"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)


Beauty Amidst the Horse Manure

Amidst the fierceness of polarized debate, I experienced a memorable moment of beauty.

Yesterday, New York City Council’s Consumer Affairs Committee hosted a public hearing about Intro 658, which would ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. More than 160 people signed up to speak at the hearing, and the council chambers were filled beyond capacity. At least for the five hours I was present (there were still about 50 people who hadn’t spoken yet when I left for shul around sundown), the speakers seemed to be evenly split between proponents and opponents of the bill. Backers of the ban included official representatives from various organizations (including PETA, HSUS, ASPCA, Friends of Animals, Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, and the New York City Bar Association), musicians (Nellie McKay and Jason and Rachel Trachtenburg of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players), and individuals speaking up for animals. Opponents of the ban (many of whom favored Intro 653, which would increase rates for carriage rides and change the regulatory provisions for New York’s carriage industry) included carriage drivers, a lobbyist and other industry representatives, and representatives of New York City’s Department of Health. It appears that this issue and this legislation will not be resolved in the short-term future.

The councilmember running the hearing repeatedly noted that giving so many people the opportunity to make their voices heard was democracy at its finest. Nevertheless, I felt that the hours-long hearing turned ugly and that the debate seemed polarized. Four opponents of the ban would testify in favor of keeping their jobs and saying that "horsemen" treat horses well. Then four animal protection advocates would follow them, often talking about "cruelty" and "abuse" in the horse-drawn carriage industry. (Many did do a terrific job, though.) Far too many proponents of the ban made analogies to slavery, which I find to be ineffective and insensitive when sensationalized and out of context. Fifteen-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg sang a song while playing a ukulele. One opponent of the ban launched an over-the-top ad hominem attack on Intro 658 sponsor Councilmember Tony Avella, calling on him to resign. And the councilmember behind Intro 653 interrogated a representative of the New York City Bar Association beyond belief. At times, this spectacle did not seem like civil discourse.

As I was waiting for my turn to testify, I started crossing out parts of the speech I’d written the night before. There was no need to go into great depth when dozens of Intro 658 supporters had already gone before me, and I wanted to be clear and succinct. I also scribbled something in the margin about the terms “cruel” and “abusive,” but I didn’t figure out the exact wording at that point.

Right around the time the sun was setting, I was finally called to testify. I talked about how I’ve known horses my entire life and how I have long been dismayed at the sight of horses pulling carriages in Manhattan. “Horses aren’t cut out for the rigors of pulling carriages in New York City,” I said. I noted that horses pulling carriages inhale lots of smoke and exhaust fumes because they walk through city traffic with their heads lowered and next to cars’ tailpipes. I also mentioned that horses work outside in the extreme cold and heat, which can lead to dehydration and heatstroke during the summer months.

Then came my big moment. I challenged the buzzwords “cruel” and “abusive,” which had been thrown around by both sides all day long. (Proponents of the ban had failed to convince too many people that carriage drivers actually treated their horses cruelly, and opponents of the ban put forth claims that they weren’t abusive to horses in an effort to dismiss the animal advocates’ side.) I noted that except for some bad apples, carriage-horse workers are not cruel or abusive people. Rather, the key issue is that conditions in the industry inherently cause horses health problems and suffering and that Intro 658 attacks the problem at its roots.

After I walked to the back of the room, I was approached by a stranger. He introduced himself as a carriage driver, shook my hand, and thanked me. Many times throughout the day, he and his colleagues had been scapegoated and demonized. He accepted the spirit of honest disagreement, and he was grateful that someone from “the other side” had actually pointed out that he wasn’t an evil person.

The public hearing was indeed democracy in action, but following many hours of battle, I was most touched when I had the opportunity to shake hands with someone on the other side. We disagreed, but we respected each other. I couldn't help but think back to President Barack Obama's acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination in August:

One of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character .... What has ... been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that's what we have to restore.


Rahm Emanuel's Meat Accident

Updated 1/31

New White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been called the "second most powerful man" in the country. And it's well-documented that he's Jewish.

One peculiar tidbit about Emanuel keeps popping up: As a teenager, he lost part of his right middle finger following a severe cut from a meat slicer at Arby's. Last week, Gawker named Emanuel the Top Obama Hottie (Male) and quipped that people "fetishize" about "a missing middle finger." Numerous media outlets have recently talked about a roast in which President Barack Obama said the accident "rendered [Emanuel] practically mute." Obama added, "Has he ever flashed that little stubby thing at you? It's appalling!" A clip of the roast, which took place in 2005, was the "moment of zen" on The Daily Show on Thursday.

