To Boldly Grow: Judaism, Food, and Sustainability - Tamar Haspel on May 31

Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel in conversation with environmentalists and educators from the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center

PITTSFIELD – On Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m., Jewish Federation of the Berkshires presents “To Boldly Grow: Judaism, Food, and Sustainability,” an inspirational and timely discussion with journalist and author Tamar Haspel.

She will be in conversation with environmentalists and educators from the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Shamu Sadeh and Janna Siller, on the vital Jewish themes of sustainability in your backyard, community, and the planet. The panel will be moderated by Elisa Spungen Bildner, a journalist, author (Berkshire Farm to Table Cookbook, with Robert Bildner), and Federation vice president.

This free event, part of Super Tzedakah Week focusing on Federation’s commitment to sustaining our community and our world, will take place at Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 West Housatonic Street in Pittsfield. For more on this program – which is also part of “Jewish Literary Voices,” a Jewish Federation of the Berkshires Series in collaboration with Jewish Book Council – and other Federation events, visit our calendar of events at

Tamar Haspel writes the James Beard Award-winning Washington Post column “Unearthed,” which tackles food from every angle: agriculture, nutrition, obesity, the food environment and DIY. In her book To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, And Dinner in Your Own Backyard, Haspel, a self-proclaimed “crappy gardener,” shows that raising or gathering our own food is not as hard as it seems. When she and husband moved to Cape Cod, they decided to adopt an active approach to their diet: raising chickens, foraging for mushroom, and hunting their own meat. They had more ambition than know-how, but that did not stop them from trying.

With “first-hand food” as her guiding principle, Haspel embarked on an experiment to stop relying on experts to teach her the ropes and to start using her own ingenuity and creativity. Some of her experiments are a success (refining her own sea salt).  Others are a failure (the turkey plucker engineered from an old washing machine). Filled with practical tips and hard-won wisdom, To Boldly Grow follows Haspel from cluelessness to competence, learning to scrounge dinner from her surroundings and discovering that a connection to what we eat can change the way we think about food and ourselves.

Elisa Spungen Bildner will lead a panel discussion with Haspel and two members of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT: Shamu Sadeh (managing director of education) and Janna Siller (Adamah farm director, who leads apprentices, residential fellows, and volunteers in growing organic vegetables).

Books will be available for purchase at the event or bring your own copy for signing by the author. Purchase the book at and support our local bookstore in Lenox.

BJV Interview: Tamar Haspel

"In a perfect world, every day is Tu Bishvat”

Richard Slutzky is vice president of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, past chair of Hazon, and current member of the board of the Jewish environmental advocacy group Adamah. In April, Richard interviewed Tamar about her book and environmental issues for the Berkshires Jewish Voice. 

As we approach Earth Day, and having recently celebrated Tu BiShvat (when it is traditional for Jews to  plant a tree), from your perspective, why is it important for us individually and as a community to reflect on our connection with the land? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Tu Bishvat is my kind of holiday, because trees are amazing – something I never fully realized until I lived among them. The fruit and nuts that come from trees are some of the most sustainable foods we can eat, and the sheer size of trees means they can sequester carbon better than almost anything going. As deforestation continues to be one of the main drivers of climate change, appreciation for trees becomes almost existentially important. So, I guess in a perfect world, every day is Tu Bishvat.

As described in your book, To Boldly Grow, you and your husband Kevin went all out, trying different ways to live off the land and eat “off the grid” for all of your food needs, including gardening in sandy Cape Cod, chicken raising, fishing, foraging, turkey raising, and hunting. If we want to educate our readers on some easy steps they can take to lower their carbon footprint from food consumption and to eat less packaged foods, what would be some of your recommendations? What can we do with our food consumption to reduce the specter of global warming and climate change?

First, I think it's important to be clear: food you grow yourself isn't necessarily a climate win. If you can grow a head of lettuce from seed, without too many trips to the garden store, that probably is a win, but I can pretty much guarantee that supermarket eggs, from birds grown super-efficiently and kept in cages, have a lower carbon footprint than my backyard eggs. The nature of efficiency is that it uses fewer resources, but it has other downsides. Birds in cages, for example.

Working first-hand with plants and animals connects us to the foods humans thrive on. Hang out with chickens, forage for mushrooms, grow a tomato, and the stuff in the boxes and bags with the bright colors and exciting punctuation starts to look a lot less like food.

I never thought that growing your own food would involve so many adventures, and your book, inasmuch as it is about food, is also about adapting and living creatively to feed yourself, much like our ancestors had to be creative in hunting and gathering their food sources. Do you have a favorite food-gathering adventure or misadventure that still reverberates for you, even after completing the book?

It's hard to pick! But I think what has affected me most has been what was also the most difficult thing I did -- killing an animal for food. I know I should be pushing the fun stuff here, but the truth is that the part of the book that's probably hardest to read (don't worry -- it's not that hard and there are still fun parts!) was also the most meaningful and compelling. Raising and killing a turkey, or shooting a deer in the wild, means you never eat meat without thinking about the animal it once was. And you'll never waste any, ever again.

Here in the Berkshires, there are many CSAs (community supported agricultural farms), food stalls at farms, and farmers markets where we can get true farm-to-table food. And then there is, on the other hand, large corporate industrial agriculture that generates most of the country’s food. It seems that there is often polarization about these two extremes. When you look at our parallel need to farm in an environmentally responsible way but also raise enough food to feed our population and have some food to export to needy countries, is there a happy medium, or is this discussion always going to be a polarizing one?

Now that's a great question! And there are so many issues wrapped up in it. I'm a huge fan of local food. I love that farmers' markets can become community touchstones, and that there's a place to take a kid to meet a pig. Local farms keep open spaces and contribute to the local economy. But local food is usually not a climate win, for the same reasons that home-grown often isn't. And, as you note, we have to feed 8 billion people, and to do it we have to grow food at scale. And we have to do it in a way that's environmentally responsible as possible.

I think we need both small local farmers keeping communities connected to the idea that food has to come from somewhere, and large farms growing huge amounts of the food that feeds the world.