Monthly Archives: November 2010

Kosher Goes Green

By Lily Hoffman Simon

Have you ever sat in an empty Chinese restaurant on Christmas day feeling like you are the only person in the whole country not congregating around a tree?  For those who keep kosher, resisting the temptation to order shrimp for their fried rice sometimes seems like just one more thing that sets Jews apart.  Sometimes, one can’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

This question comes into starker light when considering that traditional kashrut inadequately addresses contemporary ethical issues of the gastronomic variety. For example, if you type ‘agriprocessors’ into Google, you will be bombarded with information about the ethical misconduct of one of America’s biggest kosher meat producers, including cruel animal abuse, refusal to recognize its workers’ union, questionable environmental behavior and charges for breaching child labour laws.  How can these practices in good conscience  be considered “Kosher”?

Kashrut’ comes from the Hebrew root meaning “fit” or “proper,” and denotes guidelines for appropriate eating and consumption. The animal being consumed must be slaughtered in a way that ensures little physical discomfort for the animal. An animal must not be eaten with its mother’s milk, to signify the separation between its death and its source of life. A mother and child animal must not be killed on the same day.  All of these rules, and others, are intended to create a social, ethical consciousness surrounding the food we eat, as well as promote a spiritual relationship to food. But are these rules enough to ensure an ethical food industry?

The limitations of traditional kashrut have sparked critical analysis of the dietary laws. Proponents of kashrut reform advocate for changes in the standards of kashrut to follow suit with the changing food industry and the new ethical dilemmas its presents. A simple hechsher (the symbol of kashrut certification) no longer seems to be enough to ensure ethical food.

At the forefront of addressing these questions stands the Eco-kashrut movement, which emphasizes the environmental impact of the globalized food industry, which values efficient mass production over environmental consciousness. Advocates of eco-kashrut encourage environmental and animal-friendly ideas about food, such as organic farming, free-range livestock and sustainability, as a contemporary means to maintain an ethical conscious. Eco-kashrut also connotes a lifestyle outside of the realm of food, providing commentary on the environmental and spiritual implications of issues such as plastic production, energy consumption and general sustainability. With Hanukkah just around the corner, the Shalom Centre’s Green Menorah Project provides an interesting example of the key role environmentalism plays in the holiday.

Spiritually speaking, eating with an ethical understanding can unite food consumption with nature and God.  The Conservative Movement of Judaism has gone so far as to develop its own eco-kosher hechser, called a hechsher tzedek (justice certificate), to supplement traditional kosher standards. Other initiatives to create “social hechshers,” which denote just worker-producer relations among other socially responsible considerations include Tav Chevrati, created by Bema’aglei Tzedek, and Magen Tzedek’s initiative to label food that is conscious of environmental implications, animal welfare, and labour relations.

So the next time you scan a package of meat for a hechsher, maybe think about all the other aspects of production that are not considered in the traditional kashrut certification process. After all, if kashrut is intended to provide an ethical guidance, it might as well be relevant to the ethical questions of today’s times.

Recipe: Bumuelos In Red Wine Sauce

Here’s another great Hanukkah recipe.  Jews of Spanish origin developed bumuelos or buñuelos—fritters or pancakes fried in olive oil and dipped in honey or sugar syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar—as sweet Hanukkah treats.  Here’s a modern take on the Sephardi classic!  Read more on the history of Hanukkah foods in Moment‘s latest “Talk of the Table” here!

BUMUELOS IN RED WINE  SAUCE

Makes about 14-15 (Serve 2-3 per portion)

For the Bumuelos:

  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup butter
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 ½ cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Canola oil for frying

For the Red Wine Sauce:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • ⅔ cup dry red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 whole cloves

Prepare the Red Wine sauce first: Mix the ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the syrup thickens to the consistency of honey. Keep warm. (Overcooking the sauce will make it harden). Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil and set aside. Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer. Turn the mixer on low speed and add the boiling liquid mixture. Continue mixing on low speed until a soft dough is formed that leaves the side of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

Heat 1½” canola oil in a wide pan. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a medium ice cream scoop or two tablespoons, form a ball of the mixture and slip into the hot oil. If the ball is difficult to form, beat in an additional tablespoon or two of flour. Fry 4-5 balls at a time on medium-high heat till golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper toweling to remove excess oil. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Reheat the wine sauce over low heat until very warm.  Pour 3 tablespoons of sauce on each serving plate. Set 2-3 bumuelos on top and serve.

“Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).”