Are you intent on not losing part of your finger in a meat slicer? There's a simple solution: Stay away from meat!


Yes, New York City Really Is a Great Place to Be Jewish and Vegan

I moved to New York City not too long ago. As expected, there are lots of great events and opportunities relating to Judaism and veganism, among many other things. There’s so much going on that I can't blog about everything individually.

For Jewish groups and events in New York, I often ask myself, “Where do I even begin?” I expect that by the end of this coming Shabbat, I will have gone shul-hopping at Conservative (I identify as a Conservative Jew), Orthodox, Renewal, and nondenominational synagogues, sometimes because of religious observance, sometimes for social reasons, and sometimes because of vegetarian potlucks. (And of course, there’s considerable overlap.) Last month, I attended a workshop for Jewish social justice activists called Inside the Activists’ Studio (check out the post about it on JVoices). I attended the CD release show of Luminescent Orchestrii (they aren’t a Jewish band per se, but they play some klezmer songs in Yiddish) on Saturday, and I can’t wait to see Moshiach Oi and Golem live in the next couple weeks. I’m also looking forward to Hazon’s organic Tu B’Shvat seder on February 8; I enjoyed doing my own thing for my favorite holiday in years past, but this is the real deal.

I’ve joined numerous vegetarian MeetUp groups and eaten at quite a few delicious vegetarian and vegan restaurants. On the last night of Dubya’s presidency, I attended a “Soy, Sake, and Sayonara” gathering at a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Soy and Sake. I’ve also had the pleasure of dining at Candle 79, Zen Palate, Red Bamboo, Sacred Chow, Vegetarian Paradise 2, and Ayurveda Cafe. I’m looking forward to checking out others over time, and of course, there are terrific vegan options at tons of NYC restaurants that aren’t exclusively vegetarian. I’ve had a tough time balancing my desire to cut back on mock meats with my enjoyment of ubiquitous, tasty mock-meat restaurants with cheap lunch specials. But whenever I dwell on that too much, I can hear my parents saying, “That should be your worst problem in life!” and try not to worry.


Jewish Animal Rights Advocate Tapped to Be New Regulatory Czar

Animal rights advocate Cass Sunstein has been tapped by President Barack Obama to oversee the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs as "regulatory czar." The New Republic claims, "Among top officials, this is the most important position that Americans know nothing about." Sunstein, a widely revered Harvard law professor, is reportedly Jewish.

Sunstein co-edited the 2004 book Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, which includes his introduction as well as his essay "Can Animals Sue?" In the latter, Sunstein argued in favor of giving animals legal standing in order to enforce existing animal protection laws:
[E]ven if statutes protecting animal welfare are enforceable by human beings, Congress might grant standing to animals in their own right .... Indeed, I believe that in some circumstances, Congress should do exactly that, to provide a supplement to limited public enforcement efforts. . . . The point is even simpler at the state level. In general, state legislatures have the power to give animals standing to sue, and they might well seek to do this if they want to ensure more enforcement of the anticruelty laws.

In 2007, Sunstein spoke at Harvard's Facing Animals conference (his presentation can be seen about 39 minutes in here). Sunstein claimed that animal rights is unique in that, unlike other controversial issues, people's "moral judgments" are "far more aligned than we typically suppose" (i.e., there's widespread agreement that animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering). Sunstein added that that “the striking phenomenon is not that we’re divided on the moral questions but that our practices violate our own moral commitments.” Sunstein strongly condemned hunting, saying, “We ought to ban hunting, I suggest, if there isn’t a purpose other than sport and fun. That should be against the law. It’s time now.” He concluded his presentation as follows:
[Humans’] willingness to subject animals to unjustified suffering will be seen, as [Jeremy] Bentham and [John Stuart] Mill thought, as a form of unconscionable barbarity, not the same as, but in many ways morally akin to, slavery and the mass extermination of human beings.
"Perhaps discussion about the ethical treatment of animals is going to be higher on the new administration's agenda than one might think," noted a post on The Dallas Morning News' Religion Blog. I'm not holding my breath for that to be the case, but as a new administration takes over with prevailing themes of hope and change, it's nice to know that there'll be an animal rights advocate in such a position of power.

Update (1/29): This post originally said that Sunstein is reportedly vegetarian, and indeed, numerous news articles included the assumption that Sunstein was vegetarian or vegan. However, Mother Jones reports, "According to [Sunstein's Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions co-editor, Martha] Nussbaum, Sunstein eats meat and has no secret plan to force vegetarianism on the American people."


