Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Free the Thanksgivukkah turkeys!

"Thanksgivukkah" is the term coined for a very rare event happening on November 28, 2013:  This year, the first day of Hanukkah falls on the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  It won't happen again for another 70,000 years, so enjoy it now while you can!  (Plus the date also converges with a spectacular comet -- more on that below.)

"American Gothukkah" poster
designed by ModernTribe.com,
a take-off on a famous painting.
The Jewish community is certainly having a good time with it.   Search the Internet and you will find all kinds of Thanksgivukkah shirts, mugs, postcards, and other chochkes, as well as announcements of community celebrations.  (To see a gallery of shirt designs, click here.)  The Times of Israel has a nice roundup page of links, including songs and the story of a boy who designed a "menurkey" -- that's a Hanukkah menorah in the shape of a turkey.

One of my favorite images is this shirt by ModernTribe.com, featuring a Woodstock-inspired theme with "8 Days of Light, Liberty, Latkes."  Pretty clever!

Hanukkah really is about freedom, when the Jews rose up against the Greeks and re-dedicated the Jerusalem Temple to God.  Hanukkah may well be the first recorded war fought for religious freedom.  But this freedom theme also raises the issue of how "free" the Thanksgivukkah turkeys really are.  Can we eat turkey at a freedom fest when the birds themselves are not really free?

Unlike the colorful wild turkeys usually portrayed in Thanksgiving art, the turkeys you buy in the grocery store are factory-farmed white birds that have been bred to be so heavy they cannot even mate naturally, let alone fly up into trees or run through autumn fields like their wild ancestors.  Most of them probably never even see the outdoors at all, because they are raised in big, overcrowded barns.

As a vegetarian, I would urge you to consider not having a turkey for Thanksgivukkah.  In fact, it was at Thanksgiving time many years ago that my wife and I finally decided to go veg.  We had been eating very little meat anyway, and as the holiday rolled around, we asked ourselves:  Do we really want a turkey this year?  The answer was no, and has been no ever since.   The only turkey on our table will be this toy bird.

As for the holiday menu, there are plenty of delicious vegetarian foods you can serve -- and combining with Hanukkah this year makes for some creative recipes.  The Jewish Community Center of St. Paul, MN, sent out a recipe for squash latkes (instead of potatoes) along with their recent fundraiser.  I plan to try that one!

When you think about it, turkey was not the only traditional food that Native people brought to our tables.  Corn, squash, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, wild rice, maple sugar, cranberries, blueberries, and chili peppers are some of the foods that are native to North and South America.  So let's make this a real Festival of Freedom and let the turkeys live!

Now for the comet: November 28, 2013 is also the date that Comet Ison -- which could be the "Comet of the Century" -- will pass around the sun.  As of this writing, it is now visible to the naked eye in the dark sky, and is expected to grow brighter in the next few days.  In centuries past, such a convergence between two calendars and a comet would have been seen as an omen, for good or bad depending on the culture.  To me, it is just an interesting phenomenon.

There are 3 possibilities for what will happen to Ison in the next week or so:  1) it could burn up in the sun's corona and disappear; 2) it might break up into a bunch of glowing pieces; or 3) it may remain intact and come out from behind the sun glowing very brightly.  For more on Ison's perilous journey, visit this page on the NASA site.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

In Memory of the Golden Toad

Back in the early 1980s, I bought rubber model of a Golden Toad.  The sign on the bin of toy toads said that it was an endangered species -- one that I had never heard of until I saw that display.  It was only found in one small high-altitude area of Costa Rica.   But that wasn't the reason I bought it.  I just thought it would look pretty in a flower pot.

My Golden Toad model
in a pot of parsley
 Over the years, my model toad "lived" in pots of petunias, parsley, marigolds, and many other plants, both in the garden and on the windowsill.   It got a bit faded over the years, and is now more of a yellow toad, but it still graces my garden.

This past summer, my 4-year-old grandson noticed it and asked me where I got the "yellow frog."  I told him it was a model of a real species of toad, and went on the Internet to find some photos.  Sadly, we learned that the Golden Toad is now extinct, and has been since 1989.  Several theories for the extinction have been advanced, but the main culprit seems to have been global warming.

In the spring of 1987, an American biologist who had come to the cloud forest specifically to study the toads counted fifteen hundred of them in temporary breeding pools. That spring was unusually warm and dry and most of the pools evaporated before the tadpoles in them had time to mature. The following year, only one male was seen at what previously had been the major breeding site. Seven males and two females were seen at a second site a few miles away. The year after, on May 15, 1989, the last sighting of only one male occurred. No golden toad has been seen since then.

Photo of a male Golden Toad
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
When I compare my model with a photo of a real Golden Toad, I can see it really wasn't very accurate.  Most likely, the factory used the same mold as for an American Toad, only with golden plastic.  The real thing was smoother and not so squat.  Still, the little rubber toad serves as a reminder -- a memorial if you will -- to a beautiful species that is forever gone.

To some people, the loss of a toad in a faraway rain forest might not seem very important in the grand scheme of things.  But scientists tell us that thousands more species are endangered, many go extinct each year.  Unlike Noah, we seem to be unable to gather all of God's creatures onto our flimsy Ark.  And, as the T-shirt says, "Extinction is forever."  The loss of any species greatly diminishes our world.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kapporos chickens don't sing!

