makes more sense. So perhaps our ancestors understood time as a circle, not a line.
Image Source: Jewish Year Calendar - The Jewish Museum London
Today, common representations of time follow a straight line: schedules, timelines, x-axes on graphs. The only exception I can think of is an analogue clock, but even those are going out of vogue!
Time exists regardless of how we understand it. It’s something that just is, and our calendars help us move through it. So what happens to how we relate to the world when time is seen as a circle, not a line?
The Jewish calendar is full of cycles that give our lives rhythm. Shabbat comes around at the end of every week, giving us space for rest and renewal. We mark a new month with each revolution of the moon around the Earth. And every year, the holidays repeat themselves, pacing our lives with familiar reminders to remember.
As we observe Shmita this year, time’s circularity comes especially alive. In this last year of a seven year cycle, we let the land rest – just as we do at the end of every week. We are told to release the land and abstain from cultivation, harvesting only what we need from whatever the land produces by itself. Every seven years, we remember that we do not own the land, but are borrowing it from a greater power.
When we follow these cycles, beginnings and ends melt away. The end of one cycle is the beginning of a new one.
This circular understanding of time has given me some perspective on our work with seeds.
You harvest seeds at the end of the season, and you plant them at the beginning of a new one. When time is a line, seeds are just that – the end and the beginning. But when time is a circle, seeds become more than that: seeds are connectors. They tie the end of one season to the beginning of another.
A seed also connects one life to another: From a parent comes a seed that becomes a new being. When does a plant’s life begin, anyway? Is it when the seed gets planted or when it germinates? Or is it when the seed was first created in the heart of a fruit? If you look closely enough, there is no true beginning of life, as it always comes from life before. Similarly, there is no end, as one end leads to another beginning – death yields life. Each generation is just part of a larger cycle.
Generations of plants are grown by generations of people. Historically, seeds get passed down from (literal or metaphorical) parent to child, who iteratively adapt the crops to changing tastes and environment. Seeds hold centuries-old knowledge of what works best for both the culture and the climate. When we share seeds, we share stories, memories, and knowledge from the past to our communities of today and tomorrow. When we see time as a circle, seeds connect us to our ancestors of the past, communities of the present, and descendants of the future.
But the repetitive displacements that most Jewish lineages have suffered – whether Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, or other – made holding onto seeds difficult. When you move to a new place, you lose much of what you had before. Old seeds may not grow in new soils.
But sometimes, seeds are one of the few things that you can bring to a new land. In these cases, they can connect you to where your ancestors came from. It is said that upon being forced to board ships bound for the land we live on today, enslaved West Africans braided seeds into their hair in an act of
hope. I wonder if our ancestors did something similar.
Time-as-a-line might have us believe that when we are disconnected from our seeds (or our language, dances, arts, or other parts of our culture), that’s the end of that. But time-as-a-circle reminds us that every end is a new beginning, and the circle will come back around.
Long ago, our ancestors stewarded qishuim. Then, they were separated.
Today, our stories have been reconnected. We’ve come full circle.
September 2021 | Tishrei 5782
By Masha Vernik, Seed Project Coordinator
As the summer heat gave way to the high holidays, we gathered online to taste our (maybe) qishuim together.
Our six growers planted seeds that came from different sources, ranging from Italy to Arizona, all of which we believe could be descendants of the qishuim (aka ‘chate’ group of cucamelons) mentioned in the Torah. After we took our first collective bite, we reflected on and compared our fruits, plants, and growing experiences.
We agreed on a general description of the taste - “like a cucumber, but with the memory of a melon” (in the wise words of grower Matt Vogel). But we found that the fruits varied in shape, size, and color. Some fruits were oblong and others spherical. Some were darker, others lighter green. Some plants produced abundant fruit, while others were overcome with fungus and produced few.
Check out the pictures from our growers to see how our various seeds bloomed!
As the growing season comes to a close, we’ll be entering the next exciting phase of our process - seed saving! We have to wait for the fruit to rot so the seeds will be nice and plump. Stay tuned for updates, and wishing everyone reading this an abundant (literal or metaphorical) harvest!
August 2021 | Elul 5781
Identity is a fickle thing by Anastasia Maier
My cultural identity has always felt amorphous. I come from too many people. I could never grab onto one of the threads and feel complete. I was either this or that but not both. By identifying with one culture, I thought I was inherently rejecting the others.
My maternal line is a line of diaspora. Her mother was born of Ukrainian and Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father descended from people that came from all four corners of the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent.
Life tends to further complicate our relationship with our people and sense of belonging. I remember going to a neighbor's Rosh Hashanah party and falling in love with the ceremony, the food and the deep sense of kinship I felt to be in community. It was then that my mom shared with me that "technically" I was Jewish. I became curious, what did “technically” Jewish mean? I begged to do more Jewish things and the next year, we did a Passover Seder at my grandparent’s house. However, it was my Catholic grandfather that seemed to be more attuned to the ritual than my grandmother. He relished in the custom and song (and wine). But along with his zealous joy, I could simultaneously taste my grandmother's discomfort, the fidgeting and desire to give voice to things that lied latent in her memory wellspring. My grandmother left Judaism in 1958 at age 18, the same year she married my grandfather. In the wake of their marriage, her family criticized and ostracized her for marrying outside her faith. She calls this time her orphaning and (rightly or wrongly) blames Judaism for it. The bitter memory of her past remained, informing my mother’s relationship with the faith and subsequently mine as well as my sisters - intuitively close to our hearts but no outlet to express it.
About 20 years after that Rosh Hashanah party, I had my first miscarriage. Filled with grief, I couldn't suppress the call of my ancestors any longer. I felt compelled to hold all of them just as they held me through that sacred sadness that follows life leaving life. I scoured histories, traditions and ancient texts for ways to create unity within myself. I was dizzy trying to uncover all the stories of my DNA.
