Elan was born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, in an Orthodox Jewish community. But what nurtured him most was his proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
He tells me, “My solitary adventures and daydreaming were by the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, where I felt completely at home as if I were part of the large rocks on which I sat. Yet I felt free to let my imagination wander across the ocean to foreign lands and cultures.”
People whose first landscape is the shore see the world differently from landlocked people. They feel the interior ebb and flow of tides; they taste the salt in their tears; they know that the sea is our place of origin.
Today, Elan’s neighborhood of Brighton Rock is known as Little Russia. It is in a way an immigrant’s version of how Americans would project Little Odessa. It’s a new wave of immigrants, as in Little Italy or Little India.
But, the palimpsest of its previous life as an Orthodox Jewish, Italian, and Middle Eastern immigrant area has not been scrubbed off. It still exists in the same place at the same time.
Immersed in environmental studies, Elan is acutely aware of the relation between place and people. He is a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Studies and Social Justice in Ithaca College. He lives in Ecovillage at Ithaca with his wife Rachel and children, Ariana and Gabriel.
During a period of transition from the ocean to sustainable life on land, he experienced the wilderness near the Big Sur area of the California Coast.
He says, “For over a week, I simplified my activities and learned to eat more from the land. With each root, leaf, flower, and fruit that I learned to find and eat, I felt more and more wedded to the land. Eating became sensuous, slow, and mindful.”
Elan is poetical and mystical, in the right sense of the words, about the moment of his conversion when he heard Mother Earth speak to him of the intimate relationship between her and him and what he could do to heal and renew.
“I experienced myself as a mirror of where I was, and the place I found myself in was a mirror of me. … Whatever this me was had me feeling porous and expanded, as if I were led up to an edge from which there was no returning.”
He recounts how in the middle of the day, “A new turn of the creek, a waterfall, everything became so clear and sparkling. …”
It was at such a moment that Mother Earth spoke to Elan of the devastation she and her creatures were going through. He says, “She spoke to me through some internal and yet unmistakable voice.”
She told him how he must work with others in the task of healing and renewal: “This awesome experience left me sobbing with painful and joyous surrender.”
Elan then spoke of a garlic planting last year with low-income children in an after-school program for families—a garden in a Southside neighborhood center downtown.
“How could they have known that the cloves of garlic we planted in October would grow into big bulbs in mid-August? How could I have known how passionately these kids who grew up with so little access to fresh, healthy foods, would be carrying to their families the pesto pasta dish we made?
“I felt myself to be part of a whole cycle of life that sustains all of us, both the more- and the less-privileged on our planet.”