Friday, December 4, 2009

Keeping kosher, being 'yosher'

No, I never heard of "yosher" either. If "glatt kosher"'s totally, well, kosher, than "yosher"'s "ethically straight." The Conservative Jewish movement's advanced a new seal of approval, based not on how an animal's ritually slaughtered, or if it's cloven-hooved or scaly-finned, but if social justice was followed in the working conditions under which the animal was killed. And, if living wages were paid those we (usually vastly under-)pay to do such grueling and unpleasant work.

Jay Michaelson in "The Forward" reminds me of my cyber-pal "Bo" at Cambridge; they both are true polymaths, and share a lot of interests and orientations. Michaelson's "The Polymath" is one column my wife and I turn to first, and we always admire M's ability to combine disparate topics elegantly and with erudition. I may envy his going off for months on end to his Himalayan retreat, as he's Buddhist too, but he does offer readers less enlightened as me a chance to enter his mindset.

In his Nov. 27, 2009 article "Magen Tzedek: Model of the Jewish Future or Show Without an Audience?" he discusses the impact, or lack of, for the Conservative movement's creation of a new seal of rabbinical approval. He doubts, as do I, that many in this now-declining middle ground between Orthodox and Reform will bother to follow the idealistic guidelines. But, he proposes that their truer target may be those outside Judaism.

Here's his logic. Ethical relevance may enliven progressive Jews as ritual observance has Orthodox ones. The latter always try harder, and are either castigated or celebrated by other Jews, and others perhaps (despite the prejudice, the scandals, the ancient libels) for their extra effort. More liberal Jews, frankly, as Michaelson notes, seem content not to fight as hard for their beliefs.

This shift from the letter of the law to the spirit may echo, I add, for a wider Christian or secularized audience, a more congenial approach that's congruent with the eco-kosher and earth-friendly campaigners who may choose the Magen Tzedek as a sort of Green Star (like a gold one?) for their food. He doubts that Conservative Jews will flock to buy such products, for the laity ignore most of their rabbinical regulations anyhow. Orthodox Jews will stick to their own "hescher" seals and Reform Jews rarely keep "kashrut" almost by definition. So, who's left? Non-Jews who care.

Michaelson cites how kosher's big business. A 15% growth rate annually and a $9 billion market. The same issue by the way-- in a paper that the past few years exposed the scandalous conditions at Postville, Iowa, with Rubashkin's "Aaron's Best," until the coverage dismantled the nation's largest kosher meatpackers-- has a front page headline: "Hasidic Village's Neighbors Have Slaughterhouse Blues" as an ultra-Orthodox sect tells less than the truth and plays loose with zoning in their rapidly expanding enclave into what was once semi-rural upstate New York. This, to me, also worsens the community and the ecology, compounding the immorality involved. People proliferate; resources shrink. The chickens processed in the 5,000 square-foot facility-- and the 26,000 one planned for cattle-- may emerge shrinkwrapped with a kosher seal, but the manner in which the structure was "approved" and licensed fail to convince me that ethically, truly honest and righteous procedures were followed in its construction.

The Orthodox, with high birthrates that turn bucolic dirt roads into thronged tracts, drive much of the kosher market, but so do, Michaelson tells us, 55% of the consumers who buy kosher not out of religious allegiance but because they believe it's healthier. While this, as the Postville exposé showed, is a half-truth, it does open up an avenue for expansion. Few Jews may take the trouble to support Magen Tzedek, but non-Jews might, if they seek out assurance of sustainably made products.

In this direction, as with other initiatives, Michaelson moves in a typically thoughtful fashion. He now ties together this thread into a bigger pattern. I quote his next paragraph in full:
In the coming century, sociologists tell us, Judaism will become less like an all-or-nothing proposition — ethnicity, identity, culture, nation and religion, all wrapped up in one — and more like one source of values, identity, spirituality and culture among many. We should get used to someone practicing Jewish dietary laws, Buddhist meditation and secular ethical values, whether that someone is born of a Jewish mother or not. Jewish culture and religion are going to survive not because of endogamy, but because they remain relevant to people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who find them to be meaningful. Like it or not, the Kabbalah Centre, Matisyahu and the Magen Tzedek are the future of Judaism; they thrive not because the Jewish tribe maintains them, but because they appeal to a wide range of people.

Now, as one who fits into one of these sentences above tangentially neatly, I perked up. Like his column in a paper few in the larger culture may have even heard of-- at least in its English-language succession to the once-thriving Yiddish socialist daily that many greenhorns read in the Big Apple over a century ago, keeping its subscription a ritual even if they abandoned kosher when coming ashore-- Michaelson's voice may remain marginal. Yet, his reminder of how those on the side can push change glimmers elsewhere in this very same issue.

A grandson of a rabbi who came in 1908 to backwoods Vermont from the shetl concludes an article on Bennington's community of Jews: "Judaism doesn't always grow from the center. Sometimes it comes from the edges."

My wife watched raptly a BBC documentary by Hannah Rothschild, great-niece of Pannonica R., the "Jazz Baroness" who played muse to Thelonious Monk and other "cats" in a remarkably checkered career even by eccentric English mores, and in that issue, there's a piece on how she influenced, as a patron and inspiration, American jazz. "Nica" (named after not a butterfly as thought but a moth) left her husband and children to circle the bright lights of a trés-hip, but rebellious and segregated, culture in late '40s Manhattan.

