Monday, September 20, 2010

Food for Thought

Happy New year! Some new ideas to chew on...

Making Meaning out of Meat
Brooklyn Jews High Holidays
Kol Nidre, September 17, 2010 ~ 10 Tishrei 5771
Jennifer Gubitz

Back home again in Indiana, I’m driving on a street just like Flatbush, and I can see the place where Shapiro’s deli used to be. What’s there now? A generic cafeteria-style restaurant. It was once the site of the deli that my grandfather frequented religiously for his daily newspaper and coffee. On our visits to see him, we’d drive directly from the highway to Shapiro’s deli. This was before cell phones, but we knew exactly where to find him. I loved nibbling at my mom’s corned beef sandwich alongside a cup of matzoh ball soup at a place where everyone knew my Zayde’s name. Even a few years after his death, we could stop at the deli and the staff would recognize us as Morris’ family. To my surprise, when I stepped off a plane at the new Indianapolis airport, I was greeted by a Shapiro’s Deli kiosk. I love that deli so much that I’d buy a round-trip ticket from anywhere to hop off the plane just for a nostalgic bite of time with my Zayde.

Jews and food - like salt and pepper, peas and carrots. Ironic, maybe even annoying, isn’t it, to have a sermon about food on Yom Kippur? Yes. But even on our Day of Atonement where we experience the polarization between fasting and feasting – even on this day when we are to afflict ourselves with hunger, even on this day our memories are tightly bound with smells and spices, and cluttered with synagogue cookbooks with tattered edges from regular use, boxes of oil-spattered index cards with family recipes from the old country and internet clippings of recipes from the new country.

We can all taste that special honey cake of our youth, can recall the dissatisfaction that spread across our mother’s face when the matzoh balls were too soft or too hard, or when the smile creeped into her face expressing pleasure when she knew they were ‘just right.’ You can hear the endless questions: Would you like some more brisket, kugel, tsimmis, apples and honey? Come on, honey, eat more. For many of us who have started our own lives and families, it is the meals enjoyed throughout the High Holidays during which we most long for lace tablecloths, china dishes, grandparents, and savory smells from the kitchens of our past.

Away for the holidays for the past ten years, I’ve tried to emulate family recipes, attempting to translate into precise measurements what was meant by “a dash of this, a dash of that.” What if my dash and your dash are different? Ultimately, it never tasted quite the same as I remembered. Maybe, it turns out, a recipe was inconsequential. Maybe I loved it so much because of who made it for me…

In recent months, these delicious memories have come to a slow and steady halt. This summer, I devoured Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules,” a book that outlines basic rules for healthy eating framed by the mantra “Eat food, Not too much, Mostly plants.” My next course was Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” written in a nostalgic, storytelling fashion that juxtaposes disturbing facts about the food industry with the author’s own Jewish memories of food. He writes of his Holocaust-survivor grandmother and her legendary but sole recipe of chicken and carrots. Teetering for years between meat eating and vegetarianism, his greatest struggle: What would it mean for him, and to his grandmother, to eat only the carrots?

Foer reveals the horrors of factory animal farms, microbes and animal illness, and the immense suffering animals raised for slaughter experience in a lifetime, stomach-churning descriptions of the pain animals experience on their journey to our dinner table. He contrasts the human love for meat with the love we give to our household animals. “I wouldn’t eat [my dog], because she’s mine. But why wouldn’t I eat a dog I’d never met? Or more to the point, what justification might I have for sparing dogs but eating other animals? ” Why did we decide that it’s immoral to eat a dog, but moral to eat a cow?

So began my foray into vegetarianism.

Already a casual meat eater, I stocked up on seeds, quinoa, tofu and vegetables. Local food got a little closer as I walked into the back yard to pick fresh squash and zucchini.

Then, the synagogue where I worked had a BBQ. I love BBQ.
The hamburger beckoned to me from the grill. Eat me, it said. It’s okay, really. I’m already prepared and you don’t have to think of the process. Just eat me.

And so I did it. I ate the burger and later that evening, washed it down with Chicken Fingers at a San Francisco Giants Game.

It was so easy to be indifferent to the history of the burger, to the life of the chicken finger. It is such a rare occasion that we see farmed animals that it becomes quite easy to forget that there is a story behind the food in our freezer. The toasted bun helped to further shield me from seeing reality.

The next morning I recalled Foer’s account of his first confrontation with the problem of eating animals at age nine. He tells of the time his teenage babysitter asked him: “You know chicken is chicken right?”

The next day, I became a vegetarian again. Every day, actually, I wake up as a vegetarian.

What is it then that’s keeping me from going to bed as one?

It’s in vogue to talk about food right now. Every major newspaper reports regularly on some aspect of our food intake. Activist groups each try to get our attention on a variety of issues. Animal rights. Health. Kashrut. Ethical eating. Sustainability. They are all quite compelling and each provides numbers that are startling.

