"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)


Swine Flu: It Can Happen to Jew

Upon hearing about the swine flu outbreak on Friday, I figured that I would be safe. Avian flu was generally transmitted by contact with or consumption of infected poultry or eggs. It seemed reasonable that a Jewish vegan who avoids pork for multiple reasons would not be at risk for swine flu. I was wrong. A Jewish physician summed it up in an article in today's Jerusalem Post:
Even those who think, 'Well, I keep kosher, I don't eat pork, so this outbreak isn't going to affect me,' they're wrong. This has nothing to do with eating. The outbreak began with people who worked closely with pigs, but from that point on, it's spread from person to person. ... [I]f there's an outbreak, Jews and non-Jews will both have cause for concern.

Kosher-keeping Jews (and vegans) didn't create this mess, but we're just as susceptible to suffering from it. Today, a Jewish community security network sent out public health information about swine flu to "hundreds of Jewish institutions, including federations and Jewish community centers," the JTA reported. Two cases of suspected but unconfirmed swine flu cases have shown up in Israel. And according to the Associated Press, "Ultra-Orthodox Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman on Monday declared that Israel would call the new potentially deadly disease that has already struck two continents 'Mexico Flu,' rather than 'Swine Flu, as pigs are not kosher." (A Jewschool post noted, "This is completely ridiculous. If the logic is 'swines aren’t kosher, treyf is bad,' wouldn’t a 'bad' connotation be fitting for a deadly flu virus?")

I feel as though I should've seen this coming. Three warning signs from last month seem quite telling in retrospect:
  • A post on The PETA Files today noted, "Just last month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote two articles about the spread of deadly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus on pig farms. No, Kristof isn't psychic. He's just paying attention—unlike the people at your local meat counter. Bottom line: We can stop pigs from killing us if we simply stop killing them."
  • HBO premiered its Death on a Factory Farm documentary, which showed terrible conditions for hogs on an Ohio factory farm. Pigs were tossed by their hind legs into wagons, which led to a cruelty-to-animals conviction, and downed hogs were hanged by a chain attached to a frontloader. The documentary shows unsanitary conditions, particularly mounting piles of manure, as well as pigs who are deprived of much-needed veterinary care. Upon seeing the close confinement and squalor that thousands of hogs live in, especially when sows are in gestation and farrowing crates, it is crystal clear that diseases can spread easily on factory farms.
  • I saw Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States, speak in New York. Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, made the connection between humans' domestication of livestock, intensification of livestock production, and industrialized intensification of livestock production and three corresponding eras of human diseases. Since the swine flu outbreak began, Greger has commented:

Factory farming practices have directly led to the emergence of deadly human pathogens including mad cow disease, Strep suis, Nipah virus, multi-drug resistant foodborne bacteria, and highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza. Although AIDS has killed 25 million people, the reason there is so much concern about influenza is that it is the only known pathogen capable of infecting literally billions of people in a matter of months.With international attention now focused on the emerging H1N1 swine flu virus, it is important to reflect on how such viruses arise.

The first recorded emergence of a swine flu virus like the one we now face, incorporating both human and avian genes, was on a factory farm in North Carolina in 1998. When thousands of animals are crowded into filthy, football field-sized sheds to lie beak to beak or snout to snout atop their own waste, it can be a breeding ground for disease.

Though some within the meat industry have made commitments and acted to move away from some of the worst intensive confinement practices, others have instead sought to overturn laws meant to improve animal health. Last year, for example, the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute brought a lawsuit to overturn a California law that would exclude pigs too sick or crippled even to walk from the human food supply, forcing producers to take better care of these animals.

A study of downed pigs published in 2008 in Livestock Science found that non-ambulatory pigs were significantly more likely to test positive for swine flu compared with pigs who could walk. More than half of the downed pigs were found to be actively viremic with swine flu virus, meaning that the virus was coursing through their bloodstream—53.8 percent were actively infected with an H1N1 virus and 51.9 percent with H3N2.

The meat industry trade groups argued, however, that it was okay to slaughter and process downed pigs for human consumption because swine flu wasn’t a threat. Now that the World Health Organization has declared swine flu a public health emergency, maybe industry will stop trying to undermine laws meant to protect animals and the public, and instead reduce the overcrowding and stress that helped lead to the emergence of such diseases in the first place.

Kosher consumers might not have created demand for pork, but we all need to recognize the common connection between the factory farming of all animals and deadly animalborne diseases. The next potential pandemic could come from kosher animals. Individuals can do their part to stop potential crises by going vegetarian. If the swine flu outbreak causes enough alarm, perhaps the meat industry and the federal government will actually crack down on factory farming practices in order to safeguard public health.


Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur, best known for her roles in Maude and The Golden Girls, died from cancer at age 86 yesterday. JTA noted that the Jewish actor, "born Bernice Frankel in New York, played Yenta the matchmaker in the original Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof."

