Photo courtesy Saskatoon Circle
Photo courtesy Saskatoon Circle
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Back to Nature

A rural retreat taught me lessons about city life that Jewish sages taught centuries ago

Andrew Berns
August 14, 2018
Photo courtesy Saskatoon Circle
Photo courtesy Saskatoon Circle

In June, 170 people, ranging in age from infants to grandparents, assembled on a 220-acre patch of private land 10 miles northwest of Carlton, Washington, population 345. Saskatoon Circle, a weeklong “primitive and traditional living-skills gathering,” is the brainchild of Katie Russell, who teaches children and adults how to track, hunt, and field-dress animals—as well as process their hides. Saskatoon is inclusive in its spiritual orientation, and primitivist in its philosophy: The annual gathering “looks toward ancestral skills in order to figure out what’s going to help humanity weather the storms of the future,” Russell told me.

People did a lot of things at Saskatoon: They harvested and processed rabbits; they cooked festive meals without running water or electricity; they gave lectures about condors and the ecological consequences of hunting with lead bullets; they weaved and carved and brain-tanned animal hides. They also talked, endlessly. These conversations, ranging from chatter to soul-plumbing philosophical rumination, struck me as the manifestation of a powerful need to connect, especially without the intermediation of technology. Participants came from as far as Alaska and New York City to connect—both with others, and with the Earth. Saskatoon offered me, too, the chance to disconnect from technology and reconnect to the natural world; experience the cohesion of a self-selecting community committed to ancient skills and values; and reflect on the degree to which this sort of life—rural, socially tightknit, technologically minimalist—resembled the life of our ancestors.

Along with “connection,” another word I heard a lot was community. “In the ancient times” was tossed around a lot, too, always in laudatory fashion. For example: Stephanie, a beleaguered mother of five, said this to me more than once, and spoke of the “natural, ancient way” of raising children and living in community. Overwhelmed by the isolation of motherhood in the modern era, she was attracted to how folks did things in the old days, when people could care attentively for a baby and still have numerous social interactions throughout the day, across the barriers of age, gender, and class. Studies say that cities are good for us because they encourage multiple and frequent low-level social connections, but these are fairly limited and often quite superficial. A gathering like Saskatoon creates a temporary, curated, and organic-feeling community of people where it’s perfectly acceptable—even encouraged—to approach anyone you want anytime you want. If cities drive people apart by creating wedges between them, rural gatherings accomplish the opposite.

There was nothing particularly Jewish about the gathering—which wasn’t surprising. Among the blacksmiths, mushroom experts, and Oaxacan weavers I didn’t expect to encounter a minyan. I met only one other Jew: a kind, intelligent young woman who teaches science to middle school children in a rural school district several hours away. And Judaism, so far as I know, was only mentioned once. At the gathering’s opening convocation, where the group’s leaders, clad in homemade buckskin dresses and shorts, stood before a yawning fire pit, one organizer, Epona Heathen, brightly announced: “My people are pagan”—as if her self-assigned name didn’t already give it away. “But,” she added in a spirit of ecumenicism, “I’ll take your Shabbat songs—or whatever you’ve got.” I wasn’t moved to sing any ditties.

But as a scholar of Jewish thought in the pre-modern period, I cannot help viewing the more unusual experiences in my life through the lens of the Hebrew writings I study. This particular adventure pushed me to think hard about the cultural and social gulf that divides urban (or suburban) and rural life. As the week proceeded, my perception of a rigid boundary between my largely urban life in Columbia, South Carolina (where I spend the academic year) and Portland, Oregon (where I spend the summer) and my sojourn at Saskatoon softened: My existence there, among the shirtless and unshod, came to seem less bizarre and more normal, more natural. Predisposed by temperament and conditioned by training to search for historical discussions of topics important to me, I wanted to know what people in the past said about why rural life was so attractive, and cities so suspect.

Far from screens of any kind, and not having books or notes with me, several vignettes from Renaissance Hebrew commentaries floated into my consciousness during odd moments, and helped me clarify what divides country and city. Alone with my thoughts as I drifted to sleep among the cicadas and grasshoppers, and on top of abandoned groundhog burrows, I felt myself involuntarily tunneling beneath Renaissance discussions; I wanted to explore the intellectual and literary foundation upon which 15th- and 16th-century Jewish writers based their thinking about this topic: the pastoral and seminomadic culture of the Bible. The scene often before my eyes at Saskatoon, where nursing mothers chatted amicably with teenage girls and grizzled older men, and where children ran free, content without formal activities, coaches, or gaming consoles, struck me as somehow natural, and led me to reflect on literary accounts of humanity’s dawn. Which, to me at least, means Genesis.