Questioning the Merit of Faith

By Steven Philp

Friday evening, nearly 3,000 people packed themselves in to the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada to witness former-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens grapple with the merits of religion. The event was part of the Munk Debate series, organized by the Aurea Foundation, for which the prompt was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” Blair–a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church – was tasked with defending the necessity of faith communities, while Hitchens–author of the best-seller God is Not Great–argued that religion is the source of incalculable misery throughout human history. During the 90-minute debate, Hitchens seemed to hold sway over the crowd although a pre-debate poll showed 57% of the audience already agreed with his position, compared to the 22% who were sympathetic with Blair. The remaining participants were undecided.

As might be expected from such vocal personalities, both men conceded little to their opponent. Hitchens characterized religion as a dangerous anachronism, comparing G-d to “a kind of divine North Korea.” He equated omniscience to malevolence, arguing, “Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us subjects in a cruel experiment.” Blair held the defensive through most of the debate, returning to the theme that throughout history people of faith have been engaged in acts for the betterment of humankind. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” Blair argued, pointing out that such generalizations ignore the multifaceted nature of faith communities. Yet in the end, he failed to qualify religion as more than “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives.”

That this debate occurred Friday evening is apropos of a similar discussion within the Jewish community, as each Shabbat we are asked to make a conscious decision about what it means to be a Jew. On one hand, Judaism is a matter of faith affirmed by the commandments of shamor v’zachor, to keep and remember, the Sabbath. On the other, it is a cultural heritage that extends beyond the synagogue–if it includes it at all. As Jews we ask ourselves if Judaism as religion is “a force for good” in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large.

Unfortunately, elements of faith have been used through our history for oppression; consequently, it may not be surprising that traditionally subjugated minorities–women and the LGBT community, for example–have found greater degrees of mobility within those denominations of Judaism that have moved further away from strict observance. At the same time, there have been countless Jews who have contributed to the betterment of our communities – looking at the Forward 50 published earlier this year, we can see contemporary examples of fellow Jews who have taken leadership on a variety of issues. Yet contrary to Blair’s characterization of do-gooders their individual relationship to Judaism is not necessarily one of faith, even as this heritage may have inspired them toward a certain moral imperative. In this way, the religious element may not be necessary for the performing of good deeds. At the same time, there are many on the list that have an intimate relationship with Judaism as a faith practice. For them, it’s an inextricable part of their Jewish identity.

Then is it possible to separate Judaism as faith from Judaism as cultural heritage? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Chadash, a growing Humanistic community north of Chicago proper. He explained that the purpose of Humanistic Judaism is to honor Jewish culture in a way that is human-centered; it is a space for the secular Jew to celebrate his or her heritage, while “saying what they believe, and believing what they say.” In some cases, that may mean removing G-d from the equation. On the other hand, as a Jew-by-choice my approach to Judaism is one defined almost exclusively by faith; unlike Rabbi Chalom, I lack the cultural heritage of a born-Jew. Yet through our conversation, it was evident that we shared one key belief: Judaism can be “a force for good in the world.” It is true that our tradition – inherited or chosen–has been used to maintain systems of oppression. Yet it has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of inspiration for the betterment of mankind, for both secular and observant Jews alike.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Latkes with Spiced Maple Syrup

With Hanukkah approaching fast, people everywhere are getting excited to dine on treats such as latkes and Sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).  But after eight days, those delicious dishes can get tiresome.  This year, why not try out a little variation? According to Phyllis Glazer, modern takes on traditional foods are becoming all the rage in Israel (check out her article on the history of latkes in the current issue of Moment here!).  Here is one of our favorites:

Sweet Potato Latkes with Spiced Maple Syrup

Makes 10-12  (4-6 servings)

For the Latkes:

  • 1 pound sweet potatoes
  • 2 eggs
  • ½  teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼  cup matzah meal
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch white pepper
  • 2-4 tablespoons light olive oil for frying

For the sauce:

  • 1 cup real maple syrup
  • ½  teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • ¼  teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Chopped fresh coriander or mint leaves to garnish

Directions:

Scrub the sweet potatoes, peel and shred them on the fine side of a grater or in the food processor. Transfer to a wire-mesh strainer and squeeze to remove moisture. Let stand in the strainer or a colander placed over a bowl for 5 minutes.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and add the matzah meal, sweet potato, salt and pepper. Let stand an additional 5-10 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the sauce: In a small pan combine the ingredients for the sauce, heat over low heat and keep warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and add a small ladleful of the batter. Flatten gently and fry on both sides till golden-brown.

Add more oil to the pan as necessary, and fry the remaining latkes.

Place the latkes on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Pour some of the heated sauce on individual plates and arrange three latkes on top per serving, or use a serving platter and pass the sauce separately. Garnish with fresh coriander or mint.  Serve with sour cream or plain yogurt if desired.

“Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).”

