"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)



I generally don't use this blog to endorse companies, but there's one that really deserves to be commended. Pangea sells a wide variety of vegan and cruelty-free products, from food and vitamins to clothing and cosmetics. For years, I have been consistently wowed by how quickly Pangea processes orders and how communicative the company is if there's even a slight complication or delay. Pangea orders arrive in the mail faster than one would think possible. The quality and selection of their products are top-notch as well. To browse Pangea's catalog, go to VeganStore.com. On a side note, Pangea sells hard-to-find dark-chocolate gelt around Hanukkah time.

Foer: Synagogue Is Perfect Venue for Conversation About Food Issues

Eating Animals author Jonathan Safran Foer recently spoke at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He had this to say about the horrors of industrialized animal agriculture and related food practices:
A place like this [a synagogue] is the perfect place to talk about it, because there are religious values behind it [the conversation]. ... I can't quite imagine a rabbi who wouldn't take this [issue] up as one of the most important things to talk about right now.
Kashrut and Perceived Purity
Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an article about the perceived purity that some consumers attribute to kosher foods. The article noted that "some experts in animal welfare warn consumers not to assume that kosher means humane."

The article claimed, "For some shoppers, kosher means purity of ingredients. Vegetarians know a parve label means absolutely no meat or dairy products. (Vegans, though, are out of luck. Parve food can contain eggs and honey.)" I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that parve foods are not necessarily vegetarian because they may include fish, but my letter has not been published.

Groundhog Day
In 2007, I wrote about how I had renounced my former favorite holiday, Groundhog Day, because of Punxsutawney Phil's treatment. Groundhog Day is next week, and PETA is urging the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club to "make the compassionate decision to use an animatronic Phil and retire the live groundhogs who are used for Groundhog Day activities to a sanctuary."

Recent Posts on The Jew & The Carrot
My current favorite holiday, Tu B'Shvat, is this Shabbat, and for the second consecutive year, I'll be attending Hazon's Tu B'Shvat seder in Manhattan. Hazon's blog, The Jew & The Carrot, recently featured a post recommending a Tu B'Shvat seder "for every personality." Today, The Jew & The Carrot posted "Yid.Dish: Seitan Feijoada (Yup, It's Kosher and Vegan)."

Frum Satire Cross-Post

Earlier this month, I noted that Matthue Roth had written about his heebnvegan interview on MyJewishLearning.com and his own Web site. Frum Satire cross-posted Roth's post, and it's garnered a lively discussion of more than 80 comments.

Good for a Chuckle
The blog Jewish & Interfaith Weddings recently posted about serving vegan food at weddings. The post concluded:
[F]or more information about Jews and vegetarianism, check out the heeb’n'vegan blog or Jewish Veg. (Hey, did you know that Alicia Silverstone and Natalie Portman are vegan Jews? Thank [G-d] for blogs.
If I've accomplished nothing else with heebnvegan, at least I've helped educate the world about the fact that Alicia Silverstone and Natalie Portman are vegan Jews.


Limmud NY 2010: Jewish Learning Without Limits

This past weekend, I attended the sixth annual Limmud NY conference. Approximately 700 Jews gathered together at the Hudson Valley Resort in upstate New York to learn, pray, and interact as part of a community. This community was quite varied in terms of denomination (or lack thereof), level of observance, age, and dietary habits, among other distinctions.

The most tangible highlights of the conference were the actual sessions. At more than 300 sessions, clergy and laypeople alike led prayer services, musical performances, films, panel discussions, and lectures. I participated in a chavruta session about the oneness of G-d, was challenged to think about my cultural identity beyond the mere "Eastern European Ashkenazi Jew" label, air guitared on stage during a performance by Avi Fox Rosen (the brother of Luminescent Orchestrii bassist Benjy Fox Rosen, whom I quoted in my last post), participated in Avi Fox Rosen's anti-fascist sing-along (which included two songs by Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, whom I saw him perform with in New York last year), and learned about Jewish communities in India. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The heebnvegan rock star I was most looking forward to meeting was Eve Jochnowitz, who runs the Yiddish-English vegetarian blog In Mol Araan (Into the Mouth). (Click here to read my 2007 post about "Vegetarianism in Yiddish's Hey-Day," and click here to read my 2008 post about just how few Jewish vegetarian blogs there are.) On Friday, Jochnowitz spoke about gefilte fish and noted that, as a vegetarian, she instead uses two different recipes for vegetarian alternatives. Afterward, I asked Jochnowitz if she feels there is a conflict between her vegetarianism and her research interests in the culture and history of Jewish food. She said that there might be "dissonance" but not "conflict." She added that she has been vegetarian since she was 15, but she knew that she would wind up vegetarian since she was 5. On Sunday, Jochnowitz presented about Jews' "culinary resistance to mortality." She showed various tombstones in Yiddish with fascinating food references, including one epitaph mentioning that the deceased was an "ethical vegetarian." I'll post more about that tombstone after Jochnowitz writes about it on In Mol Araan.