Every year before Yom Kippur, a small percentage of the Orthodox Jewish community performs a ritual called kapporos (or kapparot, depending on your Hebrew dialect) in which a chicken is ritually sacrificed.  In recent years, there has been growing opposition to this practice, urging people to use money instead of chickens -- a stance that I support.  (See my 2011 blog article, The Kapparot Ritual: How tradition has become a travesty).

In this article, which will be my last on this topic for this year, I would like to address one particular quotation that got wide publicity in a number of articles in September 2013.  According to Rina Deych, a Jewish activist in Brooklyn who has been protesting the ceremony for years:

 "Every year I’d see little kids tell their parents, ‘The bird is crying!,’ and the parents would say ‘No, it’s singing. It’s happy to help us.'   I’d come over and tell them the kid is right.”

Having viewed numerous videos of kapporos ceremonies on YouTube recently, I would agree that the chickens are definitely not singing.  Nor are they very happy.  The call heard most often on the soundtracks is the incessant, shrill, high-pitched peeping of terrified, distressed half-grown chicks.

Kapporos chickens crammed in a crate. 
In many kapporos centers, the birds being used are not yet mature enough to crow or cluck.  They are factory-farmed, eight-week-old broiler birds, not even fully feathered out yet.  They are crammed into crates stacked on top of each other, often without food or water, peeping in miserable baby voices.   Most definitely, the children are right.  The kapporos chickens are crying.

The only time I ever hear that distress call among my own free-range chickens is if a chick is in trouble, perhaps separated from its mother or lost outside the chicken wire fence.  Normally, chickens do not constantly peep or shriek in those shrill, high-pitched voices unless something is seriously wrong.

Chavah and Freidl,
two kapporos chickens rescued in 2012
and now living happily in a sanctuary.
(Photo by Richard Cundari)
So why would the parents think the chickens are singing?  It seems hard to hear those peeping chickens and not know they are crying.

 However, most of the people doing this ceremony are urban Jews who know little or nothing about chickens.  Most likely, the only time they ever see or hear a chicken is at kapporos time, when the birds are all peeping in distress.  They never hear -- and probably do not even know about -- the 40+ different calls that chickens make in free-run flocks where they can express themselves in a natural environment.  So it is no wonder that people think the distressed call is normal.  They have no idea what a happy chicken really sounds like.

The next question concerns why they would say the chicken is "happy to help us."  This statement is more about Hasidic theology than chicken biology.  What I am about to present will probably seem strange, maybe even offensive to many readers.  And yet, this "happy chicken" statement is based on a kabbalistic belief that is central to Hasidic philosophy.   Understanding this POV is necessary for learning how to meaningfully dialogue with Hasidim -- a skill you will need if you ever want to convince Hasidic Jews not to sacrifice chickens.  So, my activist friends, I ask you to set aside your pre-conceived prejudices about Orthodox Jews, put on your multi-cultural hats, and follow me into the world of Jewish mysticism.

To understand why the parents in the Rina Deych quote would say the chicken is "happy to help us," we must go to kabbalah and a doctrine called "raising holy sparks."  Briefly summarized, it goes like this: The "holy sparks" are fallen refractions of the Original Light of Creation, which have descended into lower levels of the material world.  These "sparks" (or spiritual "energies") need to be mystically elevated back to their proper places in the universe. This process is part of what kabbalists call tikkun olam, or "repairing the universe."

Eating kosher food is therefore a sacred act that facilitates this process, provided that the proper blessings are said with the right focus and intention.   (For an in depth discussion of how this doctrine can be reconciled with vegetarianism, read and/or download this interview that Richard Schwartz did with me for his book, Who Stole My Religion?)

Based on this teaching, many Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews see meat-eating as an essential part of planetary healing, because it raises the souls of animals to a higher spiritual level which, in turn, elevates the energy of the entire universe.  I have many times been told that the chickens are hoping to be eaten by Jews at a Sabbath or other sacred meal, and thus have their own spirits elevated through this service to God.  I have also seen this explanation given in the Comments sections of articles and videos as to why the person commenting still eats meat.

And yet, this teaching is rarely, if ever, discussed among those activists who are trying to end chickens as kapporos.  Or, if it is discussed at all, it is only to put it down as, in the words of one activist to me, "a solipsistic conceit" to believe that humans have this kind of central role in the world.  This kind of judgemental attitude only hinders the dialogue.

So, before all you vegans out there go calling the Jews a bunch of medieval barbarians for believing in this teaching, let me remind you that there is a similar story in Buddhism, a religion that is widely upheld among vegans as the epitome of nonviolence.  And yet, Buddhists tell the tale of the selfless rabbit who offered to give his own body to a holy man as food -- and was rewarded by becoming Moon Rabbit, the "rabbit in the moon."  (Read the story here.)   Folktale?  Maybe.  But Moon Rabbit is widely believed to have been an earlier incarnation of the soul that would become the Buddha.  His story is told to Buddhist children as the epitome of self-sacrifice.

