"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


The Forward: Workers' Rights Abuses at AgriProcessors

AgriProcessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the country, is infamous because of an undercover investigation that found atrocious animal welfare violations; the USDA later confirmed that AgriProcessors had engaged in acts of "inhumane slaughter" that violated the federal Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. The slaughterhouse is also known for its environmental woes: Runoff from the slaughterhouse violates the federal Clean Water Act, alleges a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit. And now, add a new dimension to this story.

Kudos to The Forward for deeply delving into the egregious human rights violations faced by AgriProcessors employees. In a front-page feature, The Forward's Nathaniel Popper shows that 100 years after the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, this kosher slaughterhouse is still a jungle in its own right. According to the article, AgriProcessors employees--many of whom are illegal immigrants who are desperate for employment--receive some of the lowest wages in the industry, are not given adequate training to operate dangerous machinery, do not have easy access to health insurance, and are viewed as second-class citizens compared to the Jewish staff. The paper also includes a transcript of an undercover investigator's failed attempt to receive worker's compensation after contracting a bacteria infection while on the job. In yet another article, The Forward's editorial board writes:
A greater, more pressing mystery involves the Torah's laws of labor relations and business behavior. They appear throughout the text at great length. They are specific, unambiguous, unblinking and as relevant today as ever. Do not humiliate your employee. Pay your workers on time. Give them time off. Compensate them for their injuries. Do not treat them like chattel. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.

The laws couldn't be clearer. Why aren't they upheld with the same rigor as the rules of kosher food or Sabbath?

How is it that a kosher food supplier who violates the Sabbath loses his kosher certification, but a supplier who underpays his workers does not? Why is it that a community leader may be barred from receiving synagogue honors if he openly eats pork — or lives as a homosexual — but not if he cheats his workers or harasses his tenants?


Air Guitaring in Asheville

I just returned from Asheville, N.C., where I competed in the Southeast Regional Air Guitar Championship. I didn't win, but I did a far better job than in last year's New York regional. In the first round, the crowd and judges were really into my electrifying rendition of The Offspring's "Come Out and Play." But in the second round, I had to play Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." It's an air guitar classic--even a Chabad rabbi has told me so--but as one judge put it, I'd be better off "sticking to Blink-182." Alas, my second-round scores were pretty low. At the end of the night, the two contestants tied for the lead had to simultaneously play the same song, Slayer's Holocaust-glorifying "Angel of Death," and Charlotte-based The God of Thunder defeated Asheville's own The Nature Boy for the right to compete for the national crown next month.

Part of my gimmick involved wearing a Santa costume and giving out presents ("Chew on This" DVDs) wrapped in Christmas paper. One woman in the audience told me that I had a "good soul" for giving out the pro-vegetarian DVDs that had "good information" on them. Another came up to me and asked if she could have one even though she's Jewish. My plan was not to tell people I'm Jewish while dressed up as St. Nick, but I had to give in just that one time! "It's all about the Torah!" she exclaimed, likely while inebriated.

Asheville is a happy hippy haven that was recently voted the most vegetarian-friendly city in the country. Highly recommended are the combo plate (including the grilled tempeh and the sloppy joes) at the Laughing Seed Café, the nice selection of vegan cookies at the West End Bakery, and the jerk tofu sandwich at Barley's Taproom. Eating on the road isn't that glorious, but I was rather pleased with the vegan options at Subway, Ruby Tuesday's, and other chain restaurants. I even found vegan haggis at the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, N.C.! As I told the kilt-wearing store clerk, I guess it's just easy to be vegetarian everywhere you go these days.


Fast Food: Different Strokes for Different Folks

The other night, I was really in the mood for "pigging out" on fast food, so I went to Subway. I ordered a 6-inch "Veggie Delite" on whole-wheat bread. It came with no meat and no cheese. I asked for the foundation of toppings to be spinach, not lettuce. I also got it with carrots, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, oregano, and oil and vinegar, and I splurged and asked for "lots of" pickles. I also got a bag of greasy, fried potato chips, but I took my sandwich home and had juice with it instead of getting soda at the restaurant.

While waiting, the woman in front of me kept complaining to herself that she felt sluggish, and she repeatedly dropped her cell phone and keys for no apparent reason. The first of her two sandwiches was a foot-long sub with turkey, cheese, and mayo: Her sandwich required the suffering of three different species of animals! Her second sandwich was a 6-inch sub with meatballs, melted cheese, and a garlicky butter spread; this Exodus 23:19 violation of a sandwich had no vegetables on it whatsoever.*

My motivation to be vegan is the ethical issue: I refuse to support the institutional cruelty to animals that's inherent to commercial animal agriculture. But I am happy to know that I'm eating healthier than the average American, even when I'm "pigging out" on fast food. When given the choice of the two stories above, the second meal seems utterly repugnant.

* Truth be told, the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy products comes up three times in the Bible.


Vegan Jews Against Genocide

I went to DC this past weekend to attend the Save Darfur rally. I highly encourage everyone to visit SaveDarfur.org and learn more about this issue. Among the highlights:

* At Sunday's rally at the National Mall, which was attended by thousands of people, my friends and I held signs that said, "Vegan Jews Against Genocide." (If you look hard enough, you can see part of that slogan on the bottom of Jess' sign too. I'm on the left, by the way.) Tons of people came up to us to take a picture of us. One fellow said, "Talk about a minority," but I beg to differ: I bet the vast majority of vegan Jews are against genocide! Check out photo 8 and the accompanying caption in the Writing in Wax blog.

* I couldn't help but notice that many of the speakers at Sunday's rally were people known (among other things, of course) for their support of animal rights campaigns, including The Rev. Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons, Dick Gregory, and Kweisi Mfume. And let's not forget Holocaust survivor Rep. Tom Lantos, the cofounder of the Friends of Animals Caucus in Congress.

* On Saturday night, I went to a Havdalah service on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial that was hosted by the Reform Action Center. I'd estimate that more than 100 people gathered to welcome the coming week and pray for peace and justice, particularly in Darfur. As Jews from as far away as New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois sung together and held up Havdalah candles, it really was a beautiful, moving experience.