06/18/2010 19:29
Crawling in and out of the environment.

Nahum Hirschel has two great passions – Torah and earthworms. The 50-something immigrant from Flushing, New York lives in a haredi part of Beit Shemesh and operates the Eretz Hakodesh Earthworm Farm. This somewhat grandiose title refers to the small garden next to his ground-floor apartment where he lives with his wife Linda and seven children ranging in age from nine to 21.

Here boxes of straw and large areas of garden contain the thousands of earthworms he has been breeding for about four years now. Although it was only two hours to Shabbat when we visited and Hirschel was already dressed in his white shirt and ready to welcome the Shabbat, his enthusiasm for his worms is so strong that in no time he was down on his knees in his Shabbat trousers, scooping up handfuls of earth to show us his worms wriggling about as he cups them in his hand.

“The earthworm is one of mankind’s greatest friends,” he tells us, his eyes shining. “Because they work 24/7, churning the earth and moving the soil, this lowly creature makes it possible for human and plant life to exist.”

Warming to his theme he continues to explain the wonders of earthworms.

“As the worms make their way through the soil, they are continually loosening the subsoil, creating microscopic tunnels that allow water and oxygen to reach the root system of plant life. As it burrows, the earthworm mixes and sifts the soil, breaking up clods of dirt and burying stones.”

For Hirschel, worms are the obvious answer to the growing problems of environmental pollution.

“They live off our leftovers. They devour fruit and vegetable peels, animal manure and leaves and grass cuttings. Fallen leaves in an orchard that might need years to decompose are easily consumed by the earthworm. And do you know that over half of the contents of our garbage heaps is food for them? So much of the trash that packs our landfills, dirties our oceans and lakes and makes the air less pleasant to breathe can be converted into castings, the dark fine material that the worms excrete.”

He is so evangelical about his worms that one cannot help but be drawn into the enthusiasm, inspecting the handfuls of slimy creatures which even his nine-year-old is not afraid to pick up. He shows us how the worms are tucking in to a banana peel he threw there earlier and how they love a bit of rotten peach or some carrot and potato peelings.

“You see, they are the opposite of humans,” says Hirschel. “We eat nice things and it comes out not so nice; they eat garbage and it comes out as something beautiful. Just look at this fine dark earth. It makes a wonderful organic fertilizer.”

He shows us his fruit trees – pomegranate, tangerine, apple, pear, plum, peach and a vine – all growing healthily and giving great fruit thanks to his worms.

He even feeds them leftovers from the Shabbat meals on Saturday nights.

“For the melave malka they have cholent,” he says with a huge grin.

He points out two bins of shredded computer paper which are going to provide bedding for more worm bins.

“The other day I was walking past the municipality and I saw these gigantic bags of shredded paper. I picked up three and brought them home. I wet them with water and they become the first home for a new batch of worms. Just think how much shredded paper accumulates in the offices of the big companies here. I have a vision that it will all be used to start worm bins.”

How did a haredi get into so incongruous a profession?

“I was born in New York and my father who had immigrated from Poland, loved gardening and used to grow vegetables in our backyard. My mother was a teacher and we were a traditional family.”

He has a bachelor’s degree in political science but soon after graduating, he moved to Denver and it was there he began studying Torah. He credits Yeshivat Ohr Sameach with his turn to Orthodoxy and the teachings of the late Avigdor Miller, who was a great naturalist as well as a haredi rabbi.

“Being a Torah observant Jew, the interest in nature is a natural outgrowth of that,” he maintains. “We are taught to appreciate nature and the beauty of God’s world. The Talmud teaches the importance of the natural world.”

IN 1988 he literally bumped into Linda while walking to the synagogue one cold snowy day. He asked a friend to introduce them and they went out on two dates, one a hike and the second a cross-country ski run. A week after meeting they became engaged.

They arrived here as newly married immigrants in 1988 soon after that meeting.

He tried his hand at various occupations until he found his own Holy Grail in the study and raising of earthworms. “I had already done some beekeeping in the United States, and I always had an affinity with small creatures I guess,” he recalls. “Here I learned in yeshiva for many years, but I also did various other jobs like tour-guiding for the Ministry of Tourism and painting and decorating. For several years at the beginning, we lived in Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem and later moved to Beit Shemesh.”

A little less than four years ago he went back to the US for a holiday and ordered a small bag of worms from a mail order firm.

“I put it in my suitcase, much as you would put a tub of talcum powder, and when I got home, I unsealed it and started my worm farm,” he says.

Today he sees it as his mission to spread the word about the wonders of worms. He lectures around the country to gardening clubs, is in great demand by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and helps any gardeners who call and ask for advice or worms.

Hirschel feels that what he is doing on a very small scale can be done in a much more organized way, using modern technology and Israeli know-how.

“What I am doing here has been known for centuries, and you would be surprised how many Third World countries are doing this in a much more efficient and larger scale than I can on my own. If we take this ancient knowledge and use modern technology to recycle, we could be a shining example to the world,” he says.

Earthworm facts

• They are hermaphrodites, that is they have male and female characteristics, but they have to mate and must have a partner. When they do, the mating can last for two or three hours.
“They interlock and face away from each other,” explains Nahum Hirschel, who adds that as an observant Jew he is not allowed to watch other creatures mating, but he knows this from his reading.
• The earthworm is an invertebrate – it has no backbone. An earthworm has the power to easily move stones that are 50 times its body weight.
• No one knows for sure how long an earthworm lives, but in one study a group of earthworms was observed for 15 years. At the end of this time they were found to be as vigorous and healthy as ever.
• They have no eyes, but they do have a good sense of touch and feel. They have five hearts.
• Two thousand mature earthworms can produce 1 million earthworms in a year.
• If everyone in Israel fed one kilo of food waste to earthworms, in one year 6 million kilos less garbage would blight the beauty of our land.