"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)


My Interview About Judaism and Vegetarianism on Our Hen House's Podcast

My interview from earlier this month was featured on Our Hen House's podcast this weekend. We talked about Torah teachings about compassion for animals, how well Judaism and vegetarianism mesh together, kosher slaughter, the new Jewish food movement, and vegan versions of traditional Jewish foods.

To listen to the podcast, click here. My in-depth interview starts about a third of the way into the podcast. I encourage this blog's readers to listen to the whole interview, but here's an excerpt:
There is a lot of foundation for compassion for animals and vegetarianism and veganism in the Jewish faith. And I feel proud to be Jewish knowing that Judaism is one of the forebears of animal welfare in Western civilization.

And I feel that my views on whether you want to call it animal rights, animal welfare, animal protection, what have you, can really be summed up by a Jewish term, it's in Hebrew, called tza'ar ba'alei chayim, which means unnecessary animal suffering. That is, we should prevent causing animals any unnecessary suffering.

How you interpret that could be deemed, on the one hand, as treating animals humanely with animal welfare and just trying to minimize their pain. Or it can be, in my case, saying that if we don't need animals for meat or for other ways in which they are exploited, we're better off without meat and without circuses and rodeos and leather and fur, etc. So if that kind of animal use is unnecessary and suffering is inherent in causing those products to be produced, then, in my mind, it's tza'ar ba'alei chayim, or unnecessary animal suffering.

The Nation's Biggest Night of the Year for Air Guitar

With 2008 world champion Hot Lixx Hulahan

I attended the 2010 U.S. Air Guitar National Finals on Thursday, and after years of participating in competitions, this was my first time going to an air guitar show as a spectator. I expected to stand in the crowd and take in a normal concert experience (normal, that is, except for the lack of physical instruments), but I wound up getting quite immersed in it all.

I started off in the audience. Bjorn Turoque, the emcee and the author of the book To Air Is Human (which I'm mentioned in twice), began the show by rocking out to Styx's "Come Sail Away." He then got two fans to come onstage and join him and 2008 world champion Hot Lixx Hulahan (a vegetarian whom I interviewed for heebnvegan around the time he won the world championship) for an air band demonstration. Bjorn Turoque and Hot Lixx Hulahan had airness up the wazoo as they rocked out together, and it seemed that the night's actual contestants would be hard-pressed to top the sport's legends.

I thought the best performance of the night was given by The Bride of Rock. Her new husband, 2005 U.S. champion The Rockness Monster, took the stage and blew into a conch shell to call out to his bride, who crowdsurfed from the back of the concert hall to the stage in a wedding gown. She had great stage presence, and she dominated Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade." Shreddie Mercury and two-time U.S. champion William Ocean blew me away with hard rock covers of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," respectively. One contestant came on stage staring at his Blackberry and eventually threw it out to the crowd. Lt. Facemelter established himself as an air guitarist to pay attention to in the years ahead.

Toward the end of the first round, I spotted someone in a bear costume with a pink bow tie. I immediately recognized the bear, nicknamed Air Bear for the occasion, as Jacob Calle. heebnvegan readers may recall my 2008 post about how Calle, a vegan activist in Houston, broke his leg in an air guitar competition as well as follow-up posts about how he trotted along the shoreline in a bear suit in front of a news crew during Hurricane Ike. Calle was initially shocked that anyone in New York would be shouting, "Are you Jacob Calle?" upon seeing a bear, but once he figured out who I was, he gave me a big hug and was able to get me backstage. Before you knew it, we'd made plans for him to stay with me his last night in town.

Getting backstage meant I got to talk to quite a few of the contestants, retired air guitarists, and a judge: Jewish, vegan comedian Myq Kaplan, whom I interviewed for a heebnvegan post earlier this year. I'd been out of the air guitar world for a few years, but it was great to be back for one night only. For the second round, I got to watch the performances from the side of the stage! For the compulsory routine, the remaining contestants all had to perform to Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," the same song I sang and air guitared to at an Amsterdam coffee shop last summer, when I was pronounced the best air guitarist there (even though there was no air guitar competition as part of the karaoke event). And I was just a few feet away from the competitors for the air-off (featuring The Cars' "Just What I Needed"), in which Romeo DanceCheetah defeated Dreamcatcher for the championship belt and the right to represent the US of A in Finland.

