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


The NYC Invasion of PunkTorah

Mary, Patrick, and Josh From CAN!!CAN at JDub Records' Punk Purim Party
Photos by Daniel Sieradski

Last night, CAN!!CAN performed at JDub Records' Purim party in New York City. Seeing a concert is good enough for casual fans, but it doesn't hold a candle to total immersion in the band's experience.

After leaving Atlanta, Georgia, at 10 a.m. on Friday, Patrick Aleph, Josh Lamar, and Mary Collins from CAN!!CAN arrived in Astoria, N.Y., around 2:45 a.m. on Saturday. Thanks to a massive snowstorm, there were no parking spots readily available in my neighborhood. Armed with only a bucket, a garbage can that broke, and a relatively small shovel, the three band members and I spent an hour carving out a space for their small yellow Chevy Aveo. By 4:15 a.m., the band was settled on a sleeper couch and an air mattress in my living room and I went to sleep.

CAN!!CAN's travel schedule prevented Patrick from attending a Shabbat service on Friday night, so he suggested that we go to a shul or minyan on Saturday morning. This was his first New York City Shabbat experience, so we agreed that we might as well show him something special. I gave him a list of options that included Romemu, Darkhei Noam, and Kehilat Hadar, and we decided on the latter: a traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan that meets in a church's basement on the Upper West Side. Patrick had packed for a rock show and not a Manhattan Shabbat service, so I gave him a shirt and tie to wear. I didn't want to pressure the founder of PunkTorah to adhere to dress codes, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Patrick is happy to defend his Jewish-themed tattoos, but even he seemed to find value in covering them up this time. When I asked him if he had ever worn a tie before and knew how to put it on, he allayed my concerns: "I own one suit. It's for going to weddings and going to court."

I had the pleasure of sitting between Mr. PunkTorah and a JTS rabbinical student at the service. They offered helpful but different insight along the way. At the kiddush afterward, it was exciting to walk around with Patrick as he mentioned to other people that he was in town to reinterpret the megillah and perform with CAN!!CAN at JDub's party.

We went out for vegetarian Indian food afterward. Naysayers might point to the fact that we used money (and rode the subway) and say that we weren't observing the laws of Shabbat. We discussed quite a few interesting topics related to Judaism, music, and, of course, Jewish music, though. As Patrick would put it, it is important to remember Shabbat (zochar Shabbos) even if we are not shomer Shabbos.

Before any bands performed at the JDub show, Patrick took the stage to give his unique spin on the Purim story. Contrary to what he told a woman who would be reading the megillah at Kehilat Hadar, he ultimately decided against taking a shot every time he said Haman's name. Patrick had rehearsed the speech in my living room earlier in the day, but as he spoke on stage, it was quite the spectacle when he cursed like a sailor, compared Haman's hanging to that of Saddam Hussein, and explained that King Achashverosh's edict (to kill the Jews) was like a big Facebook message.

CAN!!CAN had the heaviest set of the night and played a lot of new material. They put on an engaging stage show, in which Patrick sang, jumped, danced, convulsed, and stuffed a microphone in his mouth. I look forward to getting to know a lot of the new songs better when their next album is released. CAN!!CAN shared the bill with the Shondes and Steve "Gangsta Rabbi" Lieberman, both of whom I'd seen previously. It was probably the biggest gathering of Jewish punk bands since the Hanukkah tour I covered in 2006.


Some Kosher Authorities Declare Salmon and Other Fish Treif

This week The Jewish Star reported that some haredi rabbis in Israel (as well as some of their American counterparts) have deemed various types of fish treif because they possess a parasitic worm called anisakis. The article quoted a bulletin from "Chevra Mehadrun, the Kashrus Advocacy of Rockland," as advising that "wild salmon, hake, flounder, sol[e], halibut, sea bass, red perch, scrod, pollock, cod and butter fish are no longer considered kosher." It must be noted that many mainstream Orthodox authorities, including the Orthodox Union, do not take this position.

Although this new classification does not yet have a huge following, one must imagine that lox and various other common foods would cease to be staples in kosher cuisine. If a large number of kosher consumers adhered to the new standard, fish consumption among kosher-keeping Jews would likely decrease substantially. At this time, there is no reason to suspect that this will be the case. Considering that fish feel pain and suffer in much the same way that other vertebrate animals do, though, one can still hope that more and more people see that fish are friends, not food!

Frum Satire noted that seemingly outlandish rabbinical bans are not out of the ordinary. The blog offered some hilarious quips to explain the ban, including that fish "is untznius," that this is "[j]ust another way" for rabbis "to control their subjects," and that one of the rabbis mentioned in The Jewish Star's article "doesn’t like his wife’s gefilte fish and this is the only way he can get out of it without embarrassing her."


