"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)


Moshiach Oi: Punk With an Authentic Jewish Focus

Tonight I met up with the “Torah hardcore” band Moshiach Oi following their practice in Long Beach, New York. I was greeted by Menashe Yaakov (whom I interviewed a couple years ago because of his other band White Shabbos), the frontman of The Mr. Shabbos Show, and a woman who won’t mosh with men. Moshiach Oi is considering having a mechitzah at shows so that men and women can have separate pits.

I wandered into the basement to find Yishai on guitar and Mitch on bass. Paul, the drummer, was M.I.A.—how punk rock. Linda Miriam (who provides “occasional screeching,” according to the band’s MySpace page) was in the Holy Land—how Jewish. After Menashe Yaakov came down, he shouted, “Guess who’s coming to dinner!”

“Moshiach! Moshiach! Moshiach!” screamed Yishai. “Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!” This began "Moshiach Oi," the only song I heard Moshiach Oi play.

“We scream ‘oi’ a lot,” explained Yishai. “Punks always scream ‘oi.’ … Jews also always scream ‘oi.’”

* * *

We went upstairs for the interview. Menashe Yaakov offered me a beer, and I was a bit surprised. He had originally told me that Moshiach Oi was “perhaps the world's first hardcore vegan straight-edge Orthodox Jewish punk band.” But that’s no longer the best way to describe the band. At the time (in August), Yishai was the only member. Yishai is straight-edge and vegan, but those things don’t have much to do with Moshiach Oi. Moshiach Oi has one very clear, straightforward focus: Torah hardcore.

I’ve written about Jewish punk bands with lots of comic shtick. Some feature punks singing about Jewish themes and come across as gimmicky. For Moshiach Oi, however, punk rock is a means of expression for religious concepts. Song topics include observing Shabbos, cautioning against loshon hara, learning Torah, and praying for the moshiach (messiah), in addition to renditions of the Shema and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The band is a cousin of various other local Jewish musical acts that the members also play in—including the aforementioned Mr. Shabbos Show, which features a list of references with no fewer than 17 rabbis on its Web site. These guys are bona fide Jews—many of them frum. Torah teachings are their paint, and in the case of Moshiach Oi, punk is their canvas.

“That’s what makes us different: We’re actually into Torah and Hashem—it’s not a novelty for us,” said Yishai. “I’m using punk rock as an outlet to express these things.”

The best proof that Moshiach Oi isn’t a copycat of Jewish punk predecessors is that Yishai didn’t know anything about the others when he founded the band. Menashe Yaakov heard Yidcore at a Judaica store years ago and even told me about a “weird Eastern European punk” act I’d never heard of. But Yishai’s influences were chiefly ’80s hardcore—including Bad Brains, who were positive and sang about G-d, he noted. Perhaps naysayers to punk’s power as a religious pursuit shouldn’t be so close-minded.

* * *

Moshiach Oi is still young. Their only show with their full lineup drew three fans. Their upcoming 1 a.m. show should draw a large crowd of people who are out and about late on a Saturday, they hope. And the band members were optimistic that there’s a market for Torah hardcore; Menashe Yaakov said there’s “a minority that’s not being spoken for” yet.

I don’t think Moshiach Oi pins its hopes on commercial success. You can’t care about record sales when you don’t have a CD yet, and one of the three fans at the debut show did express interest in buying an album. It doesn’t matter if you play big punk shows if you can perform and have a blast at a Chabad wedding in Crown Heights, as some of Moshiach Oi’s members did under the name White Shabbos. It doesn’t even matter if the band might wind up being too punk for Orthodox Judaism or too Jewish for punk fans. What matters is that just as prayers and niggunim can make people feel connected to G-d and encourage them to do the right thing, so can Torah hardcore.

As my interview drew to a close, I asked if the band members had anything else they wanted to add. Yishai looked at me and said as sincerely as could be, “I want Moshiach now. I’m trying to help bring Moshiach by screaming ‘oi.’”

Moshiach Oi will be playing at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC on Saturday, December 13, at 1 a.m. Go to Moshiach Oi’s MySpace page to listen to “We Want Moshiach Now,” “I Wanna Learn Torah,” “Shabbos,” and “Loshon Hara.”


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AgriProcessors-Related News From the Last Fortnight

Click here to read my November 12 post, "The Apparent Collapse of AgriProcessors Continues."

