Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Who Stole My Religion?" -- rescuing Judaism from Right-wing politics

I haven't been blogging much the last few weeks, because my energy has been going into the final stages of publishing a book with Richard H. Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, as well as other works. Schwartz's new book is called "Who Stole My Religion?  Revitalizing Judaism and applying Jewish values to help heal our imperiled planet.  I'm in the process of doing the formatting and layout for self-publishing on   His regular publisher (Lantern Books) did not think they could get it out in time for the 2012 election, so we went the self-publishing route.  The back cover reads:

Richard Schwartz, author of
"Who Stole My Religion?"
"In the five decades since Richard Schwartz first became a religious Jew, he has watched the mainstream Jewish community shift more and more to the Right, often abandoning the very values that originally attracted him to Orthodox Judaism. In this soul-searching book, Schwartz examines the ways in which he believes his religion has been “stolen” by partisan politics, and offers practical suggestions for how to get Judaism back on track as a faith based on peace and compassion. Tackling such diverse issues as U.S. politics, Israeli peace issues, the misuse of the Holocaust, antisemitism, U.S. foreign policy, Islamophobia, socialism, vegetarianism, and the environmentalism, Schwartz goes where many Jews fear to go — and challenges us to re-think current issues in the light of positive Jewish values."

And yes, if you looked closely at the cover (which I designed, by the way) you will see my name there under his -- in much smaller print, because although I did help with a lot of research, editing and in some sections ghostwriting for this book, Richard Schwartz is indeed the primary author. We started out doing it co-authored in dialogue form (sort of the Jewish version of the "City Mouse and the Country Mouse" -- he has spent all his life in the New York City area) but that didn't work out.  So I decided to pull back and let it be his book, for the good of the project.  Still, he generously wanted to give me credit on the cover.   A couple of our original dialogues did make it into the Appendix area, along with a section on kapporot that we had previously co-authored.  And we did include both of our bios.

As for the cover, here's my explanation of the design:

The background photo (#ISS028-E-020072 from the NASA files) was taken aboard the International Space Station on July 31, 2011, when the sun was just below the horizon. When observed from space, the palette of gaseous layers of our atmosphere reminds us of the fragility and tenuousness of the thin cocoon that shelters life on Earth from the cold harsh vacuum of outer space. Without this precious envelope of air, life on Earth could not exist.

A thin crescent of the new moon appears to hang above the Earth, although in reality it is more than 238,855 miles away. On the Jewish calendar, the important holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins the High Holy Days season of repentance, always begins on a New Moon. Perhaps the message of this photo is to encourage us to think about how we are treating our planet’s fragile atmosphere, and to change our polluting ways before it is too late.

 Where to order:   

Who Stole My Religion?  is available in both print and ebook versions on  If you order the print version by February 17, use the coupon code FLIGHTLESS at checkout to get free ground shipping in the USA (and maybe elsewhere, too -- not sure about that, but give it a try):

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Due to the urgency of his message, Professor Schwartz has also made the PDF ebook version is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD (click here).  However, if you can afford it, you are encouraged to buy a download for $5 on to help support his efforts to help heal our planet.  Either way, in addition to getting your book super-fast, the download has the advantage of seeing the photos in color:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Will there be ebook versions for Kindle, iPad and Nook?

Not unless those programs are vastly improved for handling academic works.  Epub, the program used on iPad and Nook, completely reflows the text -- which means it does not respect page numbers, indented paragraphs for long quotes, footnotes, and other academic formats.  Every time the reader changes the font size, the pages are all renumbered.   Kindle does the same thing, plus the feedback on it's handling of footnotes is horrendous!  The fact is, these new e-reader formats are mostly suitable for novels and non-fiction works with plain prose text, but just can't handle the more complex layout of  an academic work.  Until such time as the program developers solve these problems, the format best suited to Who Stole My Religion? is PDF, which preserves the original layout and can be read on your desktop or laptop computer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You can't fast forward a sunset ~ and other TIME-ly thoughts

A while back I was teaching a circle dance to some children and told them to go clockwise.  They looked at me blankly and had no idea what I was talking about.  Their generation is used to digital clocks -- which do not go in circles at all -- and that got me to thinking about how we experience time.   "Clockwise" comes from the way that the shadow moves on a sundial.   Later, this was carried over onto the faces of mechanical clocks.  In both cases, time is seen as a continuous, cyclical flow.  

An hourglass, on the other hand, is not cyclical. It has a beginning and an end. But it still shows a flow of time, as the grains of sand slowly run down. A digital clock, however, shows time as broken up into a bunch of individual numbered moments that are often disconnected from each other.  All of this may seem like a bunch of nitpicking, but I wonder how it affects the way we see the natural world.   Nature goes in cycles. Days, months, years-- all are based on the somewhat circular patterns of rotations and orbits. Even the elliptical orbits of comets go in cycles.  And they all move at their own pace. But are we losing that sense of the "flow" of time?

So last week I was watching a program on PBS about how families are spending less and less time outdoors, and how this, combined with the high speed of modern technology, is indeed distorting our inner sense of time.  "You can't fast forward a sunset," one of the panelists said, and that statement has stuck with me. In a world where you can speed up, slow down, or freeze-frame a movie, or watch it over and over anytime you want to, the slow steady pace of nature  often seems boring. So kids prefer to stay indoors and play speedy video games instead.

Yet it is precisely that slowness that allows us to relax and tune in to God's creation.    Being with nature is a form of meditation. Our bodies evolved in nature, the Garden of Eden was in nature -- however you define it, we need the natural pace of with nature.  But nowadays, even meditation is speeded up -- or at least people try to shortcut it. They go to a weekend seminar to get "enlightened" and are disappointed it it doesn't "work" right away.   But true enlightenment is a lifelong process that takes hours and hours of quiet contemplation.  You can't get there by plunking down your money for a workshop and no, there isn't an app for it, either.