The Perfect Substitute for Treif Spins on Jewish Cuisine

In the last few days, the Jewish blogosphere has been buzzing about purposeful treif variations of Jewish cuisine.

On Friday, The Jew & The Carrot featured a post that began, "Recently Tablet Magazine ran an article titled 'High on the Hog,' where it looked at the phenomenon of cuisine which purposely mixes not just meat and milk, but treif (forbidden foods) with foods considered to be part of the Jewish culinary spectrum (matzo balls, bagels, etc). Several of the speakers talk about cuisine a flexible medium, and a reflection of the cosmopolitan world we live in. They talk about shattering barriers, challenging assumptions."

Yesterday, Frum Satire's Heshy Fried noted that he and Punk Torah's Patrick Aleph had gotten into a discussion about cheeseburgers on matzoh during Passover. One view espoused was that they could be a positive sign of embracing Judaism and kashrut in some regard as opposed to not at all, even though "[o]bviously halacha is not being taken into account."

I immediately thought of a vegan lunch I made for a friend last weekend. I served a "meat" and "cheese" lasagna with a side of charoset. My kosher-keeping friend noted that he had never had lasagna with real meat and cheese, so this dish had some novelty to it. The charoset helped add the touch I was looking for as a culinary artist, a tension between normative Jewish cuisine and spit-in-the-face rebellion.

Of course, my "rebellion" was conceptual and humorous only. Unlike the kosher cheeseburger on matzoh, my vegan meal did not violate halacha. I would recommend that other Jews looking to satisfy their desires for edginess and rebellion also make vegan versions of their intended treif concoctions. Some critics would say that even the idea of having a trayf dish is undesirable, but in my mind, putting forth the concept while still adhering to the law is the best way to go.



Update on Proposed Israeli Fur Ban
On Sunday, Israel's Ministerial Committee on Law and Constitution voted to ban the import and export of fur, with the exception of fur used for shtreimels. Haaretz reported:
Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon initiated the bill to expand upon an existing law that prohibits local production, manufacturing, importing, exporting and selling of furs from cats and dogs. . . .

"Wild animals suffer as a result of the fur industry, which is a cruel industry made for the production of luxurious artifacts," Simhon said. "The animals' skin is stripped from them while they are still alive. There is no reason why Israel should continue to strengthen this industry. We should set an example to the rest of the world on this matter."
Veguary is an initiative to try to get people to go vegetarian for the month of February. The Jew & The Carrot recently interviewed Veguary cofounder Andrew Udell, a 16-year-old student at Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York. Udell explained how Veguary started:
One day at shul, my Rabbi posed a question to our smaller minyan about our effect on the world. One thought led to the next, and I just started thinking about how eating meat affects the world. I decided to do some more research about vegetarianism, and I came across some really daunting facts that were difficult to handle, yet important to know. I wanted to try out being a vegetarian for a little while. I started doing some more thinking, one thing led to the next, and with the help of a few friends, we founded Veguary and built the site in a few months. Veguary refers to the second month of the year, in which those enthusiastic about fighting global warming, improving their health, or making a positive difference in the world commit to reducing or eliminating their meat intake by pledging on our website at www.veguary.org.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet: J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, passed away last month. It's up for debate whether Salinger was Jewish or vegetarian.

The Jewish Journal noted, "His life was always veiled in ironies and mysteries. His father was Jewish but his mother was not – she changed her name from Marie to Miriam, and he did not learn of her Christian origins until the occasion of his bar mitzvah. So it turns out that one of the most admired Jewish-American writers of the 20th century is not Jewish at all according to Halakha, and Salinger himself reportedly embraced the beliefs of Christian Science. Of course, it is exactly such ambiguities and conflicts that make him an archetypal American Jew no matter what he actually believed and practiced."

The Washington Post noted that Salinger and publisher Roger Lathbury had lunch together in the 1990s. Lathbury recalled, "I said, 'I am a vegetarian' and he said, 'I am largely a vegetarian.' I didn't know what that meant ...."

Interview With Carol Leifer
In an interview with the Miami New Times, Jewish vegan comedian Carol Leifer confirmed that she had purchased Michael Vick's apology note from his dogfighting trial. Said Leifer, "I had heard that the Humane Society had put it up for auction, and I thought this could be a double whammy of what us Jews call a mitzvah. I plan on selling it again when the time is really ripe, and I'll donate the money again to another animal rights group."

