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Jolie Acornseed: Educator plants kernels of Jewish wisdom

Jolie Egert is a plant whisperer. A Jewish plant whisperer.

She’s also a bit of an evangelist — for acorns. The Fairfax-based educator, botanist and herbalist is such an enthusiastic proponent of the ancient nuts, in fact, she is known to don squirrel puppets and a felt acorn hat while giving presentations about them.

“I eat a lot of acorns, and early Jews ate acorns too,” Egert says. “Before we were an agricultural society, acorns were a staple of the diet near the Fertile Crescent.”

And, she points out, “You can make most baked goods using acorn flour. Muffins, cake — even challah.”

Egert, who offers classes, workshops, walks and more through her consulting organization, Go Wild, will lead “Earth-Based Jewish Ethnobotany,” a walking tour at Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park on Feb. 12, part of Wilderness Torah’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat. Wilderness Torah explores spirituality through nature, organizing outdoor events that emphasize the seasonal aspects of Jewish holidays.

Tu B’Shevat, also known as New Year of the Trees, starts Tuesday evening, Feb. 7.

“Tu B’Shevat used to be a tax holiday that marked the definitive end of the agricultural cycle,” she says, “and now it’s celebrating life in the depths of winter when the sap in the trees starts rising and spring is just stirring in all of us.”

Infusing her tours with Jewish wisdom, Egert points out that the Hebrew words for one (“echad”) and together (“yachad”) come from the same three-letter root. She uses this to illustrate how every separate thing in nature is linked, and thus unified, through metabolic cycles and energy flows. “You can’t have one without it being together with something else,” she says. And all of this connection starts from the sun.

“That sap that is starting to rise in the trees at the time of Tu B’Shevat is actually sugar water,” she says. “It’s amazing. Trees stand in the sun with their feet in the ground, and they put their solar panel leaves out and turn sunlight into sugar with carbon dioxide. All the bonds of the different types of sugar are just stored sunlight. It’s like the currency of the universe, everything wants it.”

One of Egert’s goals as an educator is to help people develop relationships with the plants around them. “A lot of botany just focuses on identifying and naming plants,” she says. “But what I do is help people get to know plants so that they can benefit from them, use them for food, for medicine, for inspiration. And then eventually help to protect them.”

Egert shares her enthusiastic, uncommon understanding of nature on a recent stroll through Golden Gate Park, singling out plants with a connection to Jewish heritage, noting whether they appear in the Torah or served a purpose in ancient Israelite life.

She stops by some acacia trees, which will be bursting with sunny yellow flowers in mid-February. “When the Jews were wandering in the desert, they made the poles of their tents from acacias,” she notes.

Jolie Egert photo/cathleen maclearie

Egert, 42, views Judaism as an Earth-based tradition, in which many religious practices are holdovers from before and during the advent of agriculture. She hopes her Jewish-themed walks, which she has led for Wilderness Torah and other Jewish groups, help the People of the Book rediscover their origins in nature.

“Our oldest holidays are based around seasonal events and the cycles of the moon,” she says. “Chanukah is basically a solstice celebration — each year it falls near the winter equinox, bringing light into the darkest days.”

Stopping by a bank of brookside willows, she mentions another seasonal holiday, Sukkot. “A willow is part of the lulav that we wave at Sukkot, along with the palm, the myrtle and the etrog,” she says. 

“We beat the willow and we pray for rain, just like other Earth-based cultures do that live where rains come in the winter. It’s no wonder that the Northern California [Native American] tribes celebrate their annual renewal at the same time as Rosh Hashanah. We’re both based in a Mediterranean climate.”

Egert says willows serve as an inspiring metaphor of strength. “Yes, willows always grow near water,” she notes. “So what can we learn from that? If we get our feet wet, we get into the flow of the river. The willow bends, but it doesn’t break in that flow.”

Walking into a small grove of oaks, she notes that similar evergreen trees cover Israel. The Northern California climate is similar to parts of Israel’s Mediterranean climate, she says, so many of the same plants thrive in both places.

“Lots of stories in the Torah mention oaks,” she says. “Abraham first spoke with God from below the oak of Moreh. And some say that Joseph is buried under that same oak.”

Torahs historically have been written with ink made from oak galls, which are leaf buds that have ballooned into small globes that incubate wasp larvae, she says. The tannic acid in the oak galls is combined with other vegetable ingredients to make a durable kosher ink that is still used today by Torah scribes.

Tanoak and valley oak acorns

While standing amid the majestic, sinuous trees, Egert explains that an oak’s acorns — contrary to widely held belief — not only are edible but are even good for you.

Over the past few years, Egert has become Jolie Acornseed — teaching herself the process for preparing acorn flour, which she says also was the primary carbohydrate in the native Californian diet.

She believes acorns fit in well with the prevailing taste for gluten-free, local, sustainable food and predicts that we’ll soon be ordering acorn pancakes for brunch at hip restaurants.

In the fall acorn season, Egert leads highly interactive family workshops in which she demonstrates drying the nuts and leaching out their tannins and then has volunteers crack them open and grind them into flour.

Says Carolie Sly, director of educational programs at Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy, where Egert has given the acorn presentation: “Jolie teaches in a way that is multisensory … from that goofy acorn hat she wears, to using PowerPoint, along with comparing types of oaks and eating acorn muffins.”

Bay nuts: Brown ones are the seeds that Egert uses to make bay nut truffles, green ones are the fruits

Some workshop participants are skeptical at first about the taste but usually are won over after they try Egert’s goodies. “It’s like any kind of grain, like oats or something. It just matters what you mix it with,” says Jen Wang, who attended a workshop Egert led at Hidden Villa Farm in Los Altos Hills last September.

At other events, Egert teaches people how to transform nuts from California’s ubiquitous bay laurel trees into sweets that taste like chocolate, and advises aspiring food foragers about which wild plants are safe to pick and take home for dinner salad. On her own culinary adventures, she goes mushroom picking with her husband, David Egert, a biology instructor at the College of Marin (who knows precisely which fungi to pick — and to avoid).

But much of what she teaches has to do with another kind of sustenance. Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, N.Y., Egert always found solace in nature.

“When I was in nature, the loneliness of my childhood receded and I could trust in myself and the magnificence of life,” she says.

Egert understands that time in nature can be profoundly healing, especially for children in urban environments. So she’s excited to work with city kids, introducing them to the sights, smells and tastes of the Bay Area’s green spaces.

Even if there’s no oak grove or redwood forest nearby, Egert likes to remind her students that nature doesn’t have to be a separate space.

“People are always asking me: How can I connect deeper to nature?” she says. “I tell them that we are nature. When you breathe, you’re creating the universe. The bones in your body are made of minerals from rocks and shells that will eventually go back to the earth.”

For Jolie Egert, it’s all “echad.”

Wilderness Torah’s Tu B’Shevat in the Redwoods starts at 10 a.m. Feb. 12 at Redwood Regional Park, Oakland. Meet at Skyline Gate. $30-$35. www.wildernesstorah.org, www.gowildconsulting.com.

cover photo/cathleen maclearie