Native Americans (Indians) also have similar tales, such as the story of Jumping Mouse, who selflessly gave up parts of himself to help others, and was reborn as a eagle.  We should also remember the widespread custom among Native hunters of thanking the animal for giving its life so the people may live -- a prayer that is not unlike the traditional blessing said by Jews before slaughtering an animal.  In both Native and Jewish traditions, failing to treat the meat of the animal with respect is seen as a sin that can affect the well-being of the entire tribe or nation.  Among the Eskimos, it was widely believed that if one did not honor the spirit of the seal or fish that one ate, then the animals would not reincarnate and the humans would starve.

So, as we talk about the Hasidic belief in "raising holy sparks," please see it in the light of these stories from other, better-known (and often better respected) cultures besides Hasidic Judaism.  If you can honor the teachings of Buddhism and Native Americans, then at least try to understand similar ideas within Judaism.  In fact, the idea that animals might consciously allow themselves to be eaten in order to serve a higher purpose is very widespread around the world.

The positive side of these stories is that they all date from a time when people believed that animals have a form of consciousness or soul, and that they can make decisions about their fate. (Read Do animals have souls?, the most popular post on this blog, for an explanation of the soul concept in Judaism).  The ability to understand the language of the animals was attributed to Solomon and also to later Jewish sages and saints.  In Psalm 150, "everything that has breath" is praising God.  So clearly the ancient view among Jews and others was that animals have a form of consciousness.

The doctrine of "holy sparks" and other traditions mentioned here predate the French philosopher Rene Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy," who believed animals were nothing more than unfeeling machines.  It is the philosophy of Descartes -- not Judaism! -- that is most responsible for the insensitivity and abuses of animals we see today.  (Read my previous article on "animal souls" and Descartes.)

Unfortunately, the insensitivity of Descartes' philosophy has fully penetrated the Western World, including even the more isolated communities such as the Hasidim who use chickens as kapporos.  Thus, although the original "sparks" doctrine says that animals -- even those destined for slaughter -- must be treated with respect, the reality of today's meat industry makes that virtually impossible.  The parents who tell their children that the chickens are "happy to help us" in performing a ritual do sincerely believe this, but, at the same time, they are blocking out the suffering of all those chickens stacked in shipping crates without food or water.

Which brings us to the "down side" of the "holy sparks" teaching:  Just as it is possible to elevate energy through using the material world to serve God, so is it also possible to drag down the spiritual world through the misuse of the things around us.  The Ba'al Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), founder of Hasidism in the 18th century, said:

Portrait of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer,
the Baal Shem Tov
All things of this world that belong to man desire with all their might to draw near him in order that the Sparks of Holiness that are in them should be raised by him back to God... Man eats them, man drinks them, man uses them; these are the Sparks that dwell in the things. Therefore, one should have mercy on his tools and all his possessions for the sake of the Sparks that are in them; one should have mercy on the Holy Sparks. 

"Having mercy" does not mean we should never kill anything, and the Ba'al Shem Tov himself ate meat.  But he was also sensitive to animals as living beings.  He taught:

A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability… A person should consider himself and the worm and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given. -- The Baal Shem Tov (Tzava’as HaRivash 12)

Modern kapporos centers certainly are not "having mercy" on the chickens they sell and use for the ceremony, nor are they considering them "comrades in the universe."  Many have probably never heard these quotes from their founder.  It is doubtful in my mind whether the Baal Shem Tov himself would approve of the way these poor birds are being treated today.

As I explained in "The Kapparot ritual: how tradition has become a travesty," this is not the way things were done back in the days when Jews lived in small rural villages. and people raised their own animals.  Chickens were not raised on factory farms, trucked in for miles in open trucks, then left to go hungry for days on end.  Arguing that "they would be killed anyway" -- as some people do -- is no valid basis for treating them as if they are nothing but inanimate objects.  In fact, even inanimate objects (the "tools" referred to in the "sparks" quote above) should be treated with respect -- how much more so should one be gentle with living things!

"Raising sparks" is the Hasidic ideal, but today's attitudes often fall far short.  Some would condemn the whole culture for this insensitivity.  I place the blame on modern urbanization.  Since it is axiomatic that one cannot commit a sin to do a mitzvah, we must ask ourselves if the suffering of the chickens under modern conditions fails to raise the sparks and might even be dragging them down instead.  We must ask ourselves if the callousness often witnessed at these ceremonies is really the way a true Hasid should behave, or is it a goyishe attitude assimilated from the surrounding gentile culture.

I take the "holy sparks" teaching seriously, which is why I have devoted considerable energy to the question of whether or not it is being done properly.  Both in the above-mentioned interview with me by Richard Schwartz and this 14-minute video (below) that I posted on YouTube, I present arguments from within the Hasidic tradition as to why I believe "raising sparks" through eating meat is no longer possible under the conditions of the modern industry.  I encourage you all to study both of these resources, so that, next time you are told that kapporos chickens are singing in joy to "help us," you will know how to answer with respect and understanding.

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.

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 Lulu.com.  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. 

See also: The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why are you telling me not to? -- my answer to this Frequently Asked Question I often get from my fellow Hasidim.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kapporos protests: What works and what doesn't

I have given considerable thought in the past few days about what works and what doesn't in the anti-kapporos protests.   As someone who is both a Hasidic Jew and an opponent of using chickens for kapporos, I'd like to offer some thoughts to fellow activists on how to be more effective in the future.

Hasidim viewing the anti-kapporos truck in Brooklyn, September 2013
(Photo copyright by Linda Obuchoska, used with permission.)