When asked whether she gets more "comedic material" from being vegan, Jewish, or gay, she replied, "They're all sources of material. What I love about what I do, the more you talk about your life, there are so many people who have similar experiences."

Hat Tip: Vegetarian Star

Kosher Isn't Necessarily Safer or Greener

Reminiscent of last month's "For Some, 'Kosher' Equals Pure" in The New York Times, The Washington Post ran a column titled "Kosher and Halal Meat Is No Safer or Better for the Environment Than Other Meat" last week. The column notes, "It makes sense that people would link the idea of spiritual purity with such notions as ecological virtue and public health. Unfortunately, those connections are little more than leaps of faith." The column also points out:
By the time a kosher chicken arrives in the supermarket, there's no good evidence that it will be any cleaner than a conventional one. (It will likely be more expensive, though.)

Nor is there much reason to believe that kosher or halal meat is better for the planet than conventional meat, since all three sorts of meat basically come from the same farms. (With animal-based food, raising the livestock usually causes far more environmental damage than any other part of the life cycle.) If anything, all the salt used in the koshering process can make wastewater treatment more of a headache, since it can upset the microorganisms that treatment plants use to purify the water. And, like all niche products, kosher and halal meat lack the economy of scale afforded to conventional products, a fact that probably translates into lower distribution efficiency and more food miles.

Update on Monkey-Breeding Facility
In December, I wrote that a Supreme Court judge in Puerto Rico had stopped construction of a proposed monkey-breeding facility, which had been targeted by both animal advocates and anti-Semites. On January 30, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun reported, "The Appeals Court overturned Friday a Guayama Superior Court order last month that halted construction of the Bioculture Ltd. monkey-breeding laboratory in Guayama’s Pueblito del Carmen sector. The panel of Appeals Court judges ... did not give an explanation for their decision, noting the ruling would hold 'until this court orders something else.'"


Blessing of the Animals: A Personal History

In October 2006, I attended my first St. Francis of Assisi blessing of the animals ceremony. Several Jewish friends and I went to an Episcopalian church in Virginia. In my blog post, I wrote that the event "was a very fascinating example of how animals are viewed in religious contexts." Friends (including at least one other Jew) and I returned to the same church for the 2007 and 2008 blessing of the animals ceremonies. I never got any animals blessed.

In September, I started taking "The 'R' Word: Writing About Religion," a grad-level journalism class at NYU. As soon as I learned that one assignment would require me to go to a house of worship and interview clergy of a faith other than my own, I knew that I would choose the St. Francis of Assisi blessing of the animals. The timing worked out perfectly. By the end of September, I was attending multiple events as part of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi's "Francis Week," which commemorated the 800-year anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order. During the first weekend in October, I went to two churches' blessing of the animals ceremonies. I submitted my article in late October, and it is currently under consideration for publication.

Shortly before I handed in my article about Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies, I learned that Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York would be having a Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony on Shabbat Noach. I had heard about a Virginia shul that considered having one, but to the best of my knowledge, it had never come to fruition. As someone who had run a Jewish blog about animal issues for four-plus years and had attended Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies for several years, I was under the impression that there had never been a Jewish blessing of the animals. I was unable to attend Congregation Beth Simchat Torah's blessing of the animals, but I asked questions of the shul's assistant to the rabbi. I began a herculean effort to connect the dots and find out if Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies were more widespread. I wound up devoting my final project for "The 'R' Word: Writing About Religion" to Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies, and I discovered that at least 21 synagogues or other Jewish groups in 10 states have had blessing of the animals ceremonies. Click here to read my feature article, click here to read its accompanying sidebar, and click here to read an interview with a Jewish vegetarian who was quoted in the article.

Following all my exposure to this topic, both in Christianity and Judaism, there have been numerous issues that have come to mind. This is my opportunity to reflect on some of them.

Are blessing of the animals ceremonies suitable environments for animal attendees?
This depends on the individual animal and the specifics of the ceremony. Many guardians take their companion animals without adequately considering their best interests. An eHow article advises, "Make sure your animal will be comfortable with the other creatures. Everything from horses to dogs attend these blessings, and you don't want your furry friend to feel uncomfortable. If you feel your animal will be too nervous, don't bring him." In Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (2008), Laura Hobgood-Oster wrote, "One might also question whether keeping animals in a large room full of the smells of incense, shouts of human voices, and presence of thousands of other creatures for over two hours is a good experience for the animals."

