An American pioneer: A Jew in the middle of nowhere
A glimpse into a different Judaism: Oliver Levis, a Jewish farmer from a rural town in the US, explains what an alternative Kabbalat Shabbat looks like, why he believes it’s important to protect Israel, and what his children’s Jewish life will look like. ‘There was no traditional Jewish community here, so my family invented a way to realize our Judaism,’ he says.
Oliver Levis, a Jewish farmer on the isolated Earth Sky Time Farm, hosts the weekly reception that manages to attract not only the few Jews who live in the area, but also non-Jewish families and visitors, exposing them to a unique event that includes original music based on Shabbat prayers. The Levis family fosters an original type of communal Jewish life, open to different Jewish lifestyles and beliefs.
How can one live a Jewish life in the middle of nowhere?
“I grew up in Vermont, and we were never an isolated family,” says Oliver Levis. “My family always tried to celebrate Jewish holidays in an unconventional way, including, for example, when one of my sisters had a bat mitzvah. My parents organized a journey around the farm that spanned the biblical history of civilization and family.”
“My mother came up with Jewish dances and we wrote plays with a Jewish background. There was no traditional Jewish community around us, so my family invented its own way to realize our Judaism."
What does your special Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) look like?
“We sit together in front of a wood stove in the winter, drink wine and play music, tell jokes about the week, and try to raise our spirits in any way. Sometimes it becomes a dance party. We don’t have a set program and we adapt. We take time out of our busy schedules to dedicate to just being togehter, without any defined goal.
“We also light Shabbat candles, sing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and play musical instruments, and we’ve been having traditional Shabbat meals for 12 years – and everyone is invited.”
‘Trying to do what feels right’
Levis is one of seven Jews from across the United States whose unique story was recorded as part of a special campaign for Israel’s 70th anniversary. As part pf the project, 70 Faces Media, together with UJA-Federation of New York, produced short videos that reflect a wide range of Jewish identities, both in Israel and the United States.
“These documentaries are an opportunity for both American and Israeli audiences to learn from our often different experiences as Jews, and to come together over our common experiences and triumphs,” said UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein.
About his relationship with Israel, Levis says, “My family and I have been to Israel several times. My wife’s aunt has a vegetarian restaurant in Safed, and we may bring our children to Israel next year. At the farm we have a baker named Ziv, who arrived in Vermont from Israel a few years ago. He came to help out on the farm, but quickly realized that his real talent is baking, and he prepares challah with chocolate, cinnamon, honey, oranges, and raisins every week. It’s sticky—but it’s the best challah in the world.
“For me, Israel is the best example of Jewish life today, and it is undoubtedly the center of world Jewish life,” Levis said. “We visited Greece once and saw only remnants of a Jewish community. It emphasized how well off Israel is, and how important it is to strengthen and preserve it.”
How do you see Judaism as a certain value? As a way of life?
“I would not consider myself part of any specific Jewish stream—I’m just trying to do what I feel is right. I am definitely in a more liberal-progressive region of the religious spectrum, and happy to do anything that brings people closer to being Jewish.
“Our father was originally from the Greek Jewish community, and we were able to meet with distant relatives and visit the towns and villages where my family and Jewish communities lived for hundreds of years. I have tremendous respect for Jewish traditions, but I also feel comfortable with different interpretations of Jewish tradition and religion.
“I hope that I am giving my children enough intellectual openness to encourage them to enjoy the contrast in life and the different aspects of Judaism, not to dwell too much on the details—unless they want to. My children are still young and they live with me. I want them to be part of the Jewish world, but, in the same breath, I also take care not to impose anything on them.”