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The Little Red Hen in the Modern Jewish World

Over the course of my few months of farm life, I’ve thought about “The Little Red Hen” more times than I have since early childhood, and each recurrence leaves me with a new lesson. In the story, the hen decides to bake a loaf of bread from scratch, starting with planting wheat. At each step she asks her friends and neighbors for help, but nobody wants to offer assistance until the time comes to eat the bread, at which point the Little Red Hen dismisses her compatriots and keeps everything for herself. Jewish lessons abound from this text on all levels — the story could be the starting point for a discussion on blessings or how to treat others, and I could even see it as the basis for a Talmud class: Does it matter if the hen harvested her wheat before or after Passover? If the hen is Jewish and her friends are not, was it appropriate for her to ask them to complete steps of the bread making process? But I digress.

I claimed in my last post that the Jewish community has little room for low-wage earners, and hence no room for farmers. In other words, most of American society looks and acts a lot like the Hen’s friends, and my experience with the modern Jewish community has been no exception. We expect to be served. We assume that bread will appear on our supermarket shelves, in our cupboards, and on our plates. We do not care how it got there, and moreover, we want no part of the process. Feeding ourselves is not our problem; it is the job of others. But we have no regard for farmers or farming, or for baristas, bakers, or line cooks. We do not understand their lifestyles and therefore have no appreciation for their inherent richness or for the value of producing food and sustenance oneself.

But what if things looked different?

What if the Jewish community were a place of true, deep understanding, where people could name all the steps of the process that go into making bread and acknowledge them in an expression of gratitude before taking a bite? What if our communities were comprised of people who had a true appreciation for the hard work and physical labor of others, and could therefore distinguish well-made goods from goods of poor quality (and thus cheaper)? What if the Jewish community at large reclaimed the responsibility of feeding itself?

I imagine a Judaism that serves as an example to others — a community of individuals dedicated to a lifetime of serving something greater than themselves, who recognize that healthy communities start with healthy soils, and who know that riches come in many forms — physical health and meaningful relationships, just to name a few. In my imagined Judaism of our future, the eater will recognize that kosher certification is no different from a USDA Organic label or from the “No cholesterol!” labels that appear on far too many of the world’s avocados these days. Communities will be strong enough to operate on trust rather than on fear.

The story of the Little Red Hen can serve as a barometer for all of us, on an individual and on a communal level. Who are you in the story? Who are we today, and who will we be tomorrow?

Yael Greenberg believes that healthy communities are built around healthy food systems, which are, in turn, rooted in healthy soils. She is ever exploring the points of intersection between this country’s food system and contemporary American Judaism, looking for ways to heal both. Yael currently lives and works on a farm in Washington state.

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