A Country Mouse Who Wants to Install Vegetable Gardens on City Rooftops

High above a neighborhood cafe in south Tel Aviv, an idealistic agronomist is cultivating salad greens and strawberries, and he says anyone can do it.

Moni Seltzer on the rooftop of the Getzel Café in Tel Aviv Shapira neighborhood.
Dan Peretz

A relaxed noontime in the Getzel Café in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood. Peleh, the owner’s elderly dog, is sprawled at the entrance to the café, which is located on the street level of a residential building. He patiently endures the attempts of two little kids, schoolbags on their backs, to drag him into exciting games. Two elderly neighbors sip coffee. Another stops with her shopping cart next to the spearmint plant and rubs the fragrant leaves.

“You’re welcome to pick,” says Moni (Ramon) Seltzer, who recently moved to the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood and has made the café his second home. Seltzer, a teacher of agriculture, is just back from a lesson on the subject of seasonality at the School for Nature, the Environment and Society on nearby Herzl Street.

“Modern society makes every effort to disconnect itself from nature,” says the blond idealist. “Seasonality is a vague concept related mainly to the air conditioner. Most children don’t understand that the fact that they have peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers all year long is no less than a miracle, and that until recently they were available only in summer.”

Heartrending cries coming from the street divert his attention from our conversation. One of the neighbors, a disabled man who uses crutches, is hopping after a bus that has stopped at the nearby bus stop. Seltzer jumps up and runs in a vain attempt to try to attract the driver’s attention. The bus pulls away from the stop and the neighbor sits down, exhausted, to wait for the next one.

“The driver heard me and looked me in the eye,” says Seltzer, surprised and offended, when he returns. “People in this town are so centered on themselves that sometimes I think they’re more alone than people who live on isolated farms.” Seltzer himself grew up on such a farm in the Jerusalem hills.

A salad at the Getzel Café in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood.
Dan Peretz

To prevent him from being defeated by the world’s sorrows, we go up to the lovely vegetable garden he has planted on the roof of the building – climbing three flights and passing through a stairwell full of clotheslines and bicycles belonging to refugee families and foreign workers. To the north there is an urban landscape of residential towers; to the south is Jaffa, with its church towers and minarets; and around us on the roof are strawberry beds, lettuce and buzzing beehives. Life, as usual, looks better from high up.

“From up here I almost love Tel Aviv,” says Seltzer. “Toss me anywhere in the country and I’ll know how to find my way, but Tel Aviv seems foreign and confusing. I doubt whether I’ll survive here for long. I apparently live in La-la Land; my friends say that too.”

Cycle of the seasons

Ramon (“named after the Ramon Crater, but everyone calls me Moni”) Seltzer was born in 1986 in the Sataf nature reserve. His father was Shai Seltzer, who is considered one of the pioneers of Israeli cheese making.

“Dad, who also teaches botany, settled on the land in 1973, after he returned from the Yom Kippur War and felt he couldn’t live anywhere else. My mother, a veterinarian, joined him in the early 1980s; she was the one who had the idea of raising a herd of goats. The herd she developed, a combination of local goats with an American species, is today the basis for most of the farms that raise goats for cheese production.”

The three children of the family were born into a life that was dictated by living in a distant and isolated place and the attempt to earn a livelihood by doing traditional work.

Moni Seltzer on the rooftop of the Getzel Café in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood.
Dan Peretz

“Until I was 12 years old, we lived without electricity. People get up in the morning, turn on the light switch or the water faucet and don’t realize what an amazing thing that is. Only when you have to produce electricity and water by yourself do you learn to appreciate them. Work was a basic part of everyday life. The goats have to be milked every morning at 5 A.M., and then you walk three kilometers, rain or shine, to the nearest junction in order to get to school.

“That life builds you and creates a very special, almost dependent, family relationship. The goats are the ones that dictate the pace of life – whatever happens, they have to go out to pasture or give birth – and life is run according to the pulse of the cycle of the seasons. Today, aged goat cheeses with a complex flavor are a matter of routine in Israeli culture, but when my father started to produce them there was no such thing and almost nobody ate or bought them.”

Since the 1990s the Seltzers have been involved in a battle against the government and the environmental organizations regarding their right to live on the land of a nature reserve. Moni is aware of the automatic grudge aroused by the issue. “We’re seen as wealthy businessmen, although we have never requested a right to ownership of the land, and people don’t understand that this is a hard life. It’s an amazingly creative life, but it’s not easy. My mother left the farm in the end because of these difficulties.

“There’s an atmosphere of harsh criticism against the farmers and the members of the community. Instead of thanking the farmers who produce food for us, who are the pillars of society, they are perceived as belonging to the forces of evil. Maybe that’s also part of the present disconnect from nature and the environment, and one of the reasons why I want to teach people about agriculture.”

Seltzer served for six and half years in an elite combat unit, and then began to study agronomy. When he finished his B.A. he began teaching children and wanted to learn what life looks like outside the bubble of his childhood, and in Tel Aviv. “In addition to the classes I teach in the Nature School, I’m constructing lesson plans and a plan for a farm for a school in Ashkelon.” The vegetable garden on the roof of the building opposite his rented apartment was launched about four months ago, when he joined Efrat Fellner, the charismatic owner of the Getzel Café. Their intention was to establish a model of a sustainable café, which grows the vegetables it uses in the meals served there.

“I don’t have plans to change the world, but I would like it to beat with a pulse more attuned to the environment,” says Seltzer. “Over half the world lives in cities today, and in Israel we’re talking about almost 90 percent of the population. A city is capable of surviving only with the help of complex global systems that support it, and the amount of resources delivered to it exacts a high ecological and economic price. Israel has an excellent climate, and if suitable types of plants are used, excellent crops can be raised in almost any city, all year long.

“In Gush Dan [the metropolitan Tel Aviv area] there are hundreds and thousands of dunams of gardens, exposed to the sun and suitable for agricultural use. The vast majority are not exploited. Initially we won’t be able to provide all the vegetables for the café, but we will be able to provide almost all the herbs and greens.”

On the roof, Seltzer grows strawberries and different types of lettuce and greens in an area of 70 square meters. “Building the infrastructure for hydroponic farming on a platform of coconut fiber cost about 600 shekels. Not prohibitive,” he explains. During the next stage, if the owners of the adjacent buildings respond to the café’s request, another three urban vegetable gardens will be planted on their roofs, where they will grow various types of local herbs. Seltzer is also negotiating with the owner of a neighborhood shelter for adults with autism, and his dream is to plant vegetable gardens on the roofs of urban senior citizens’ homes.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that these people are no longer important to society. That they are ostensibly not productive, but they can be. I was taught at home to respect ancient trees, and in our society, which is involved in an endless rat race, we have long since stopped respecting ancient trees and senior citizens. If by means of urban greenhouses and gardens like these we can make them feel needed again – that’s worth everything.”