Although it's harder to pin down specifics and make a point, there was something to be said for the diverse community at Limmud. I spoke to many people who were vegetarians, yet I also dined with a shochet and noticed that two Chasidim were walking around with fur shtreimels. The people I met at meals and more informal chats made for great conversations about such topics as vegetarianism, leather tefillin, Jewish punk, why I do not wear a kippah outside of a religious setting, and degrees of Shabbat observance.

Limmud NY is an annual event, and there are other Limmud conferences across the country and around the world. For more information, go to LimmudInternational.org.

On one of the "expression boards" posted on the walls, one attendee selected Saturday's vegetarian cholent as a highlight of the conference. Another agreed.

I thought that the juxtaposition of g'nizah paper (which has to be buried because it has G-d's name on it) and paper recycling represented the wonderful combination of observance of Jewish tradition and modern-day, progressive concerns for our world.



Profile of Shmarya Rosenberg in The New York Times
On Friday, Samuel Freedman had a profile of Failed Messiah's Shmarya Rosenberg in The New York Times. Here are excerpts:
[Rosenberg's] indignation with Chabad coincided with a big story later in 2004, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released video of the slaughtering practices inside Agriprocessors, a vast kosher-meat plant in Iowa owned and operated by a Lubavitcher family, the Rubashkins.

Mr. Rosenberg posted a link to the video and went on both to report his own investigative pieces and to spread those of other journalists, particularly Nathaniel Popper of The Forward. When a public-relations company, 5WPR, fabricated online postings by a rabbi who was pushing for ethical reform in kosher foods, it was Mr. Rosenberg who uncovered the “sock puppet” scam.

A recent post, replete with supporting photographs and documents, showed how even after Agriprocessors had been disgraced and its chief executive convicted of financial crimes, members of the Rubashkin family continued to sell meat through a Web site. . . .

“Shmarya often reminds me of journalism in the old days — when editors would sometimes go at one another physically in the street,” Jonathan D. Sarna, a historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University with expertise in Jewish journalism, wrote in an e-mail message. “I know that he is fiercely hated in some Orthodox circles, but he has had many a scoop, and is certainly THE destination for those who want dirt about Orthodoxy exposed to the world.”
Click here to read my May 2009 post "One Year After the AgriProcessors Raid: An Interview With Shmarya Rosenberg of Failed Messiah."

Gangsta Rabbi Signs With JDub

JDub Records has added Steve "Gangsta Rabbi" Lieberman to its roster. The vegetarian and self-professed "father of the punk-rock flute" has released 17 CDs independently. When I saw Lieberman live in 2006, I rocked out in the front and a friend stayed all the way in the back, appalled by Lieberman's raw, unpolished sound.

In my very first article about Jewish punk back in 2005, I wrote that Lieberman is "a one-man band who plays a wide range of instruments, including flute, bass, and shofar. He regularly invokes Jewish themes in his songs and has released eight albums in the last three years—including 'Punkifier,' 'Jew in the Underground,' and 'Jewish Riot Oy Oy Oy.' Lieberman is Shabbat-observant, has payot, and dons tefillin, but his distorted sound and emotional angst are undeniably punk."

Matthue Roth on Vegetarianism in Judaism
After I posted my interview with Matthue Roth earlier this week, he posted a link to it and additional reflections on MyJewishLearning.com (and his personal Web site). Roth wrote:
Judaism isn’t really a religion of choices. In general, in Jewish law, there are no circumstances that get either/or verdicts. You’re either commanded to do something, or you’re commanded not to do it. Being a vegetarian falls into a kind of shady ground. Some people will tell you that Jews are required to eat meat on Shabbat or holidays. Others will say that eating meat is a [concession] that God made to people after that whole Noah thing didn’t work out, and the world was full of people with unrealized hostility. (At least that’s sort of the way it’s portrayed in the Torah.) In essence, you can kind of say that Judaism supports either position — that we either have to eat meat, or that eating meat is one of the most base and degrading parts of being human that there is.
Vegetarianism and Conflict in the Middle East
Last week, Haaretz ran an article titled "Can a Vegetarian Chef Help Solve the Mideast Conflict?" It began:
Could vegetarianism help solve the Middle East conflict? U.S. celebrity chef Christina Pirello, who is currently in Israel teaching about macrobiotic cooking, doesn't suggest peace would break out the moment Israelis and Palestinians stopped eating schnitzel and shawarma. She believes, however, that meat causes people to lose their ability to accept somebody else's point of view and that most conflicts in the world could be solved if people ate less meat.

