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Death & life; a cemetery; eating animals…

by Nigel Savage

Thursday, June 28, 2018 | 15 Tammuz 5778

Dear All,

Monday I went to see Eating Animals.
Tuesday I went to a (quite moving and inspiring) funeral.
Tonight I’m off to England.

Then this Shabbat it’s the 17th of Tammuz.
But we don’t fast on Shabbat, so this Sunday will be the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which inaugurates a three-week period of semi-mourning in the Jewish calendar.
And then – since you don’t do an unveiling on a fast day – this Monday will be the unveiling of my Dad’s gravestone.

So: I’m thinking about life and death and mourning and values and choices.

First: I affirm the richness of Jewish mourning traditions. When my father died I simply let go, trusting that the mourning rituals and the community would hold me. As a fairly observant and not-unlearned Jew I have nevertheless been astonished by how rich these traditions have been from the inside, how strong, how good, how humane, how helpful. I thank, again, all those who sent condolences at the time of my Dad’s death. And I send love – and wish long life – to everyone who has come after me in this cycle of mourning the loss of a parent.

And – at the same time – I’m proud to share that Hazon’s board very recently approved a new Master Plan for Isabella Freedman. It includes new living spaces, new eating spaces, new learning spaces, an expansion for Adamah, dedicated space for Teva – and a green Jewish cemetery. If we’re able to bring it to fruition the cemetery will be the first on the East Coast, and one of the first in the country. Should not our death embody the values we affirm in our lives? I write, I think, not only for myself but for a growing number of others when I say: when I die, just place me on a simple wooden stretcher, put a shroud upon me, and lay my body in the ground… And if there’s room, in due course plant a native sapling upon my grave, some living thing that will be a healthy and living part of an ecosystem and of our biosphere – something whose roots will draw nourishment from my decomposing body, even as it sprouts leaves or berries or a canopy above.

This is what it means that Hazon is “the Jewish lab for sustainability.” Hazon is rooted in Jewish tradition, we’re building a more sustainable world for all, and we’re strengthening Jewish life in the process. There’s no one way to do this. It needs ideas and focus and creativity. It rests upon deep groundedness in Jewish tradition, allied to a seriousness of purpose in addressing critical issues in the world. So a Jewish green cemetery will be a fitting addition to the many new ideas and programs that we have brought to life, these last 18 years.

And this is also why food and what we eat has been so central to our work. When we rode across America 18 years ago we visited the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. That was when I started to think about these issues seriously. In 2004 we launched the first Jewish CSA. In 2006 we convened the first Jewish Food Conference – and in 2007, at our second Jewish Food Conference, we publicly schechted (slaughtered) a goat. Since then we’ve grown all of our food-related programs. We’ve helped to develop the JOFEE field. We’re an early and strong part of the Jewish community farming world. We’re launching Jewish Food Festivals. Our Hazon Seal of Sustainability is driving systemic change – education, action, and advocacy, in more than 60 Jewish institutions, and we hope that number will grow more than 10-fold by the end of the next full shmita cycle.

Since the very beginning of this work we have been steadily and thoughtfully critiquing industrial “meat” production. (I put the word in quotes to remind us all that the word is a euphemism – for “dead animal,” a phrase we’re much less comfortable using.)

At my Dad’s funeral I said that he was very consistent his whole life – in where he lived, what he did, in his commitment to the Jewish community and to Israel. In almost my first words I said:

My Mum used to say that Dad would happily eat the same meal for the whole year.
He liked traditional Manchester Jewish food. 

Vosht, egg & chips. Or fish and chips.
He never had seconds. If we were out, for pudding he’d have apple pie and vanilla ice cream.
He didn’t see the need for any other flavor of ice cream.

My point was that he always ate the same food. But I was thinking about my Dad after I saw Eating Animals. It’s an exceptionally good film, and you should see it now, in a theater, if you can. If not, go see it when it’s online. Watch it as a family, or with friends, or at your school or your synagogue.

One of the things I most liked about it is its strong sense of history – national history, family history, business history, land history, farm history.