To being with, we need to remember that even among "the Orthodox," only a small minority do this ceremony with chickens.  There are over a million Jews in New York City, and, according to recent polls, 40% of them identify as Hasidic or Orthodox.  So even if 20,000 chickens were sacrificed, that is only 5% of the Orthodox community.  It is important to keep this statistic in mind, and not paint all religious Jews with the same angry brush.

In the same vein, not all of these guys are rabbis, either, even if they do have beards and dress in black.  This is standard dress for all Hasidic males, even total ignoramuses. Wearing the clothes is no guarantee of sainthood!  So please, unless you actually know that a particular person really is a rabbi, don't refer to him as such in your articles and blogs.  In many cases, the smart-alecks mouthing off across the barricades may be no more than teenagers acting out -- and every community has those!  (In some news photos they don't even have beards yet, proof positive that they are still youngsters.)  Not that I approve of profanity or sexist remarks, but it is usually not "the rabbis" making them.  And the guy slaughtering the chickens is probably not a rabbi, either -- just a butcher trained in kosher slaughtering.

So please, see the people as individuals, not a bunch of negative stereotypes, even if they do all look alike to you.   (If you saw me walking down the street and did not know I'm a vegetarian activist, what would you assume?)

Now on to the actual protests.  The video sound truck and matching posters used by the group in New York was a great idea -- very eye-catching  and educational, raising questions without insulting the Jewish community.   Putting up posters is a very common way to make statements in the Orthodox Jewish world -- in Jerusalem, the walls are covered with them.   In this video on YouTube and the photos on this page, you can see Hasidim stopping to look and read the posters as they scrolled by on the sides and back of the truck (Unfortunately, the sound in the video is not so good, so  I recommend viewing it in mute.)

Anti-kapporos truck in Brooklyn, September 2013
(Photo copyright by Linda Obuchoska, used with permission.)
On the other hand, out in Los Angeles there were signs calling it "murder," and comparing it with the Holocaust that I (and other Jews) found offensive.   Nor were the Jews at the kapporos centers completely innocent  of bad behavior either -- there were reports of Hasidic men making sexist remarks to women protesters and accusations of antisemitism on both sides.  (Read this post by a LA protester.)  All of which goes to show that shouting insults across the barricades is not a very effective way to change anybody's mind.

So let's take a look at what works and what does not, to improve effectiveness for next year.

If we look at the statements of rabbis who have said to use money instead of chickens, not one of them has called it "murder" or compared it with the Holocaust.   

In Jewish law, the word "murder" applies only to humans.  That may be specie-ist in your eyes, but it is the cultural reality.  If you call it "murder" this is heard as equating the life of a person to that of a chicken in a derogatory way.  Ditto for calling it a "holocaust" or a "genocide."  Judaism has laws against animal cruelty, but "murder" is not one of them.  Using that term only creates hostility to our message.

Not one of the anti-kapporos rabbis has said it is morally wrong to kill a chicken, either.  In fact, not all of them are even  vegetarians -- as for example, the CEO of the Orthodox Union, which certifies kosher meats, but who nevertheless said his org does not endorse kapporos with chickens.   So most of these rabbis probably eat meat, yet many have recently issued statements urging people to use money instead of chickens -- indicating that one does not have to be vegan to oppose this particular ceremony.

Here are some recent examples of statements by major rabbis:

The renowned Haredi kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Kadouri (died in 2006) writes that one should abstain from using chickens for kapparot due to “the cruelty to animals, which is prohibited by the Torah, and kashrut problems.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), a leading authority on Jewish law and head of the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem, also stopped using animals for kapparot, giving charity instead.

In 2010, Rabbi Steven Weil, CEO of the Orthodox Union of Rabbis in New York City, told the Alliance that the OU opposes using chickens as Kapporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.

This poster of me and my rooster, Big Bird,
was featured on the truck and carried
at the protest in New York
 Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Head of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, stated on video in 2010 that due to the animal cruelty, “It is recommended that one should conduct the atonement ceremony with money.”

Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Congress and Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully by using money.”

Rabbi Shlomo Segal, Rabbi of Beth Shalom of Kings Bay in Brooklyn, states: “The pain caused to the chickens in the process of performing Kapparot is absolutely unnecessary.  Giving money is a more humane method."

In September 2013, the newly-elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, warned kapparot organizers that the failure to treat animals decently is a violation of religious law.

All of these rabbinic authorities have cited the cruelty and suffering of the birds under modern conditions as a violation of tsaar baalei chayim (the prohibition against cruelty to animals).  That is the most acceptable argument among Orthodox Jews according to Jewish law.  

We should take a cue from that and discourage people from using the words "murder" and "holocaust," and focus instead on the issue of cruelty in the ceremony as it is being practiced today.  (I do not mind the word "torture," though -- I use it myself.)  Remember:  the goal is to stop the use of chickens, so whatever argument works best is what we should use.

I know that vegans and other animal rights activists believe that slaughter of any kind has always been cruel, and they may be right.  But if protesters take this "all or nothing" approach, they get into the very sticky issue of whether the Torah itself is cruel because it allows meat-eating.  And if you say that, then Orthodox Jews will shut down and the dialogue is ended.  People will say things like, "Moses ate meat -- do you think you are better than Moses?  Do you think you are better than the Lubavitcher Rebbe,"  etc.  (I've actually had this argument used on me regarding vegetarianism.)