"Meat tends to make people opinionated and inflexible in many ways, physically as well as psychologically," the 54-year-old told Anglo File this week.
Luminescent Orchestrii
On Monday night, I saw Luminescent Orchestrii perform for the second time in the past year. Upright bass player Benjy Fox Rosen sang one song in Yiddish.

A 2008 New Voices article explained, "Luminescent Orchestrii describes its music as 'Gypsy Tango Klezmer Punk,' and though it seems a convoluted label, their sound could not be better described. Their seemingly schizophrenic leaps between Eastern European Jewish Wedding music, surrealistic carnival ballads, and East Village punk, meld into a surprisingly coherent whole."

In a letter to the editor in response, Fox Rosen said, "I would not call Luminescent Orchestrii ... Jewish music. Luminescent Orchestrii is influenced by Klezmer music, but we are much more influenced by Romanian Gypsy music, The Dead Kennedys and Serbian Brass Bands. The Luminescent Orchestrii is not a Jewish music ensemble. We play some Jewish songs, I sing a few in Yiddish, but that is it."

'Non-Christian Religious Punk'
On Monday, Alternative Press posted an article about Jewish punk, taqwacore (Muslim punk), and Krishnacore (Hare Krishna punk). The Shondes were the only Jewish punk band mentioned. I have my qualms with the article, but it was fascinating to see the three different subgenres lumped together under the banner "non-Christian religious punk."


Natalie Portman: 'The Center of Judaism for Me Is Not Taking Life'

For the second time in the past year, I tracked down Natalie Portman at a public appearance in New York City and asked her about connections between her Jewish faith and her vegan diet. After the world's most famous Jewish vegan took the topic in a different direction in April, I asked her a much more direct question as part of The New York Times' Arts & Leisure Weekend on Saturday night.

While performing my journalistic duty as a Jewish-vegan blogger, I learned several fascinating things. First, Natalie loves the name "heebnvegan." (I somehow managed to maintain my composure when she said this.) Second, she apparently remembers our initial encounter. Third, she sees her decision not to take animals' lives for food as the core of her Judaism. Finally, she thinks vegetarian food in Israel and California is excellent, but unlike the world's second-most famous Jewish vegan, she finds New York vegetarian food disappointing.

Below is a transcript of our conversation during the Q&A portion of the event.
Hi, Natalie. I run the blog heebnvegan. Do you make a connection between your—
I love that name, man!

Thank you. That means a lot. Thank you. Do you make a connection between your Jewish faith and your vegan diet, and do you prefer—
I think I’ve been asked this question at another Q&A before, but I can answer it again.

And also, do you prefer vegetarian food in Israel or in the U.S.?
Controversial! I’m glad you asked. … What did you ask about Jewish—

Do you make a connection between your Jewish faith and your vegan diet?
Absolutely! … There’s a reason why every major religion has food rules. Because three times a day, you’re forced to think about your morality and your ethics and what you believe in. And … the reason you eat what you do—even not religion, but just culturally, why you eat a cow and not a dog—represents something in who you are and how you think about things. …

I definitely think the center of Judaism for me is not taking life. … The most important rule in Judaism is that you can break any rule in order to save a life. So, if life is the center of everything, then not taking life three times a day and making that decision is very important.

Vegetarian food: Excellent in Israel. Not so good in New York. Excellent in California.
Although Natalie did not discuss animal issues when she was being interviewed by the Times' Patrick Healy, she did pique my interest numerous times. Regarding her relationship with Israel, she said, "There's never a loss of love but always a mutation of stance." When she explained that she was not very socially active while attending high school on Long Island, she said that was probably for the best: "[The] Long Island high school scene is, like, hanging out in a mall parking lot." When she said that she and her father both have tremendous discipline and can go without much sleep, she said, "We'd be very good in the military if we didn't hate war so much."

Photo by Willington Lee, Courtesy of Keith Sherman & Associates

See Also
Alicia Silverstone Connects Her Judaism and Veganism (Dec. 2009)
Natalie Portman Brings Vegetarianism to Top Chef (Oct. 2009)
'Kosher Vegetarian' in Theaters Now! (Oct. 2009)
Sarah Silverman: Heeb and Vegetarian (Oct. 2009)
Up Close and Personal With Natalie Portman (Apr. 2009)
Natalie Portman: Heeb and Vegan (Apr. 2008)

A Vegan's Response to 'Do You Keep Kosher?'