The only way you can freeze-frame a sunset - or any event in nature - is to take a picture of it. Even then, you only have a small part of the real experience.  In photographing sunrises (which I seem to do more than sunsets lately), I have found that there is always a perfect moment where everything in the picture is just right.  The minutes before and after that are beautiful, too, but that peak moment is the best picture in the series.  However, in order to capture that moment, I have to patiently sit there for about 45 minutes or more, because the sunrise is going to unfold at its own pace, and there's not a darned thing I can do about it. It's happening on God's time, not mine.

Watching a sunrise is a "letting go" experience that requires us to fit into nature's pace, not the other way around. Only when you are willing to just sit there quietly and absorb the experience are you able to notice the subtle changes from second to second and minute to minute. There's that magical moment about an hour before dawn,  when the first bird begins to sing, when the rooster begins to crow and the wild geese begin to honk. In Jewish law, the earliest time you can say the Shema prayer is when you can distinguish a blue thread from a white one.  Try it at dawn sometime.
Sunrise on the Gershom farm
Pine County, Minnesota, Sept. 21, 2006

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On children, dying pets, and the Circle of Life

On Friday morning, it was very clear that one of our cats, Tigger, was dying.  It was expected.  He was old and his health had not been good lately, but it was still sad.  As it turned out, we were babysitting two grandchildren, Chris (age 8) and Nick (almost 3), that same day.  So my wife and I debated:  Should we show them the dying cat or not?  Would it be a trauma, or a lesson in compassion?  We decided it would be best to tell them and let them say goodbye to their friend.

Tigger in 2007
He was barely alive when the kids arrived, but still aware enough to respond to petting.  I explained that he would probably slip into a coma soon and die in his sleep before the day was over.  And that's what happened.   Cats often go off and hide when they die, and I did not want that happening where I could not find him.  So we put him in the cat carrier when I was not holding him.  He willingly went in there, instinctively wanting some privacy.   By mid-afternoon, he was gone. 

We couldn't bury him right away because the Sabbath was coming, but it was cold enough outside that we could store his body in the shed until Sunday morning.  I wrapped him in a small blanket with his head sticking out, and 3-year-old Nick said, "Bye, meow," which is his word for cat.   8-year-old Chris understood death better, and could see that the spirit was gone from Tigger's eyes.  It was a very sad time, but also an opportunity to talk about death.  Chris asked if he could help me bury Tigger on Sunday, and I said he could.

So this morning we did just that.  It had been raining but God gave us a window of opportunity when the rain stopped and we could go into the back field where we have our pet cemetery.   Chris and I went together, leaving my wife with the toddler, since she has trouble walking on rough terrain and we weren't sure when the rain would start again.

Chris and I dug the hole together, then lined the bottom with dried goldenrod flowers.  We laid Tigger in the grave, wrapped in one of his favorite cat blankets.   Chris is part Cree Indian on his mother's side, and he wanted to follow the Native custom of putting tobacco in the grave, so he did.  This is not my custom, and frankly it's a bit pagan from the Jewish point of view, but when it comes to funerals, I think it's important for the mourners to be able to express grief in ways meaningful to them.  Tigger was as much his cat as mine, maybe more so, since it was Chris' mother who had found him abandoned as a kitten in a gas station parking lot.  They couldn't keep him at the time, so the cat came to live with us, but Chris always looked for him when  he came to visit.

As we filled in the grave, we talked about the Circle of Life, and how everyone eventually dies, to make room for new animals and people.  I told him the story of the Rainbow Bridge, which, although it is a piece of modern poetry and not Scripture per se,  is as good a metaphor as any for animals going to heaven.   Personally, I do believe the souls of our animals will join us in the Next World.  After all, the Jewish metaphor for heaven is the Garden of Eden, and it had animals in it, right?  Perhaps that is where the lion really can lie down with the lamb.

We marked the grave with rocks and I told Chris how, when Jews visit a grave, we leave a small stone in remembrance -- a custom dating all the way back to biblical times.   So the funeral had both Native and Jewish elements, expressing each of our beliefs.  Then the rain started again.  We headed back to feed the chickens, then returned to the house.  We didn't talk much on the way back, but there was a sense of closure and we felt Tigger's soul was at peace. 

Some people may wonder why I didn't have the cat euthanized when it was obvious that he was going downhill.  The answer is the same that I would give for a dying human:  I believe it is better for the soul to transition naturally into the Next World whenever possible.  And yes, I do believe animals have souls, as I have written before on this blog.  Although Tigger had health problems, he was not in serious pain as far as I could tell.  Up until the last day, he responded to being held, purred in happiness when petted, and slept next to me on the couch.  So I felt it better to accept that he was dying, and give him the hospice care he needed for comfort.  It was a good decision -- for all of us.

Tigger (right) and Bugsy, a feline friend
who crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2009.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Building my own Sukkah from stuff in the woods

Last week I spent three days building my sukkah, the little booth that Jews erect for the Festival Sukkot.   The sukkah has many meanings.  First of all, it reminds us of the days of wandering in the wilderness with Moses.  It also teaches us that this life is a journey through a world that is not permanent.  And it is a celebration of the harvest, the time when we have gathered in our crops and can enjoy the fruits of our labors.

White pine for shchach --
courtesy of road maintenance!
The basic requirements for building a sukkah are simple:  It must have 3 walls, and the shchach (roof covering) must be made of natural materials cut from the earth.  The sides can be made from anything handy, including the wall of an existing building if you build it against the house or other structure.  However, the location must be open to the sky, not under a tree or other obstruction.

Nowadays you can buy prefab sukkah kits made out of plywood or various other materials in a variety of designs.  However, these are rather pricey and way beyond our tight budget.  Besides, my wife and I are getting a bit old to be hauling heavy plywood panels in and out of the shed each year.  So, I called upon my old Boy Scout skills to lash together a framework of saplings that I cut from the woods on my own land. 

