Of Yellow and Yonder
The first thing I noticed about Israel was the yellow. All throughout the North, the hills were hidden beneath a dense cover of bright yellow flowers. Clumps of it lined every roadside, and the hills rolled out yellow far into the distance.
On the edge of a field at Kibbutz Degania I walked amongst it as the setting sun intensified the yellow of the petals. Driving north through the Golan Heights the yellow covered the hills as far as the eye could see. A gas station bathroom near Beit She’an was painted yellow as it sat amidst a field of yellow, as if trying to be one with its surroundings.
I’ve been to Israel many times, but I don’t remember ever noticing this proliferation of yellow. It stayed with us as we journeyed south, until we got into the urban density of Tel Aviv, when it faded out. We didn’t see it again for the rest of the trip.
I later identified this plant as a type of wild mustard. While the seeds can technically be processed and turned into the mustard that we know, this type of wild mustard is viewed as a weed. The seeds are smaller and less pungent than cultivated varieties, and most of it lives, untouched, out in the fields, until the summer when it dries out and dies.
This plant is mentioned in the Mishnah. The tractate of Kilayim כִּלְאַיִם, or forbidden mixtures, goes through endless examples of things of which it is forbidden to mix. The most relevant example, at least for a textile artist, is the prohibition of shatnez שַׁעַטְנֵז, or of mixing wool and linen fibres together. The tractate expounds upon other mixtures, including examples of seed grafting, crossbreeding animals, and the mixing of various types of plants and seeds.
Why did the Rabbis care about what seeds people are planting together? One reason given, is just because. Specifically in relation to the prohibition of shatnez שַׁעַטְנֵז, the mixing of wool and linen, we’re told ‘just because’. When G-d tells you to do something, you do it. Even if there’s no logical explanation for why these things don’t go together, G-d says they don’t go together, and so they don’t. This explanation, while specifically given in regard to shatnez שַׁעַטְנֵז, has been applied to all of these kilayim כִּלְאַיִם, or forbidden mixtures.
The yellow mustard reminded me of a similar yellow that we see in Scotland - the proliferation of daffodils. Every spring they line the sides of the road and public parks, and mark the beginning of spring. The colour is very similar, a rich lemon yellow, as is the intensity with which they seem to cover the ground. But they live in two very different places.
Over these past three years living in Scotland I’ve become quite familiar with a lot of local plants. Yet even though I’ve spent almost as much time in Israel, I’m really not familiar with those species. I know the red poppies which cover the south in the winter, and the rakefet רַקֶפֶת, or cyclamen, which is Israel’s national flower. I distinctly remember walking around kibbutzim in early fall, picking figs and pomegranates directly off of the trees.
But that’s it. When I looked out the bus windows at the endless yellow, it was new to me. It wasn’t expected, like the coming of the daffodils in springtime. It was sudden and everywhere, but only for the four days we spent in the North. I didn’t see it sprout, or bud, or begin to fade, or die. I didn’t pick it, didn’t taste it, didn’t hang it to dry in my window. The yellow mustard was captivating, but I don’t feel like I know it like I know the plants of Scotland.
It made me think a lot about our connection to the land. Here in Scotland, I feel very connected. I walk a lot. I wander through forests, and identify every tree. I collect plants for eating, for dyeing, I try to connect my life with the land I live it in. In a way it was frustrating. Here I was, on what could be called my ‘home soil’, the land of my ancestors, etc, and yet it was unfamiliar to me. I wished that I could name my flowers, identify my plants, that I greeted the coming of the wild mustard each year. I wished that I knew that mustard, that I had eaten it, dried it, dyed with it, fermented it, ground its tiny seeds into a mustard paste.
And then I flew home to Scotland, back to the daffodils and cherry blossoms and wild garlic and cool air. And part of me is so happy picking that garlic, relishing in the Scottish spring. Yet I can’t stop thinking about the wild mustard.
Perhaps this goes back to the Rabbis’ point about kilayim כִּלְאַיִם - some things just don’t mix. You’re either here or you’re there. But I don’t think that’s how it is. I don’t think you need to live in Israel in order to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the country and the things within it. I certainly don’t think one detracts from the other. Without Scotland, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with plants. Without Israel, the spiritual connection, the sense of indigeneity - my connection to the land here would mean less.
I looked it up - wild mustard grows here in Scotland. Now that I think about it, I’m sure I picked a wild mustard salad last summer. I remember the leaves were bitter, and I garnished it with honey and strawberries to make it more palatable.
These separations, these divisions - they’re arbitrary. Learning about biblical plants and the plants of the Land of Israel helps me connect to my heritage, helps me understand my own religion and culture and beliefs. It makes it real. Learning about kilayim כִּלְאַיִם on its own, reading lists of plant names, is not the most exciting thing (for me, but great for others who love that!). But learning the text and then going out and finding the plant, witnessing how it mixes on its own in the wild - that brings it to life.
I look forward to returning to Israel, to a future vacation spent wandering the hills in the Golan. But I’m also looking forward to the summer here in Scotland, getting to know all sorts of different plants, and enjoying this other home of mine.
Rakefet רַקֶפֶת, or cyclamen, Israel's national flower.
All things aside, I did do some foraging in Israel. Here I am picking a three-cornered leek, which is common in England, but less so in Scotland.
It made a nice addition to my falafel at lunchtime.