Common Knowledge

By Nati Passow 

I think a lot about this concept of common knowledge.  What are the things that most of the people in a culture simply know how to do?  How does this vary from one culture to the next, one historical context to another?  What does this say about a particular culture or society?

Several years ago I was helping my mother load up a new recliner into her Prius. The oversized chair wouldn’t fit completely in, but we were able to get it most of the way, and I figured we could secure the hatchback down with some rope.  As I tied the appropriate knots to hold everything in place, my mother looked on, somewhat astonished.  She asked, “Where did you learn how to tie these knots?” I kinda rolled my eyes and made some comment like, “Come on, it’s not rocket science.”  Later, as we drove home I revisited the topic in a slightly more enlightened way.  I shared, “You know, for a people that seems obsessed with its own survival, and who focus so much on the Holocaust as the defining moment of the modern Jewish experience, we seem to do a terrible job of actually teaching any practical survival skills.  You would think that part of contemporary Jewish education would be some basic skills such as growing food, building shelters, etc.”

My mother, herself a child of Holocaust survivors, seemed inspired by this idea.  Despite the fact that her parents were able to escape the fate of so many others, simply because my grandfather was handy enough to build false attics and bunkers, this idea had never occurred to her.  In her upbringing, manual labor was something that we could rise above with proper education.

800px-Jewish_Farmers_of_America_-_ca1909In many ways, this story points to the driving motivation behind our work at the Jewish Farm School and our recently launched Shtetl Skills workshop series.  We are reviving the traditions of Jewish homesteading by teaching practical skills of sustainability to the Philadelphia Jewish community.  This includes topics such as urban gardening, cheese making, mushroom growing, and preserving the harvest.  Many of these skills were familiar to our parents or grandparents because they lived in a context where this work couldn’t simply be outsourced to some far away labor market.

And why is this important?  Why shouldn’t we just embrace the modern, globalized economy, where we can leave these more mundane tasks to others, and we can focus on our technology and convenience?  Well, there are numerous answers to this.  From the ecological toll of shipping food all over the world, to the social costs of unsafe work environments striving to meet the endless demand of the global north.

But I would choose to focus on something more abstract or philosophical.  Something related to the idea of common knowledge.  Let’s ask ourselves: What is the common knowledge of our culture in the United States, or the American Jewish Community?  Is it changing from one generation to the next?  What do we want our common knowledge to be?  There is something inherently profound and connecting about working with our hands.  Being involved in the processes of growing food, transforming ourselves from consumers to producers.  Our ancient and recent ancestors had a certain type of literacy that the current American Jewish community lacks.  Their common knowledge came from a context where those skills were necessary.  Today, we are learning that while these skills of sustainability might seem like a luxury, they are increasingly important, urgent, and relevant.

Wanna brush up on your Shtetl Skills?  Register for one of our workshops here.

Nati Passow is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Jewish Farm School.  He lives in West Philly and makes a mean omelet.