Click here to read "Are You Religious?" from April 2008.

I never give a one-word response if someone asks whether I keep kosher. After saying "yes," I usually add qualifiers, such as "I'm vegan, so I keep kosher by default." Although I do keep kosher in my own way, the extent of my kashrut might not meet the expectations of the person asking the question. I grew up eating meatball pizza, shrimp cocktail, and pork fried rice, so keeping kosher was never a claim I could make early in life. In recent years as I've seriously explored the connections between Judaism and veganism, it has been a claim I like to make.

As I've noted before, being vegetarian makes it easier to keep kosher:
You don't have to worry about whether you're eating meat that's certified kosher (and whether that certification meets Jewish ideals) if you're not eating meat. You don't have to worry about mixing meat and dairy products if you're avoiding one or both of those categories altogether. As one vegetarian rabbi explained in a 2005 Jewish Ledger article, "We have one set of dishes (plus Passover dishes) and never have to worry about the status of leftovers in the fridge or whether a guest will mix the utensils or food items. ... By not eating meat, I am much more certain to never violate, even accidentally, the Biblical and rabbinic prohibitions concerning non-kosher meat."
As a vegan, I do inherently keep kosher in the most important ways. I avoid pork, shellfish, and other forbidden foods. I do not buy non-kosher (or any) meat. I do not mix (or consume separately) meat and dairy products. Kashrut is not just about what winds up in your mouth; it's also about following G-d's laws. I believe that my dietary habits are consistent with the letter of the law for kashrut and that the reasoning that guides them is consistent with the spirit of kashrut and other Jewish concepts, such as not causing animals unnecessary suffering (tsa'ar ba'alei chayim). If anything, I'd argue that being vegetarian is more consistent with Jewish ideals than supporting industrialized animal agriculture is.

Still, I do not keep kosher in the strictest sense. In my apartment, I cook with pots and pans and eat with silverware and dishes that belonged to various relatives and have not been kashered since touching non-kosher meat (and possibly meat mixed with dairy). I eat at non-kosher restaurants, and despite my efforts to the contrary, there have probably been times when I've inadvertently consumed lard or other non-vegan trayf ingredients. I do not look for a hechsher on packaged and processed food products, because if everything is of vegan origin, that's good enough for me; it's possible that this food contains natural or artificial flavors of animal origin or was manufactured on equipment that also processed animal byproducts.

The degree of my kashrut generally doesn't pose any problems, although it does occasionally have interesting implications. This past Shabbat, I attended a dinner in a kosher and non-vegetarian home. (The meal, including a delicious seitan entrée, was very vegan-friendly.) I couldn't contribute any food made in my officially non-kosher kitchen, so I brought wine. I took home a Tupperware container with leftovers, which I later returned to the host; I did not touch it with my silverware, and I washed it with a paper towel instead of a sponge from my kitchen.

The devil's advocate position I'm up against is that I am vegan by choice but keep kosher only as a side effect. Perhaps the reason why I don't consume shrimp is the best argument for saying that I genuinely do keep kosher. Although I recognize that lobsters and crabs (and possibly other invertebrate animals) feel pain and suffer, I do not conclusively think that shrimp do. For years I have avoided shrimp because I err on the side of caution with animals' suffering and it's nice to adhere to the label "vegetarian" consistently. (Certainly, the environmental devastation of shrimp farming and fishing is a significant ethical reason to avoid shrimp too.) In recent years, I've thought about going back to eating shrimp and considered that animal suffering might not be enough of a reason to avoid eating the most commonly consumed sea animal in the U.S. Yet I still refuse to eat shrimp, and the number-one reason why is because they are trayf. According to rules that matter to me, eating shrimp is forbidden. This proves that I do follow the laws of kashrut on their own, not just because they happen to be consistent with my other dietary habits.

I know quite a few Jews who keep kosher and will eat vegetarian food in non-kosher restaurants. There's nothing at all unusual about this. In the same vein, I think it's time once and for all to affirm that I do indeed keep kosher with a one-word, loud-and-proud "Yes!"

Of course, I probably will keep talking and use the opportunity to promote veganism anyway.


