Every January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”
January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?
Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.
What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.
2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.
3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.
4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?
5) Gun Control. The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry. Every day there is a new senseless tragic story. Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.
6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?
In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.
In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.
And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.
At the end of the Day of Atonement we petition: “Breathe into me of Your spirit, and I will live a new life, the life of an infant reborn.” And when the shofar blasts we look around at the nursery that is our prayer community feeling fragile and seeing fragility in others. We emerge from our houses of worship full of newborn hope.
It’s a season of great possibility and there is quiet joy in our fresh start. But there has also been pain inherent in our repentance. Now, the tenderness of relinquishing aspects of self has to be folded into the overarching sweetness of life. And the swell of our sacred year, with its flow from one holiday to the next, bears us on its course.
We are carried from otherworldly interiority back to bodily being, into the simple joy of sitting elbow to elbow with family and friends under an arbor decorated with the fruits of the season. The holiday that’s called “The Season of Our Joy” mediates between our deep internal work and resumption of our work in the world. As transitional as the sukkah is nomadic, this next holiday transports us from the shock of re-birth to the vigor of life through a series of reintroductions to the most basic joys of being a human being on this earth.
Today I am a woman in overalls making sugar cookie dough for my great grandmother’s plum pie, the one containing concentric rings of plums standing on end so the pie looks like a crown for the “Head” (Rosh) of the year. And my husband is a be-aproned man par-boiling cabbage for his mother’s stuffed cabbage recipe, the one he keeps in our recipe file in her ten pages of longhand. We have been to the botanical garden to load our car full of palm tree clippings. We’ve solved a simple engineering problem in our slight sukkah design modification. Soon our young adult daughter will come to sift through the box of decorations and we’ll indulge in some nostalgia as we laugh over the slightly mouse-eaten paper bag pumpkins our daughters made decades ago.
There’s no time to linger in the gestational womb that was Yom Kippur. There’s so much to do!
The current is fast and it’s moving me out of my precious transcendence but, even so, on into new stages of teshuvah, if I think of teshuvah as return. I am still in the process of returning to my serious missions in life, forgiven for my mis-deeds but not dismissed from my responsibility to follow through with my unique contribution to creating a heaven on earth. I am returning by way of this interim passage through engagement in my most elemental gratifications: my motherhood, being a partner and a daughter and a friend, being out of doors, using my ingenuity, building things, creating beauty, and preparing to feed wave after wave of the people I love most.
When I really get back to work I will have sat under the stars every night for a week. I will have experienced still more Days of a different Awe in a different House of the Lord. This is simchat mitzvah, the joy I experience allowing the mitzvot of preparing for Sukkot to nurture me in my born-again vulnerability, guiding me home, showing me, anew, my deep roots in domesticity, nature, and relationships.
Today’s lunch included stir-fryed Purslane. Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of it or, to my knowledge, tasted it before. It is one of more unusual items available from the CSA (community supported agriculture) that we signed up for this Summer. I love our CSA. Unlike many programs, which provide you with a box of pre-selected items, our local farm allows you to choose your own, based on a point system, so that you can create your own weekly combinations.
I’m blessed to be living in a part of Central MA where there is an abundance of local farms. Many offer CSAs, and there are also many local farmers’ markets. Our town has a weekly market where the offerings of several local farms can be found, including meat and eggs, local wines, cheeses, and a local, small scale bakery. Farmers’ markets may not be the cheapest way to shop, but a season’s worth of fruit and vegetables from a CSA is quite economic. Both offer an opportunity to bring a different kind of mindfulness to the buying and eating of food.
Two years ago, inspired by the collection of essays edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, ‘The Sacred Table‘, my partner and I began to have a different kind of conversation about the food we ate, and particularly about Kashrut. I’ve been talking about the concept of ‘Eco-Kashrut’ for a very long time. I taught about it when I was a Hebrew school teacher in London back in 1990, having read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s early writings on the topic. Yet, while I had somewhat inconsistently tried to bring environmental awareness to my food shopping choices, I hadn’t really developed personal practices that I was happy with. I still haven’t – it is a work in progress.
After reading Zamore’s book and, more recently, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘, I was propelled to make some different choices. I grew up in a home where we kept kosher and, until very recently, have continued to keep a fairly traditional form of kashrut in the house. Certainly, within the Reform movement, I would be in a minority in maintaining any observance of traditional kashrut laws – early Reformers often dismissed them as a ritualistic practice that had no truly ethical or rational basis, and served to separate us from the non-Jewish host population. While I’ve not necessarily found the Reform argument persuasive (it would have been more persuasive if, simultaneously, the movement had offered up a thoughtful, ethically-based alternative), the contribution of The Sacred Table, a publication of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis – the Reform rabbis), provides that very alternative.
The more that I have studied and learned, the more that I am troubled by the Kashrut industry. There are those who are doing good work to try and provide a path for observant Jews that is both traditionally kosher and ethically viable, with the Conservative movement leading the charge on providing a ‘hechsher’ (a stamp indicating kosher approval by an authorized team of rabbis) for foods that meet both kosher and ethical standards. But there is a long way to go before such an approach gains much traction among the majority of the kashrut-observant.
And so, for the first time this past year, I have started to move away from some of the kosher observances in our own home toward choices that, upon deeper consideration, offer something that feels ethically and environmentally grounded. We’ve started with the CSA and an attempt to buy more from local sources more of the time. We’ve cut down on meat consumption considerably, and will buy non-kosher meat too. Last Thanksgiving, our local, free range turkey was sourced from a small scale farm less than 50 miles from our home. And we try to buy fish that is from the ocean and of a kind that is not currently at risk but sourced sustainably. Its an imperfect system – nothing quite covers all of the bases, and we’re not yet consistent in our choices. But as I head back to the CSA tomorrow to try something new that, perhaps, I’ve never tasted or cooked before, I believe that I’m making progress, and I’m thankful to others who have been working hard to bring conversations about food, ethics, and the environment into the Jewish arena.
Passover has passed us over and last night’s dinner was a veritable chametz-fest.
Or is it??
If you observe 8 days of Pesach, then indeed today is the 8th day. But for those who observe 7 days, today is the day after the 7th day.
And no, that is not the same thing.
Why all the confusion? A simple question (“How long is Passover?”) should have a simple answer. But few things are that simple.
Let’s return to where it all started. As it says in the Good Book:
These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offereing to the Eternal, and on the fifteenth day of that month the Eternal’s Fest of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened break for seven days. The first day shall be for you a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Eternal. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. (Lev. 23:4 -8 )
Nowhere in the Torah does God mention 8 days. As far as Jewish law is concerned, Jews who are permanent residents of Israel, regardless of their affiliation, observe Pesach for seven days. This is true of even the most stringent.
So, if seven days was good enough for God, where does the idea of eight days arise?
In ancient times, our people were not working from a firmly fixed caledar. The beginning of each month was determined by witnesses actually sighting the first sliver of the new moon. Once the new month was declared, word had to get out to the entire country. As Israel is not a large place, communication could be handled simply by bonfires. After some tricksters built some ersatz bonfires, authorized runners were used to take news of the new month from town to town.
Once we were exiled from our Homeland, calendar issues got a little trickier given that we did not have access to today’s means of instantaneous communication. Getting the message to Jews living outside of Israel was difficult. The lunar cycle takes either 29 or 30 days to complete its cycle. In order to make certain that Diaspora Jews would be no more than one day off, the Rabbis decided to add an additional day to the holidays. This is a good example of how the Rabbis made Jewish life livable in the Diaspora so that we could remain true to our customs and beliefs.
With our modern technology and tremendous astronomical knowledge, we are now able to predict the moon’s cycles in advance. However, the custom of adding the extra day to the festivals (known as Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot) has become a powerful tradition.
