I’m particularly excited about this week’s interview, because it’s a chance to showcase a project I’ve been working on for the past few months. On April 22, the first Boston Jewish Food Conference will be held at Hebrew College in Newton. I’m on the organizing committee for the event and leading a panel on Healthy Jewish Eating, but the real driving force behind the event is my interviewee this week, Leora Mallach. Leora is the creator of Ganei Beantown: Boston Jewish Gardens, which maintains community gardens at three synagogues in the area. When she’s not busy with Judaism or food, she’s making batik tablecloths, challah covers, and onesies for her home business, B. B. batiks.
You’re co-organizing the first ever Boston Jewish Food Conference. Why now?
There is so much energy, on both a national and a local level, around food: where it comes from, who grows and processes it, how it’s packaged, transported and sold. It’s only natural that there is a parallel conversation within the Jewish community. We call it a food conference, and it’s about the growing, processing, packaging, justice and consumption of food. These are timely issues, how we affect the soil and the air that nourishes us. If we consider how interconnected all these systems are, we start thinking with more kavanah (intention) about the choices we make.
In 2006 Hazon hosted their first Jewish Food Conference at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut. Momentum has been building since then, and we see Jewish food initiatives and conferences cropping up in cities around North America: Baltimore, Toronto, Chicago, Denver, Berkeley. It’s a movement in part about the value of local food systems and connections, so it makes sense that there are these place based initiatives.
What sorts of things can an attendee expect to learn at the conference?
The workshop line-up and presenter list is very exciting to me; I get a bit giddy when I read through it. Like any good conference, it’s about learning from the presenters and connecting with other participants. There are people and organizations doing amazing work in the Boston area, and we wanted to create an opportunity to showcase their work and connect them with others. We’re proud that people will come and learn from their local peers.
On a tachlis (pratical) level, attendees can learn about sustainable food choices for their Jewish institution; models of Community Supported Agriculture; cultivating radical amazement through gardening; the Farm Bill and food access initiatives in the Boston area. You’ll be able to watch a kosher ritual slaughter, make sauerkraut, meet contemporary Jewish farmers, and hear about the struggles of the workers in our food system. We’re sourcing a local sustainable dinner as well — nourishing our bodies and our minds! There will also be the opportunity to browse and purchase Jewish environmental curriculum and books — a growing landscape.
This is also a celebration, an opportunity to build community and expand the conversation of the Boston Jewish food scene. We will end together counting the Omer, the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, which in ancient times coincided with the counting of the barley harvest.
Is this a conference for “foodies” or do the attendees need to have a solid Jewish learning foundation to feel comfortable?
Everybody has to start somewhere, and we’re expecting a lot of attendees who are thinking about and considering their food choices. The issues are complex, with no easy answers. We expect a variety of learners — about growing food, food systems, Jewish learning, community organizing — those committed to making change and those working to figure out what it all means. I work with a lot of rabbis and a lot of farmers; I’m neither, and I’m constantly learning. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all coming to the conference with an open mind and heart, willing to engage. We’re working with our presenters to create sessions that are accessible to all.
You seem so busy with this conference, operating a batik business and I understand you also consult for the Trustees of Reservations. Is there ever a night where you just want to grab something from the freezer and throw it in the microwave?
I’m not a microwave person, but my fast-food go to item is Malawach, a fried Yemenite dough. Straight from the freezer to the hot iron skillet. I love it with honey, although have been known to eat it with sauerkraut, feta cheese, spinach salad or chocolate spread –whatever I have in the fridge at the time, really. It has surpassed any creative latke as my favorite Chanukah dish.
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!