I use nylon twine instead of the old sisal kind, because, although it is harder to tie permanent knots with, it does not rot or stretch, although some kinds will degrade in a couple years from exposure to sunlight.  But for a sukkah it's fine.  Through trial and error, I found that tying it off with a square knot, followed by three overhand knots up tight against the first knot, pretty much keeps the ends from untying.

This creates a rather permanent frame that I leave up after the holiday, making repairs each year as needed.  However, last winter the snow was so unusually heavy, it collapsed the whole thing (read that story), so I had to start over from scratch.  But I can't really complain, because the old sukkah frame had lasted over 10 years.  Still, it is a lot of work to drag all those new poles in from the woods.  Not to mention finding appropriate trees in the first place.

Andy Cat, one of my "helpful"
construction workers who loves string!
Luckily, I had a bit of help from a road maintenance crew.  About two  weeks before I began my sukkah-building project, they came through and cut down a bunch of trees and brush along our road for fire control.  This gave me a set of nice straight maple poles -- all the verticals in the new sukkah frame are made from this free material.  I also got a good supply of white pine branches from trees they trimmed that were overhanging the road.  That, plus prunings from my own white pine that had bent down too low to mow under, gave me enough shchach to cover the sukkah.  Not only was this economical, it was also ecological, because I used materials that would otherwise have gone to waste.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Here is what the sukkah looked like after I got the basic framework up.  Four cinder blocks help to anchor it in place.   It still needs some more diagonal braces, which I installed after this picture was taken.  (I used a flash at early dawn,  to show up the frame better against the trees in the background.)

Covering the sukkah was a challenge this year, because most of the old sheets and bedspreads I used before were either torn or moldy.  My wife is very allergic to mold, so I had to throw most of it out and start over.   Because Rosh HaShanah had come back-to-back with the Sabbath, and Yom Kippur was on the Sabbath itself this year, I could not take advantage of all those Friday garage sales to find more used cloth.   Not to worry --  I did have a lot of feed sacks and some clear plastic on hand, so I used those instead.  To keep the wind from tearing these rather fragile materials off the frame, I put a strip of corrugated cardboard over the plastic where I was stapling to the wood.   That reinforced it very well.  The cardboard, of course, came from old boxes I got at the grocery.

Here is how the sukkah turned out.  The outside table has a bucket of water for the ritual handwashing, and there is room for more chairs around the card table if needed.  The side table is very handy for setting dishes aside.  Both of the low gray tables, by the way, are ones we already had for flea market sales,  A fourth wall could be added in front, perhaps by hanging a blanket, but that would have prevented me photographing the inside for this blog post.  Besides, we enjoy looking out at the scenery.

Definitely primitive, but functional.  And much closer to what Moses actually used.  He certainly didn't have any plywood on hand.  Then again, he didn't have any plastic, either.  (He probably used animal skins.)   But still, this sukkah did well to evoke the story of wandering in the wilderness.  Spiritually, what I got from this whole project is that we are to bloom where we are planted, and that God will provide for us, be we must also be creative in using what is available.  "Who is rich?  He who is satisfied with his portion!" (Talmud, Pirkei Avot.)  And by the way:  The whole thing only cost me about $15 out of pocket, for the nylon twine and some staples.  Thoreau would have been so proud!

(UPDATE 2012:  This year, the sukkah got an upgrade:  I was able to find enough old sheets at the thrift store to cover it with cloth instead of old feed sacks.  Since we took "salvage" quality rejects, we got enough for the whole sukkah for $5. The schach this year is tall grass and goldrenrod stalks.  My wife added the "woman's touch" with some fall-themed decorations.  It was also her idea to use the flowered sheet for the front -- making it nice and homey-looking.   And BTW, although the frame now leans a bit where it has settled in since last year, it is still good and sturdy, although I did add a few more diagonal braces.)

The sukkah upgraded in 2012
Here's a picture from 2019.  When we put in a ramp a couple years ago, we had to move the sukkah.  The only place near the house not shaded by a tree was farther away, so we set up a row of solar garden lights leading to it, and a solar spotlight inside. Also got a better folding table.

Revised version with solar lights

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kapparot ritual -- how tradition has become a travesty

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is coming soon, and with it comes the annual culture war over a ceremony called kapparot, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day.    The PETA and animal rights people will  be shouting "Meat is murder" while the Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony will shout about antisemitism and accuse the activists of trying to shut down the whole kosher meat industry.  And nobody will really be listening to each other.  As a Hasidic Jew who is also a vegetarian, I understand both sides of the issue, and would like to share some suggestions for better communication.  (For basic background information on the history and meaning of the ceremony itself, see The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition , by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D, and me.)

Respect, not insults, please

First of all, animal rights people, for outsiders to call any traditional culture "barbaric" or "medieval" or "primitive" or whatever never really works.  It only causes the traditionalists to circle the wagons.   And it goes without saying that sending nasty, obscene, anti-Jewish and/or personally insulting messages to various rabbis is not going to win any converts to your cause.  Would you stand outside a Native American (Indian) ceremony and shout about "primitive barbarism" because they wear feathers and furs?  Of course not, that would be "politically incorrect" now, wouldn't it?   So what makes you think it is any better to do it to the Jews?

If you yourself are Jewish but not Hasidic, please try to keep negative stereotypes out of the dialogue.  Even I, who am both a vegetarian and an opponent of using live chickens for kapparot, will get turned off if you start shouting anti-Orthodox epithets at me.  Stick to the specific issue at hand and don't go dragging in feminism, gay marriage, dress codes, Israeli politics, "who is a Jew" or references to the movie Yentl.  In other words, don't use the opportunity to dump on me everything you always wanted to yell at an Orthodox Jew.   I care about the welfare of chickens the same as you do -- even if I do dress funny in your eyes.  (In fact, all the pix in this article are of my own birds on my vegetarian, no-kill farm.)