Operations at AgriProcessors were suspended earlier this month, but AgriProcessors' court-appointed bankruptcy trustee said today that he expects production to resume on Monday or Tuesday. According to The Des Moines Register, "The plant will start production with the slaughter of 700,000 company-owned chickens that currently are at farms in Iowa and Minnesota, Sarachek said. Eventually, it could resume beef production as well."

Here are just a few of the news stories and other tidbits of information from the last two weeks:
  • The Baltimore Jewish Times reported that the kosher meat shortage "is affecting nearly 90 percent of kashrut-observant consumers around the country." The paper quoted Rabbi Deborah Wechsler as saying, "The irony of this [shortage] is that in many ways, it's a victory for the ethical dimensions of kashrut."
  • The kosher meat industry is changing, and many changes are because of the problems at AgriProcessors. Starting this week, Empire is slaughtering 50 percent more chickens, marking the company's second production increase this year. Sara Lee will stop making kosher meats by January 30; the Chicago Sun-Times says that the company "has been trimming brands to focus on areas of business in which it believes it can be most profitable." The Forward reported that this month's Kosherfest convention "was marked by a sense of panic" and that food producers "were talking about finding substitutes for meat, ranging from fish to poultry to soy products." The paper noted, "Robert Friedman, a manufacturer of beef jerky, said he was thinking of expanding his lines of turkey and soy jerky."
  • The Daily Kos posted a timeline of the Rubashkins' controversies and other key happenings.
  • The Forward ran a board editorial with some very sharp criticism of AgriProcessors:

Agriprocessors’ downfall is not simply an economic crisis, but also a spiritual and moral one. … The behavior attributed to Agriprocessors and its owners … ought to disqualify the company’s products from receiving religious certification by any standard worthy of the name. That the products continue to be accepted as kosher, even as the company’s owners face massive fines and jail time on suspicion of misdeeds that have shocked a nation, is a scandal nearly as great as the owners’ actions themselves. . . .

The rules of kashruth are a legacy of the Jewish spiritual tradition, preserved by the courage of countless generations as a gift to the present. Dishonoring them and violating their spirit shames all Jews. Those who honor the laws must stand up to their abuse.


A Tale of Two Shabbatot

I’ve attended Shabbat dinners in some wonderful and varied settings, including in rabbis’ homes, with family and friends, and in Israel. My last two Shabbat dinners stand out as remarkable and, for me at least, new territory.

On my birthday, I spent most of the daylight hours in the kitchen preparing Shabbat dinner for my family. Believe it or not, I had never prepared a Shabbat dinner before and couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday. (Have no fear—I did other fun things later that weekend.)

I’d wanted to put together a Shabbat dinner for quite some time, as I’ve gradually been getting more interested in cooking. After finishing Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and starting on In Defense of Food (click here to read last week’s post about those books), I was inspired to concoct a Shabbat dinner from scratch, using whole foods to a great extent.

Everything was vegan, and four out of five dishes came out fantastic. The polenta with bruschetta as well as the salad were great, and I made them shitarayn-style. The bean-and-barley cholent was made using the recipe from Roberta Kalechofsky and Rosa Rasiel's The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook and was better than expected. The pumpkin pie was out of this world and was the only dish that had any soy (silken tofu). My whole-wheat challah was subpar because of a few mistakes on my part (e.g., the recipe called for four loaves and I only made one, but I accidentally used the full amount of sugar). I don’t blame the recipe, but readers’ favorite recipes for vegan challah are welcome.

This past weekend, my friend Will and I went to visit our friend Sherri in Philadelphia. For quite some time, Sherri has been telling me about a local Reconstructionist group called Kol Tzedek. I know relatively little about the Reconstructionist movement, but I’ve long been eager to attend one of Kol Tzedek's vegetarian Shabbat potlucks.

At the conclusion of Kol Tzedek's "Kol Tehilla" (voice of praise) service on Friday night, people split up to go to one of four different homes hosting vegetarian potlucks. I went to a co-op inhabited by six warm-and-welcoming, progressive-minded folks. All the main dishes were vegan and delicious: two quinoa dishes, kale, salad, spicy squash, and a tofu dish that even Will admitted tasted like chicken. The company and the discussions were terrific, and I couldn’t help but wonder about vegetarian Shabbat potlucks in my area.


Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food

This post was slightly revised a few hours after it went up.