Jewish Punk: Follow-Up to the Wrap-Up

I considered my December 31 post to be a wrap-up of my Jewish punk research and writing and thought that I'd be taking a hiatus from talking about this topic for a long while. You know what they say about best-laid plans.

CAN CAN and Jewish Punk Featured in the Forward
Today, the Forward ran a wonderful article about CAN CAN (click here to see my blog post about the band from last month) and Jewish punk in general.

"If I can give young Jews a sense of spiritual connection through heavy music in the same way that my Christian colleagues have done so, then that’s a wonderful thing, but that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to do," CAN CAN singer Patrick A. is quoted as saying. "If they go the extra step and read the lyrics and see that there are songs about creation mythology, and a song about olam haba [the afterlife], well, what is that? Then that’s great," he added.

The article talks about the Israeli punk scene as well as kitschy Jewish punk bands in the U.S. Jericho's Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land director Liz Nord told the Forward, "All the bands I’ve heard that are Jewish punk bands, they aren’t like Christian punk bands that are so sincere, like, 'I will follow you, Jesus!' They’re much more like silly, funny punk bands." (I'd say that Moshiach Oi, Farbrengiton, and White Shabbos are exceptions to that generalization.)

The article ends with a faux call to action from Patrick A.: "It’s time for all-ages hardcore shows in the shuls."

At the University Level
Steven Lee Beeber (author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk) is currently teaching a class called "The Jewish Origins of Punk Rock" as part of Tufts University's Experimental College. Here's the course description from Tufts' Web site:
This course will explore the origins of punk rock, in relation to Jewish cultural history. Since punk's emergence in NYC in the 1970s, many have cited its irony, commitment to social justice and embrace of anarchic comedy as emblematic of the city's largest minorities, the Jewish children and grandchildren of immigrants. We will explore how Punk reflects the Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, especially in the wake of the Holocaust; how it is preoccupied with Nazi imagery, comic books, and Brill Building songcraft; and why it looks to comic Lenny Bruce, art-rocker Lou Reed and self-proclaimed "Jewish anarchist" folk-punk Tuli Kipferberg as veritable patron saints.
Representing the U.K.
I intended to include Mr. Julian Gaskell and His Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in my December 30 post about Jewish punk bands I'd never written about, but I didn't hear back from Gaskell until January 2. The self-professed "nearest thing to klezmer available in Cornwall" plays punked-up klezmer and Gypsy folk music. Click here to go to the group's MySpace page and listen to some of their rockin' songs.

Gaskell says that many Britons aren't familiar with klezmer music, but the band has played at one Jewish wedding. Already interested in Eastern-European folk music, Gaskell stumbled upon klezmer at his local library five years ago. "I think I was looking for some fast, upbeat and melodic music that I hadn't played to death, and I found it in klezmer," said Gaskell.

Are they a punk band? Here's Gaskell's response:
That's a difficult one, there are so many different ideas of what punk is. Personally I think a lot of what our music is comes from punk; I spent years listening to, playing and writing music which is much more 'punk' in the conventional sense (i.e., sounding like The Clash) and this is still a big influence—the subject matter, performance style, etc., all come across as "punk" at our gigs. But this is still punk in the broadest sense, really you could say it's more like folk music played with a punk DIY aesthetic. A lot of people in the U.K. have a very narrow idea of what punk is (i.e., 1976) and that's not quite what we do.

Women in Jewish Punk
Following my supposed wrap-up post, heebnvegan reader Dina Hornreich e-mailed me to say, "I challenge you to include more Jewish women punks! Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney, Heaven's to Betsy) and Lora Logic (X-Ray Spex, Essential Logic) are two that come to my mind. Also, Sharon Cheslow stands out in my mind as well!" Click here to read Hornreich's interview with Cheslow.

For the record, numerous bands mentioned in the wrap-up post include female members. Of course, how much that affects the band's voice and identity varies on a case-by-case basis.

More New Stuff
Moshiach Oi released a new song called "Baruch Hashem" and The Schleps put out a hardcore version of "Adon Olam" (both on MySpace).

On December 28, the Forward ran an article about Golem titled "A Euphonic Union of Klezmer and Punk." The article noted, "Golem is certainly not the only music group to attempt to redefine traditional Eastern-European Jewish wedding music, but no other band seems more convincingly and energetically to make the case that klezmer and punk rock share the same DNA. Experiencing the physical and vocal contortions of singer Aaron Diskin and the music’s frantic downbeat, the connection is clear." Golem will celebrate the release of its new JDub Records album, Citizen Boris, in Brooklyn on February 12.