The man I have studied Talmud with for the last seven years is a brilliant Semitic philologist and biblicist. His most recent academic study concerns the concept of hesed, usually translated as “loving kindness.” That’s far too wishy-washy and imprecise for Dr. Sol Cohen. He defines hesed as “a social and moral code of conduct, dispersed among ancient Near Eastern pastoral nomadic and seminomadic societies.” The founding forefathers of the Jewish people—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Cohen has reminded me many times, were pastoral seminomads, a lifestyle common to Mesopotamia and Canaan from the earliest period of ancient Near Eastern history. Quoting his teacher Ephraim Speiser, Cohen writes that Abraham, in leaving his birthplace at the beginning of Genesis 12, made a “sharp historical right-angle turn,” breaking completely with the urbanized, mercantile mores of his birthplace: Aram Naharayim. Ironically, for a people often understood as paradigmatic city dwellers, especially in the modern period (see Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century) the beginnings of Judaism are inextricably linked to voluntary removal from urban centers, and the avid pursuit of a seminomadic life.

One of the Pentateuch’s leitmotifs, Cohen stresses, is the contrast between the urbanity of Egypt and the wilderness wanderings of Jews. This is no mere literary device, or random choice: Urban centers and sedentary societies, such as those of ancient Egypt, are, as he put it, “archetypes of urban indifference and xenophobic apathy,” in stark contrast to the “bonded fidelity” and “fierce loyalty” of seminomadic pastoral societies. According to Cohen, the annual Passover rite demands that Jews symbolically sever themselves for one week from urban society’s gastronomic hallmark: bread. Hametz, or leavening, symbolizes city life. “Urbanization,” he writes, “entails a break with the tribal system, since urbanization brings with it the neutralization of the feelings of internal solidarity of the tribe.”

At Saskatoon I saw lots of tribal solidarity. I saw adults tenderly care for children whose parents were not present; I saw people freely exchanging knowledge and ideas; I saw people give gifts and treat minor wounds. Over the course of a few days, I was the recipient of the following kindnesses: fresh chilled papaya slices; a lunch of rice, beans, and avocado spontaneously delivered to me by a stranger; a flame on which to brew my morning coffee; an unsolicited cinnamon roll; treatment of a minor foot wound; the loan of several musical instruments; use of a tanning board, shovels, a spoon, and a knife sharp enough to take a small animal’s life; a stick perfectly suited to kill a rabbit via cervical dislocation; and much more. This list doesn’t include the knowledge, expertise, and passion that was freely shared with me all week. The people I met at Saskatoon shared and gave from a place of deep-rooted solidarity and generosity. The list of gifts I’ve been the beneficiary of since returning to my urban home is much shorter.

Some pre-modern Jewish thinkers stressed that cities bring out the opposite in people—greed, possessiveness, and indifference to suffering. One group of 15th-century Jewish writers stresses this theme repeatedly in their writings: the Sephardic exiles driven from Spain in the summer of 1492. One of the most vocal of these was the philosopher, statesman, and biblical commentator Isaac Abravanel. A victim of cruel religious persecution who wrote at a time when European demographic trends, and shifting economic practices, drove people to cities, he had plenty to say about the malevolent effects of conurbations.

In his commentary on Genesis 11 and its story of the Tower of Babel, Abravanel emphasized that the true sin of those who built the tower had nothing to do with the erection of an edifice whose physical dimensions threatened God; to Abravanel, building a city brought out people’s greed, which led to the baleful institution of private property: “When they turned to the novel idea of building the city and the tower, they removed themselves from brotherhood. Possessions and inheritance became private, and exchange and privacy resulted from their greed to acquire and to attribute to themselves particular things, each for himself, and to say ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ until, on account of this, man was separated from his fellow man.” It is perhaps ironic that a man who lived nearly his entire life in cities (Lisbon, Toledo, Naples, and Venice, among others) so derided them. Or maybe it isn’t ironic. He saw, after all, the material attachments of Spanish urban Jewry (duly decried by a vocal chorus of Sephardic moralists before and after the expulsion), and witnessed the indifference of many Italian political leaders in the face of a veritable refugee crisis in the summer of 1492, as thousands of exiled Sephardic Jews searched for a welcoming port on the Tyrrhenian coast.