The Four Questions: Matthue Roth

Photo by Michelle Hunt, courtesy of Matthue Roth

Last week, Matthue Roth attended his first taqwacore (Muslim punk) show and quipped in his blog post that he was the only Jew in the room. I was also present, and I can't believe that in that crowd, I didn't spot an Orthodox Jew with the longest payos I've ever seen. (I got there early and stayed in the front. He arrived later and stayed in the back.) It would have been fun to show him that I was reading and carrying around a copy of his 2005 novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, which is about an Orthodox Jewish punk girl.

Roth is also the author of Losers, Candy in Action, and Yom Kippur a Go-Go. He is the editorial director of G-dcast and the associate editor of MyJewishLearning.com.

Here is Matthue Roth in his own words.

1. How long have you been vegetarian, and what did you think of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals?
I became a vegetarian when I was 14. I was working at a camp where they had a vegetarian option, and without really thinking, I started. I was like, if I don't have to kill animals and I can still be healthy, then why not?

That's kind of been my attitude toward vegetarianism for years. I think it's a good thing to do; I think it's one of the few ways that we have of making the world a better place and using our lives to do something less destructive. But I'm not the kind of person who rubs it in or who even wants to bring it up with non-vegs -- there's a million other things I'd rather talk about.

Eating Animals has sort of blown all that away. It's excellent writing, mostly excellent journalism. There are lots of arguments that don't get completely followed up, but the straight facts that he collects and the stories he tells -- the fact that chickens are being soaked [in] tanks full of their own excrement to soak up water weight -- it's written on the packages, water weight.

What's more, it's hard not to talk about them. I've stopped multiple dinner conversations because something popped into my head, and I'm really bad about not saying something. Usually in a charming and offbeat and punky way. But, uh, you can't really say this stuff charmingly.

2. You wrote the screenplay for a movie that's currently in production. And I saw that you're able to disclose the name at this point! What are you willing to reveal about the film?
I'll tell anything! I'm an awful secret keeper. But I'm actually under contracts not to talk about most things, which is still very new to me.

The film is called 1/20. It's about two girls who are running away from home. They live near D.C. and their lives are in total chaos and they want to change the world. There's some science-fictiony stuff, and some action, and some drama. There's a crazy climax at a punk club, which comes from about a zillion Dischord shows that I used to go to, concerts in churches or basements or public parks. We got the band Can!!Can to play, which was hugely exciting for me -- they're kind of friends, but I'm also kind of in awe of them.

3. There's a great line in Never Mind the Goldbergs where Hava says, "I still believed in G-d. I just didn't believe in other people. I mean, some days, I felt like G-d was the only one who believed back at me." Is that a blueprint for Jewish punk?

I don't think anything can be a blueprint for Jewish punk, although it's awesome that you asked. I think that punk is the idea of taking something in a wild new direction, innovating or mutating it, and I think that the essence of any new development/mutation/pwning in Jewish thought involves going back to the source -- to G-d, to the Torah, to the original things that Moses said -- and asking ourselves, what's my relationship to it? And then looking at the relationship that other people and the Greater Jewish World have to those same ideas, and saying that maybe we've got to get back to the source.

DIY Judaism is the way that Judaism's supposed to be. But I think it also means you have to look at the sources and really get to know them, much like food radicals need to read Diet for a New America or political radicals should learn Howard Zinn.

4. What is your connection to taqwacore?

Mostly, that I'm a big fan of the Muslim punk movement. And, yeah, that I feel more than a little bit of brotherhood to it. Michael Muhammad Knight, who founded the genre, wrote his first novel about the same time I wrote Goldbergs, even though it'd been building for a decade for me and at least as long for him, I'm sure.

We both love our religions, and, in a crazy way, we love the masses of people who follow it, even if a lot of it's f***ed up and a lot of the conclusions that most people come to are not the same conclusions that we reach with our takes on our mutual religion. Last week at a reading, he said, "My mission is to make religion applicable to people, even if it's not everything you want it to be." He and the Kominas and me and everyone else who's doing this sort of thing is playing with the same idea: we're all trying to change the world. But we all also believe that there's a force way bigger than we are that's also changing the world, constantly, in way more radical ways than we can do on our own.

See Also
heebnvegan Rock Stars: Live and In Person
(Nov. 2009)
Torah Hardcore, PunkTorah, and the Influences of Up-and-Comers in the Jewish Music Scene
(Aug. 2009)
Jewish Punk and Taqwacore Unite (Jul. 2009)
BookExpo America: Michael Muhammad Knight (May 2009)


The Four Questions: Bram Presser of Yidcore

Yidcore at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley as part of the Eight Crazy Nights tour in 2006

Yidcore played their final show on December 17 in their hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The genre-defining Jewish punk band went from just covering classic Jewish songs a decade ago to recording gems like "Punk Rock Chanukah Song" and "They Tried to Kill Us. They Failed. Let's Eat!" Their 2005 cover of the entire Fiddler on the Roof score is a masterpiece of cultural expression. Untold amounts of hummus, falafel, latkes, bagels, and Manischewitz have been lost along the way.