I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008). "Rebbe Pollan" "gets his fair share of love" on The Jew & The Carrot, and because of that blog and other recommendations, I should've read these two books a long time ago.

For the most part, Pollan's in-depth accounts of agriculture, food science, and eating habits offer helpful information and spot-on advice. I learned a lot about some important topics, including organic and "beyond organic" farming, the prevalence of corn and soy in American diets, farm subsidies, monocultures, processed foods, and nutritionism. This new knowledge has already helped spur some changes in my own eating habits; I've been on this path for a while now, but the extra boost was quite welcome. I recommend both books to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. And meat-eaters not familiar with factory-farming and the fallacies of labels like "free-range" will surely think twice about their support for animal agriculture.

I disagreed with The Omnivore's Dilemma on three key points. I must point out that Pollan presents his arguments in a thoughtful, respectful manner, and I was much more sympathetic to what he had to say than I would've expected. Although Pollan admittedly dismisses vegetarianism and various pro-animal arguments in an effort to "come up with reasons for whatever he wants to do," he does read books by Peter Singer and other noted philosophers, present their arguments, and temporarily adopt a vegetarian diet.

Pollan promotes meat from commercial farms that treat animals humanely, but he does not offer a convincing argument that truly humane commercial farms exist.
Pollan uses Polyface Farm as an example of "the 'good farm'—one where animals got to live according to their natures and to all appearances do not suffer." As has been noted elsewhere, Polyface Farm is not all it's cracked up to be. Even the account in The Omnivore's Dilemma isn't all that compelling. Pollan spends time on the farm and slaughters "a dozen or so" chickens there, but he notes that the manner in which the chickens are grabbed for slaughter seems "unduly rough." He doesn't know "if there is a more humane way to catch three hundred chickens" (animal slaughter expert Temple Grandin, cited elsewhere in The Omnivore's Dilemma, promotes at least one superior method). Surely the animals could be treated more humanely if several hundred weren't slaughtered in one "as fast and as surely as possible" session ("Scale makes all the difference," notes Polyface Farm's Joel Salatin), but of course, slaughtering birds on a significantly smaller scale—and treating animals as individuals—isn't a viable option for a commercial farm. (I'm considering the argument behind humane slaughter here, but Charles Patterson's view also deserves consideration: "[Killing operations are] not really interested in being 'humane.' If they were, they wouldn't be killing in the first place.")

I take issue with Pollan's glorification of hunting.
Pollan discusses the wide range of emotions he feels about hunting, but he says that he feels "absolutely terrific—unambiguously happy" right after taking the life of a pig. One of the biggest problems with hunting is that killing is indiscriminate. When animals are killed, families and packs are torn apart, often leaving helpless orphaned animals to starve to death. Many animals suffer in agony for quite a while after being shot or trapped before they finally die. As PETA notes in a must-read factsheet, hunting often "disrupts migration and hibernation patterns," and "[t]he stress that hunted animals suffer—caused by fear and the inescapable loud noises and other commotion that hunters create—also severely compromises their normal eating habits, making it hard for them to store the fat and energy that they need in order to survive the winter." Pollan's account of the ethics of hunting animals would've been more complete if all this information had been mentioned.

It is realistic and easy to be vegetarian.
Pollan says that part of him "pities" vegetarians, and he suggests that being vegetarian is "a denial of reality" before going on to quote philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (who was elsewhere quoted as saying that "the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them"). First, it's hard to trust Pollan's account of what's realistic in this context; this comment is included in his discussion leading up to a hunted, gathered, and homegrown meal that he later describes as follows: "[L]ittle if anything about this meal was what anyone would call 'realistic.'" Second, I don't accept Ortega's position or the view that hunting is an undeniable fact of life, per my previous paragraph. Third, Pollan's claims related to vegans' supposed "'serious clash of interests' with other animals" assume an unlikely large-scale switch from current agricultural practices to practices that would support a societywide switch to vegetarianism; his argument does not take away from the ethical considerations of how an individual can stop supporting unnecessary animal suffering by going vegetarian. (I have my doubts about the claims in this section, but I'm not prepared to discuss them in depth or try to disprove what Pollan says here.) Last but not least, it's easy to be vegetarian, particularly once you keep up with it for a while and it becomes routine. Restaurants and dining halls serve an increasing number of vegetarian options, and there are now myriad processed vegetarian foods available that fall far short of Pollan's ideals for whole foods but can simplify the transition to vegetarianism for anyone who is struggling. People willing to undertake a revolution in their diet by following In Defense of Food's Twelve Commandments (with the exception of #9) will likely find that being vegetarian is no more difficult or less realistic than adhering to many of Pollan's commandments.


