Monday, October 24, 2011

My Kind of Kosher


Yesterday, I was at the engagement party of one of my best friends. He's Jewish. So is his fiancée. They aren't religious. There were delicious pork buns. A few old friends heard about my new work as a chef, and naturally started asking me about food. I'm also a teacher, so I was happy to talk. And since we're all nominally Jewish, it's not surprising that the question arose: are you kosher?

The answer is yes. And no. No, as far as almost any other Jew would be concerned. I love pork. A burger is nothing without cheese. Oysters make me really excited. Lobster, mussels, razor clams, and cuttlefish, done right, will make my day. I eat bunnies. I've tried hare, kangaroo, and bear. Bleed out a game bird? No way. Hang 'er up, guts and blood in, for a good week in a cool room. Kosher chefs, like vegetarian chefs, might make some good food, but the cuisine is like jazz with nothing but woodwinds. Sax and clarinet are great. For a while. But thank god there are still trumpets and bass and drums in the world. And get that freaking oboe off my plate.

Judaism is a funny thing. It's a dogmatic religion whose dogma is often dismissed in whole or in large part by many of the people who claim, quite ardently, to be Jews. It is the most rigidly law-based of the world's major religions but has given rise to one of the world's greatest theological traditions of interpretation, reinterpretation, and cherry-picking. It's based on a scripture that is notably harsh and oppressive, even by scriptural standards, yet Jews are widely known for their humor. At least in New York. Let's leave Israelis out of it. They're not funny at all.

So when I was asked if I keep kosher, I said, “no.” But then, “yes.” “In a way.” I made my case. If I feel any kinship with Judaism as a religion, it's because of two words: tikkun olam. “Heal the world.” I know how I understand it. If you know me, you probably know, too. I take it to be the central tenet of Judaism. Not historical Judaism. Not Judaism in its dominant forms. My Judaism. I appreciate that, as a Jew, I can say such a thing and not sound crazy.


Tikkun olam. Apply it to food. It's pretty simple. That food you're eating, it was alive once, hopefully pretty recently. How did it live? Did it suffer? Or was it free to eat in a way that befit its physiology, to live outside in the living world, to live with a healthy community of its comrades-in-species? I am not just talking about cows and chickens and pigs. I am also talking about broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. But let's say you don't hear the voices of plants, don't feel their roots and pollen spreading through your dreams. Let's be “practical.” Did the life of that cow or broccoli hurt the earth or make it better? Is there more topsoil because of her or less? More intact, biodiverse habitat or less? More atmospheric carbon or less? More groundwater or less? These are questions we can answer pretty easily. Tikkun olam. Is your food healing the world or harming it? If it heals, you're keeping kosher, my kind of kosher. If it harms, you're eating treif. And that's so not cool.

Industrial food is never kosher. I don't care what species it is. I don't care if a rabbi said something in Hebrew. I don't care if it was bled out and salted. If it was subjected to a life of unnatural suffering, if it was raised in a way that made this world a little worse, a little poorer, it ain't kosher. It is an affront to God, to spirit, to conscience... whatever you want to call it. It is an affront to the Earth, and therefore to ourselves and our children. It is a failing to manifest tikkun olam. The old kind of kosher is all about how an animal died. What about how it lived? Maybe the question never came up since no one in the ancient world could have imagined the cruel insanity of industrial food. Every Hebrew and every Roman ate nothing but grass-fed and organic food. Bunch of liberal weenies, I 'spose.

Any being who was allowed to live a decent, healthy life and was given a merciful, honorable death, a death that caused no net harm to its species, whose life was, indeed, the blessing it ought to have been for the Earth, is kosher. End of story. That such beings, whether plants, fungi, or animals, are also, invariably, more delicious, more nutrient dense, more healthy, only reaffirms that we are doing the right thing.

All the stuff about not eating pigs or shellfish, that was pretty easy for a tribe of pastoralists. Note that they didn't have to give up beef or mutton. It was the barbarians to the north who ate pigs. The barbarians by the sea who ate clams and lobster. We might say that these all too easy sacrifices for a people who already did not eat these things helped keep them mindful of their faith. Maybe it was about regimentation and social control. Maybe it was about instilling xenophobia. Who knows. I do know this. I do not live in the Middle East. I am not a pastoralist. I live in a land where pigs thrive, by a shore world famous for its lobster and other shellfish. More importantly, I live in an era of global environmental catastrophe. This catastrophe is being greatly intensified by the industrial food system. It can, in part, be mitigated through permaculture, broadly defined as any food system based on a polyculture of plants and animals, intact topsoil, no mining of water or diversion of rivers, and no input of fossil fuel or poison. I see it as a spiritual duty to be mindful of this reality every time I procure food, whether by purchase, gardening, foraging, or hunting.