I give credit to Yidcore for introducing me to the very notion of Jewish punk in the first place. They made me want to dig deeper and find out everything I could in terms of other bands, books, and films. They helped me better understand my own Jewish identity and realize that I could be Jewish on my own terms. I will always cherish the memories from when I covered their 2006 U.S. tour for the Forward and got to spend quality time with the band's members. Whether it was the discussions we had when I put my clipboard down or the time that Bram, Myki, Rory, and I squeezed into the back seat of a car, I'll never forget my Almost Famous experience.

One last time, here is Yidcore singer (and vegetarian) Bram Presser in his own words.

1. Why is Yidcore calling it quits?
It's been ten years of something that was supposed to be a stupid one-night joke. We've had an awesome time, met tons of amazing people, toured with most of our heroes and sampled all the best falafel the world has to offer. Plus, when I was young and thin, getting naked and smearing hummus over myself on stage was funny. Now it scares even me. And I can't afford the amount of hummus it now [takes] these days. The death of our [rubber chicken] mascot, Scrambles, didn't really help things either.

2. Things are coming together for Jewish punk in the U.S. A few movies connecting Judaism and punk are in production. As far as bands go, Moshiach Oi! released an album of "Torah hardcore" in August, CAN!!CAN and The Shondes are working on new albums, and Di Nigunim is a delightful punk band with a klezmer slant rather than the other way around. What's your take on these developments?
Yeah, it's really cool. I've always said that punk and Judaism is a natural fit on so many levels, so let's hope it continues to grow. As for us, I hope we played a part in paving the way, perhaps providing a path between the early bands like Gefilte F*ck and the new breed. It was never commercially successful, but maybe that's the next step in the evolution of Jewish punk from which those bands can benefit. If not actual commercial success, then at least sustainable in the long term.

3. What legacy does Yidcore leave behind?
Filthy hummus-soaked stages around the world. A slew of dead Israeli songwriters whose fate can be directly attributed to their outspoken dislike of us (see Naomi Shemer). Lots of laughs. Showing people that it's OK to have fun with the culture/religion and that God won't strike you down with lightning for slaughtering sacred cows.

4. Do you have any parting words for Natalie Portman?
On our last album, we had a song "Natalie Portman, This Is Your Last Chance." What can I say, she missed out. She's too short for me anyway. And she was way hotter when she was 14 in Leon [released as The Professional in the U.S.]. Is that wrong?

Bram covered in hummus at Yidcore's final show


JewIrish: Enough of a Connection to Claim There Is One

A kippah-wearing fan smiles at Gaelic Storm singer Patrick Murphy this past New Year's Eve.
Photo Courtesy of the New York Celtic Music MeetUp Group

When I wrote my first post exploring whether there's a Jewish connection to Celtic music and culture in October 2006, I concluded that there might not be any connection beyond "shiksa appeal," but it was clear I wasn't the only Jew who was interested. In my follow-up post this past March, there seemed to be more signs pointing toward a connection, yet there was still no tenable link. Although its tenability is still debatable, I am willing to say once and for all that there is a connection.

Saints & Tzadiks
In April, I learned of Saints & Tzadiks, a band that features the Klezmatics' Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg and fuses klezmer and Irish folk music. Some songs on the band's debut album (which was released in August) are sung in both Yiddish and Irish. In a Forward article in August, Gwen Orel (who also wrote the Village Voice article I quoted from in my March post) quoted McKeown as saying both styles of music "are exuberant" and Sklamberg as saying, "Both have intense amounts of pride." The article concludes:
[Sklamberg] learned Yiddish as an adult. McKeown does not come from an Irish-speaking family. She and Sklamberg share a bit of the viewpoint of the outsider. “Both languages are not lost yet, but they’re both languages that certain members of the community are trying to hold on to and keep alive,” McKeown said. She also concedes that the histories of the Jews and the Irish have certain similarities.

“It’s the humanity of the music that comes through,” Sklamberg said, thinking about the impact the 1960s folk revival had on Jews. “You look in any suburban Jewish record collection, and you’ll find Belafonte and the Clancy Brothers,” he said. “Everybody had Theodore Bikel records, and he did some Irish songs in an Irish accent.”

“We’re one of the lost tribes,” McKeown said jokingly. “We have to do the DNA on that. It works well, the Irish and the Jewish music. It’s a good match.”

