Friday, July 3, 2015

In Memory of "Big Bird," my pet rooster

I am sad to report that Big Bird, the ten-pound yellowish-white rooster who appeared with me on posters and the cover of my latest book, has crossed the Rainbow Bridge.  He was the victim of a predator attack, probably coyotes, that also took the lives of two other chickens and a guinea fowl.  They will all be very much missed.

Big Bird was going on 11 years old -- a very long life for a chicken -- and was spending a lot of time in a cage anyway, because he could no longer fly up to the roost at night.   But he still loved going outside with the other birds on nice days.  So I let him take the risk and enjoy a more natural life as a free-range chicken.  At dusk he would come back to the coop, where I would put him in his cage for the night.  Last night he did not return, and stayed outside somewhere, along with a few chickens and two guineas who had taken to roosting outside instead of inside the building.  I looked for him but could not find him in the dark.  This morning I found the carnage, including the destroyed nest of a barred hen named Rockette who had been secretly incubating in the bushes.  I knew she was broody by her behavior when she came it to eat, but had been unable to find her well-hidden nest.  Last night the coyotes obviously did.

It is always very sad when this happens.  Nature is not Disneyland, and in the real world animals do attack and eat each other.  That's the reality of that "circle of life" that everyone is romanticizing lately.  Life is not a cartoon, and finding piles of feathers and other remains in the yard is not pretty.  I feel terrible when I lose a bird to predators, but at the same time, I still feel they would rather run free than be caged all the time.

I suppose it's a lot like letting your children run free instead of "helicoptering" them everywhere.  Yes there are dangers and risks, but there are also the joys of freedom and exploration.  I feel sorry for many of today's kids who don't have the "free range" experience I had back in the 1950s, when I rode my bike all over town and played for hours alone in the woods.  That experience shaped my love of nature and helped make me the writer that I am today.  Nowadays, parents are being arrested in some cities for letting their kids walk a couple blocks alone to the park.
(See for actual cases of these ridiculous ordinances.)

Big Bird was the poster child with me in the 2013 campaign against using chickens as Kapporos, by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos.  (See poster above)

A different pose from the same photo shoot (My wife Caryl was the photographer that day) now immortalizes Big Bird on the cover of  my latest book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition,   In this book, I present the issue from both sides (practitioners and protesters), explaining why the vegan" meat is murder" argument does not work, and presenting other, more effective reasons for using money instead of chickens.

The best memorial  you could give to Big Bird is to buy a copy and educate yourself about the Kapporos controversy, then pass a copy on to your local Orthodox or Hasidic rabbi.  In this way, Big Bird will continue to help his fellow chickens live to lead longer, happier lives.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New Book: "Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition" by Yonassan Gershom

Every year, right before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a cultural war in certain Jewish neighborhoods over a ceremony called Kapporos, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day. The animal rights people show up claiming, “Meat is murder!” while the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony accuse the activists of antisemitism and violating their freedom of religion. Epithets fly and confrontations occur across the barricades, but nobody is really listening to each other.

In this book, I seek to build a bridge of understanding between these two warring camps. On the one hand, I oppose using live chickens as Kapporos, as I have written on this blog before. (Reade More...)  Like many other religious Jews before me, I advocate giving money to charity instead. But on the other hand, I am a Hasid who understands and believes in the kabbalistic principles behind the ceremony and Hasidic life in general. In fact, it is that very mysticism that has led me not to use chickens for the ritual.  And I believe it is essential for activists to understand and respect this mystical worldview if they want to be effective.

On the surface, my task in writing this book would seem easy: Explain to animal rights people the reasons why some Orthodox Jews use chickens in a religious ceremony, and explain to Orthodox Jews why animal rights people find this offensive and cruel in modern times. But there is much more to it than that. Beyond this specific ritual lies a vast chasm between two very, very different worldviews. On both sides of the issue I have found sincere, caring people who, in all good faith, believe in what they are doing. But at the same time, each side is appallingly ignorant of the other. Could I possibly write a book to bridge the gap?

To do this successfully, the book could be neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-true" religious tract.   My methodology was to approach the subject as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, examining the issue from the perspectives of both sides.   As Richard H. Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, wrote in his Foreword to my book:

“Rabbi Gershom has a very clear, conversational style of writing, scholarly yet very readable, and he explains complex issues very well. He is careful to put issues in context. He is not a polemicist, but seeks common ground and solutions. He uses examples from his own personal experience and also cites authorities.”

Chapter 1 opens with my involvement with the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos (Karen Davis' org), my reasons for leaving the Alliance over theological issues (read more on that...) but not the movement itself -- and how this ultimately led me to write this book.

In the rest of the book I trace the history of Kapporos and the impact of the modern meat industry on the ceremony, comparing it to my own experience raising and observing chickens in natural, free-range flocks on my hobby farm in Minnesota.   I explain how the very un-Jewish ideas of Descartes have affected Jews and gentiles alike.  And because I believe it is essential for activists to understand the mystical worldview of Hasidism, I devote an entire chapter to "raising Holy sparks," the question of whether animals have souls and/or consciousness, and how this relates to Kapporos.