The Reform Movement, during the nineteenth century, sought to emphasize the basics and eliminate redundancies in Jewish practice. This extra day of the holidays was a good example of such a redundancy. Since the Torah commands a seven day observance of Pesach, and we know which day is which, it made good sense to drop the added (and not Biblically-ordained) eighth day.
What about contemporary Reform practice? The official position of Reform is to observe Pesach for seven days, as the Torah dictates. Individual Reform Jews, if they are accustomed to observing eight days for this festival, are–of course–free to do so. This practice binds us closer to both the original Biblical practice as well as to ALL Jews living in Israel. (The one exception being Jews come from a 8-day tradition and then make aliyah.)
So for Reform Jews around the world and the Jewish community in Israel, Pesach 5773 came to an end one hour after sundown last night. And if seven days wasn’t enough time to finish all five pounds of matzah, here are some interesting ideas of what to do with the left-overs: 20 Things to Do With Matzah
For those of you still observing Pesach, “Moadim L’simcha Times of Joy!” And for the rest of us…the Countdown to Sinai has begun!!!
“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.” -The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, by Michael Moss (NY Times Magazine).
Is it a surprise to hear that food companies painstakingly, scientifically manufacture the taste and textures of our foods and drinks to make them addictive? No. Moss quotes Bob Drane, the brains behind Kraft’s Lunchables, who explains how the food industry got to where it is today: “Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt… So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more…And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users’.”
“When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” – Lev. 25:14.
From the Torah verse above our sages learn the prohibition of Ona’ah, overreaching – “the act of wronging another by selling him an article for more than its real worth.”
Are food companies withholding what they know about our tastes and therefore making a profit from our lack of knowledge about food science? We like to think that America was built on Judeo-Christian morals, but that is not the case. The reason that there are no warning labels on bags of chips or cans of soda is because our moral code, when it comes to business anyway, is the moral code of Rome not of Jerusalem (an analogy often made by one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Powell):
Rome teaches: Caveat Emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”
From the perspective of the food company it is the business of the consumer to find out about a product and make her own decision.
Is such a business plan criminal? No. Is it moral? Again, no.
Jerusalem teaches: “It is forbidden to cheat people in buying or selling or to deceive them.” – Mishnah Torah, Laws of Sales. Judaism teaches that buyer has the obligation of full disclosure to seller.
“So,the food and drink around me, that is cheaper and tastier than healthy food and water, is killing me?” Buyer beware, indeed!
I will admit that some will say that ona’ah, overreaching, on the part of Big Food is a stretch. Nonetheless, I stand my ground, but that ona’ah is taking place in hospitable bills is paramount to anyone who has bothered to ask for an itemized bill from their last hospital visit.
This week’s Time Magazine cover article by Steven Brill is a must read for every American. Hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, have such complex guides for deciding payment, which can seem so arbitrary. How do they decide? Hospitals have different pay rates for cash, insurance, and Medicare. Brill give the example of a chest x-ray. A patient might be charged $333, but if it’s billed through Medicare, that same x-ray would pay the hospital $23.83.
Of course, the hospital should be allowed to make a profit, make up for non-payment, or low payment, but it seems that the mark-up something controlled by the secretive “chargemaster- the mysterious internal price list for products and services that every hospital in the U.S. keeps.”
Why are Americans paying so much more for healthcare than other well-off nations without the results? We value the right of hospitals to make money without us fully knowing what we are being charged for. Alas, such is life in Rome. Healthcare costs would not be so bloated if true Judeo-Christian values ruled. Consider this teaching:
“One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.” - SHULCHAN ARUCH, YOREH DE’AH 336:3.
In choosing Rome as our ethical compass, we have led ourselves to a crisis point. Protecting the right of companies to profit at the knowing expense, in dollars and in health, of our citizens is a sure sign that America no longer lives by Judeo-Christian values.
It is very hard after the seder to get excited about the last days of Passover. Seven/eight days of eating matzoh! Once we have focused so much on the drama of redemption of the seder, there is little left to focus on other than food. For some the seder was a time to reflect on personal moments of redemption, for others a vision of social justice was discussed, for others the historical background was of interest and for many perhaps multiple themes were explored. However, how much reflection really happens during the rest of Passover? There is no ritual that sets such a dramatic stage as the seder. The story has already been told. All we are really left with is more matzoh to eat.
The Sefat Emet suggests that this very well might be the point. He reminds us that the Garden of Eden was all about food, the first sin was one of eating, and with our banishment from Eden we were told in Genesis 3: 17-19
“And to man He said, “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
For the Sefat Emet, Passover is the holiday that transforms this eating from one of toil to one of blessing. Passover is about eating because it makes eating sacred. Redemption from Egypt undoes the curse of Eden and transforms it into blessing. He quotes Deuteronomy 16:3
“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”
In Genesis we are told “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it (bread) all the days of your life“. Eating each day is a reminder of our exile from Paradise and our fundamental conflict and struggle with nature. However after the Exodus, our consuming of matzoh is now to be remembered “all the days of your life.”
Our eating is transformed from a tragic repercussion of sin into a sacred memory of hope and possibility. Our eating becomes not a sign of alienation but one of relationship to God and command/mitzvah. We will still toil and the production of food will still be complex. What has changed is our perception of the work. What was once a story of rejection by God is now the story of freedom and meaning. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
If you’ve ever walked down the condiment aisle of a grocery store, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding number of varieties of mustard or salad dressing. But for some reason, ketchup has stayed essentially the same since it was created. How come?
According to Malcolm Gladwell, what makes ketchup so amazing is that it hits all five of the basic tastes at once — we get sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that proteiny, full-bodied taste in chicken soup and soy sauce). There really aren’t many other foods that hit all five. So the reason ketchup has stayed the same is that it encompasses all five of our major taste-senses.
And in fact, that’s the reason kids like ketchup so much. When they’re faced with a new and potentially scary food, they can use the fact that ketchup gives us everything we need in order to make this new food palatable.
So the “essence” of ketchup seems to be two-fold. First, it encompasses all the major taste-senses. And second, its universality allows it to be an outstanding complement to a whole range of foods, providing stability and comfort when we are faced with a new taste.
How is Torah Like Food?
The rabbis often made comparisons between Torah and food. It’s not hard to see the connection — in the Rabbis’ mindset, both Torah and food provide sustenance, both are seen as gifts from God, and both help give us strength.
But it’s not just the idea of “food in general” the Rabbis focused on. They often looked at very specific foods (and usually ones that everyone ate, and knew some facts about), and asked, “How is Torah like this particular food?”
For example, when children start to learn Hebrew, the teacher is supposed to put a dab of honey on each letter. Why? Because “Torah is as sweet as honey.” Notice that the focus is on the main aspect of honey –when we’re comparing Torah to honey, it doesn’t really matter that honey is made by bees, or that it takes a long time to make, or there’s always a little extra drip that you have to find a way to get off the spoon. No, the Rabbis want children to focus on the sweetness of honey, and hope that Torah feels just as sweet in their mouths.
Torah as a Fig-Tree
Let’s look at another example — this time using a food we don’t know as much about. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba compares Torah to a fig tree and asks, “How is Torah like it?”
“Why are the words of Torah like a fig tree? As a fig tree yields its fruit whenever it is shaken, so does Torah always give us new teachings whenever it is repeated.” (Eruvin 54a)
What is the “essence” of a fig tree that allows it to be compared to Torah? Because the more you shake a fig tree, the more figs come down. So just like a fig tree, the more we grapple with Torah (“shake it,” if you will), the more insights will come out of it. In fact, we can find something specific about almost any food — its “essence” — and we can try to ask, “How is Torah like it?”
So even though this may border on the heretical, let’s ask: how is Torah like ketchup?
How is Torah like Ketchup?
We certainly know a lot more about ketchup than we do about fig trees, and as we’ve seen, the Rabbis had no problem comparing Torah to a wide range of foodstuffs. And the eternal and universal nature of ketchup certainly has echoes of what Torah could be. So how is Torah like ketchup?
My own suggestion is this: ketchup does not stand on its own — it is always used in conjunction with another food. And no one has succeeded in changing ketchup because it gives us everything we need taste-wise. We need its stability in order for us to branch out and explore a wider variety of foods.
Similarly, Torah does not stand on its own. It is to be used in conjunction with what is happening in our own lives. And the eternal nature of Torah (we’ve been studying it for 3000 years!) can help us evaluate the new information that comes out every day.
So how is Torah like ketchup? Because just as ketchup encompasses all we need, but needs to be used as a companion to another food in order to be fully utilized, so too does Torah encompass all we know, but needs be used as companion to our life experiences in order to be brought into this world.
Potato chips can be absolutely addicting. The marketing of processed foods in America has brilliantly caught us in our weakness for tasty, addictive foods. Most of us have been there – when we really couldn’t eat just “one” of those crunchy, starchy, salty snacks. And we live to regret it.
Starch, sugar and salt – all staples of the American diet, have attached themselves to us, as addictions and excess body fat. The more sugar and starch we eat, the more we want it. And it is not just “junk food” — pasta and bread made of processed white flour, and cereals made of highly processed grains and lots of sugar have weakened our willpower. Low in nutrition, these “foods” fill us up but don’t feed us, leaving us wanting more, and more, and more.
The problems with the American food system are numerous, but the challenge to our health and well-being begins with our addiction to foods whose quantity and quality are not good for our bodies.
It’s a hard problem. It’s easy to say we should have willpower. Getting there is another thing.
I was raised in a 1960-70’s household that, like my peers’ homes, fully embraced the glory of processed foods. My mom was very petite, nicknamed “the bird” by my paternal grandmother because of the small portions she ate (defying my grandmother’s understanding.) But my dad, who had shot up to six feet tall in adolescence, never shed his teenage boy’s appetite. As a result, he packed on the weight until he was diagnosed with diabetes in early middle age. I got my father’s genes, never petite like my mom’s side, and always struggling with weight like my dad’s side. Of course, I didn’t realize how much the deck was stacked against me by the food choices that were regular in our household.
As a young adult I was drawn to Jewish observance, and kashrut in particular – the system of Jewish dietary laws. I sensed that a discipline of holiness would make a significant impact on my life. I gave up one food after another – Philly cheesesteaks, bacon, shrimp, and other treyfe (forbidden foods) that were a staple in my childhood home. As I did, I felt strengthened by the experience of the discipline. Eating became more thoughtful, more mindful, and more deliberate.
Along the way I learned that the experience of discipline that I enjoyed in keeping kosher helped me in my life in lots of ways. Among them was a sharper sense of willpower.
Ultimately, I have come to eat a restricted diet based on nutrition and health, and kashrut. I find it very empowering. It doesn’t hurt that it is reinforced by how great it feels to be healthy.
I was thinking of this when I recently heard an interview on WNYC, the New York public radio station. The subject was “willpower,” talking about the annual ritual of January New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them. The guest was Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister made this essential point: willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The more you exercise willpower, the easier it is to have self-control with all aspects of life.
Avoiding addictive processed foods helps. But the real trick to health and empowerment, is the regular exercise of willpower. One step at a time, and it is within our reach.
This, after all, was the wisdom of Jewish sages who gave us the disciplines of Jewish law. They understood that the “greatest human strength” of willpower is what helps us to fully access our human potential. It is an empowerment that animates the Divine spark within us.
(Image from: 1stclasssleep.wordpress.com, via Google Images)
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.