Are blessing of the animals ceremonies "an unachieved ideal in the midst of a less-than-utopian real"?
Hobgood-Oster wrote, "[A]lthough the procession of animals is impressive and speaks to the centrality of animals ... there remains something overly idealistic and removed from reality. So, for instance, a beautiful, small cow processes into the sanctuary, yet the realities of factory farming in the United States go without mention. Many purebred dogs enter the cathedral; yet [New York City] kills over twenty-eight thousand homeless dogs each year. These issues are indicative of the blessing ritual as an unachieved ideal in the midst of a less-than-utopian real."

Can blessing of the animals ceremonies be used to promote the adoption of companion animals?
Numerous events promote animal adoption. Hobgood-Oster wrote that numerous pet adoption and advocacy agencies "set up areas to distribute information and hope for adoptions of some of these homeless animals." I also found several examples of this at Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies.

Can blessing of the animals ceremonies be used to promote vegetarianism?
In general, I don't like the idea of encroaching on people's houses of worship to target them with an outside message when they're looking to pray. However, some circumstances are better than others. This past summer, Mercy For Animals (MFA) opened up a New York office, which is located in the basement of a church. The church invited MFA to distribute literature at its blessing of the animals event in October. MFA volunteer Pamela Pensock explained:
Outreach about vegetarianism and the cruelties of factory farming is a big part of our mission. We don't target religious groups in particular, but we certainly don't avoid them either -- we are happy to get our message out to all kinds of audiences. Yesterday, we set up a table outside of the church doors, that held an array of our literature. MFA does not have any brochures that are targeted to religious groups. We focused our message to being one of expanding the circle of compassion to include all animals. The reaction was positive. Since we were invited guests, we did not encounter any kind of unfriendliness or hostility. I talked to people who were already vegans and vegetarians, and others who "loved animals" but felt that going vegan was too much work. There were many people who while they supported our group in theory, did not want to take literature, or talk much about the issue of factory farming, because doing so was too painful for them. I would love to find a way of reaching those people.
Did anything you read in your research miss the mark so much that you couldn't help but laugh?
In 1997, following the first documented Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony in the U.S., Matt Nesvisky wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post in which he strongly criticized the new ritual. I take issue with much of what he says, but I'd like to quote from it anyway:

Sure, we should be kind to our critterly companions - Israelis especially still have a lot to learn in that regard. But making blessings over their heads? Nah. Not unless we're about to prepare them for the table. Or for sacrifice. That's the Jewish way.

And where could it all lead, this Jewish Dr. Doolittling? Next thing you know, there will be a move to count animals in your minyan. And it won't stop there. Egalitarians will demand mixed seating - you know, my lion sharing a bench with your lamb. An elephant demands an aliya. A moose seeks membership in the Men's Club, a seal joins the sisterhood, a beaver runs for election to the governing board. And how long before the beasts seek pulpits of their own?

I'm getting visions of something like George Orwell's Animal Shul. "Two legs treif, four legs kosher." And once the animals seize control of the kashrut cartel, it won't be long before we're all condemned to vegetarianism. Forget about the chicken soup and pot roast on Friday night. Get ready for the tofu cholent on Shabbat. Ridiculous? I agree. Likewise with the blessing of the animals.


Eating Vegan Baked Goods for Haiti

Within 24 hours of the earthquake in Haiti, I had a knee-jerk reaction and made a donation to the American Red Cross. Shortly afterward, I learned of American Jewish World Service's disaster relief efforts and figured that my next donation would probably go to them. There are many groups doing great work in Haiti, and when it comes to giving tzedakah, there is no wrong answer here. Still, there's a way to help Haitian earthquake victims by doing what I excel at: eating vegan baked goods!

Vegan cooking icon Isa Chandra Moskowitz has spearheaded efforts to organize vegan bake sales to benefit Haiti in more than two dozen cities across North America. She has noted on her blog that bake sales sometimes take months to put together, but these were organized in a matter of weeks (or less). "We may not have George Clooney (hey, George! Go vegan!) but we do have chutzpah," she wrote last week.

Moskowitz, co-author of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, is "something of a superstar in the subculture of folks who abstain from all animal products," as The Jewish Week put it. When she talks, people listen (or eat, or bake, or do whatever it is they are called on to do). After talking to some of the volunteers at yesterday's bake sale at Moo Shoes in New York City, though, it was clear that these events were anything but a solo effort.

The bake sales have already raised more than $25,000 for the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Mercy Corps. Vegan bake sales for Haiti will take place this Saturday in New Orleans, Louisiana; Falls Church, Virginia; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

I can't think of a more delicious way to help the victims of tragedy in Haiti.

Photos from New York City bake sale at Moo Shoes (January 31)