Arthur was an honorary director of PETA. In a post on The PETA Files, PETA SVP Dan Mathews wrote, "Bea Arthur joined PETA in 1987, when the Golden Girls did an anti-fur episode and Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White filmed a PETA anti-fur PSA on the set of the show. A tireless advocate for animals, Bea campaigned against the force-feeding of ducks in the foie gras trade, travelling to London with PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk, where she called on Harrod's to stop selling the cruelly made pâté. Bea also called for a boycott of KFC until it improves the way it raises and kills its chickens, campaigned against animal experimentation, spoke out about the abuse of animals on factory farms, and was a vocal opponent of the use of exotic animals in circuses."

In December 2004, Arthur got involved in PETA's campaign against AgriProcessors following the group's uncovering of cruelty to animals at what was the world's largest kosher slaughterhouse. The Associated Press reported:

In a letter to Orthodox Union leaders, Arthur, a Jew and longtime PETA supporter, expressed concern with the agency's reaction to allegations against Agriprocessors.

"The OU has defended the abuse at AgriProcessors, and I am concerned that it has not moved more quickly to publicly affirm that Judaism does not tolerate the kind of cruelty that PETA has documented," Arthur said in the letter, which was provided to The Associated Press late Thursday.

Arthur encouraged the Orthodox Union to adopt the minimum guidelines developed by the Food Marketing Institute. Those standards provide for equipment, employee training and post-slaughter procedures to reduce the discomfort of animals who are killed without prior stunning, she said.

"Applying these standards in all kosher slaughterhouses will ensure that animals killed for food are given quick deaths, as provided for in Jewish law," Arthur said. . . .

PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said the star-power of Arthur ... brings attention to the situation at Agriprocessors.

"When Bea Arthur speaks people do listen," he said.


Up Close and Personal With Natalie Portman

I finally got to "meet" my favorite meat-free filmmaker.

This afternoon, Natalie Portman appeared at an Apple store in the Big Apple as part of its Meet the Filmmaker series. The world's most famous vegan Jew marked the launch of MakingOf.com along with the company's CEO, Christine Aylward. MakingOf.com, which just launched yesterday, gives people an inside look at filmmaking. Portman noted that the site aims to give access to the filmmaking process "to everyone, not just the ones who have the luck of working in this, kind of, 'insider' business."

I asked Portman about "Kosher Vegetarian" and how her "religious and vegetarian/vegan identities play a role in making a film like that." (Per my March 2008 post about "Kosher Vegetarian," Portman plays the role of a Jewish woman in love with an Indian vegetarian.)

Portman said that "Kosher Vegetarian" is "a short that's part of New York, I Love You, which is coming out later this year." Portman added:

I try not to mix my beliefs too much with my filmmaking. ... I went to see [Closer director] Mike Nichols speak the other night when he was at MoMA, and he was actually saying ... the biggest job of the actor is to make a case for their character--that you have to defend your character no matter what. So if you're playing a serial killer, you have to believe in that completely. ... That's your biggest job. ... You're obviously playing people with all different belief systems that are very different from your own.
I would've loved to ask Portman additional questions, but I'm very grateful for the opportunity I had. I was able to get in as a member of the press, whereas many members of the public were turned away.

Click here to read E!'s coverage and see an AP photo from the event.

Update (4/25): I found a YouTube video that shows when I asked Natalie Portman my question. Her reaction when I mentioned "Kosher Vegetarian" is priceless. Start watching 5:40 in.



Letter in Hadassah
The April/May issue of Hadassah magazine features a great letter to the editor from a Floridian, titled "Humane Slaughter?" "Humane slaughter is an oxymoron," says Sherry Fudim of Palm Beach Gardens. Fudim points out, "A vegetarian diet benefits boh human and animal alike."

Controversy Surrounding Jewish Iditarod Participants
According to the Forward, a Jewish historical museum in Alaska will feature an exhibit glorifying Jews who have participated in the cruel dog-sled race. In response, the Sled Dog Action Coalition noted, "Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod. Two dogs were on the team of Dr. Lou Packer. Dr. Packer told the Anchorage Daily News he believes the two dogs froze to death in the brutally cold winds. ... What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 142 dogs have died in the race."

Traditions on Twitter
After counting the omer on a blog in 2007, I set up a Twitter account earlier this month so that I could count the omer on Twitter. Ultimately, I decided to count the omer offline instead. On Tuesday, The Jew & The Carrot featured a post about trying to tweet the Four Questions in 140 characters or less.

Partnership Proposed
On April 3, I attended an animal law conference at NYU. Panelist Cheryl Leahy of Compassion Over Killing said she has "always thought" that kosher activists and vegan activists should work together. Leahy said that campaigns could include fighting for better labeling of products in supermarkets and getting vegan restaurants certified as kosher. I personally don't see this as a practical or likely partnership. Then again, an Israeli kosher activist recently took a page out of animal rights activists' playbook by launching a one-man I'd Rather Go Naked Than Have a Supermarket Sell Chametz on Passover campaign.

