If you’re like me, January prompts you to reexamine a few bothersome behaviors — and make a few (or more) resolutions for the coming year. Making resolutions is a dangerous proposition, of course. A strictly goal-oriented approach gives us a flat, “all or nothing” mandate that can lead to failure. By February, our resolution has dropped off our spiritual radar, and we marinate our inertia in the guilt of giving up. As the negative emotions pile up, we risk (as the rabbis say), “begetting one sin with another” — creating a vicious cycle that leaves us in a spiritual mess. Instead, let’s take a deeper approach. Make a few life adjustments — for promises that you can keep.
Since writing about this idea in 2012, I’ve received some great comments and suggestions. So in that spirit (and with a little nudge from an editor-friend), I’ve expanded our list to include five new ways to make life more meaningful. We can accomplish this by deepening our relationship to the food we eat, based on Judaism’s ancient wisdom.
The beginning of June was busy in the Greater Boston area — garlic plants sent their scapes into the air, rainbow chard darkened their multi-color stalks and a whole slew of salad greens begged to be harvested. Intoxicated with the potential energy of fresh produce, New England provided an enchanting background to engage in matters of Jewish sustainability and food systems issues.
This is the environment in which the Jewish Farm School and Hebrew College hosted a one-week intensive course called “To Till and To Tend.” The course aimed to focus on sustainable agriculture, food justice and the Jewish tradition through a hands-on, skill-building week. In the mornings, we worked at the day’s chosen organic farm or urban garden and posed a number of questions to the farms’ managers: How did you become interested in farming? Why are we planting strawberry plants? Where are these lettuce heads being donated? What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field? What is this?!
James E. McWilliams wrote in a recent NYT Op-Ed, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” that consuming animal products can never be sustainable, even when approached with an eye toward ecology. He breaks out his calculator, multiplying the number of cows that Americans currently eat by the number of acres required to farm them responsibly. The result: an impossible amount of grazing land, among other problems. I normally expect this tone from guardians of the status quo who dismiss organic farming as inefficient or naive. What I didn’t expect was McWilliams’s suggestion: Stop creating animal products. He pits sustainability-minded omnivores not just against industrial farming, but against herbivores. His argument is so snide and riddled with flaws that it distracts us from his conclusions. It also points to a rift within the sustainable food movement. Can omnivores and herbivores talk to each other about food issues? And can a Jewish perspective help us through this seemingly intractable conflict?
McWilliams has a bad premise: that meat could only be “sustainable” if it could be eaten in the same quantity as Americans eat it now, but farmed in a humane way. However, I have never heard a “locavore” argue that meat should be abundant. Michael Pollan, the torchbearer of the local food movement, sums up the “locavore” ethos: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” McWilliams uses spurious gotcha facts to show that “holistic” animal farming is unrealistic. He cites a few mysterious figures, like “Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming,” but doesn’t say what this means or how it was measured. His numbers are there not to make things clearer, rather, to intimidate. It’s also a common rhetorical error to judge something’s sustainability only by its so-called logical conclusion, assuming that the word “sustainable” means a practice that could work forever in the exact same way, and could be scaled up to seven billion people. That probably unachievable standard is not what most of us mean when talk about sustainability. We look for systems that are more healthy, lower in impact, encouraging of future learning and improvements.
This is the story of a fishpond.
Not just any old fishpond, but a fishpond in Muchucuxcah (Pronounce the x like a sh), Mexico, four hours west of Cancun.
I was in Muchucuxcah for ten days in January with American Jewish World Service’s Rabbinical Students Delegation. We were there to learn about global poverty, to see quality development work firsthand and to work on said fishpond.
With the New Year comes the New Year’s Resolution. Polls say 45% of all Americans make at least one resolution, the most popular of which is to lose weight. But according to Opinion Research Corporation, one out of every four people never follow through on their resolution because they set a goal they can’t achieve. I believe the whole process of goal-oriented resolutions is a bit dangerous. Goal-type resolutions set behavioral patterns that are often out of character for who we fundamentally are, and they risk our self-esteem when we miss our mark or give up. Think of it this way: If you resolve to lose 100 pounds but only lose 50, did you achieve your resolution? If you are too goal oriented, then your achievement (50 pounds!) is for naught. Resolutions based on goals are too flat. We need something deeper.
Elsewhere I wrote that the core problem of our food system is that our food has become flattened into mere objects or commodities to be consumed. The solution to this flattening is the reclamation of the depth our food represents. More than a mixture of ingredients, our food is freighted with values, memories, and political processes. When we place a morsel in our mouth we immerse ourselves into these depths. I called this process Deep Kashrut. When it comes to making resolutions for the New Year, instead of thinking of resolutions as flat goals, let’s think of them as life-adjustments to deepen ourselves.
I have often thought how strange Sukkot must appear to those who are not familiar with the holiday. I imagine my neighbors thinking something like, “I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre after my neighbor built this hut in her backyard, but now she is out there holding a lemon and shaking a bunch of leaves!” Even for those of us who are familiar with the rituals of the holiday, as city dwellers we have become so removed from agriculture that it is often hard to connect with this fall harvest festival. But for our ancestors, the harvest was so central to their lives that Sukkot was known simply as chag, the holiday. It was the time of year when they celebrated the completion of the harvest but also looked toward the future recognizing that without the proper conditions, they might not survive to celebrate Sukkot the next year.
As we face our world, threatened by global warming and a depleted water supply, Sukkot offers us a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves how central the environment is to our survival. But reflection is not enough. During the week of Sukkot our ancestors fervently prayed for rain to ensure their future survival. We too must take action during Sukkot to work towards a more sustainable future. One action we can take is eating locally and sustainably during Sukkot.
There are countless benefits to eating locally and sustainably. Below are a few reasons why it is especially important to eat locally and sustainably during Sukkot:
Animal science expert Temple Grandin suggests some steps that kosher slaughterhouses could take to improve animal welfare on the op-ed page of the Forward.
Josh Ozersky ponders why he thinks Jewish food is bad “I don’t claim to have an answer for this problem, which is one of the most baffling in all of American culinary history.” We’re not sure we agree with his whole shtick but it’s worth a read in TIME.
Couldn’t make it to the Atlantic’s Food Summit in DC this week? Read about it on the Atlantic. One session at the conference sought to define sustainability. “Most people agree that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing when it comes to food, but there’s a big problem with the term: It’s incredibly hard to define,” writes Daniel Fromson about the session, where four experts shared their definitions.
Jewish meat delis have gotten much attention, in the past couple of years (thank you David Sax). But little notices has been given to the fish counter of classic dairy delis. Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, which will open in Brooklyn in the coming month, will offer “smoked salmon, house-pickled herring, house-cured herring, bagels, bialys and rugelach,” reports the Village Voice.
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