Following the air-off, the contestants, the air guitar legends, and audience members packed the stage to air along to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." It was a larger-than-life experience getting to rock out next to Hot Lixx Hulahan and Romeo DanceCheetah (as one photo below shows) as well as other accomplished veterans of the sport.

Last night, Calle stayed at my apartment, and he seemed to prefer my couch to when he used William Ocean's knee-pads as a pillow a few nights earlier. It was surreal to chat with someone who shared interests in veganism, animal protection, mascot costumes, and air guitar. He said he thought that Romeo DanceCheetah was a fitting champion based on his first-round performance of Daft Punk's "Robot Rock." I pointed out that Michael "Destroyer" Heffels of Holland had won the 2005 world championship with the same song and that Romeo DanceCheetah's rendition was inferior. I thought it stood a poor chance of winning the gold in front of Finnish judges and fans who'd seen the same thing, but with a better gimmick, five years ago. To settle the matter, we watched (and at times rewound) YouTube videos of the performances and compared the two. In the end, we had to agree to disagree.

With emcee (and To Air Is Human author) Bjorn Turoque

With Air Bear (aka Hurricane Bear, aka The Golden Ghost)

Looking out at the audience over the shoulders of 2010 U.S. champion Romeo DanceCheetah and 2008 world champion Hot Lixx Hulahan during "Free Bird"

For more information about the history of air guitar, check out Thursday's article from Time.com.


Spreading the Message Beyond heebnvegan

The heebnvegan message is not limited to this blog. Here are some of the other venues in which I have talked about Judaism and/or vegetarianism in the last month.

The Jew & The Carrot
Although I had been submitting guest posts to Hazon's blog, The Jew & The Carrot, for several years, I became a regular contributor in January. Most of my writings on The Jew & The Carrot are simply cross-posted from heebnvegan. However, there have been some original pieces.

Last month, when I wrote about Sholom Rubashkin's federal sentencing on both blogs, the post on The Jew & The Carrot set off a firestorm of comments. Some commenters still rushed to Rubashkin's defense and claimed that AgriProcessors had not inflicted unnecessary suffering on animals (tsa'ar ba'alei chayim). When my comments in response were not sufficient to persuade other people, I wrote an entire post outlining a history of tsa'ar ba'alei chayim at AgriProcessors and Local Pride, which had also been owned by the Rubashkin family. I noted, "This information is not new for many readers of The Jew & The Carrot, but demands for it arising out of last night’s post are."

On July 9, I had a post featured on Vegbooks, a blog about books and movies with animal-friendly and pro-vegetarian themes. I wrote about "the apparent inconsistency between feeding animals to children and teaching them to do the right thing by using animals as models for good behavior," as was discussed in a recent article in The Horn Book. I also linked to letters to the editor that the original article generated.

Movie Screening and Discussion
In March, I noted that holistic health counselor Jackie Topol and I had led a movie screening and discussion at the Forest Hills Jewish Center's Tuv Ha'aretz/CSA. On Sunday, we had a similar event, featuring the movie King Corn.

One part of the movie talked about how cattle in industrialized animal agriculture are fed a corn-based diets (as well as antibiotics to make them accept it) even though nature intended them to eat grass. I was reminded of a comment on this blog from earlier this month, in which someone said, "I recently heard a report that corn-fed cows are destined to die within six months of when they are slaughtered, because corn causes the animals serious stomach disease. This, of course, brings up an even more pressing question: does kosher meat fall under the category of a treifa, which would ultimately mean it is not kosher at all?" I don't think that this situation actually renders the meat treif, but it's a fair point that is worth considering in its own right.

Our Hen House
On Tuesday, Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House interviewed me about the conncections between Judaism and veganism. The interview will be featured in Our Hen House's podcast next Saturday, and I'll put up a separate post when the podcast goes online.


Can!!Can's JDub Debut Packs a Punch

I don't want to take anything away from the religious and other messages in Can!!Can's songs, but their brand-new album, Monsters & Healers, doesn't warrant a cerebral review. These are songs that become sheer anthems to shout along to over time, even if you don't know what all the words actually are or why "El Paso" deserves to be screamed many times over. This is a hard-rocking album for which you're supposed to crank the volume up to 11 and thrash around your body in ways you didn't know it could move. This is a band whose music is best appreciated by going to a live show and pumping your fists in the air, screaming along, and dancing like a man possessed a foot away from their frontman as he leaps on and off the stage. I know from experience.