A Post in the Key of Random

The AgriProcessors Scandal: Coming to a Theater Near You
Colorado playwright Don Fried is working on a play based on the ongoing AgriProcessors saga. The Colorado Independent reports:
“What I wanted the play to be about is change,” he said. “Change is inevitable. Change hurts. People, often when they are in pain, react in ways that often turn out to be not the right way, but often there is nobody at fault. If you can learn to live [with change], you’ll learn to reach a new position where things are different, but you’ll get over it.”

Fried is currently toying with the idea of having one of the play’s discontented locals, a character who has not been happy about Jewish people coming to town and building a kosher meatpacking plant there, tip off the federal authorities and spark the immigration raid.

“But then, as the town starts to crater, that person and all the others begin to wonder what has been done — they’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.

(Hat Tip: JTA's The Telegraph)

Rabbi Gellman Speaks Up for Animals
Rabbi Marc Gellman, a Reform rabbi in my hometown of Melville, N.Y., often includes animal-friendly messages in his articles for Newsday and other publications. (Click here to read my 2007 post about his Newsweek piece about zoos.) It was nice to see that he included animals in his January 3 Newsday article wishing season's greetings to many groups of people (and nonhumans):
I also pray for the thousands of pets living in cages, waiting to be adopted at shelters across America. They are all innocent creatures just waiting for unconditional love. If you can make room in your home and in your heart, please consider rescuing a homeless animal in this cold season of struggle. If there is room in your heart but not your home, make a donation to your local ... shelter. Pets waiting for someone to open their cages are G-d's creatures, too.

Hazon Positions Available
Last month, I mentioned that The Jew & The Carrot is looking for a variety of new personnel and that this could be a great opportunity for a vegetarian or vegan to contribute to the great Jewish food debate. Please note that the new application deadline is this Friday at 4 p.m. Click here to learn more about the open positions.

Welcome to The Jungle
I'm currently reading Upton Sinclair's muckraking classic The Jungle, which was published in 1906. More than a century later, the novel's eye-opening accounts of life for slaughterhouse workers is still relevant and important. I was impressed to see the animals' side of things included even in a 1906 book:
It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests—and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it, and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without a pretence at apology, without the homage of a tear. Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and out of memory.

One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some were young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart's desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it—it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life.


Vegetarians and Mezuzot

Following my October post about vegetarians' options for tefillin, I received an e-mail from someone who was curious about mezuzot. (I suggest reading the tefillin post before this one.) According to Aish, "A 'kosher' mezuzah is hand-written on genuine parchment, prepared from the skin of a kosher animal." What options are available to Jewish vegans who shun animal products but want to have mezuzot?

One option is simply using mezuzot and other ritual objects that involve animal products when they are deemed halachically necessary. I do not know of any mezuzah scrolls that can be confirmed as having come from humanely treated animals. Jewish Vegetarians of North America takes the following position:
The number of animals slaughtered for [ritual object] purposes is minute compared to the billions killed annually for food. The fact that there would still be some animal slaughter to meet Jewish ritual needs shouldn't stop us from doing all we can to end the horrible abuses of animals. Also, most problems related to flesh-centered diets -- poor human health, waste of food and other resources, and ecological threats -- would not occur if animals were slaughtered only to meet Jewish ritual needs. Our emphasis should be on doing a minimum amount of harm to other people, the environment, and animals. The fact that some animal products are required for sacred uses (a very small amount) should not prevent a person from becoming a vegetarian.

Another option is knowingly using non-kosher, vegan scrolls instead of animal parchment. It's not the same as using the real thing, but the argument could be made that it's better than doing nothing at all. The late Dr. Daniel Kliman (click here to read my obituary post) once noted in a VeggieJews e-mail, "You can get [mezuzah scrolls that aren't made from animal hides] in just about any Judaica shop or synogogue gift shop. You can usually get them for about $2. The problem is, they ain't Kosher." If you're looking for a DIY non-kosher approach, check out Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's thoughts on making your own mezuzah scroll.

These issues can be hard to deal with when thought of as a battle between different parts of a person's identity or a conflict between religion and ethics. Nevertheless, it's important to confront them head-on and with integrity, as was discussed at Dr. Kliman's memorial service. It might be hard to reach a definitive conclusion, but that's OK. As Rabbi Steve Greenberg (the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi) has said about such conflicts, "Often, the holiest place to be in is the place of being stuck and not knowing what to do."