No rabbi is going to outrightly forbid slaughter or meat-eating, because the Torah permits it, and it is axiomatic that you cannot "forbid the permitted."  However, every person is free to choose for him or herself whether or not to eat meat or, in this case, use chickens in the ceremony.

So everyone in the "End Chickens as Kapporos" movement needs to stop and ask themselves:  Which is more important, to be politically correct in the vegan world, or to be effective in the Hasidic world where the ceremony is being practiced?

This why I have taken the approach of saying that the suffering of kapporos chickens under modern conditions cancels out any good the ceremony might have had in past centuries.    I often tell the story from the classic text, Shicvchei Ha-Ari, about how the great 16th-century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, told a student that he had lost his place in the World to Come (Jewish equivalent of going to hell) 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.  I then point out that I believe the same thing is happening today with kapporos chickens, that the suffering cancels out the prayers.

This way, I do not condemn people's ancestors for having done it with chickens in the past.   I do not condemn Moses for eating meat or the Hasidic Rebbes (who are much more than a rabbi -- a Rebbe is regarded as a saint, somewhat like a guru) for having done it with chickens.  And I NEVER talk about how "customs can be changed" -- that is a secular approach that will be rejected as assimilationist heresy.  Assimilating into the secular world is seen as the greatest threat to modern Jewish survival.  Nor do I use satire with rubber chickens and such, because this is interpreted as antisemites ridiculing the Jews.

Instead, I focus on how you cannot commit a sin in order to do a mitzvah.  (And yes, they do regard this as a mitzvah.  In the Jewish world, a custom (minhag) often takes on the authority of law within specific communities.)  I also focus on the idea of voluntarily choosing not to use a chicken -- even though it is permitted by Jewish law -- as a personal khumra, an extra strictness that one voluntarily takes upon oneself.   Within the Hasidic world, taking on extra khumras as a personal discipline is acceptable -- even admirable! -- behavior that allows a person to make a humane choice without demanding that we "forbid the permitted."

Of course, these arguments take a lot more inter-cultural education and understanding than simply shouting "meat is murder."   It means being able to step into the other culture and respectfully dialogue from within its own worldview, even if you do not agree with it.  It means treating the "other side" with respect, even if you yourself are being reviled by them -- and perhaps remembering the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:  "Make me an instrument of Your peace: Where there is hatred, let me sow love."  A stance that Gandhi would also agree with.  Nonviolence is not only physical, it is verbal as well.

So once again, we need to ask ourselves:  What works and what doesn't?

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 Lulu.com.  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. 

See also "Kapporos Chickens Don't Sing!" -- another article by me, explaining some of the kabbalistic and cultural contexts of Hasidic beliefs that you need to understand in order to be more effective in your dialogues with Orthodox Jews.  One of the basic premises of any campaign is to know your target audience.  So please, take the time to educate yourself.

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.

See also:  The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why are you telling me not to? -- my answer to that question (which I frequently get from my fellow Hasidim).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kapporot: Use money, let the chickens live!

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is coming soon, and with it comes a ceremony called kapparot or kapporos, in which a chicken is sometimes slaughtered just before the holy day.  Although traditionally the chicken was then given to a poor family as charity, nowadays this is not necessarily what happens to it.  According to this September 3, 2013 article in the Jewish Journal, today's kapparot chickens are often thrown in the garbage after the ceremony.  This, to me, is a complete waste of both animal life and potential food, which violates the principle of bahl tashchit -- "You shall not destroy."  People are being told that their kapparot chicken is going to charity when, in fact, it often ends up in the city dump.

This is one reason why I advocate giving money to charity instead of slaughtering a chicken.  Giving money is a time-honored custom and a perfectly acceptable substitute.  Plus you know it is really going to do some good for someone.

This year, in connection with the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos, I appear on this poster with my pet rooster, Big Bird.  (Apologies to Sesame Street, but he is big and he is yellow, so it was inevitable my grandson would call him that!)

This same photo also appears in a short one-minute slide show that I narrated, Kapporos: A Heartfelt Plea for Mercy.  (Follow the link to view on YouTube.)  Plus, the same narration was used on a video sound truck displaying the images (as well as others) during demonstrations in New York.  You can see the truck on YouTube, but the sound track is bad -- recommend viewing on mute.)

For taking this stance, I have been called a "self-hating Jew" (and worse) by  cyber-hecklers -- a ridiculous accusation, given my lifelong devotion to Judaism.  Lately it seems that anytime a Jew stands up and voices legitimate criticism of anything Jewish, he or she is labeled "self hating," whatever that is supposed to mean.   I hate neither myself nor my Jewish identity, but I do hate mindless stupidity.   God does not intend for us to blindly follow the crowd like a bunch of lemmings.  There is a long history of debate about kapparot within the Jewish tradition, and I see nothing wrong with continuing that dialogue today.

Scholars and sages much greater than little ol' insignificant me have condemned the use of chickens for kapparot.   Even in the Middle Ages, there were rabbis who condemned it as a pagan superstition.  (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.)

More recently, numerous Orthodox rabbis have opposed it, including:

In 2010, Rabbi Steven Weil, CEO of the Orthodox Union of Rabbis in New York City, told the Alliance that the OU opposes using chickens as Kaporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.

 Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Head of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, stated on video in 2010 that due to the animal cruelty, “It is recommended that one should conduct the atonement ceremony with money.”

Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Congress and Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully by using money.”

Rabbi Shlomo Segal, Rabbi of Beth Shalom of Kings Bay in Brooklyn, states: “The pain caused to the chickens in the process of performing Kapparot is absolutely unnecessary. Giving money is a more humane method.

I hardly think those rabbis are all "self-hating Jews."  so please, dear reader:  Sp please, dear reader, heed the message and don't shoot the messenger!

As I wrote in a previous article on this blog, the kapparot chicken used to be taken from a local flock and was used for the meal before Yom Kippur, or for breaking the fast afterward.  In this way, one could argue that the soul of the chicken was sanctified by participating in the feast and, in kabbalistic parlance, the "holy sparks were raised."  But how can this still be true if the dead chicken is simply thrown into a plastic bag and hauled away to the dump by the sanitation department -- as has been documented in the Jewish Journal article I cited above.

In addition, people are now cruelly holding the birds by their wings, in a way that was not done in the past and which causes much suffering to the bird.  I might add that the Nazis tortured people in a similar way, by pulling their arms back and suspending them by the elbows.  This torture was called Eine Stunde Baum ("an hour of tree") and it dislocated the shoulders as well ripping the muscles and causing excruciating pain.  I have been told about this torture by Holocaust survivors.  So I ask you:  If such treatment is so painful to a person, then how can you not understand that it is also torture to do this to a live bird?

Let me end with an excerpt from the slide show I helped the Alliance produce:

“Fellow Hasidim... You have been told that holding a chicken by its wings that way will make the bird calm and relaxed. This is not true! The bird is terrified, it is playing dead, the way it does if it is grabbed by a dog or a wolf. It is hoping you will let go so it can escape. Imagine somebody pulling your arms back, then hanging you up by the elbows. You would stop struggling, but you would NOT be calm or relaxed! You would be in terrible fear and pain, the same as these poor chickens are now. Please do not torture a bird this way – this is not a mitzvah, our Torah does not require this, it will not cancel your sins. I beg you, please give money, instead of hurting one of God’s living creatures.”

*  *  *  *  *

Updates:  On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, the weather in New York City hit the high 90s, and was hot enough for thousands of kapporos chickens to die while still stacked in crates.  Clearly these birds are NOT being properly cared for by the people who sell them (at $8.50 per bird or more, BTW.)  Read the new report on this.

You can also hear an interview with Dr. Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, discussing reasons not to use chickens for kapporos on The Tamar Yonah Show -- (Click here.) There's a bunch of announcements and news items first, but hang in there, you'll get to it.  Or just scroll ahead on the status bar.

Chickens as Kapporos --  a video documenting how kapporos chickens  werebeing dumped in the trash on President Street at Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY on September 12 and 13, 2013.  WARNING:  this is very graphic stuff -- watch at your own risk!   However, it is valuable in that it not only shows the callous way the chickens are being treated, it also documents that they are terrified --that incessant cheeping you hear in the background is the very distinctive call of a frightened chick -- these birds are in no way "relaxed" as some promoters claim.   Read my later article, Kapporos chickens don't sing!

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.

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 Lulu.com.  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. 

Se also:  The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to? -- my answer to this Frequently Asked Question from fellow Hasidim.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Stirring up a hornet's nest -- literally!

Over the years, I have stirred up plenty of symbolic hornet's nests with my controversial stances on various issues -- but this time I did it for real.  OK, they were really Yellow Jackets, the smaller cousins of the Bald-faced Hornet -- but they get just as angry when you disturb their nests.

Yellow Jackets coming out of
an underground nest (Photo courtesy of
South Texas Nature Images on Flikr)
Of course I didn't do this on purpose -- nobody does that!  A couple days ago the wind took down a paper birch tree, and I needed some nice sticks for an upcoming Cub Scout craft project that my grandson's Pack is planning to do.  (Since I have a wood lot, it falls to me to provide a lot of the natural materials.)  I thought the white birch bark would look nice, so this morning I went out to cut off some of the branches -- and unwittingly stepped into the nest.

Yellow Jackets usually nest in the ground, often using an old rabbit hole or other tunnel, so they are very hard to see until it is too late  This one was covered by the crown of the fallen tree.   I was so intent on choosing and cutting my salvaged branches that I did not notice the wasps until a swarm was buzzing around me.

Luckily I was wearing heavy pants tucked into my boots, in preparation for tromping through underbrush in the ditch where the tree fell.  Good thing, because those little buggers grabbed onto the cloth of my pants and really hung on -- if I had been wearing shorts, I would have had stings all over my legs.  As it was, I only got 3 on my arms and one on my face as I high-tailed it out of there.  (This is why I'm always telling people NOT to wear shorts in the woods.   Sure it's hot wearing long pants -- but even worse getting scratched up or stung!)

While on the subject of Yellow Jackets, you may notice that there seem to be a lot more of them around your picnic table in the fall.  This is because during the summer they feed their young on insects, so they don't have much interest in your bottle of pop or your jelly roll.  But in the fall, after the new queens have flown and the colony starts to break up, the worker wasps switch to a sugary diet -- and start buzzing around your outdoor events.  Suddenly it seems as if the population has exploded overnight.  I myself have noticed a lot more of them around my hummingbird feeders lately -- and now I know where they are all coming from!  But really, they have been increasing steadily all summer, you just don't see many until fall.

Unlike honey bees, wasp and hornet colonies don't winter over.  The new queens fly and mate, then find a place to hibernate for the winter.  The rest of the wasps die off  with the cold weather.  So, after we get a few hard frosts, I'll be able to return to that tree and safely salvage some birch sticks.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Do clothes make the Hasid?

When I first began this blog, the pic on my profile page was this one of me and my cat, Sapphire.  This was a photo recently featured in Cat Fancy magazine in an article called "Clergy Cats," about cats who live with religious leaders. (Read more about that.)  I thought it did a pretty good job of illustrating life here on our Minnesota hobby farm.  (And it provided a good joke about how I am "outstanding in my field.")

Well, it wasn't long before somebody asked me why, if I am really a Hasid, don't I wear a suit on my profile?  The fact is, a good suit is the last thing you want to be wearing when you are doing farm chores.  Ditto for white shirts.  To clean the barn, you want to wear the oldest rags you have -- and change them when you come inside.

However, I did think about it and replaced the old photo with this one of me wearing a jacket and standing in front of a bookcase -- the typical scholarly bio pic that was, in fact, used on a couple of my book covers.

Did that satisfy the halachah police?  Not really.  Before long I got another query asking why I wasn't wearing a brimmed hat.  Never mind that I was wearing a yarmulke -- "everybody knows" a true Hasid wears a brimmed hat over his yarmulke.

Yonassan Gershom, 2013
So OK, folks, here is a recent pic of me in a brimmed hat.  I'm a lot older and grayer than in the earlier pix, but that's life.

No doubt there will be somebody who points out that my coat is blue, not black.  Oy vey, when will it end?  First of all, Breslov Hasidim (the group I belong to) do not have a uniform, so you see all kinds of clothes at a Breslov gathering.  And secondly, it is a fact that Jews -- even very religious ones -- did not always wear black.  Neither did the American Pilgrims in the 1600s, even though we now portray them that way.  Their clothes were colored with natural dyes in various earth tones.

So were the clothes of Jews.  Consider this folk painting of pre-Holocaust stetl (village) life in Eastern Europe by Ilex Beller:

"Samedi Apres-Midi" (Sabbath Afternoon)
painting by Ilex Beller (click image to enlarge)

You can clearly see men's coats in a variety of colors, even on the Sabbath.  The rabbis in the center of the painting are wearing black (a mark of honor and scholarship back then), but the common people are dressed in blue, purple, brown, etc.  The fact is, a true black dye was not invented until the 1700s, and was very expensive in the early days of the Hasidic movement.  This was the origin of "black tie" events in the secular world for the upper crust, and of black coats on the Sabbath and holy days, when it is traditional to dress more formally.  For the weekdays, most people wore less expensive clothes.

This detail from another Beller painting shows shoemakers working -- and wearing non-black clothing.  Most likely, they did not want to get shoe polish and glue on their good Sabbath coats, same as I don't want dirt and chicken poop on mine. 

When I mentioned this history of black dyes in another online conversation, I was told that people got black wool from black sheep.  Not very likely -- most "black" sheep are not a true black, either.  They are more often a very dark grey or even brownish.  Which might have made a nice coat, but it would not be the black we know today.  It is true that recently some farmers have bred for the black color, but since black is recessive in sheep, they were not as common until genetics was better understood.  (Grigor Mendel did not work out basic genetic patterns until the mid-1800s.)

Last but not least, this detail from yet a third Beller painting shows a Jewish peddler wearing a long blue coat very much like the one I have on in the photo above.  One could argue that this artist simply used bright colors for the sake of art -- but his purpose was to chronicle life in his old village, in memory of those who died in the Holocaust.  Throughout the series of paintings there are recognizable individuals wearing the same clothing.  In some of his descriptions that accompany the paintings, he actually names them.  So I'm pretty sure he is painting memories of real people and how they dressed. 

Nowadays, it seems, everybody wants to dress in rabbinical black.  I don't fault them for this -- but really, the color of my clothes is no indication of whether or not I am a Hasid. 

"Do Clothes Make the Hasid" story now on video!

In October 2021, I decided to tell this story on video -- with a bit of humor, too. Enjoy!
 (And if you like it, please subscribe to my channel.)

UPDATE:  Clothes are not the only thing people use to try to discredit me.  See also:

(Note:  The Ilex Beller paintings are used here as part of a critical art discussion about the works, which I believe falls under the category of "fair usage."  There is no intent to violate Beller's copyright.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Meteors and Memories

Last night I finally got to watch the Perseid meteor showers.  I say "finally" because the previous nights this year were cloudy, and last year it rained the whole time.  But last night was perfect.  A clear sky with no moon.

About half an hour after midnight I turned off all the house lights to avoid light pollution in the yard, then took a sleeping bag and a pillow outside and lay down on the front lawn.  (My wife originally wanted to go, too, but was too tired when the time came, so she wished me well and went back to sleep.)  I was soon joined by two of my cats, who came up from hunting rodents by the chicken coop to sit on me and purr.