Abravanel wasn’t alone; other Sephardic exiles of his generation shared his scorn for cities, and expressed it in their commentaries on Genesis 11. For example, his peer Abraham Saba, a man who suffered countless indignities in his flight from Spain to Portugal, and thence to North Africa, noted that there were positive aspects to the desire to build a city: “These men said, ‘come, let us build us a city,’ and be united in it, and be partners in our resources, our children and our wives so that there be neither division nor strife among us.” But the unity they were pursuing wasn’t sanctioned by God, or authentic; it was “a lie.” Saba points out that the Bible signals this by stating the tower’s builders “had brick for stone.” The plain of Shinar, the setting of this tale, was devoid of lapidary resources, and masons were forced to fire bricks. “This is a lie,” Saba stressed, “because brick is not stone.” In other words, the builders of the tower committed a trespass against God by building a city, and against nature by building it in a place that had no stone quarries; they had to resort to artifice, firing kilns to make the product they needed. A good seminomad wouldn’t dream of going to such measures, and would have contented himself with available assets.

Of his contemporary Bible commentators, Abravanel is the deftest at pointing out how the biblical text expresses its firm disapproval of urbanization. Journeying “from the East,” as Genesis remarks of the flood’s survivors, means that “they moved away from the natural, ancient way.” Lying in my tent one night toward the end of the week at Saskatoon, thinking about Abravanel, it occurred to me that I had just heard his very words in the expression that Stephanie, the mother of five, used to explain her attraction to the gathering. No matter that “the ancient, natural way” was my own translation of rabbinic Hebrew. Stephanie would appreciate Abravanel’s ideas on this subject: To him, the “ancient, natural way” meant that the earliest humans “made use of and supplied themselves with the essential, natural things,” rather than “‘walking after vanity, and becoming vain’ [Jeremiah 2:5] by seeking artificial things to satisfy their desires for superfluities.” The great Spanish Bible commentator explained that for the generation after the flood, political consolidation into cities “was the apogee of all human goals.” From this single misguided belief, man was led to pursue “reputations and appointments and power and political honors,” with the consequence that “the desire for acquisitions and greed and theft and murder follow on their heels.” All this, Abravanel notes, “was unprecedented when they were in the field, each living independently.”

People at Saskatoon didn’t live, even for that one week, independently; there was a cultivated mutual dependency. But what Abravanel meant by “independently,” I think, is not so much the sense of “in isolation,” but rather in small communities: free from the political machinery of the state, or the social structures of a city. At Saskatoon, the desire to form a community posing an alternative—if not outright challenge—to dominant political and social ideas was common.

The regnant principles of our society—self-reliance, capitalism, and entrenched social hierarchy in the guise of meritocracy—are powerful indeed, and difficult to dethrone. Until we have a major reckoning with resources, the consumer economy is here to stay. No one at Saskatoon was naive enough to think they were changing the world, and I’d predict that teachers and attendees alike at similar gatherings such as Between the Rivers or Rabbitstick would say the same. A sense of community is, I believe, what brings the vast majority of people back year after year, fire circle after fire circle. It’s what they miss when they’re not there, what they yearn for when they return to their urban or suburban lives, even if they’re lucky to go home after a gathering to partners, friends, fulfilling and remunerative jobs. And perhaps that’s the most compelling lesson of a gathering: While the wasteful culture of capitalism seems impossible to replace, the social atomization of society isn’t a necessity. From collective housing arrangements in Germany known as baugruppen to ashrams in India and throughout the world, to experiences ranging from Steven Gaskin’s The Farm in Tennessee, to Osho and Ma Anand Sheela’s ill-fated rajneesh community in Wasco County, Oregon, recently depicted in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, alternative social arrangements are immensely and permanently appealing. The roots of this in Western culture go all the way back to Plato’s Republic, if not earlier, and run through Thomas More’s Utopia to 20th-century Soviet and American utopian novels. While Jewish thinkers between the Essenes in antiquity and the Zionists in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t develop utopian models, glimmers of such ideas can be glimpsed in unlikely places, such as Sephardic biblical commentaries. They can also be witnessed in unlikely contemporary settings, such as the Saskatoon gathering.


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Andrew Berns is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.