The Apparent Collapse of AgriProcessors Continues

I talked about the apparent collapse of AgriProcessors in my November 1 post, and the news keeps coming. There's simply too much going on to discuss all the details, particularly since I've been out of town a lot in the last two weeks, but here are some highlights:

  • IsraelNationalNews.com ran an article today titled "Kosher Meat Shortage in US Turning Jews into Vegetarians." Here's an excerpt: "Nationwide shortages have forced many people to eat vegetarian meals on the Sabbath, when meat and chicken are a long-standing tradition. Many stores throughout the U.S. reported their meat cases were empty. One rabbi told the KosherToday website, 'This past Sabbath was the first in a long time that my wife made a pareve [non-meat] cholent,' a stew usually consisting of meat or chicken, grains and potatoes."
  • A November 4 article in The Jewish Week did a good job explaining the scope of kosher meat shortages.
  • On November 3, The Des Moines Register noted that AgriProcessors is "struggling to survive." The article said, "Two main boilers at Agriprocessors, Inc. are not operating, and a local priest who drove past the parking lot counted only 35 cars - far fewer than the hundreds visible on a typical day." The paper quotes AgriProcessors' CEO as saying, "I don’t believe we’re going to have substantial production of any kind in the near future."
  • On November 3, the Forward reported that three of the five largest kosher slaughterhouses in the country had stopped production. Rubashkin-owned Local Pride in Nebraska stopped operating in October (a November 5 Associated Press article confirmed that the plant has closed down). A fire at a Minnesota abattoir that supplies Alle caused production to halt at that plant. The article also noted, "Before the raid [on May 12], Agriprocessors did a significant amount of beef slaughtering at a plant in South America. Those operations have also stopped." Combined with what's going on at AgriProcessors' Iowa slaughterhouse, it's no wonder that there's a kosher meat shortage.
  • On November 2, the Forward described the appalling conditions of chickens and turkeys at AgriProcessors. In short, the birds were not being treated with adequate care because AgriProcessors lacks workers and money, and the animals were in danger of starving to death.
Failed Messiah was the secondary or primary source for numerous items in the bulleted list.


This Could Be the End of AgriProcessors

As I've noted again and again and again and again (and in other posts!), AgriProcessors has been in bad shape since a May 12 raid by more than a dozen federal agencies. The events of the last four days likely spelled the end of what was, until May 12, the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse:
  • It seems that cattle are no longer being slaughtered at AgriProcessors. According to the Forward, "Jeff Abbas, who runs Postville’s community radio station, said that he saw live cattle being trucked away from the slaughterhouse on the morning of October 29."
  • AgriProcessors is killing and disposing of thousands of baby chickens because it can no longer process them.
  • The temp agency that filled AgriProcessors' jobs in the wake of the May 12 raid has suspended its contract with the company, leaving the slaughterhouse without half of its workforce.
  • A bank is "seeking to seize and auction all of Agriprocessors' assets, claiming the slaughterhouse defaulted on a $35 million loan," according to the Associated Press.
  • Former AgriProcessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin was arrested and appeared in court. According to The Des Moines Register, he is accused of "knowingly conspiring with others, for his own financial gain, to harbor undocumented workers in Postville" and "aiding and abetting workers in stealing the identities of other people." The paper adds, "If convicted on all of the charges, Rubashkin faces up to 22 years in prison and $750,000 in fines."
  • Iowa's Labor Commissioner announced nearly $10 million in civil penalties against AgriProcessors for "repeated violations of Iowa's wage laws."
  • An AgriProcessors HR employee pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens and aggravated identity theft. She faces up to 12 years in prison, among other charges.
  • Failed Messiah reported that Menachem Lubinsky (of Lubicom and Kosher Today) no longer represents AgriProcessors.
The story of AgriProcessors' fall is one of embarrassment and shame. It's a story of how a major kosher company disregarded Jewish teachings and values with regard to animals, workers, and so many other issues. The only saving grace is that this story appears to be coming to a close.

Failed Messiah was the secondary or primary source for numerous items in the bulleted list.