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From Shul Garden to Kitchen

I’ve been a gardener and foodie all my life. Family legend has it that as a toddler I used to go from one cherry tomato plant to the next in our backyard garden, picking and sampling each one. The green ones I’d spit out, but I didn’t give up; I savored each sweet, red tomato as a gift as soon as I found it. Later I discovered my love of cooking with my first cooking class at age seven and hours upon hours of hounding my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and mother to teach me what they know…until I developed my own eclectic, vegetarian cooking style.

I find myself lucky enough to share my love of food and gardening at my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, Nashville’s Orthodox synagogue. I hadn’t taught Sunday School in nearly 20 years, but was told I had free reign to do pretty much whatever I wanted with the bar/bat mitzvah aged kids each week. My class has taught me as much as I teach them, and we have worked together to build and maintain two raised bed gardens, cook and bake countless recipes, and do the odd crafts project to decorate the Sukkah, tables for the Hannukah festival, and the students’ homes.

It always surprises me what the kids ask to make and remake each year. They love to prepare granola, customizing the bags they take home with dried fruits, nuts, coconut, and chocolate chips. They jokingly say they are “allergic” to pumpkin and then rave about the vegan oatmeal pumpkin cookies we whip up (the minyan also enjoys the ones we leave for them). Each week, I search my vast cookbook collection (450+) and Tastespotting for recipes that will take less than 40 minutes to complete. I look for healthy recipes, traditional recipes, and others that the kids will enjoy. In some ways this weekly search is like the painting assignment I had in college to paint a white egg on a white dish on a white sheet of paper. The parameters are limited but the palette is not.

Each holiday, I try to make dishes that are au courant. We make Chocolate Honey Crisps, Chocolate Honey Truffles and Honey Cakes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Whoopie Pies for Rosh Chodesh (since they resemble the new moon), Lemon Wafers for Passover, and hummus and pita for Israel Independence Day.

While the kids love the sweets, and chopping things, and cracking eggs, and stirring anything, they also love to play in the garden. After lobbying the rabbi and board members for a year and a half to begin vegetable gardening at the shul, we finally got our rabbi to build a 19’x 30” raised bed garden behind the building, abutting the parking lot. I planned the garden along with another garden-savvy friend, and we had cucumbers and watermelons coming out our ears.

My class pulled out the last of that first summer garden to make way for our winter garden of greens, radishes, and carrots. The moans and groans from my students about getting dirty were quickly replaced by excitement over the bunny that darted out from under the watermelon vines and the focus they gave to pulling weeds and planting seeds.

Last summer, my class planted the garden again, and the rabbi built us a second garden bed. We filled it with a combination of manure, peat moss, and arugula stems in layers…lasagna garden style. Lush doesn’t come close to describing how green and vibrant and beautiful, as well as nutritious our garden was. While there was excitement about the produce and the vibrant green of the garden, there was also tremendous buzz about the variety of bees flitting between the tomato, loofah, watermelon, and marigold flowers. One day I counted at least six different species of bees, from tiny sweat bees to honey and bumble bees to yellow jackets and wasps with blue thoraxes! We were all enjoying the blooms.

Here in Nashville, our growing season is a long one. Last Friday, I pulled out the last of the tomato and loofah vines, basil, and most of the marigolds we had in abundance only weeks earlier. The oregano shared by one of our members was trailing over the ledge of the garden bed next to the beets and cabbage that my class planted when we pulled out the watermelon vines after Sukkot.

There is interest growing about the garden. Those who poo-pooed the idea of growing vegetables on the property have been converted by the beauty and bounty. There has been generosity to support expansion and maintenance of the garden, and members have stepped up to help me take care of it during the brutally hot summer. We were even on the community garden tour that Community Food Advocates coordinated mid-season.

I am hoping that the onions, leeks, red and white cabbages, bok choy, carrots, arugula, mixed salad greens, cauliflower, broccoli, Swiss chard, spinach, and two types of radishes I planted on Friday make strong roots, as I share my love of gardening and cooking with my class and congregation. Sharing the garden is part of being a community.

Miriam Leibowitz is a 20-year vegetarian, an avid gardener, a long-time home cook, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and Director of Sales and Marketing for SOVA Catering, one of Nashville’s three kosher catering companies. When she’s not teaching, she is working to bring affordable, healthy food access to Nashville’s food desert neighborhoods, rebuilding relationships between the African-American and Jewish communities in Nashville, and serving on the steering committee for the Tennessee State Health Department’s upcoming Food, Faith, and Health Summit.

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