Seder for Dogs
A seder for dogs was held in Illinois this past weekend. "None of the dogs like matzoh," said an organizer. If you've read my two posts about the bark mitzvah trend, this shouldn't be too surprising. My friend's dog recently went for "bark kor cholim" classes (training dogs to participate in bikur cholim) at a local shul. The argument could be made that some Jewish traditions have gone to the dogs.


A Zissen Pesach!

For the first night of Passover, I went to a delightful seder organized by the NYC Jewish Veg*ns Meetup group. Even I couldn't believe that all this delicious food, including so much traditional Passover food (most of it kosher for Passover by Ashkenazi standards), was 100 percent vegan. The meal included matzoh ball soup, salads, nutloaf, farfel, kugel, kishkas, kale with potatoes, macaroons, and seven-layer chocolate matzoh cake. The seder plate featured beets and an avocado pit instead of a shankbone and egg, respectively. Kudos to the organizers for putting together such a terrific seder.

Just when I thought that three Passover-themed posts this year would have sufficed us (dayenu!), it seems that I've acculumated enough material for one more roundup:

  • Farm Sanctuary's Making Hay blog featured a link to Isa Chandra Moskowitz's 2007 Passover guest post on heebnvegan. Making Hay also linked to "the fabulous" heebnvegan.
  • Moskowitz's Post Punk Kitchen blog had a great Passover post, which included the line "And if you want to do some heavy lifting this Passover, the heeb’n'vegan is always up to something to keep your brain in shape."
  • The Jew & The Carrot featured a post titled "Vegan Matzoh Ball Cook-Off: Tofu Versus Flax." Both versions came from Moskowitz's recipes. The vegan matzoh balls I had tonight (see the photo at the top) contained neither tofu nor flax. The cook said that she didn't work with a recipe, and she said potato starch was the key ingredient.
  • The Jewish Week ran a fantastic piece called "No Chametz, No Legumes, No Meat, No Dairy? No Problem!" The article featured Moskowitz ("something of a superstar in the subculture of folks who abstain from all animal products") and Jewish Vegetarians of North America president Richard Schwartz.
  • The Forward ran a must-read article about how the Ashkenazi ban on kitniyot (legumes) during Passover might be dying out in Israel. Good riddance!
  • NYC kosher vegan restaurant Sacred Chow offered catering for Passover seders. The restaurant's menu included "Dried Fruit Seitan Brisket with Yucca and Yukon Golds; Fennel-Apple Charoset (gluten free); Bitter Herb Hummus (gluten free); Savory Scrambled Matzo Brei; Auntie Vera’s Spinach-'Chik'n' Soup (gluten free); and White Cocoa Halva Pie (gluten free), ranging from $5 to $15 a dish." The same dishes will be served at Sacred Chow's Passover party (not a seder) tonight at 7 p.m. Note: It appears that this food is not certified kosher for Passover.
  • In December, I wrote that Jewish punk band Electric Menorah planned to release a Passover EP. Check out the band's MySpace page to listen to the brand-new punk versions of "Dayenu," "Let My People Go," and "ChadGadYa." My 2 zuzim's worth is that Electric Menorah's take on "ChadGadYa" is a work of art.


Birkat Hachamah in the Big Apple

When I made a Rosh Hashanah "New Year's resolution" to celebrate every Jewish holiday in 5769, I did not account for one I had never heard of. After all, Birkat Hachamah (Blessing of the Sun), which celebrates that the Earth and the sun are in the same position as at the time of creation, only occurs once every 28 years. When my alarm went off at 4 a.m., I forced myself out of bed so that I wouldn't have to wait until 2037 to make up for a lost opportunity.

I was one of more than 100 Jews to gather on the rooftop of the JCC in Manhattan by 6:30 a.m. today. It was a beautiful mix of Jews of all ages coming together to celebrate this once-in-a-generation holiday. The event, which was organized by the JCC and Hazon, featured a performance of "Here Comes the Sun," religious prayer, and "salutation to the sun" yoga. There was something special about watching so many Jews from different backgrounds, many with kippot and quite a few with tallesim and tefillin, doing yoga, all while I was standing in a jungle gym to get the best pictures. Organizers tried to burn chametz (after all, some other Jewish holiday begins tonight) using sunlight and a magnifying glass, but they gave up and used matches instead.
I've noted before that I gave up Groundhog Day as my favorite holiday because of the exploitation of the groundhog. Today, I discovered a new holiday for which I can wake up fartook in the morning, stand outside with masses of people, and bundle up in the cold (it wasn't as cold as Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in early February, but it did snow in the City today). I've heard from people who celebrated the holiday on their own in areas without a big Jewish community, which is of course perfectly acceptable. Nevertheless, gathering together for Birkat Hachamah on top of the JCC was one of the unique benefits of living in New York City.
Click here to see NY1's video of the Birkat Hachamah celebrations at the JCC in Manhattan and Borough Hall in Brooklyn.