People of the Book: The Finkler Question and the New Anti-Semitism

by Daniel Kieval

In Howard Jacobson’s Booker-prize winning novel, The Finkler Question, Jewish residents of London are increasingly alarmed by the growing number of anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. The characters receive streams of news reports in which anger or hatred toward Israel fuels violence toward Jews everywhere, regardless of their connection to the country. One woman, the curator of a new Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture, worries, “There had been spillage, from regional conflict to religious hatred, there could be no doubt of that. Jews were again the problem. After a period of exceptional quiet, anti-Semitism was becoming again what it had always been–an escalator that never stopped, and which anyone could hop on at will.”

The “spillage” of anti-Israel sentiment into anti-Jewish sentiment pervades the novel. The only characters sometimes able to grasp the distinction are a group called “ASHamed Jews,” Jacobson’s merciless satire of liberal Jews who have taken their criticism of Israel to the extreme. One, for example, devotes his time to “boycotting Israel in a private capacity, going through every item on his supermarket shelves to ascertain its origin and complaining to the manager when he found a tin or packet that was suspect.” For all their portrayed ridiculousness, these characters fight the premise that individual Jews, wherever they may live, should be held accountable for the actions of the Israeli government. Yet even they cannot seem to keep track of whether they are Jews who are ashamed or whether they are ashamed of being Jews—another member spends his waking hours trying to reverse his own circumcision and blogging about his progress.

The Finkler Question is a chilling story made all the more so because it mirrors the actual news. Around the world, including on university campuses (see here and here), anger at Israel is used as a justification for hatred of Jews and vice versa; it has been called the “new anti-Semitism.” Perhaps giving some insight into the mixed-up ASHamed Jews, Deborah Stone, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission, argues that this spillage works both ways; Jews’ identities have become so intertwined with Israel’s that it has become difficult to “put the boundaries on the grey area of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” especially when “so much of the criticism of Israel is intemperate, delegitimizing and comes so close to the essential experience of being Jewish in the 21st century.” If she is right then while some Jews are being targeted as proxies of Israel, others may abandon Judaism completely, circumcision and all, in order to distance themselves from the Jewish State.

The Finkler Question’s characters are frequently left to wonder after an anti-Semitic incident: “Was it something or was it nothing?” Julian Treslove, the non-Jewish protagonist of the novel, is baffled by his Jewish friends’ ambivalent responses to anti-Semitism. “These people don’t know how to stand up for themselves,” he thinks. “They’ve ceded their sense of outrage.” Fed up, he tells off a group of protestors outside a Jewish Museum that the site of their protest is “a place of study and reflection. It isn’t the f***ing West Bank. We’re not at war here.”

Political differences between Jews mean little to those who spread anti-Semitism as a result of conflict in Israel. Jews, proud and ASHamed alike, are the targets of such confused hatred, and Jews, proud and ASHamed alike, must stand up to it. In the end, though, what will really matter is if others who are not Jews follow Treslove’s example and stand up alongside us.

The Catholic Church Changes Gears on Interfaith Relations

By Gabriel Weinstein

Last week a group of twenty cantors from the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) serenaded Catholic officials in Rome with rousing renditions of Adon Olam and other Jewish liturgical melodies.  The concert was a part of the Interfaith Information Center’s conference on Catholic-Jewish relations. Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, said it was “very important to be here [at the concert] together and praising our god.”  While Jewish-Catholic relations have been steadily improving for decades, a new Catholic push to mend ties with Muslims is pushing the Church’s Jewish priority to second place.

For thousands of years Catholic Jewish relations were marked by antagonism and contempt. For centuries, central tenants of Catholic doctrine included Supercessionism, the belief God rejected Jews and anointed Christians as his chosen people, and Translated Responsibility, which holds Jews accountable for Jesus’ death. From the medieval era until the 19th century, the Catholic Church endorsed an array of discriminatory proposals against Jewish residents.

Catholics’ relations with their other monotheistic peer, Muslims, were marked by similar confrontational episodes. When Islam emerged in the eighth century, Catholic scholars were quick to pronounce the new doctrine as heresy. Catholics’ initial dismissal of Muslim doctrine foreshadowed the bloody Catholic crusades against Muslim rule of Palestine in the medieval era.

By the early 1960s the Vatican grew tired of having frayed relations with other religious groups and reformulated their millennia old interfaith policy. In 1965 the Church issued Nostra Aetate, their seminal document on interfaith relations. Nostra was the first time the Vatican advocated for interfaith dialogue between Catholics and other religions. One of the Vatican’s primary objectives with Nostra was to rekindle its relationship with Jews.  It is no coincidence that the section of Nostra discussing Jewish relations is the longest. Nostra renounced charges of Jewish deicide, acknowledged Jews’ covenant with God and decried anti-Semitism.  Some Church officials challenged Nostra’s detailed discussion of Jewish relations and were joined by Arab countries in protest. However, the Vatican’s insistence on redefining Catholic-Jewish relations cemented the section discussing Judaism.