I admit that even when studying Jane Austen as an undergrad I bristled at a gentry's amassing of lucre off the backs of the nameless proles. (However unfairly I expected that authoress to evince proto-Marxist tendencies.) So the doc's plaints about Poor Little Rich Girls trapped from realizing their full potential amidst batteries of gilded cutlery and ranks of liveried footmen failed to elicit my tears. Injustice and justice tangle here. Jews in Europe were made to enter financial trades since they were excluded from owning land, commanding the military, or profiting from most occupations. So, Rothschilds amassed immense fortune. Did that restore justice, or compound injustice? They and "court Jews" before them entered inevitable deals with devils in power.

If attenuated Judaism as it flowed into Nica's life's choices remained clouded in the film, her family's vast wealth failed to save her relatives from the death camps. Their holdings may have well brought terrible blame upon these victims of antisemitic laws that gave their ancestors no other choice but to become what the nations who killed them had caricatured and cartooned. Perhaps her post-war mission to spread the gospel of bop, and to succour its black evangelists, gave her a reason to use her own outsider status tripled-over (at least) for what she saw as justice?

That's what that Magen Tzedek means: a star of justice. It's what Jews and gentiles are commanded to pursue in Scripture. On a related note, I answered yesterday a prisoner whom my wife and I will visit for the second night of Hanukkah soon. He asked me about Judaism and wished he could find a correspondence course to teach him more. (We have sent in books but these are subject to the whim of the guards whether or not they reach him rather than be torn up and discarded for "security reasons.")

I wrote him how I figured Chabad might have spearheaded (if anyone) such outreach. But, knowing how much that faction's "visiting rabbi" makes off the few perfunctory visits he pays to the few practicing Jews in a vast, remote California high-desert penitentiary, and how he tended not to impress this prisoner in past encounters, I assured him I'd look into this myself. On the margins, he tries to connect to a faith in which he was not raised, but which today, in his condition, calls out to him as justice is both exacted upon him and rises within him as he tries to-- here's the other trendy phrase of Jews today-- "repair the world" with "tikkun olam." He occupies a small section of "olam" in his cell and the limited space where we'll visit him. I wonder how "kosher" any rabbi'd certify the conditions in which he is housed at a cost of $50,000 a year, mainly spent on guards and certainly not on him.

We warehouse the weaker and we look away. My sons after hearing Jonathan Safran Foer speak at their school about his new book, "Eating Animals," are now pushing aside even leftover turkey. We don't eat pork or shellfish, but we don't technically "keep kosher" for other meat in a way that'd please rigorously observant Jews. Still, we make an effort, and our kids do too. Not out of any fear of divine wrath, but as a discipline and a reminder of the consquences of our actions each day. That's all.

First me, then my wife, had gradually weaned ourselves off red meat the past couple of years. Fish and birds still fill our plates. As she was a vegetarian when we met I still feel guilty about my own insistence on seared slices and sizzling chops. I miss them now and then when I smell them, but no more or less than shrimp and bacon, once two foods I swore I'd never give up but then did-- quite easily.

Our two sons decided to give up beef very recently, after the talk by this author known best for his own encounter with the shetl and the aftermath of the camps, fictionalizing his own trip to Ukraine to search for his family's fate, in his novel "Everything is Illuminated." The connection of slaughter in camps and that of cattle turns a lot of Jews off. They find it justifiably in poor taste, no pun intended, to equate the fate of the six million with that of the millions of animals we herd and prod and cut and eat.

While I agree that the victimization rhetoric may be risky, I also note, as I care for my slowly dying half-poodle pal Fido, that in looking into an animal's eyes, we do face our own complicity. We keep some alive but munch on others. She does too, but we differ in that we can make choices that animals cannot, by our own dominion. Given the command to rule the earth-- to name and corral its creatures-- have we progressed deep down from the attitudes of Torah's Bronze Age? As I have tiresomely recounted on this blog, in such a primitive setting on the edge of Europe, a stroll away from dolmens raised up well before the pyramids, the meeting of my gaze with a sheep in a trailer trundling down a Donegal road confirmed my attempts to give up four-foots.

I heard at Thanksgiving my vegetarian guest gently remind another friend: "I eat nothing with a mother or a face." This person strives towards true mindfulness. When he shows by example, I tend to listen. He's working with a program to raise awareness among local farmworkers and their families about their own ties to the land, and to cultivate beyond the affluent and formally educated true responsibility. Too often, we find in Brooklyn or Berkeley a few lucky folks able to afford being true locavores and buy expensive fare at an organic farmer's market, while most of us go to the big-box, non-union chain, and others-- as the New York Times reported last Sunday-- join the burgeoning lines for food stamps. Across all these actions, agribusiness even for purists forces many to compromise. Our vegan neighbors grew their own little crops in their yard last summer, but I had no idea where it all went, as I watched chard seem to shrivel up under our relentless heat.

We all choose what to eat. The bonds that pull us to feast with one another amid our pets bridle between us and the flesh we devour, and this difficulty should make us all question this most daily and habitual of actions. We may pray over our dishes before we consume them, as priests did when they propitiated YHWH at the Temple, but in roasting a fatted calf or our stuffed turkey, we still realize, deep down, how we may risk taboo. We ask forgiveness to Our Father-- for we know what we do.

Find out more here: "Magen Tzedek". My wife did not read my blog entry as she wrote "Eat Love Die" this week-- it appeared a day later than mine-- but you'll agree that they do mesh nicely.

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