And I did eat the pork buns (minus the buns). Even though the pigs were probably industrial. I do not blame my friends if they were. Most people are not yet as sensitized as they should be to these issues and it's not fair to expect a sudden mass change in consciousness from all decent people. But we should be working toward that mass change in consciousness and, crucially, also in behavior. Changing hearts and minds is all well and good, but only as a precursor to action. It's not, “think about healing the world,” or “imagine a healed world,” or “write treatises about what a healed world would theoretically look like.” Heal the damn world. Anyhow, I ate the pork. It was already there. I was hungry. It looked and tasted good. And no additional pigs were being raised or killed because I ate it rather than letting it get tossed at the end of the party.

There is room for flexibility. I draw my lines where I choose. Others will draw them a little differently. And that's OK. Just draw them. Live consciously. Find your principles and manifest them. Keep kosher and live in accordance with the law, however you understand it. It all derives from principle. How about this one? Heal the world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cops and Troops, Stand With the 99%

The revolution has begun. If you haven't noticed, it's time you noticed. Those in power have certainly noticed. They're worried as hell. And they should be. The movement afoot in the United States and around the world is the real deal. Take a deep breath. We may have a future.

There are a million questions we might ask. Here's one. What next? A movement of this magnitude, this resolve, this canniness, this sophistication, this selflessness, this moral fortitude will not just evaporate. But it may go in any of a number of directions, not all of which we can anticipate. But the bastards are going down. The question is how.

Cops are part of the 99%. So are troops. They are working class, hard working people who bravely risk their lives for two reasons. One is that by doing so they can earn a decent living, health care, a pension, a modicum of respect, and a chance to help their kids get a leg up. The other is because they believe they are working for good. Or they believed it. At some point. And they had reason to. But for many, that belief has eroded over time, stripped bare by political cronyism, hollow rhetoric, and the increasingly obvious greed, the insatiable, ruthless greed of the powerful. Most cops want to keep their cities and towns clean and safe, protect victims, and confront and stop criminals. Yet they see a system where they are called upon, time after time, to risk their lives defending the grandest of criminals, those who steal billions and produce nothing, who milk the public coffers to pile it atop their obscene booty, who poison our rivers, our air, our bodies, and our children's bodies to squeeze themselves another billion, who callously destroy whole communities to “cut costs” and then fly on private jets, who send our young men and women to kill or be killed, to be twisted and broken by the carnage of war, to be poisoned with depleted uranium in the name of a democracy we all know to be a farce.

Troops are part of the 99%. Like the cops. They enlisted because their neighborhoods, their towns, their whole cities have been turned into post-industrial wastelands with real unemployment often over 50%, just to fatten the wallets of the rich. They enlisted because if they're black and poor and undereducated, they have a one in two chance of winding up in shackles like so many of their ancestors. They enlisted because their options are so few and so poor. And yet, they enlisted because they love this country, what it was, what it should have been, or what it might yet be. They want to protect the Constitution, defend democracy, protect, at all costs, the American people and our collective dream against the tyranny of fascists. Yet they know damn well that they're sent to fight and kill and suffer and die because it makes a few people rich, the people who call the shots, the people who dare to call their unbridled greed “American interests.” They know that Goldman can count on giant bailouts and Halliburton on extortionist contracts but that they, themselves, will be lucky to get half the treatment they need at a financially crippled VA hospital. They see what the US brings to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to wherever they're sent to fight, kill, suffer, and die, and that it has nothing to do with democracy, the Constitution, or freedom from fascism.

Fascism. It's a word with a meaning. We aren't supposed to know the meaning. We're supposed to think it means “bad guys,” “Nazis,” “the other.” It has a meaning. The man who coined the term and created the first fascist movement, Benito Mussolini, made it clear as day. “Fascism should, more properly, be called corporatism, for it is the complete merging of state and corporate power.” I love America. I love this land and its people. I love Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. I love Tecumseh, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Mother Jones. I love our great poets, our great painters. I love barbeque, Kentucky bourbon, and California wine. I love America. But our political and economic elite have created the most fascist system the world has ever seen. It is ruining our lives, it is ruining everything decent in our society, and it is ruining the very Earth itself. I do not hate America. I love it. Therefore, I hate American fascism and I hate the fascists who have the audacity to call themselves the “real Americans.” So should you. So should the cops and troops who risk their lives trying to make this world a little better.