It wasn't till I read this book that I was struck by how simple it actually was to honor my lineages in a way that was extremely appropriate for me - tending the seeds of my many people. The plants have always called me into their worlds and I have always escaped into them willingly. The humble act of saving the seeds and stories felt remarkable and important to my grieving process - the loss of my child, the muddiness of my identity - as well as creating new pathways to accessing and honoring my ancestors.
It was from story and seed that I started to see the throughlines of intersection and find that integration of being that I was unable to find through logic or ritual invocation. My heart opened and I learned how much my cultural identity was reflected in the seeds. It was comforting to know the seeds had passed through all these different hands. I started to journal their stories down as medicine, recording not only my ancestors’ relationship to the plants but my own for my descendants to maybe savor one day.
Image: Example of Anastasia’s seed journal from her maternal line.
A friend once shared that culture “is always in a state of influencing, being influenced, molding and being molded.” It is a privilege to share in culture making guided by story and seed. My prayer for the Jewish Seed Exchange is that we can continue to open the portals that have been dormant while finding our own holy connection to the seeds.
1. Wikipedia: Buckwheat.
2. The Contribution of Buckwheat Genetic Resources to Health and Dietary Diversity. Curr Genomics (2016).
3. The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martín Prechtel
4. Origin, Geographical Distribution and Phylogenic Relationship of Common Buckwheat.
5. Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States by Brian K. Obach.
6. Evaluation of physical, chemical and sensory properties of Turkish flat breads (bazlama and yufka) supplemented with lupin, buckwheat and oat flours. Int J Food Sci Nutr Eng, 2 (2012), pp. 89-95
June 2021 | Tammuz 5781
By Matt Vogel, Executive Director, UVM Hillel
It's June 11th and I finally stopped kicking myself for not getting the seeds in the ground earlier. Last night after a particularly exhausting day in my full-time gig as the Executive Director of UVM Hillel, I went straight to the wheelbarrow and compost pile to dig up some additives for our tough clay soil. I shoveled, I turned soil, I schlepped, I skipped dinner to just simply get this done. With so much in my work being intractable and punishing lately, i just wanted these seeds in the ground and to feel like I had accomplished one thing fully. I was struck by the balance of how exhausting this past month has been with the unprecedented bias Jewish students have experienced because of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that impacts us and others in so many different ways.
To be able to focus on the earth and the shovel and the water and the seeds and the chicken poop turned nourishing dirt, and the mounds and the extra wheelbarrow of dirt I needed to mound it just a bit without too much clay that I felt a bit more restored. With all the urgency of the past month in my work, my gardening has been neglected and it's been 100% on my partner. I could only do the basics of chop wood / carry water, in this case, just making sure the chickens, guinea hens, and baby chicks are fed and watered twice a day. Now that the seeds are in the ground, I can move on to the next project in the neverending journey of this year's gardens turning into next year's gardens and so on and so on.
April 2021 | Iyar 5781
By Masha Vernik, Seed Project Coordinator
Our story begins with our ancestors. As Torah tells us and we recount at our Seder tables, the Children of Yisrael made their great escape from Mitzrayim, the Place of Narrowness, aka Egypt. In their haste, their bread for the long journey ahead failed to rise. Under the desert's beating sun, these newly free Jews ate their matzah – that dry and crackly matzah we still eat today – and longed for the juicy fruits they once grew. One of these fruits, qishut, was a melon, eaten like a cucumber, with hairy skin and a triangular shape.
What happened to the seeds left behind? Did we carry any with us? Where are they today? Who are they? How do they taste when you take a bite? Do they crunch? What delicious meals can they be part of? How much sun and water do they need?
These are the first few of many questions the Jewish Seed Project hopes to answer.
We have plans – big plans – to find the descendants of our ancestors’ cucamelon. Our fearless leader K Greene of Seedshed and Hudson Valley Seed Co has already made headway. They searched far and wide, asking friends and Facebook groups alike: have you seen this cucamelon? Do you have any seeds? And lo and behold, they found a few that might just match. We now have eighteen varieties of the so-called 'chate' group of melons that we believe could be descendants of the qishut cited in Torah.
We are sharing these seeds with 6 Jewish farmers who will in turn grow them out, searching for the food of our ancestors. We'll listen, we'll learn, and we'll come to know the plants they become. Then we'll find the fruit that best matches the qishut described in ancient texts. We'll keep growing out that variety and share its seeds far and wide, for farmers, Jewish or not, to keep growing and sharing.
If you’re not a Jewish seed enthusiast (if you are, join us!), you might be wondering – why should I care? Who cares about some melons that people grew a long time ago?
There are a million reasons. But to start with just one – seeds are a thread that weaves through time. Seeds are memories. They are the keys to the past and messengers to the future. Our ancestors have been tending to plants for thousands and thousands of years. Farmers of epochs past bred and selected plants to fit their palates, climate, cultures, and needs. Though their lives are long over, their legacies remain. We cannot break bread with our ancestors, but we can learn about their lives by growing the plants they grew and eating the foods they loved. We can sow the seeds, harvest the fruit, and prepare the meals in the same way they did. Through the repetition, we remember. We can imagine the lives they led and the dinners they shared, and build a generative future for our children in turn.
The humble cucamelon is the starting point of a tale that will unfold for years to come. We are just beginning our collective seed-sharing journey. We are Jewish gardeners, seed-keepers, farmers, organizers, researchers, writers, storytellers, observers of the Torah, and more – bound together by our shared ancestors of myth and memory, by traditions, stories, and of course love of seeds. If this project sounds like something you'd enjoy, we'd love to have you! Together, we can remember the past and pave the way for the future.