Leah Penniman is an educator, farmer, and food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in New York State. She is committed to dismantling the oppressive structures that misguide our food system, reconnecting marginalized communities to land, and upholding our responsibility to steward the land the nourishes us. I am honored she agreed to share her thoughts with us
Let’s get to know Leah and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was raised in rural Ashburnham, MA and developed a deep connection with the forests, the rocks, and waters and to social justice through the mentorship of my parents. I trained on farms throughout my young adulthood and currently co-manage Soul Fire Farm, where we are committed to food justice and training the next generation of activist-farmers. In addition to farming, I teach science, write, speak, raise two children, and dance.
In what ways do you connect to Judaism?
Our family belongs to Berith Shalom synagogue in Troy, NY where I am a lay service leader and our daughter recently became bat mitzvah. We love our shul because its racially diverse, led by same gender loving women, and has lots of grassroots leadership. We also observe our version of the farming-related mitzvot, transitioning our animals into food using ancestral practices, leaving a portion of our harvest for the poor, and allowing for Shmita, the Sabbath for the land.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
My favorite Jewish holiday gathering that we host is “AfroSeder” – a Black-Jewish Passover ritual. We act out the story of Harriet Tubman’s freedom work, share personal and ancestral liberation stories, and sing and chant until our hearts fly. Everyone brings something to share, so it only takes me a few hours to cook our contribution. I always make traditional Haitian liberation food (in honor of my blood ancestors) – soup joumou and akara pwa.
How does the ideal Jewish holiday celebration look and feel to you?
The ideal holiday is about connection and love. We use song, story telling, revival of ancestral recipes, representative artifacts, and ritual symbolism to bring this connection to life. Perhaps most important is to put children at the center. At our holidays, the children get to lead, be joyful, and be heard. Through them our traditions live.
What is one of your most memorable Jewish holiday experiences?
During our very first AfroSeder, I jumped right into the candlelighting once the guests were assembled and my 5-year-old friend interrupted me, saying “Don’t you think we should start by saying why we are here?” She went on to lead everyone in a share-out of their intentions. I am so grateful to the young people in my life for reminding me of purpose and presence.
What’s your absolute favorite Jewish holiday dish?
Soup joumou (pumpkin stew) is the national dish of Haiti. During the years of enslavement, black Haitians were forbidden to eat this pumpkin, because it was considered a delicacy reserved for the elite. After the successful revolution in 1804, the free Africans cooked up big pots of this stew to celebrate freedom. This dish is ubiquitous on the anniversary of the revolution and eaten anytime we need to remember what is necessary to attain freedom.
Do you have any nontraditional Jewish holiday rituals or habits?
Right before everyone arrives for a big event, I take some time to myself in the forest to talk to the Earth, my Ancestors, and Hashem. With my bare feet on the ground I remember who I am and the blessing that it is to celebrate this life. This ritual prepares me to hold space.
What was something that your mother (or another influential figure) shared with you about the holidays that has stuck with you?
By example, my parents taught me that holidays are a time to honor our elders, share generously, and celebrate the blessing that is this life.
What’s your number one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, more positive and meaningful for you?
It has been important to break away from the idea that holidays “should” be a certain way, and let the loved ones who are part of the holiday make it work for them. With less rigidity, there is space for more joy.
Leah, thank you for sharing. I love the tradition your 5-year-old child started to invite everyone to share their intention for participating in the holiday. I am going to try this “intention invitation” at Rosh Hashanah.
This post is part of our Chag Notebook series where we interview inspiring women and men about their approach to the holidays.Which part of Leah’s interview will you remember during the High Holidays?