I was taken aback when I read Peter Beinart’s article, “Is Judaism a Big Tent?” just a few days after returning from a four week kayaking trip with my daughter through our ancestral homeland of Lithuania. Each day, we paddled along Lithuanian rivers, large and small — the Neris, Levuo, Nevezis, Nemunas, and Minija — and each night, we camped on the bank in our well-used tent.
I have been backpacking, paddling, and tent camping for many years. I have hiked the Appalachian Trail, trekked in Nepal and Patagonia, and kayaked and canoed rivers across the United States. Here in my home state of Idaho, my family and I have spent countless nights happily ensconced in our tents on the slopes of the Northern Rockies. I have met other Jews on nearly all of these trips. Every one of them has known perfectly well how to set up a tent.
Beinart’s article perpetuates a stereotype born of too many Woody Allen movies. The notion that camping or farming is “not part of our Diaspora DNA” is just factually wrong. It’s also hurtful to the many American Jews who find spiritual nourishment in the natural world.
A.D. Gordon was an important Zionist thinker, but his understanding of Diaspora history as completely cut off from nature was, and remains, ill-conceived. The Zionists’ “New Jew” was not really all that new. Nearly every far-flung village in Lithuania that we passed through was once home to a thriving Jewish community. The Litvaks did not all live in Vilna and Kovno. They made their homes in the forests and along the rivers, in shtetlach such as Yaneve, Sapizishok, Babtai, Gorzd, and countless others. So, too, in Poland and the Ukraine. These Jews rowed rafts down the rivers, shipping timber to the Baltic Sea. They grew cucumbers, harvested and wove flax, and kept farm animals such as sheep, goats, and cows. Tevye the dairy man did not get his milk wholesale from a warehouse. And they built — and prayed and studied in — barn-like wooden synagogues, filled with gorgeous folk-art paintings of local flora and fauna.
That is my American Jewish spiritual DNA.
And for what it’s worth, unless you work for Sierra Designs or North Face or some other outdoor company, you do not construct or build a tent. You pitch it.
Rabbi Dan Fink is the rabbi of Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho.