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Milk and Honey

In the tale of “Milk and Honey,” a young boy follows his goat into a cave that magically transports both of them from fields of Eastern Europe to a hillside in Jerusalem. The goat had been grazing there, which explains its sweet and rich milk. In Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid, artists Vera Iliatova, Mike Rothfeld, Chris Sollars, and Inez Storer all pull icons from this story for their works of art.

In many early Jewish texts, as well as in many Jewish and non-Jewish cultural rites, traditions, and folklore, milk and honey play an important role as a symbol for the plentiful and idyllic. The goat also makes regular appearances in Jewish texts and traditions, often as a stand-in for Jewish people.

The goat’s journey as an icon in Jewish folklore traces from its many biblical references including the original scapegoat to carry the Jewish nation’s sins on the holiday of Yom Kippur and as the sacrificial animal in the ancient Passover story. References to goats abound in Yiddish literature and folktales, and a song about a lone goat “Chad Gadya” has become the closing refrain of the Passover Seder meal. Artist Marc Chagall’s ubiquitous use of goats in his paintings further cemented the visual imagery of the goat as connected to Jewish people. It is no surprise that the Yiddish Book Center chose the goat for its logo.[1]

The earliest Jewish reference to milk and honey is found in Exodus 3:8 when God says, in conversation with Moses “I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”  This is the first of over 200 references of milk and honey in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical texts, in which ‘milk and honey’ represent the fertile land of Israel.[2] The agricultural abundance of the land of Israel is often depicted through an oversized grape bunch that is so large, two people are needed to carry it.

Stamp designed by G. Hamori, 1954. From the series FESTIVALS 5715 (1954). Inscription on tab reads: “. . . the land . . . it floweth with milk and honey . . .” Courtesy of the Israel Philatelic Service, Israel Postal Company.

Stamp designed by G. Hamori, 1954. From the series FESTIVALS 5715 (1954). Inscription on tab reads:
“. . . the land . . . it floweth with milk and honey . . .” Courtesy of the Israel Philatelic Service, Israel Postal Company.

Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash (Land Flowing with Milk and Honey) is one of the most popular Israeli folk songs, originally written for a kibbutz celebration by Israeli folk composer and dancer Eliahu Gamliel in the early 1950s. Jazz master Nina Simone performed this unexpected rendition in 1962. [Watch Nina Simone singing Eretz Zavat R'á'lav U'dvash in Hebrew. Recording session: Studio, November 25, 1962 in NYC. Release by the Estate of Nina Simone.]

Honey also finds it ways prominently into Jewish practice. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, apples and honey are included on the table to signify a sweet new year. Similarly, for a child’s first time learning from a Jewish prayer book, a drop of honey is placed on its cover for the child to taste, to ensure the sweetness of learning.

Google image search of terms: "apples and honey and Rosh Hashanah"

Google image search of terms: "apples and honey and Rosh Hashanah"

References to milk and honey abound, particularly in the food world. Many restaurants and catering companies are named Milk and Honey, with two in the Bay Area alone.

Milk and Honey also appears regularly in pop culture and art. The artist Beck, who identifies as Jewish, named a song “Milk and Honey” on his 1999 album Midnite Vultures to reference an idyllic place. [Listen to “Milk & Honey” by Beck. Written by Beck Hansen and Buzz Clifford. From the album Midnite Vultures ℗ 1999 Geffen Records.]

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was commissioned to create a print series called Aliyah in 1968 to honor Israel’s twentieth anniversary; one print was named The Land of Milk and Honey.[3] There were additional Jewish themed series that followed.

Salvador Dali. The Land of Milk and Honey, lithograph, 1968. © 2017 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society

Salvador Dali. The Land of Milk and Honey, lithograph, 1968.
© 2017 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society

Artist Lauren Turk created a woven mixed-media installation in 2014 entitled Milk and Honey. In her artist statement she reflects, “Imagine a land teaming with absolute abundance. Sugary sick sticky amber drizzled over a mound of white…”[4]

But the Jew-ish theme camp at Burning Man, called Milk and Honey, might be one of the most untraditional nods to the phrase.[5] Its community members, called Honeys, play host to a welcoming of the Sabbath service for hundreds of attendees. The Honeys dress for the Sabbath in white and gold, the colors of milk and honey.

Learn more about the Milk and Honey Burning Man camp on this recent podcast.


Sources:

1. Yiddish Book Center, “Why a Goat,” accessed September 10, 2017, yiddishbookcenter.org/about/why-goat.

2. Sefaria, “Milk and Honey,” accessed September 10, 2017, sefaria.org/search?q=milk%20and%20honey&var=1&sort=r.

3. Jillian Steinhauer, “Dali and The Jews,” The Forward, April 4, 2011, accessed September 15, 2017, forward.com/culture/136676/dali-and-the-jews.

4. Lauren Turk, “Installation Of Milk and Honey,” laurenturk.com, accessed September 15, 2017, laurenturk.com/artwork/3542353-Of-Milk-and-Honey.html.

5. Alessandra Wollner, “Ritual Principles of Milk + Honey, Purveyors of Radical Shabbat Since 2008.” The Burning Man Journal, accessed September 15, 2017, journal.burningman.org/2017/05/philosophical-center/spirituality/ritual-principles-of-milk-honey-purveyors-of-radical-shabbat-since-2008.