Both sides would do well to visit the site of the Alliance to End Chickens As Kapporos, an org that has both Jews and Gentiles participating.  However, please be aware that the Alliance is sponsored by United Poultry Concerns, a  radical vegan org run by Karen Davis, who tends to mix in that agenda with the anti-kapporos campaign, to the point of not using any materials (including links to this article) that are not 100% vegan in approach.  In spite of this rather narrow dogmatic viewpoint, the org is doing some good work, and has an excellent set of reference links on their page.  Just remember:  You do NOT have to become a vegan in order to stop using chickens for kapporos!

Ridicule does not work

In a recent dialogue with an animal rights activist, he told me the best way to handle this would be to use rubber chickens to make fun of the ceremony ala Mark Twain, so that it would be rendered ridiculous through satire.  But that is exactly the WRONG way to go about it.  Most Hasidic Jews have probably never read Mark Twain (if they even know who he is) and won't see this as satire, they will see it as "a bunch of ignorant goyim ridiculing the Jews again."  If you really want to change minds and hearts, then you need to educate yourself first.  Learn how to respectfully dialogue from within the context of the culture and maybe, just maybe, they might listen to you.  Keep in mind that for the people practicing kapparot, it is a serious religious ceremony, even if you do not understand it.

Neither does playing the "antisemitism card"

On the other hand, my Hasidic brethren, it is unfair to judge the whole animal rights movement by a few nuts who send nasty messages to your email box.  PETA is not trying to shut down the entire kosher meat industry.  In fact, PETA has affirmed that kosher slaughtering, when done properly, is humane.  Animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has worked with PETA as a consultant on slaughterhouse issues, also affirms this.  The key words are "done properly."  Animal rights activists (including me) see this as referring not only to the moment of slaughter, but also to how the animals are treated before slaughter.  And we should also point out that it is not only secular activists who have concerns about using chickens in modern kapparot ceremonies.  Numerous Orthodox rabbis have also condemned it for various reasons of Jewish law.  (For a partial list of articles, see Orthodox Rabbis rethink chicken kapparot)

 From rural villages to urban communities

In order to have respectful dialogue, both sides need a bit of history first.  In the days when Jews lived in small towns (stetls), the kapparot chicken was a locally-raised bird slaughtered and eaten for the pre-Yom Kippur meal, same as any other chicken dinner.  (Chicken, at that time, was a luxury saved for special occasions like the Sabbath and festivals.)  A person would simply choose a bird from their own flock, or buy it from a neighbor, then walk across the village square, have it slaughtered, and take it home to be cleaned, plucked, and prepared for dinner.   In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (16th-century Code of Jewish law) says not to specifically seek out a white chicken (in reference to Isaiah 1:18, where "though your sins be scarlet,  they shall be white as snow") or pay more for it than usual, because this resembles the superstitions of the pagans (darchei ha-Emori).  Instead, people should use whatever chickens they already have on hand, the same as for any other meal.   This clearly indicates that raising and slaughtering chickens was an ordinary part of everyday life.

A mixed flock of chickens
The problem today is that most Hasidim are living in urban areas where live chickens are a rare sight, period.  The majority of urban Jews (even non-Hasidim) probably never see a live chicken except for this ceremony once a year.  These birds come,  not from local free-run flocks as in the old days, but from commercial factory farms located many miles away.  Nowadays the poor chickens are crammed into tiny cages so tightly they can hardly move, then piled onto open trucks, and driven to town, sometimes for days without any food or water.  In some cases, shopkeepers selling these chickens have left them out in the sun and rain for many days, again without food or water. 

Cruelty to animals is forbidden by Judaism

In Shivchei Ha-Ari, there is a story about Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic, telling a student that he had lost his place in the World to Come for failing to feed and water his chickens properly.  The cries of those suffering chickens were canceling out all the prayers and Torah learning of that student.   This is based on the general principle that one cannot commit a sin -- in this case, cruelty to animals -- in order to do a mitzvah (religious commandment, in this case, studying Torah.)   While Luria did approve of kapparot in his day, I find myself wondering if he would still give his approval under modern conditions.  I suspect not.  Trucking in factory farm chickens and mistreating them along the way nullifies any spiritual value in kapparot, and turns tradition into a travesty.
Humanely holding a chicken

The birds may also suffer while they are being handled for sale or during the ceremony, because many urban Jews are unfamiliar with the proper, humane way to hold a chicken while waiting in line.  Which should be by holding the bird upright, holding the feet to prevent kicking, and supporting the weight of the body -- as I am demonstrating in the photo here.  A chicken should not be held with the wings painfully pinned back, as is done at Rabbi Shea Hecht’s New York Chabad kapparot centers. 

I suspect that Hecht's method has more to do with not getting one's clothes dirty than with the comfort of the chicken.  Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea what Hecht's method would feel like.  The feet of a chicken are made to support its weight; the wings are not.  The proper way to hold a chicken is to have the bird upright, holding the feet and tucking the body under the arm to control the wings if flapping is a problem.  

It's waving, not "swinging" a chicken

On the other hand, I must point out to the animal rights people that the chicken is not "swung"or "slugged" over the head (as is often mistranslated on the Internet lately), giving the wrong impression that it is whirled around like a pitcher winding up for a fastball.  Not so.  The chicken is gently waved in a small circle over the head, in imitation of a "wave offering" as was done over the altar in biblical times.  Older pictures and paintings of this ceremony, show the bird being held properly and waved in this way.  Continuing to call it "chicken swinging" for sensationalist purposes only makes you look ignorant and foolish to the people who actually practice this ceremony.  Plus, it might even mislead some Jews to think they are supposed to swing the chicken, which would be doing it wrong.  Again, if you want to change something, get your facts straight first!  (This article continues below the picture.)
This old engraving from the Middle Ages
clearly shows the chickens being held upright by the feet,
not dangled by their wings as some people do today.

Using money instead of chickens

 Using money for the ceremony instead of a live chicken has long been an acceptable substitute, and this is what I do.   So do many other Orthodox Jews.  An amount of money equal to (or better than) the value of the chicken is waved over the head and then donated to charity. 

However, Rabbi Shea Hecht, who is a major promoter of kapparot in the New York City area, doesn't feel he gets enough emotional kick out of using money.   "The main part of the service," he said in a 2009 MPR interview, "is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered.  Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, 'Oops, you know what? That could have been me.' "

Frankly, this statement disturbs me deeply, for the following reason:  What kind of message are we sending to our children about Judaism?  And yes, there are children present at kapparot ceremonies.  Are we telling them, "If you don't behave, you could end up dead like that chicken"?  Are we telling them that Judaism is a religion of fear, that they should live in terror of God slaughtering them like a helpless bird if they step out of line?   Do we want them to harden their hearts against the suffering of animals?  I seem to recall a child abuse case several years ago where a daycare facility made kids watch a rabbit be killed.  How is this any different? 

It is well known than abuse of animals leads to abuse of people.  This was probably not the case with kapparot when raising animals for food was a part of village life, and seeing a chicken slaughtered was nothing out of the ordinary.  But nowadays, it is being done completely out of context, as a strange, scary, bloody ceremony meant to frighten us into obedience.   The majority of modern Hasidim not only do not raise chickens, they rarely keep pets or have any personal contact with animals at all.   Witnessing the slaughter of a kapparot chicken may well be the only contact with animals that these children have all year.  And they are not healthy, happy, beautiful birds like the ones in the pix on this blog.  Very often, they are sickly, scraggly birds with ragged broken feathers, half-starved  from being kept in "battery hen" cages. 

What kind of message does that send to our children?    Certainly it does not teach them that chickens are sentient, feeling beings with a social structure in their flocks, over 40 different calls, and the ability to pass learned behavior down to the next generation of chicks.  Nor does it teach them about the love a mother hen has for her chicks -- an image we sometimes use of God, who shelters us like a mother bird. 

The true means of repentance
The heart of kapparot for me is not slaughtering a bird for the shock value, but in repenting of my sins.  The Yom Kippur liturgy says that "repentance, prayer and charity averts the evil decree," So giving charity can nullify any bad karma coming to me from my wrong deeds.  Not only does killing a chicken not atone for my sins, it would seem that the cruelty involved in this ceremony nowadays compounds the sins I might already have, heaven forbid.

Some Jewish leaders have also felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person's sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings.  For, if the ritual could remove a person's sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?  What would be the need for soul-searching and repentance?  Repentance does not come from abusing and killing a bird, but from a true change of heart. 

This is why, if you still use chickens for this ceremony, I ask you to have a change of heart this year, too.  Use money instead, and don't lose your place in the World to Come because of cruelty to animals.   Show mercy to God's creatures, as God shows mercy to you.  Treat the chickens kindly, and let them live.

See also my one-minute 2013 video, "Kapporos: A Heartfelt Plea For Mercy", produced by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos.

To learn how you can be effective in this campaign, get my new book, just out on June 4:  Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition available on  Neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-True" religious tract, I approach the issue as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, offering numerous reasons why using money is a better option today -- but also critiquing both sides for both their strong and weak points.  WARNING:  Whether you are for or against using chickens as Kapporos, this book requires an open mind to read. 

UPDATE 2014:  I have written a one-page handout directed at Hasidim on the issue of not using chicken for kapporos. No, it is not vegan or even vegetarian , but it is not directed at vegetarians, it is intended for Hasidim and argues from within the context of Hasidic thought.  Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom. 
A free-range rooster named Star takes
a walk on my Minnesota hobby farm.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Autumn Leaves and Rosh Hashanah Thoughts

Tomorrow night begins Rosh Hashanah 5772,  the Jewish New Year.  As I wrote in a previous post, it comes in the fall in the Northern Hemisphere.  This year it is rather late, due to the cycles of the Hebrew Lunar Calendar.   Because there are no major Christian holidays at this time, many people have never heard of the Jewish High Holy Day cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot, the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles, as the KJV mistranslated.)  However, these holidays are much, much more important on our calendar that Hanukkah, which everyone has heard of because it comes near Christmas. 

Fall blackberry leaves
By Yonassan Gershom
Pine County, MN
In the natural world, the leaves are already turning fall colors here in Minnesota.  It might seem odd to begin a new year in the fall, when everything is going dormant.  Why not start in the spring, when new things are being born?  However, there is a spiritual reason for this.

The Jewish New Year, unlike the secular New Year, is not a time of parties and revelry.  It's a time of repentance and serious introspection, the Day of Judgement when God opens the Book of Life and looks at the karma of the world.  So it is appropriate that this holy day should come when the natural growth cycle is ending and old leaves are falling off, when we are looking over our past deeds, rather than focusing on the future.  This is a time to shed old behaviors, to bare our souls before God the way the trees are baring their branches.  A time to repent of our old mistakes and promise not to do them again.
Autumn Oak Leaves
By Yonassan Gershom
Pine County, MN

  Another symbolism connected with Rosh Hashanah is wearing white clothing, because of the verse, "Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." (Isaiah 1:18)  So once again, the brilliant red leaves falling off the trees are a reminder of the negative behaviors we seek to drop at this time of year.  They are beautiful for the moment, as temptations often seem to be, but they do not last very long.  At the same time, those falling leaves can, if composted properly, become fertilizer under the winter snow, for a better crop next year.  In the same way, understanding our past deeds becomes food for thought -- mental fertilizer if you will -- for improving our lives in the future.

Rosh Hashanah always comes at the dark of the moon, then the season moves toward greater light.  Much of Jewish symbolism focuses on moving from darkness into light.  Our days begin at sundown, based on the story of Creation in Genesis ("It was evening and it was morning...") where the very creation of the universe went from darkness to light.  So, as we move from Rosh Hashanah, the Judgement Day, toward Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the moon is getting brighter and brighter, until on Sukkot, the Harvest Festival, it is full.  In  the same way, we go from the somewhat depressing prospect of examining our past sins, toward making amends during the Ten Days of Repentance, until we receive forgiveness on Yom Kippur.  After that, we move forward together, to celebrate in the sukkah during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths - which I shall tell you more aobut in a future post.

Meanwhile, wishing everyone Shanah Tovah -- may you have a blessed, prosperous, and peace-filled New Year!
Flaming Fall Oak
by Yonassan Gershom
Pine County, MN

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Viewing my autism as a gift, not a curse

When I was a child back in the 1950s, neither ADHD nor Asperger's (both of which I have) were even on the radar.  Because I had good verbal and reading skills, nobody ever saw me as 'disabled' or 'special' -- just a problem child who "does not work or play well with others."  (How many times was THAT on my report card?)  I was, they often said, "too smart for my own good" -- probably because I was talking by nine months, reading by the time I went to kindergarten, and into college material by 5th grade.  My family nicknames were "Chatterbox" and "Professor." A neighbor once told my mother not to let me come over there anymore, because I "made her feel stupid."

On the other hand, I was (and still am) socially inept, because I don't read body language or facial expressions very well, and I often fail to pick up nonverbal cues.   Throughout grade school I was the butt of ridicule and bullying by my peers ("Why do you always look at the ceiling?" they jeered), so that by the time I reached high school, I had pretty much withdrawn from all activities and almost flunked out.  The only reason I got into college at all was because I had really high SAT scores.   Eventually I got tracked into being a rabbi because I am a good scholar but, alas, most American Jews don't really want scholars, they want "schmoozy" social directors.  And that is something I am unable to do very well.  So, I ended up as a freelance writer.

Given all of this, how could I possibly believe, as the title of this post suggests, that my autism is a gift?   As a child, I did not believe that.  Well into adulthood, I thought I was cursed.   I spent years of loneliness trying to figure out why I could not fit in anywhere.  But recently I have come to realize how being an Aspie gives me a unique and different perspective on the world, and that it has helped my writing immensely.   My ability to remember precise details, make fine distinctions among various categories of things, and see complex interconnections all give my writing a clear, fine precision.

"Big Oak 3"
by Yonassan Gershom
(An old growth oak on my land)
As many of my readers know, I literally "wrote the book" on the subject of Holocaust reincarnation cases (Beyond the Ashes, 1992), and I believe my autism made this possible.  I was able to be emotionally detached enough to sift through the material without being overwhelmed by the horror and sadness of the stories. 

I also  believe my odd personality prevented this from becoming a cult, heaven forbid.  Since I have zero charisma as a New Age guru, it was not likely that any groupies would blindly idolize me.   In fact, readers are often very disappointed to discover that the author of the book they love is a chattering Aspie nerd who does not fit their stereotype of "spiritual."  And that is for the best. 
Autism also influences my photography.  You have probably noticed that there are no people in my photos.  Frankly, I find pictures of people to be terminally boring.  The last publication I would ever buy is People magazine, and I have never once watched a reality show like Survivor or The Bachelor.  All babies look pretty much the same to me, and I mix up adult faces as well.   For example, I know, that William Shatner is Captain Kirk on classical Star Trek, but if I see Shatner in another role, I might not immediately recognize him.  I might not recognize you right away, either, if I see you out of your usual context (such as in the grocery instead of at work.)   Which does not make for very good personal relationships. 

"Calico Kitten"
by Yonassan Gershom
On the other hand, nature fascinates me, and my ability to hyperfocus on small details helps me see the world through a creative lens.  I have hundreds of photos of the sky and clouds, as well as landscapes, trees, flowers.  I also have a great rapport with animals, too, especially cats.  I guess you could say I'm a Cat Whisperer.  Even cats that people claim are impossible to hold or pet will come up to me, rubbing and purring.   I would not ever want to give that up in order to  be "cured" and become a Normie.

As Temple Grandin once said (and I am paraphrasing here), if the socialites had been running the world for the past few millennia, we would all be still just sitting around in caves, chatting and gossiping.   When you look at great inventors and writers, they were often oddballs who did not fit in, but they saw the world through different enough eyes to come up with original ideas. 

I'm convinced that Thomas Edison was an Aspie -- how else could he hyperfocus on a single idea so intensely that he tried a thousand ways to make a light bulb?  And Bill Gates, who was the butt of jokes for many years because of his personality, turned out to be an Aspie also.  Perhaps he was not the most sociable person on the planet, but he did invent the idea of a loadable operating system, thereby making modern computing possible.  Were it not for Aspies like Edison and Gates, you would not now be reading this blog.   Remember that next time you want to "cure" people like me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wild Turkeys -- hard freeze tonight -- picking green tomatoes

This has to be the most cruelty-free wild turkey feather ever -- it was dropped on our dirt road by a passing flock of turkeys about a week ago.   I frequently see turkeys around here, sometimes as many as 20 or more.   I wish I knew where they are roosting -- then I could find lots of feathers!

This morning our dogs were raising a ruckus from inside the house, and when I looked outside, there was a crow walking down the road.  I thought it was odd to see a crow taking a stroll there, but thought maybe he was looking for gravel or grains.  Then I saw the turkeys following behind.  At least, that's how it looked.  I grabbed my camera but of course, as soon as I went outside, the crow let out a warning call and the turkeys all ran into the bush.   I did get a good enough look to see that there were 5 adults and 2 older juveniles. 

Was the crow actually serving as a lookout for the turkeys?  It sure looked like it.  And he did fly off in the same direction that they went.

On another topic, we are due for a hard frost tonight -- going down to 26F, which is probably going to break some records around here. This is really early for a killing frost. Way too cold for tomatoes to survive, even if they are covered.  So I'm taking a break right now from picking and storing them all in the shed.   Some will ripen, and for the rest, I've got lots of recipes using green tomatoes -- fried, pickled, in sauces and relishes.   (BTW, naturally-ripening tomatoes do so from the inside out.  Any tomato showing some whitish or reddish on the skin is already ripening inside and will eventually turn red.) 

I've already pickled all my cukes, picked all my beans, onions, leeks and hot peppers, made sauerkraut and kimchi from the cabbages, jelly from the grapes.   All in all, it was a pretty good year for the garden.  Tonight we are making apple butter and applesauce, using fruit from our trees.  All of this certainly helps with the winter food budget.

Scarlet Sumac leaves against the sky
Pine County, Minnesota

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Birds flocking, crickets chirping -- Rosh Hashanah is coming soon!

 I woke up very early this morning and went outside for a dawn walk, to be met with the squawking of a huge flock of birds waking up in a distant tree. (Probably starlings, they were too far away to positively ID.)  I don't have a telephoto lens, just a digital point-and-shoot, but was able to snap this pic just as the flock took off with the sunrise.   Even though it's not the best photo I ever took, I'm pretty proud of it -- migrating birds have gathered in that same tree for years, and this is the first time I was able to capture them taking flight.

Flocks of chattering birds mean autumn is coming.  So does another sound:  the chirping of crickets.  I have always heard this as a sweet-sad sound: sweet, because I love the song of crickets, and sad, because it marks the beginning of the end of summer.  Crickets are around earlier, of course, but they do not get their song until they shed their skins for the final time and the males get wings with the "instrument" to make the sound.  It is the wings -- not the legs as is commonly thought -- that crickets rub together for this sound. 

A third sound that I associate with fall is not made by nature, although it does require a natural  object to produce it.  This is the sound of the shofar or ram's horn, that Jews blow on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as well as during the Hebrew month of Elul that preceeds the holy day.   The Jewish calendar is lunar, so the exact date of Rosh Hashanah varies form year to year, but it is usually in September.  (This year it is quite late, beginning after sundown on the 28th.)

Typical ram's horn Shofar
Some Christian Bibles mistakenly translate shofar as "trumpet" and refer to Rosh Hashanah as "the Feast of Trumpets."  The first time somebody asked me about the Feast of Trumpets, I had no idea what they were talking about, because no Jew would ever mistake a shofar for a trumpet.  Trumpets were also blown in the ancient Jerusalem Temple, but a shofar is definitely not a trumpet!  The shofar is an ancient, primitive horn that is literally made from an animal's  horn, usually from a male sheep but it can also be from a goat or gazelle.  (Never a cow, though, because of the sin of the Golden Calf.)   The shofar produces an archetypal, visceral sound that shakes the very soul and is meant to wake us up spiritually.  "Wake up, wake up!" the shofar says, "Return to the path of God, your Creator!"

I suppose that in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is now the beginning of spring, not fall, there are other nature sounds that Jews associate with Rosh Hashanah.  But for me, it is the sound of the crickets and the calls of migrating birds that remind me the High Holy Days are coming.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Night of the Polyphemus Moths

When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to find lots of the Giant Silk Moths (Saturniidae), such as Cecropia, Luna, Polyphemus, Ailanthus, etc. -- even in the city, where their caterpillars fed on leaves of street trees, and the moths came fluttering to the windows.    But in recent years their populations have declined, due to loss of habitat, insecticides and, some scientist believe, night flight confusion caused by light pollution.  When we moved to the country in 1988, I was looking forward to maybe seeing them again, but even here, sightings are few and far between.

So you can imagine my delight when, in the spring of 2005,  I found a Polyphemus cocoon under a birch tree in our yard.   I put the cocoon in a bed of dead leaves (simulating its natural environment) in an empty fish tank with a screen top, and awaited the emergence of the moth.

Female Polyphemus Moth
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
On June 30, 2005 she emerged -- but the weather was so cold and windy (with 50 mph winds) that I could not release her.  The storm continued thru Saturday night, so I attempted to release her on Sunday at dusk, which was around 10:00 PM here in the midsummer northland.  I took the top off the cage, put it in the upstairs window with the screen open, and expected her to sail off into the woods the way butterflies do when I release them in the daytime.  Only the moth would not fly away.

What I did not know is that a female Polyphemus does not fly until after she mates.  So she just sat there in the open cage, giving off her pheromone mating call -- and wow, did it work!  Around midnight I went upstairs to see if she was gone, and the room was full of polyphemus moths!  The female had flown, all right, leaving behind six suitors who were still sitting in her cage and on the walls, getting high, I suppose, on the lingering smell of female moth.

That was more of these big moths than I had seen in many years.   I was surprised but also pleased, because it indicated the local population was bigger than I had thought.  I later read that a male can detect a female from a mile away -- or even more.  Whether or not there were other females in the same radius sending out their mating scent to other males, I do not know.  But six males on my land in one night was certainly beautiful!  I carefully picked up each moth and put them out the window, watching them fly off into the night.   Two years later, in May 2007, I found an empty Polyphemus cocoon under the same tree.  I like to think it was descended from  the Night of the Polyphemus Moths.

In more recent years, I have found empty cocoons of Cecropias and an occasional Polyphemus or Luna, but have not seen many of the adult moths.  Still, it's nice to know they are still out there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

To collect or not to collect -- is that really the question?

A while back, I had a conversation with a vegan who thought it was wrong for children to catch fireflies in jars.  Her reasoning was, that the flashes were mating signals and we would be interrupting their love lives.  "How would you like to just fall in love and then somebody grabs you and puts you in a cage?"  Interesting anthropomorphism, and a perfect example of how our society confuses sex with love.  But I highly doubt that fireflies actually fall in love.   A Black Widow spider certainly doesn't -- she EATS her mate.  So does a praying mantis sometimes. Nature in the raw is often far from romantic.

