“How should a Jew eat in the 21st century?”
That may not seem like the most compelling issue on the Jewish agenda, but for Nigel Savage, it is a question that offers “new frames for thinking about both time and food.”
“On the one hand you have 3,000 years of Jewish food traditions — not just kashrut but the whole culture — chicken soup, seder, matza, bagels and lox, making Kiddush, food brachot, and so on,” said Savage, the founder of Hazon, the nonprofit environmental group. “Then on the other side you have all the ways that food is a big issue in contemporary society: teenage obesity, Michael Bloomberg and his soda ban, vegetarianism, veganism, [genetically modified] foods, Michael Pollan, and so on.”
Hazon’s mission, he said in an e-mail exchange, is to increase Jewish awareness of these issues, and to create “healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.”
Savage will share that vision Saturday, May 4, in Cranford, at a weekend celebration of the 95th anniversary of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim.
He is speaking at the suggestion of Rabbi Ben Goldstein, the head of the Conservative congregation, who said the British-born Savage — a former fund manager and a founder of Limmud NY — was the perfect person to provide inspiration for the congregation.
“He has a vision for the future of American Jewry — for Jewish existence and Jewish life — that is very compelling,” said Goldstein. “And, perhaps because he isn’t a rabbi, he can draw on Jewish sources to address Jewish topics and discuss Jewish values in a very accessible, conversational way.”
‘A natural mix’
Savage launched Hazon in 2000 with its first long-distance bike ride — now one of its signature events — ending at the White House. The rides — along with conferences on food and agriculture, the “Jew and the Carrot” blog (a partnership with the Forward), and curricula designed for camps and schools — explore secular issues like farming and food production, and Jewish issues like animal welfare, preserving the environment, and respecting the body.
Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explored Americans’ increasingly unnatural diet, has been hugely influential in the emerging “new Jewish food movement.”
Savage wrote that he personally and Hazon as an organization are “really interested in how these two conversations inform each other. That’s such an interesting and rich question.”
Suggesting how a synagogue like Beth-El Mekor Chayim can incorporate these conversations in its daily life, he brought up the idea of shmita, or the biblically mandated sabbatical year during which fields and farmers are told to rest, and debts are forgiven (see related article).
“What could or should it mean?” he asked. “What if those who could afford to charge themselves seven-sixths of an annual membership — and put the extra amount in a fund so that shul membership could be free to many in the seventh year? How about planting fruit and nut trees, and engaging the whole community in it — because perennials (as opposed to annual crops, like soy and corn and wheat) were historically a larger part of the shmita diet?”
Savage grew up in Manchester, England, in what he calls “a fairly traditional Jewish household,” in his case with Orthodox shul on Shabbat mornings and watching Manchester United play soccer in the afternoon.
As a student in England, Israel, and the United States, he explored all the different branches of Judaism, and studied with a wide range of teachers, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Renewal movement, to whom he often looks for guidance.
“As a matter of principle, there isn’t any shul I wouldn’t daven in — at least once,” said Savage.
Savage helped bring the multi-faceted Jewish learning conference known as Limmud to the United States, and served for nine years as a board member of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.
He has also been an executive producer for a number of independent movies, most famously, and perhaps presciently, the British comedy Leon the Pig Farmer (about a Jewish man who finds out he has rather un-kosher roots).
But it is Hazon and its increasingly popular bicycle rides that caught his family by surprise.
“I think that they are proud that I’m making a difference in the Jewish community and in the world; and more than a little bemused that I started off doing this on the seat of a bike,” he wrote. “I could barely ride a bike when I announced that I was going to lead Hazon’s first event — a 3,600-mile bike ride across the USA — in the summer of 2000.
“There were probably bookies in Manchester laying odds of me lasting more than three days.”