Cops, troops, stand with your sisters and brothers, stand with the 99% who have seen and felt enough of American fascism to know that it's time for it to go. Lay down your guns, or, better still, use them to protect the people, not the fascists. We owe them nothing. Stand with the brave people of your country and help them build a better society, one where the Constitution can live once more, where democracy can flourish throughout the land as it flourishes now in Liberty Park and in the dozens of other protest communities across this nation and around the globe. Don't block the way into the Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, Goldman and Citibank, lead the charge! This is your country. These are your people.

We stand at a decisive moment in history. This can be a velvet revolution. This can be a bloodless coup to restore the honesty and dignity of the America we all long for, the America we now strive to realize. Or this can be a bloodbath, and could even be in vain. Much depends on the cops and the troops. I do not believe, cannot believe, they want to beat, gas, bomb, or shoot their countrymen to defend the world's grandest criminals. Now is the time to realize, they don't have to. When the chain of command becomes corrupt at the top, the brave and the good people in uniform must determine, difficult though it is, to honor their allegiance to a deeper, more unshakeable authority. To many, this is God. To all, it is conscience.

The revolution has begun. Or maybe it's a counter-revolution, striving not to destroy but to restore. We do not know just where it will lead, what heroes and villains will manifest, what names and dates will be etched onto the memory of a generation's collective consciousness, perhaps onto those of generations yet to come. But this is our history. It lives in our hands, in our minds, in our hearts. Brothers and sisters in uniform, use your power for good as you've always meant to do. Stand with the people, help us bring down the bastards, and help us all make this world not just a little bit better but, in this rare historical moment, so rich in possibility, a lot better. We need it. We can do it. It's up to us. We are the 99%. So are you.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On Mourning Steve Jobs

It is sad that Steve Jobs died at 56. For me, it's sad mostly because pancreatic cancer was almost non-existent before industrialism. It is now increasingly common, and could strike any of us. It is sad for me because I have lost two loved ones to cancer in the past year, including my 28 year old cousin. I feel for those who loved Steve Jobs (those who actually knew him). But the histrionic displays of grief by those who never knew him seem wrong.

I took note yesterday, in transit from Oslo to Milan to Florence, of great numbers of people from different countries sharing music and videos and laughing together over their iPads and iPhones, while I read and wrote on my Air. It was poignant. I understand why we felt connected to Jobs and share a rare sense of community in his passing. Our hunger for community and shared grieving is immense, and found a rare outlet here. But our real wounds are quite different than the loss of a CEO. Our real grief, still deeply suppressed, is for losses far more personal and profound.

Steve Jobs was CEO of a corporation that produces vast amounts of toxic waste. He cancelled that corporation's philanthropy program in 1997 and refused to assent to Bill Gates' request that he join in pledging a good chunk of his billions to philanthropy. Many of the assembly line workers who assemble Apple's "wonderful" gadgets (which no one truly needs) are paid slave wages and develop cancers caused by the workplace carcinogens to which they are so recklessly exposed. In an era of planetary mass extinction, of unprecedented toxification of the total environment, of burgeoning fascism at home and abroad, in a world where half of humanity lives in desperate poverty while a select few (like Jobs) live securely on their backs, the maudlin outpouring of grief for this CEO is actually more than a little deranged. This is not to speak badly of a dead man. He was imperfect, as are we all. This is to urge us to consider what we really value, where our allegiances truly lie.

So, what about the 200 or so species that went extinct yesterday (200 more the day before, 200 more today, etc.)? What of the entire cultures and languages that continue to be extinguished by the onslaught of industrial capitalism? What of the brave social justice and environmental activists killed, imprisoned, and tortured daily around the globe? Or the many more killed for the crime of their poverty? Jobs didn't exactly cause this mess, but his company, despite its clean, wholesome image, has done far more to intensify it than mitigate it. Just as the Republican party channels our righteous anger (at the injustice of our culture) toward scapegoats, this outpouring of grief over Jobs is, at best, misdirected, a projection of other, deeper wounds that need to be brought to light, grieved over, and healed. At worst, it reveals our dedicated allegiance to consumerism at a historical and planetary moment when that can only be understood as treason against the world's poor and the community of life.