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What is Jewish Indigeneity? (Part I)

“First of all…when I use the word indigenous, I’m not talking about Mayan, I’m not talking about Pueblos, I’m not talking about any specific tribal peoples. I’m talking about from the point of view of the indigenous soul, which is not tribal specific. So, it’s the soul that I believe all human beings are capable of remembering given a good cultural surrounding…I’m one of those hopeful idiots who keeps thinking, you know, it can be revived. And not only revived, but some things can show up that have never shown up before. So when I talk about indigenous, I’m not talking about something that was or can be paved over, that can be imprisoned, that can be killed. I’m talking about the thing that can’t be killed, that can’t be imprisoned…”   (Martin Prechtel, on the Podcast “Unlearn & Rewild”)

A topic hot on my mind lately is Jewish indigeneity.  What do I mean by indigeneity? If you did not start by reading the quote up top by Martin Prechtel, please do – he speaks to a particular arching concept of indigeneity more eloquently than I can. What I will add is that my exploration of indigeneity involves a process through which I discover my indigenous soul: inquiring on a deep level where I come from and how the landscapes and mythology of where I come from shape how I orient to the world. For me, the quest to revive my indigenous soul involves Judaism. Why? Because I am Jewish, and ancient Jews were indigenous people. 

When I say this to people, the next question they invariably ask is: What Jews am I talking about?

I am referring to the Hebraic peoples of the Fertile Crescent region – the people who spoke Hebrew and Aramaic; banded together in tribal groups; fought each other in tribal groups; intermarried; traded animals, goods and information; and developed cultural practices and cosmic worldviews that were directly tied to the agricultural and climatic patterns of the landscapes they inhabited. They cultivated grain and grapes, herded sheep, tended sacred fires, performed rain dances, honored the sacred feminine, and healed with plants. The majority of the 613 commandments in Judaism – which serve(d) to promote justice and balance between people as well as between people, land and animals – stem from these people’s everyday natural world realities.

No one ever told me about these types of Jews while I was growing up. They told me that Jews toiled in Egypt making bricks and were gassed in the Holocaust and made fried potato deliciousness for Hannukah and lit candles every Shabbat. All true, but none of these elements of Jewishness spoke to my indigenous soul.

At age 19 and in need of healing time with land and spiritually inclined people, a handy Google search for “education farming intentional community” with the added afterthought of “Jewish” landed me in a Jewish retreat center in the northwest corner of Connecticut. I spent an intense year and a half in a Jewish farming fellowship and teaching Jewish environmental education to children. I discovered a richness in Judaism that I’d never encountered before. Welcoming in Shabbat previously had meant it was time to stop doing homework and go to a party, or that another cousin was having a bar mitzvah and I had a three hour car trip to New Jersey ahead of me. In this community, I came to notice the shortening of days and arrival of Shabbat by realizing each Friday afternoon how much more farm work there was to be done before the sun went down. I found myself writing my own Hebrew blessing for harvesting medicinal plants, taking spiritual nourishment from threshing and grinding wheat to make challah for Shabbat dinner, calling out the Mourners’ Kaddish to my father under a diamond lit sky in a forest clearing (a prayer said for those who have passed that is all about praising and sanctifying the power of life). I did not try to intellectualize my attraction to this earthy form of Judaism. But as the years went by, I realized that for me, Jewish farming, Jewish environmental education, and engaged Jewish ecological ethics and spirituality was a way of reindigenizing myself. I was learning about the ancient practices of my tribe while contextualizing and adapting them to my own life. I was glimpsing my indigenous soul.

(photos from the Adamah Fellowship and Urban Adamah)

I imagine that some people might be confused and perhaps offended by my use of the terms “Jewish indigeneity” and “reindigenization,” asserting that my privilege obfuscates any claim to indigeneity because, as an American Jew, I simply do not face the same economic and cultural challenges that indigenous people face. I wholeheartedly agree that I do not face the same challenges as indigenous people, and I do not call myself indigenous. I call myself Jewish. I am trying to understand and embody where my primary identity comes from because I find it more spiritually vibrant and more socially relevant than the materialistic and Cartesian culture I am also a descendent of. (Primary identity? Yes. In terms of how I primarily identify, Jewish is tied with Woman at #1. Euro-American comes next. In the demographics boxes, I check off “Other” and write in “Jewish.”)

Whether or not most modern forms of Judaism reflect the roots of ancient Judaism, I have been raised in a thousands-year old tradition that originated in an indigenous context. The forms of Judaism that I am drawn to are inspired by these ancient customs and orientations to the sacred. They remind me that my first job as a human is to be grateful. They provide me prayers and practices for calling upon the guidance and grace of those who have come before me. They teach me to grieve. They give me instructions for living in greater harmony with the earth and its inhabitants. They help me to revive my indigenous soul.


Relevant Reading:

  • The Natural History of the Bible by Daniel Hillel – An exploration of how the environments of ancient Jewish people shaped their collective psychology and culture.
  • Torah of the Earth Volumes 1 & 2: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought edited by Arthur Waskow – A survey of the development of Jewish ecology and Jewish environmental ethics.
  • Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World by Rabbi David Seidenberg – A challenge to the anthropocentric reading of the Torah, leading to an ecologically-oriented interpretation of scripture and rabbinic text.


Post Script: The question of how my sense of Jewish indigeneity coincides with my politics surrounding Israel/Palestine is, to me at least, an obvious corollary to all of this. Suffice it to say for now that I both love my homeland and am critical of the State of Israel. More dedicated to this another time.


One Comment

  1. -
    - December 8, 2017


    Thanks for writing this.. for being this.

    with love,

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