United in One Course
This past semester at NYU, professors Hasia Diner and Marion Casey co-taught a course called "Irish and Jewish Migrations to America." The syllabus explained:
This course explores, in a comparative format, the experiences of two European immigrant groups who relocated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Irish and east European Jews. It will examine the forces which propelled the migrations out of Europe to America and the ways in which the migrations took place. The course will look at the kinds of communities and identities the immigrants and their children created in the United States and the forces at work in American society which shaped their actions. Because this seminar pivots around a comparative analysis, students will be asked to seek both similarities and differences in those migrations and to evaluate the reasons for them. Throughout the course we will pay particular attention to the issue of class as a shaping force in the social and cultural histories of these two immigrant groups. Additionally Jews and Irish have intersected with each other at numerous points and the course will look at how the two groups understood and related to each other.
The penultimate class focused on "Irish-Jewish Interactions" and featured an appearance by McKeown and Sklamberg. I asked to sit in on that class, but despite my documented interest in the subject matter and the fact that I'm an NYU student in a different program, I was not given permission to do so.

If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
On October 24 in Manhattan, Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney led an ensemble of musicians, including McKeown, at an event called "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews." They mostly performed songs off Moloney's new album of the same name. I spotted at least one kilt and two kippot in the audience. Finally, everything seemed to gel together.

Moloney explained that in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Irish songwriters had originally dominated Vaudeville and Early Tin Pan Alley. Jewish songwriters took over, but in the interim, there was collaboration between the two ethnic groups. Moloney noted that both the Irish and the Jews were community-oriented, focused on education, and living in diaspora. The album and the event take their name from a 1912 song co-written by William Jerome, who was Irish, and Jean Schwartz, who was Jewish:
I often sit and think what would this country be
If we hadn't men like Rosenstein and Hughes
[We'd] surely have a Kingdom, there'd be no democracy
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews

What would this great Yankee nation really really ever do
If it wasn't for a Levy, a Monahan or Donohue . . .

There wouldn't be an east side in the city of New York
If it weren't* for the Irish and the Jews . . .

I once heard Dave Belasco say you couldn't stage a play today
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews

Talk about a combination, heed my words and make a note
On St. Patrick's Day Rosinsky pins a shamrock on his coat
There's a sympathetic feeling between the Blooms and McAdoos
Why Tammany would surely fall, there'd really be no Hall at all
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
Moloney explained that eventually, the business had "gone Jewish." "'Twas Only an Irishman's Dream" was co-written in 1916 by a Jew named Al Dubin, who also wrote "My Yiddisha Butterfly." The former is a soul-touching song about an Irish immigrant's longing for his homeland. Abe Olman co-wrote "Faugh a Ballagh" in 1917, and Abner Silber composed "There's a Typical Tipperary Over Here" in 1920. Even songs with explicitly Irish themes were being written by Jews.

Moloney also performed a song about "Shirley Levine," which was not included on the album. It included the line "When she dances the hora, there's none like my Shirley Levine." Moloney described it as a new song that was reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley. He declined to elaborate, despite multiple requests for an interview.

Moloney spoke of (and the lyric book elaborated on) numerous anecdotal connections between the Irish and the Jews. George M. Cohan was Irish but was often confused for Jewish because of his name. In the lyric book, Moloney wrote, "One could say that the first major Irish/Jewish collaboration on the American stage was between Cohan and his Jewish friend and confidante Sam Harris. ... [They] forged one of the most successful partnerships in American theatrical history and ended up shaping the style of American show business for decades." Moloney said that Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) was called the "Yiddisha George M. Cohan" and that Berlin fell in love with Ellin Mackay, the granddaughter of Irish millionaire John William Mackay. Moloney also mentioned that Robert Snyder, author of a book on Vaudeville, is working on a book about Irish-Jewish relations in Tammany Hall.

The second set of the show began with songs from the Yiddish tradition, which were sung by Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro. She has done research on Jewish cantorial music in Dublin. She explained that her Jewish great-grandfather came from Minsk and married an Irish woman in the U.S. Her father was an Irish Catholic with the last name Shapiro, and he married a Jewish woman with the last name Levy. Spencer-Shapiro noted that the fiddle has "iconic status" in both Irish and Jewish folk music and that both immigrant groups had songs longing for their respective homelands. This point reminded me that when I was getting ready to go to Israel in 2007, I identified with the heartfelt lyric "dreaming of a homeland" in The Tossers' Celtic-punk song "Never Enough."