Nostra also discusses relations with Muslims, acknowledging the frazzled history of Muslim-Christian relations, but noting that both view Jesus as a prophet and the Virgin Mary as a holy figure.  The Vatican pleaded in Nostra with “all [Muslims and Christians] to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

In the 45 years since Nostra Aetate Catholic-Jewish relations have remained stable.  The Church has issued a series of documents on Jewish-Catholic relations ranging from 1975’s  Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4) to 1998’s We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Three popes have visited Israel since 1964, with Pope Benedict XVI making the most recent visit in May 2009.

But all that may be changing.  According to National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen Jr., dialogue with Muslims is now the Vatican’s most important interfaith priority, perhaps displacing the importance of the Jewish-Catholic relationships.  The bulging global Muslim population, increasing Catholic presence in Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East are some of the major factors fueling the detente.

One of the main priorities of the Catholic-Muslim interfaith effort is securing freedom of religion for Catholic minorities in Muslim dominated countries. The Vatican would like to see the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West extended to Catholic minorities in countries with large Muslim populations.  For example, Pope Benedict has maintained steadfast support for Asia Bibi, a jailed Pakistani Christian who faces death for criticizing the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

The prioritization of Muslim relations has ushered in a change in the Vatican’s demeanor towards its Jewish relations.  Whereas the Vatican consistently sought to apologize for past grievances against Jews when Jewish interfaith relations were the priority, now Catholics no longer worry about critiquing their Jewish peers or voicing their displeasure.  For example, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent praise of Pope Pius XII has upset Jewish Holocaust survivors, as many believe Pope Pius could have done more to rescue Jews from the Nazi regime.

But Allen states that the Vatican’s Muslim interfaith efforts are redefining its interfaith relationships in a broader way. Catholic interfaith efforts have moved from “interreligious dialogue” to “intercultural dialogue” which emphasizes shared understanding of cultural issues such as religion’s role in civic life and eliminating poverty.  Hopefully, the Church can avoid the trap of swapping out good Jewish relations for good Muslim relations by focusing on the important cultural and humanitarian issues important to all three monotheistic faiths.

Divided We Stand

By Lily Hoffman Simon

Activism is an age-old Jewish tradition. The most recent example of this was the recent protest at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in New Orleans, where five students disrupted Netanyahu’s speech about the delegitimization of Israel. (Before you read on, watch this movie):

On the one hand, these students are courageous, passionate, and strong young Jews, who possess an ability to take a stance in a way that many wouldn’t have the chutzpah to. Yet, their actions, and especially the responses to them, beg the question of what, if anything, their activism accomplished.

Let’s take a minute to reflect on different avenues of Jewish activism. There are numerous Jewish groups in the USA and Canada dedicated to national inequalities, such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. Other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish World Service, are committed to combating global inequalities, most often in underdeveloped countries. These kinds of groups, which believe their activism is Jewishly-inspired or mandated, focus on social activism and are dedicated toward increasing people’s equality and freedom, either on a national or international level.

Given that activism is often politically-based, it could be argued that political lobby groups, such as AIPAC and JStreet are also organizations of Jewish activism. Their work is dedicated toward promoting certain values in policy. Such work seems to be the most tangible type of activism, as it tends to produce real, concrete results (like a political policy). However, the productive nature of this work does not necessarily imply social changes or affect people’s attitudes.

This brings us back to those five protesters, who neither build anything or create policy, per se, but vie purely for social change. When watching the video, it is obvious that the crowd around them is unimpressed by the student’s disruptions. In fact, the more they protest the more aggressive and angry the crowd becomes. The students hoped to promote alternative viewpoints to Netanyahu’s presentation in a space in which they felt shut out. Compare these goals to the results of their activism, and the outcomes are disheartening. Aiming to encourage a critical perspective on Israel, the protestors in fact reinforced a vehement support for Netanyahu (and by extension, a singular perspective on Israel).  Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the student’s voices, and their presence at a Jewish Assembly (supposedly representative of all Jews), the protest just made people angry. This anger can do nothing else but fuel more resentment towards the student’s message. The attempt to deconstruct Netanyahu’s argument, may in fact, have reinforced it (or at least turned people off from the new argument).

While the protest ultimately failed in its goal of contributing a different Jewish perspective to the debate, it did accomplish one thing.  It shattered the perceived unity of the Jewish people and made clear that there was not only one perspective on Israel, which seems to be the dominant idea at the conference.  In that, at least, it inched toward the change in social attitudes.