In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote that in 2009, Americans cooked “roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they…consume(d) roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork, or the bodies of more than a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and thirty-eight billion pounds of poultry, some nine billion birds.” Who can even imagine what such numbers look like in practice? With the magnitude comes ambivalence and confusion. With those massive numbers of meat eaters, one can’t help but wonder: does it even matter if I stop eating meat?

Jews and animals have been intertwined from our inception. In Genesis (1:26), “yir’du vid’gat ha’yam u’v’oaf ha’sha’mayim” - God gives humanity dominion to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Yirdu: The Hebrew verb, lirdot, is translated in the Torah to mean, “rule over.” It can also be translated to mean: oppress or subjugate. Thus, the text could be read: “and they shall oppress” all of the aforementioned animals. Why is there a divine promise that human beings can subjugate animals? When we read this biblical verse, we need to remember that this it reflects a certain milieu. The ancient Israelites were a people who subsisted primarily off of a “diet of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, supplemented by milk products and honey” and regular consumption of meat was primarily by elite classes. The Women’s Torah commentary suggests that this verse was not intended to be a mandate to rule over animals in an exploitative fashion, rather the biblical text was probably intended to “comfort early readers who lived at the mercy of the natural world, who were vulnerable to its predictability, and who had reason to fear becoming prey to wild beasts.” They didn’t likely envision a world where people would be gobbling up animals.

Would it be fair then to say: in order to live an ethical Jewish life, I don’t have to stop eating meat. Rather, I should just eat meat in a non-exploitative fashion? Or could I find a way to make eating meat a truly meaningful practice?

Our ancient texts offer us one such option. They suggest that eating meat was heavily connected with simcha, with the joys of Jewish celebration. The Talmud teaches that “when the Temple was in existence…Ein simcha ella be-basar… there could be no joy without meat. ” Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Spanish scholar, wrote in the lyrics of Ki Eshmerah Shabbat, “Shabbat is an honored day, it is a day of pleasures, bread, wine, meat and fish.” We are taught, it seems, that meat helps to increase the joys of special days. Rav Kook, the early 20th century Chief Rabbi of Palestine, believed that when the Messiah came, the whole world would become vegetarian. Ironically, he himself ate meat – but only on Shabbat. A student, studying at Pardes in Jerusalem, interested in such a lifestyle of mindful and joyful meat eating has created MOOSHY, an acronym standing for “Meat only on Shabbat, Happy Occasions and Yom Tov,” a philosophy of meat-eating whose name is self-explanatory.

Our tradition teaches that meat should be eaten rarely in order to enhance special occasions. It’s not clear to me, however, that meat increases the joy at special events. Yet when a friend who is a lifelong vegetarian mentioned that she didn’t want to serve any food at her wedding that she couldn’t eat herself, I was aghast. I silently judged her. Guests will come all this way to celebrate with you and all you offer them is a portabella mushroom?

Jonathan Safran Foer tells this story: “Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else.” Are my ethical convictions strong enough to wake up and go to sleep every day as a vegetarian? I’m not sure if I can do that.

In his URJ Biennial Address before 3,000 Reform Jewish lay and professional leaders, URJ President Eric Yoffie made the bold statement, “…let's make a Jewish decision to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat.” I can do that.

In his book the Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan tasks me further: “People who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they’re eating don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless.” Though never an animal enthusiast, I want to take up Pollan on his challenge. Hazon, a Jewish sustainability organization, gives lists of farmers who raise their animals in non-factory farm settings. Ordering meat through GrowAndBehold is a way to purchase farm raised, Kosher slaughtered products. Its more expensive, but a good way to put our money where our mouth is. Yes, I can do that, too.

Pollan sums it up with a message easily applied to so many other areas of life, ethics and behavior, writing that “We are defined not just by what we do; we are defined by what we are willing to do without.” In Isaiah 58, tomorrow’s Haftorah portion, we learn that it is not so much a day of fasting that God wants from us, but a day where we deeply reflect in order to transform our ethical conduct, a day where we fill our empty bellies with food for thought. Isaiah juxtaposes food and ethical behavior and we should do the same at our dinner tables.

In the years to come, may we gather around the table for bountiful holiday meals, blessed by the warmth of friends, family, and fantastic food, savoring every moment.
Let us make meaning out of meat consumption, wherever it is we fall on the spectrum.
Let us consider thoughtfully the process by which the meat we purchase is raised and slaughtered.
Let us find a middle ground between feasting and fasting, every day eating in moderation, perhaps even minimalism, amid a world of global disparity.

O Source of Sustenance, on our day of affliction, we thank you for afflicting us with the opportunity to make such choices.