In short, I explore the issue from many different perspectives and present what I believe to be a number of convincing arguments for why, in modern times, this ritual can best be accomplished by using money instead of chickens.  This will not be an easy book for either side to read, but I believe it fills an important educational gap on both sides.

You can order your copy now  on  It will eventually be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. but if you order from Lulu you get a discount and I get a better deal as an author.

And if you would like to help me send copies to various Orthodox rabbis, Jewish publications, and activists, please consider donating through the GoFundMe link below.  (If for some reason the widget is not there, you can also use this link:  $10 will pay for a book and the postage to ship it.  As I have written on this blog before, I am not rich, nor do I have any congregation or organization supporting me.  My wife and I are on a very small fixed income with little to spare for projects like this,   So I need your help to get this book into the hands of people who really need it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be Kind to Animals Week: a Jewish perspective

I did not grow up Hasidic.  There are those who immediately discount me for that reason, arguing that I am “tainted” by the secular world and therefore not a “real” Hasid.   However, I would quote back to them the adage that “The baal tshuvah (repentant sinner) stands in a place where the perfect Zaddik (saint) cannot stand.”  And both places are good, both have something to teach us.  Besides, I've been observant for decades now, so that should count for something.

Growing up in the 1950s in America, I went to public school, spent part of my summer at Scout camp, and otherwise participated in the world at large.  I was what is now called a “free range kid,” roaming the neighborhood on my bike, playing in the nearby woods, and spending a lot of time alone in nature.  For part of my early childhood we lived on the edge of what my father called a “game preserve,” where deer and pheasants were a common sight in the backyard.  The exact location was long ago lost to urban sprawl, but the memories are still with me.

Vintage ASPCA poster
"The cat they left behind"
One of my fondest childhood memories is Be Kind to Animals Week.  This was a nationwide event sponsored by the American Humane Association and the ASPCA, with posters and contests, public service announcements on TV by celebrities, and local animal-oriented events.  I hadn’t heard much about it lately, being mostly involved in the Jewish community, and I got to wondering if it still existed.  Yes, it does, and this year (2015) is the 100th anniversary!   In fact, Be Kind to Animals Week is the oldest commemorative week in all of U.S. history.

It is observed during the  first week in May, which means it starts this Sunday.

Next I wondered if it is observed in Jewish schools.  Do yeshiva students ever enter posters in the contest?  Does your school do anything to celebrate it?  I found a lot of older references to Jews participating, but very little about it in today’s curriculum.  This is not to say that no Jewish schools observe it, but it does not seem to be much of a priority nowadays, at least not enough to write about it on their websites. That’s too bad.  It would be wonderful to see some Jewish kids design posters about kindness to animals, which is, after all, a Torah teaching as well as a secular one.   It would be a great opportunity to teach the greater society about tzaar baalei chayyim, the Jewish prohibition against cruelty to animals.

It was suggested to me that the reason this event is no longer celebrated as much among Jews is because environmental issues have gotten linked to the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, which has become a sort of Jewish Earth Day.  That is possible.  But Tu’B’Shevat focuses more on planting trees and recycling trash than on animals.  Still, there is no reason why animals could not be more actively included in it.

There is also a recent movement to make the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, which the Talmud calls the New Year for Animals,  into a humane education event.  This seems a bit topsy-turvy to me, since this was originally the day that Jewish farmers tithed their flocks, so it was hardly “Animal Rights Day.”  But it would not be the first time that a Jewish holiday got re-defined after the Temple was destroyed.  Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” was originally celebrated with processions of people bringing their firstfruits to the Temple.  Today it focuses on receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which also took place on the same date.  Tu B'Shevat, the “New Year for Trees” is now a form of Jewish Earth Day, when people not only plant trees, but also focus on current environmental issues.  So it would not be out of line to transform "Rosh Hashanah for the Animals."

However one may choose to approach it, there is definitely a need for more humane education.   While researching my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more Compassionate Tradition (due out in June, God willing),  I found some appalling stories about Jewish children poking sticks at Kapporos chickens, throwing stones at stray cats, chasing pigeons in the park, and behaving badly at zoos.  Not all Jewish kids do this, of course, but there were far more such stories than there should be.  Kids will be kids, and wearing a yarmulke does not transform them into saints.  However, it does make them visible as Jews and it reflects badly on the community.

So I am suggesting that if your school or synagogue is not observing Be Kind to Animals Week, then this year would be a good time to start.  Why invent another holiday when we already have a national tradition that is a century old?  In fact, it is rapidly become an international event; in my searches I found posters and articles in many languages.  Really, it should be a global event, since we all share the same planet and the animals on it.  So if you are celebrating "Kindness 100" this year, I'd love to hear about it.  Tell me what you are doing to bring more kindness to God's creatures.