There is no one singular connection that could possibly explain why I and a number of other Jews embrace Celtic music. Historically, the two immigrant groups were linked in songwriting as well as in other areas. Thematically, songs in both traditions display cultural pride and refer to the longing for a homeland by a people living in diaspora. Musically, Jewish and Irish folk music are often "exuberant," as McKeown said, and both give the fiddle an "iconic status," as Spencer-Shapiro noted.

With all those links, some individual Jews fill in the gaps and relate to Irish music through their Jewish identity in a personally meaningful manner. This connection now seems so common and natural that I no longer believe that my deeply felt connection to Celtic music suggests that I must've been Irish in another life.

*Note: The album's lyric book says "weren't" here and "wasn't" in all other instances. Click here to read my 2008 post about why "weren't" is correct.


A Dining Adventure in Williamsburg

In early 2009, a friend and I went to an Israeli falafel restaurant in Manhattan along with her friend James Boo. James runs a food blog called The Eaten Path, which "delivers the story about the meal" or "the journey to get to the meal." He was inspired to start writing about food following a "BBQ road trip," and pork tops his list of best memories on the site's "About" page. When I told him about heebnvegan and handed him my business card, he pointed out that our cards were opposites. His had a picture of a pig on it.

A while later, James sent me an e-mail. He lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, separate from but near the Hasidic community. He'd never eaten any Jewish foods other than from a kosher deli, and he was curious to check out food from his Hasidic neighbors. Was I interested in going with him and "filling [him] in on the nuances of Kosher cuisine"? I had never been to a Hasidic neighborhood and I didn't expect to find much of a vegan meal beyond a salad, but I was happy to embark on an adventure.

After months of scheduling attempts, we finally went on our journey to get to the meal in early October. I was careful not to pick a day when everything would be closed for religious observance, and I didn't expect to have any trouble during chol hamoed Sukkot. It was quite beautiful to see so many people sitting in sukkot on the sidewalks. A number of places of business were open, including a bakery where James bought presumably nonvegan baked goods. Even though the restrictions that apply to the first two days of the festival had been relaxed, numerous restaurants were closed. My best understanding is that festival restrictions during chol hamoed are flexible depending on the circumstances, but many restaurants close anyway, probably in part because many potential customers are eating in their sukkot rather than going out.

James had done his homework online, but almost every restaurant he knew of was closed. We stumbled into a kosher cafe that lacked impressive ambiance and was exactly what I had envisioned. We looked over the menu and I was willing to eat there, but James suggested we move on in the hope that we'd find something better. We didn't. We eventually gave up and decided to go to Foodswings, a vegan fast-food eatery in non-Hasidic Williamsburg. James said he'd go back on his own another time.

I tried to give James some background on Jewish culture and food. James is a devoted food blogger and he has traveled to Eastern Europe several times, so he certainly had a good foundation for what we were talking about. I realized that I wasn't about to turn him vegetarian, so I at least tried to explain the role of meat in the Jewish tradition from an angle that didn't exactly glorify it:
  • Whereas many ethnic diets are known to be rather healthy, the schmaltz-centered Ashkenazi Jewish diet of the Eastern European shtetls was not a prime example. As Michael Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food, "Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. This goes for the Japanese and other Asian diets as well as the traditional diets of Mexico, India, and the Mediterranean region, including France, Italy, and Greece. There may be exceptions to this rule—you do have to wonder about the Eastern European Jewish diet of my ancestors. Though who knows?"
  • Of course, Pollan's ancestors' diets generally did not include as much meat as their descendants' do today, in part because of poverty, the availability of kosher meat, and suggested limitations. At the 2007 Hazon Food Conference, Rabbi Seth Mandel, head of meat supervision for the Orthodox Union, conceded that American Jews these days eat much more meat than they traditionally have. He said, "You have to understand, the Torah did not envision us to eat as much meat as we do. Rambam in the Mishneh Torah says that Jews should eat meat at most two times a week, and if Jews decided to do that, all the problems of kosher slaughter would be solved." I don't agree that all the problems would be solved, but otherwise Rabbi Mandel makes a good point.
  • I gave an overview of animal welfare problems and other scandals in the kosher meat industry and mentioned that the trial of AgriProcessors executive Sholom Rubashkin would begin the following week. I credited AgriProcessors with changing the scale of kosher meat production in this country and the increased consumption of meat among kosher-keeping Jews. I referred to Nathaniel Popper's 2008 Forward article "How the Rubashkins Changed the Way Jews Eat in America."
James is still working on his post, and I will update my post to include a link to his when it's up. He asked me not to give any hints as to what direction his post is taking, and I'm pretty sure I haven't done so.