The food on my father’s plate when he was in his seventies and early eighties was the same choice of food that was on his plate when he was in his thirties and forties, when I was a kid. He assumed he was eating the same food.

But what the film makes profoundly clear is how radically the nature of that food has changed behind closed doors. My Dad ate “chicken” when he was a kid and “chicken” in his old age. But in that multi-decadal span almost every single thing about those chickens changed. Their biology – literally what kind of chicken they were. What they ate. How they lived. Whether they roamed free or not. Whether they were injected with antibiotics. How they were transported, killed, “processed,” transported, “processed” again, sold, consumed.

There is no better time of year to think about all this than these next few weeks. The 17th of Tammuz inaugurates a three-week period of semi-mourning, which culminates on Tisha b’Av – a day in which we enact our own death. We don’t eat, we don’t drink, we don’t have sex, we don’t wear leather. We don’t lay tefillin in the morning – the only day of the year of which this is true. We don’t greet people – ditto. And then at mincha we do lay tefillin. And we do greet people. Because Tisha b’Av is our version of a resurrection story – we die, we imagine our own death… and then we come back to life. We have a tradition that the mashiach (messiah) will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b’Av.

And there’s a parallel midrash (commentary), by the way, also about death and life. The exodus generation, the children of Israel who were born in Egypt and left Egypt, died in the wilderness. The generation that entered the land of Israel was a generation that grew up in freedom, not in slavery. But how did they die? Every year, on the eve of Tisha b’Av, the children of Israel each dug their own grave, and lay down that night, to sleep in it. And the next morning 39/40 of the people got up – and 1/40 did not.

So Tisha b’Av is a bibliodrama in which we enact our own deaths, and come out with a sense of life and renewal; six days later it’s Tu b’Av, the festival of love.

And I find it fascinating, with a contemporary frame, that:

  • in the nine days leading up to Tisha b’Av we don’t eat meat
  • as we come out of Tisha b’av we head towards Elul and the period of teshuva(repentance)
  • Elul – this period of returning to our best selves – starts with Rosh Hashanah L’Behemot (the new year for animals)

So I want to suggest – modestly, gently, but also if I can, firmly – that this is a really good time to critique our own food choices. Learn about industrial meat production. Keep kosher, and have your institution keep kosher – but choose kosher meat that’s from free-range animals, not incarcerated ones. If you eat eggs, choose eggs from chickens that lived chicken-like lives, not factory-farmed ones.

And, by the way: we’ll be exploring all of this – and more – at the Hazon Food Conference, August 1-5. Prices rise this Sunday, July 1st, so if you’re considering joining us, go ahead and sign up now.

Hazon’s work has grown steadily, these last eighteen years. In general we don’t bang people over the head, or tell them what to do or not to do. But there is a strong through-line in our work. At Teva, kids get their hands dirty and think and learn about these issues in creative ways, including where their food comes from and where it goes to. (Psolet!) AtAdamah, 20 and 30-somethings immerse themselves in the land and in the tradition. At Isabella Freedman people come for a weekend or a week and experience a taste of holistic Jewish living. In our regional work – in Colorado and Detroit – we’ve helped a slew of Jewish institutions to walk the walk, to make profound changes. At our Jewish Food Festivals we’ve brought thousands of people through the door, connecting the dots in multiple ways.

So…. may we live long and well. May our food choices be healthy for us and for the world.

One last note, in a different but related vein. In 2016 we had a small surplus. In 2017 we had a small loss. We’re paddling hard to at least balance our books, and to move forward our Campaign for the Future. If you are supporting us already – an individual, a foundation, a federation – thank you. If you would like to give us $10 a month – or $18 a month – or $1,000 – thank you. And if you are thinking about ways you can continue to make a difference now and in the future, contact us about making a legacy gift. It is a wonderful way to nurture future generations.

Shabbat shalom, tsom kal (an easy fast),

Nigel

PS: Frank Reese – the star of Eating Animals – has played at least an indirect role in enabling Hazon to be able to serve heritage chickens at Isabella Freedman, at least sometimes. We’re in the process of strengthening further our own food standards in relation to poultry, and seeing the film reminded me of how important that is. More info on Frank at The Good Shepherd Institute.