Still, the question remains:  Is it ethical to allow children to collect living things from nature?  My vegan friends say no, we don't need zoos or bugs in jars, the kids can learn from watching nature videos.  But TV just isn't "real" in the same way as seeing the actual live animal.  Things happen fast on nature shows because they edit out the long hours of waiting for the "action."  But actually stalking a frog takes focus and patience!

Thinking back to my own childhood, we regularly caught fireflies, watched them flash in the jar in our rooms after lights out, then released them in the morning.  I can't say what effect this had on the fireflies, but I do know that my sister and I learned a lot from watching the various bugs, toads, snakes, and other things we caught and kept in captivity for a while.   From our "catch and release" activities, we discovered a lot about nature firsthand.

We learned that you can't just throw any old leaves in with the caterpillars, you need the right species of plant and a way to keep the leaves fresh (which we accomplished by covering the mouth of a small jar of water with foil, then poking holes for the plant stems.  The food stayed fresh without caterpillars falling into the water and drowning.)   We learned what toads, snakes and turtles eat, and how they eat it, where to find it.   And we also learned how to look up and identify the things we found.  By 5th grade, I was reading college-level biology books.   And I must admit that I also collected insects in the usual way, mounting them on pins in boxes and attracting the attention of the high school biology teacher, who invited me to go on a museum entomology field trip.   Although I no longer collect, I still love entomology.

So I find myself wondering if kids today, who are often  forbidden by well-meaning parents to do this kind of hands-on learning, are  really discovering very much about the outdoors.  Have we gotten so politically correct about nature that we are defeating the purpose by creating a barrier between children and nature?  Lately there has been a public service ad running about "discover the forest," where two kids wander into the woods, turn over a log and look at some bugs, and then Shrek come along and eats one (a bug, that is, not a child!)  A cute fantasy, but in real life, how many parents would let their kids turn over a log in the first place?  (If you do, please teach them to put it back as it was when they are done, so you don't destroy the homes of things that live there.)

When I was a kid, there would have been no need for such an advertisement.   You could hardly keep me out of the small suburban woodlot we called our "forest."  Contrast that with my 8-year-old grandson, who has been spending daycare time with us in the country this summer, and who, although he has 15 acres here to play and explore in, rarely goes outside on his own.   Too boring.  When he first came, he could not tell a daisy from a sunflower, but has gradually learned some basics about the outdoors.   Today, we both looked up an unfamiliar purple flower and learned it was a species of vervain.  When we are outside, we watch things happening in nature, such as bees pollenating squash flowers or wasps hunting caterpillars among the broccoli -- things he would never stop and watch on his own.   One day, I took him into the back woods and then told him to lead me home.  He did -- by following the sound of our roosters crowing and our geese honking.  "See?" I said, "You won't get lost if you pay attention to what is around you."

So is it ethical to catch and collect things?  I think it depends on how you do it.  Certainly it is wrong to pull wings off flies or leave animals starving or dying of boredom in cages.  But I see nothing wrong with letting kids keep a toad for a few days, then release it back into it own environment.  When I find a snake or turtle, I bring it in the house for the kids to see.  Who knows?  Maybe the snake benefits spirtually from having helped a child learn more about the world.   In the long run, maybe a little reptilian inconvenience now might well save that snake's home in the future.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on death while burying a pet chicken

One of my old hens died last night.  She apparently went peacefully in her sleep, because I found her under the roost where she usually sat.  As I was burying her out in the woods, I found myself thinking back to when I was a child, and how my mother told me it was useless to have pets, because, she said,  "They only die anyway."  I don't know where she got this attitude.  Did she have a beloved cat or dog that died in her own childhood?  Or was she simply repeating something that she herself had heard as a child?  She never told me.  All I know is that although she eventually relented and let us have a dog, she never really bonded with him. 

The Talmud tells us that Adam and Eve felt much the same way after Cain killed Abel.  Adam was so heartbroken over this, that he didn't have intercourse with Eve for 130 years.  (see Talmud, Eruvin 18).   Why bring more children into the world if they are just going to die anyway?  But God wanted Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," so eventually they slept together again.   And so it continues to this day.  

Unlike my mother, I have had many, many companion animals over the years.   And I have outlived all but the ones that are still with me.  The fact of the matter is, the human lifespan is much longer than that of most animals.  Which means that the individual animals who were alive when I was born 63 years ago are already dead, with perhaps the exception of a few long-lived species like parrots and Galapogos tortoises.  Why should this be?  Perhaps it is God's way of helping us deal with the impermanence of life on earth.  I have grieved at the death of each of my animals, but I have also learned, over the years, that death is not something to be feared.  It's a natural part of the cycle of life. 

Animals seem to know when death is coming.  I once had a dog named Shunka (which is Lakota for "dog") who would walk with me in the woods.   As he got older he went deaf and was somewhat confused, perhaps from a minor stroke, but he knew the trail well.  Every morning we would walk the same route, past the chicken coop, into the woods to the big oak tree, then back around to the house.  One morning, we got as far as the coop when Shunka lay down and looked at me with his big brown eyes, as if to say, "I can't do this anymore."  He then walked back to the house, and by morning he was dead.   He had lived a good long life -- 18 years -- and was ready to go.  I cried when I found his body, but I also knew that he was old and tired, and that nothing lives forever.  We had those years of happiness together, and I still cherish those memories.  Sometimes, when I walk in those same woods, I feel as if Shunka's spirit is walking with me.  Maybe he is.

So my mother was wrong.  While it is true that pets eventually die, it is not useless to have them.  While they are with us, they give us much love and joy.  And when they go, they help us accept the day when we, too, will cross that rainbow bridge and join the circle of life. 

Dawn in Pine County, MN