Because the Georgia-based trio's larger-than-life live sound is so integral to what Can!!Can is all about, it's a big deal that the sound quality on the group's first JDub Records release packs such a punch. Mary Collins' guitar is fierce yet intricate, Josh Lamar's drums are pounding yet not cacophonous, and Patrick Aleph's vocals are commanding. The sound is crisp and engaging, far better than on their previous release, All Hell. The improvement is most noticeable in "Recoaxed" (formerly "Coaxed") and "Victim" (formerly "Victim Fashion"), which appeared on All Hell but were rerecorded for Monsters & Healers.

Is that sound Jewish, punk, or Jewish punk? I've heard Patrick, the only band member who is a member of the tribe, give different explanations depending on the context. When I interviewed him last summer, he said, "It's hard to label it. ... But definitely, punk rock has influenced me a lot. I think you can see it mostly in the show. In the music, I think I would call it more experimental rock, heavy rock maybe."

While the band might avoid the Jewish "label," the album was released by a Jewish record label. For his day job, Patrick runs a nonprofit called PunkTorah. The Jewish connection is there and pervades Patrick's life and music, even if it doesn't define Can!!Can's music. Still, as Patrick repeatedly yells "Hashem reigns over us" over a raucous bridge in "Devil in the Night Sky," my Jew-punk heart is aflutter. You don't have to pigeonhole Can!!Can or their music, but no matter how you slice it, they're landtsmen.


Red, White, & Blue Vegan Shabbat Dinner

Photos: Lauren Krohn

The last time I hosted a vegan Shabbat dinner for friends, I planned it a couple of weeks in advance. Although I only came up with the idea of hosting this past Friday's dinner four days earlier, there was still an "agenda." First, I wanted to rely chiefly on produce purchased at the Union Square farmers' market earlier in the day. Second, I wanted to use some red, white, and blue foods, as Independence Day was just two days away.

The week before the dinner, I attended a "Cooking With Seasonal Vegetables" class at B'nai Jeshurun, a synagogue in Manhattan. Event organizer Melissa Tapper Goldman explained, "I wanted to help support the members of BJ's new Hazorim CSA [community-supported agriculture program] to transition into CSA living: learning to cook flexibly with the bounty of the season. This is different from supermarket (or even farmers' market) cooking because the variety and quantity are set by the land and the farm rather than by your preferences." Victoria Sutton, who runs the company Catering by Victoria, led about 10 people in making a mixture of roasted and cubed red and golden beets, a dish involving the beet greens (the edible leafy greens that are on the end opposite the beet bottoms), and quinoa.

On Friday, I found that the greens from the two different types of beets were surprisingly different from each other in texture and color. I made a stir-fry that included both varieties of beet greens, seitan, green pepper, onions, and garlic. It was probably the centerpiece of the meal, and the leftovers have long since been devoured.

I had never cooked beets before, but the roasted beets came out great. I actually only thought of my red, white, and blue plan after I'd done my shopping, so I thought it'd be nice to present the beets over a bed of thinly sliced, baked "chips" made from blue potatoes. It turned out that the juice from the red beets interfered with the color scheme I had in mind, but the cubed beets and the chips still turned out well individually.

I thought the raspberries and blackberries would complement the red and white beets for the red, white, and blue collage pictured above. Of course, had I thought of the color scheme prior to shopping, I would've purchased blueberries instead of blackberries!

I also served dal (using lentils, onions, and garlic I still had left over from my friend's Veggie Conquest 4 adventure), charoset (made legendary by my Veggie Conquest 3 adventure), carrot salad with scallion microgreens and parsley, and wild rice. I decided to use store-bought pita instead of homemade challah, as the latter just didn't come out too great in my last few baking attempts.

I managed to make a scrumptious vegan Shabbat dinner that relied heavily on fresh produce from the farmers' market, getting more mileage out of beets than I would've thought possible. It goes to show that vegan meals don't need soy foods to get by. Why have "Killer Tofu" when The Beets rock so much?

Eggs in Knesset Eateries and The Free-Range Myth

Last week, YNet reported that Israel's Knesset is considering using free-range eggs in its on-site eateries. YNet noted:
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is considering banning the use of factory-farmed eggs at the parliament's eateries and instructing them to use free-range and organic eggs instead ....

