Jonathan Schorsch, portrait with drawing by Marva Gradwohl

Ludwig Schwerin, Lithograph, JMS 1820

«Jews have always inhabited the countryside.»

Jonathan Schorsch on Jewish environmentalism

Jona­than Schorsch is a pro­fes­sor of Jewish reli­gious and intellec­tu­al histo­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pots­dam and direc­tor of the Green Sab­bath Pro­ject. Tog­e­ther with Dr. Efrat Gilad in Bern and Dr. Net­ta Cohen in Oxford, he is estab­li­shing Jewish envi­ron­men­tal histo­ry as a new field of stu­dy. Muse­um direc­tor Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke with him about Jewish back-to-natu­re move­ments, rural folk­lo­re and the cos­mic con­se­quen­ces of simp­le living.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Jona­than, what led you to stu­dy Jewish environmentalism? 

Jona­than Schorsch: I’ve always been an envi­ron­men­tal­ly ori­en­ted per­son, but I didn’t begin stu­dy­ing envi­ron­men­ta­lism pro­fes­sio­nal­ly until ten years ago, ca. 2013. The reasons were on the one hand my per­so­nal life tra­jec­to­ry – I lived in the Bronx, Ber­ke­ley, Jeru­sa­lem and Ber­lin in vary­ing pro­xi­mi­ty to natu­re – and on the other hand the wor­sening glo­bal news. It’s a field I’m pas­sio­na­te about, and it’s not yet well-trodden.

NL: What can a Jewish per­spec­ti­ve con­tri­bu­te to envi­ron­men­tal studies?

JS: Juda­ism deve­lo­ped ritu­al prac­ti­ces for sus­tainable living. Jewish ide­as about mitz­vot, good deeds, over­lap con­sider­a­b­ly with eco­lo­gi­cal thin­king. Both are about living ethi­cal­ly, about regu­la­ting our actions, about con­trol­ling our food, about mana­ging our per­so­nal beha­vi­or. Both also have a com­mu­nal com­po­nent con­sis­ting of poli­ci­es and laws for socie­ty at lar­ge. Kab­ba­li­stic Juda­ism con­tri­bu­tes a third aspect: It con­siders our per­so­nal impact on our world, the cos­mic con­se­quen­ces of our actions.

NL: How far back can you trace Jewish environmentalism? 

JS: At least two hundred years. I’m curr­ent­ly stu­dy­ing Joseph Perl from Gali­cia (1773–1839). He was a mas­kil, a so-cal­led enligh­ten­ed Jewish man. His first book, Megal­leh Temi­rim (Reve­a­ler of Secrets, 1819), is a scathing attack on Hasi­dism, and his second book, a novel, Bok­hen Tzadik (Sear­ching for the Righteous,1838) sets his prot­ago­nist sear­ching for righ­teous Jews in Pol­and. He finds none – neither among the enligh­ten­ed, nor among the reli­gious. He sets off on a jour­ney to rural Cri­mea, whe­re he finds what he was loo­king for: Jewish far­mers living the redemp­ti­ve life. The fami­lies are self-sus­tai­ning. They live sim­ply, and they eat and wear what they pro­du­ce. They are craft­smen who work with their hands to make what they need. Ideo­lo­gi­cal­ly, it could have had been writ­ten in the 1970s.

NL: It sounds very romantic. 

JS: It was! Today, we remem­ber the haska­la as a ratio­nal move­ment, but it also bor­ro­wed hea­vi­ly from roman­ti­cism. Many of the mas­kils read Rous­se­au! More than that, Perl’s clus­ter of ide­as and values is inci­pi­ent Zio­nism. Think about the ide­as of men with each their own plot of land with their fig tree and vine, a bibli­cal visi­on refa­shio­ned for moder­ni­ty. For his time, Perl was modern, even cutting-edge.

NL: Did Jewish folk­lo­re also find its expres­si­on in objects, in design? 

JS: That would be some­thing to look out for. I can ima­gi­ne it did. The shtetls were peri-urban and peri-rural, mea­ning mixed rural-urban. The Jews shared their dai­ly lives with ani­mals, they went to fields to pick fresh flowers for Shab­bat. Many eas­tern Euro­pean syn­ago­gues fea­ture agri­cul­tu­ral motifs in their deco­ra­ti­on. Rural Juda­ism hasn’t been suf­fi­ci­ent­ly stu­di­ed; scho­lars have tur­ned much more of their atten­ti­on to Jews as urban intellec­tu­als. But they have always inha­bi­ted the coun­try­si­de. They were never ali­en­ated from natu­re until quite late in their history.

NL: Cer­tain­ly not in Switzerland.

JS: No, nor in the Polish shtetls. Small-town life has always sma­cked of nost­al­gia. The nar­ra­ti­ve of dis­ap­pearing Jewish towns touch­ed the hearts of many urba­ni­tes. As the wri­ter and eth­no­grapher An-Ski wro­te: Rural lives have always been on the brink of disappearing.

NL: Jona­than, Thank you for your insight.

verfasst am 07.11.2023