The Knesset speaker told Anonymous [an Israeli animal rights group] that he has instructed Dan Landau, the Knesset's director-general, to check whether the change to free-range eggs can be made during the signing of the next contract with the owner of the parliament's eateries.
While Rivlin seems well-intentioned, it's debatable whether free-range eggs are substantially less cruelly produced than conventional eggs from hens in battery cages. In the U.S., labels like "free-range" are poorly defined, and well-intentioned consumers aren't necessarily buying what they think they are. If a huge shed houses thousands of birds in tight quarters and has a tiny door that allows a small fraction of the birds access to an outdoor fenced-in area, an American egg producer can label eggs from those birds as "free-range." This might be better than the horror of battery cages, but I avoid eating all eggs because a seemingly better alternative isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I didn't want to assume that the situation was identical in Israel, so Tel Aviv
based Pete Cohon (the founder of VeggieJews) referred me to more information. I don't know with certainty how reliable information from the Israeli animal rights group Shevi is, but it's the best source that I'm currently aware of.

Shevi notes that in Israel, regardless of whether eggs come from "free-range" birds or birds in battery cages, the birds are still subject to appalling abuses. Hens have their sensitive beaks seared off with hot blades (i.e., debeaking), and male chicks, who cannot lay eggs, are typically killed right after birth. Hens are slaughtered when their egg production declines to the point where it's no longer profitable and are generally slaughtered in the same conditions as birds in the conventional egg industry. Shevi adds:
The hens are genetically bred to lay as many as 300 eggs per year instead of the 12-20 that they would naturally lay. In addition, the eggs they are bred to lay are larger than the tube that the eggs go through in their bodies, so each laying is accompanied by pain and pressure being applied to their inner-organs around the tube to the extent that sometimes some of their inner organs fall out of their body.
Shevi concludes, "The attempt to compare between the types of ways to produce eggs and to conclude to buy free-range eggs because the 'regular' techniques are too cruel is a failed attempt, because the decision of whether or not to buy free-range eggs is a decision in and of itself. ... [W]e can be vegan and not have to choose between the lesser of the evils and which hens suffer more."

Chief Rabbinate to Revoke Hechsher of Meat From Shackled-and-Hoisted Animals Because of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim

A couple of months ago, I noted that the office of Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger in Israel had released an encouraging statement that seemed to mark the end of Israel's imports of meat from animals killed by shackling and hoisting in South America. (The cruel slaughter method is no longer used in Israel or the U.S.) I was, however, skeptical because a similar forward-looking statement in 2008 was never enforced. This time around, it looks like the Chief Rabbinate's plan will be enacted.

On June 18, Haaretz reported that "by 2011 the Chief Rabbinate will no longer certify [as kosher] meat from slaughterhouses that use shackle-and-hoist - a controversial method employed in almost all South American kosher slaughterhouses, which provide 80 percent of all the meat imported into Israel." This is a major step forward, both because it means action will be taken within the next half-year and because business considerations (e.g., the fact that an overwhelming majority of Israel's imported meat comes from the slaughterhouses in question) will not be allowed to determine what's right.

This decision has far-reaching implications. Avi Blumenthal, assistant to Rabbi Metzger, said, "The chief rabbi believes this method is primitive and causes unnecessary pain and anguish to the animals. If the meat factories switch to more humane, kosher methods, we will certify their meat." The Chief Rabbinate doesn't have the authority to stop imports of the meat into Israel. Rather, it is specifically saying that it will not certify the meat as kosher because of the way animals are treated.

All too often in recent years, kosher certification authorities have contended that tza'ar ba'alei chayim (unnecessary animal suffering) is a distinct issue from kashrut and does not invalidate the kosher status of meat. In this situation, a hechsher is actually being revoked because of tza'ar ba'alei chayim (or perhaps the negative publicity it has caused), which means that it is not an independent consideration.

In the past, the kosher certification establishment has claimed that a statement like "Cruelty to animals means that meat from those animals is not kosher" is false. I have no rabbinic authority, but a logical extension of this new decision seems to make that statement true.

Haaretz quoted Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Danish-born former chief Orthodox rabbi of Norway, as saying that "lessening an animal's suffering is a religious requirement from the Torah - just like the kosher requirement itself."