I did not have to wait long to see a meteor.  I counted 23 in an hour, several of them big bright streaks, but none to compare with the fireball my wife and I saw several years ago.  But even with the excitement of seeing a meteor, it was still a slow, quiet activity, with a lot of waiting between sightings.  You can't push nature, you just have to go with her pace of things.  As I lay there waiting for the next one to streak across the sky, I was reminded of when we did this at summer camp many years ago. It was a pleasant time to reminisce.

I also saw what was probably a satellite moving across the sky -- or was it maybe the space station?  I remember back in the late 50s and early 60s, when satellites were a new thing, there used to be schedules in the paper about when they would pass over.  My father and I would go out in the yard to try and spot them.  It was a big deal back then to spot a passing satellite -- way before GPS and satellite TV, long before anybody felt a need to "unplug" because nobody was as plugged in and speeded-up like today.  What we watched were just little orbiting balls reflecting the sun, the very beginnings of space flight.

The night was chilly and getting downright cold -- unusual for mid-August here, but welcome, because there were no mosquitoes.  The ground was getting damp though, and my old bones were feeling the lumps in the ground.  so after another half hour, around 2am, I went inside and called it a night.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

OY VEY! All this milkweed and NO MONARCHS!

For the past 16 years I have been allowing Common Milkweed to naturalize on my land for the Monarchs butterflies. This is just one of several big patches that I maintain.  (I am now in the process of certifying my land as a Monarch Way Station through Monarch Watch.)

Normally I could walk out there and within minutes find the whole life cycle of the Monarch butterflies.  This year: zero-zilch-nada.  I found only THREE EGGS, which I brought in to raise for my grandson to watch.  Only one hatched.  It is now a pupa.  The question is, when it emerges as a butterfly, will it be able to find a mate?

As for adult butterflies, I've only seen one Monarch all summer.  Other species are scarce, too.   Normally this field would be teeming with all kinds of butterflies, as well as bees and other insects.  This year there are very few.   According to a March 18, 2013 article on the National Geographic News site, this year has hit an all-time low for Monarch populations.

The most common butterflies on my land this summer seems to be the skippers and  fritillaries, but even those are few and far between.   I saw on the news that we have lost a whole generation of Monarchs down around Texas, due to bad weather.  Parts of the country were so cold this spring that there was no milkweed for the Monarchs to breed on when they arrived.  Here we had rain every day for a month, followed by an unseasonal heat wave.  Now it is chilly again, breaking record lows all over the state.   Yes indeed, global weirding is a reality!

We have also lost a lot of Monarchs over the years due to loss of habitat.  Monarchs migrate north in stages --as many as four generations per summer -- and if one of those generations can't find milkweed to breed on, well, you end up with no butterflies going further north.  Like this year (sigh).  As I always do in all my Monarch reports, I strongly encourage everyone to save a space in their landscaping for some milkweeds to feed the Monarchs.  If you don't want Common Milkweed (which spreads by underground runners that can be invasive in small spaces), then try one of the many other kinds.  The so-called Butterfly Flower (formerly "Butterfly Weed") comes in a variety of colors that will fit any garden.  And it stays put in a pretty clump.

The Torah (Leviticus 19.27) says:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.   Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God."

Of course, this originally referred to the human poor gleaning the fields for leftover crops.  However, I would like to suggest that we extend this to include to other species on our planet.  We need those "wild corners" for species like Monarch butterflies to survive.  Maybe this is also something that God had in mind when he told us to leave the corners of our fields.  Nowadays, very few people actually go out and glean fields, but a lot of wildlife species benefit from leaving space for them to live.  We do not need to squeeze out every bit of profit from every inch of land.  Leaving the corners for God's creatures benefits us all.  Keep this in mind when you plan your garden.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hoodies Up for Treyvon in Minnesota

The verdict is in -- and although we must abide by the rule of law, acquitting George Zimmerman of murder or manslaughter in the death of Treyvon Martin just does not ring true for me.  On the one hand, having followed the trial pretty closely, I can see why the jury was not able to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  There was indeed some doubt as to exactly what happened that night.  Who threw the first punch?  Who was on top?  Who called for help?  There were conflicting testimonies, with parents on both sides each claiming  it was their son on the tape, etc.  So maybe it was not possible to say "beyond a doubt" what really happened.

But an acquittal does not necessarily mean the accused is morally or ethically innocent.  It seems clear to me that none of it would have happened at all if Zimmerman had not followed Martin in the first place.  Deep in my heart, I still feel that he provoked the tragedy.  It might not have been premeditated murder by legal definition, but it was no accident, either.

Rabbi Gershom in a hoodie
Tonight at the Minnesota State Capitol there is a rally called "Hoodies Up for Treyvon."  I live 100 miles away and can't be there in person, but I do raise my hoodie to say that the conversation cannot stop here.  Beyond the details of this particular case is the greater question of racial profiling in general, as well as the wisdom of those "stand you ground" laws.  This verdict sends a disturbing message that says if you feel threatened by the way somebody looks or dresses, you can justify stalking and violence against them.    

When I was growing up, "self defense" meant that you could use force to save yourself, but only as much as was necessary to either subdue your assailant or escape.  It did not automatically mean you could use deadly force just because you felt threatened.  And even in the Old Wild West, you simply did not shoot an unarmed man.  There was a sense of fairness, even in self-defense.  

Since Treyvon was unarmed, the original "threat" must not have seemed all that deadly -- unless we assume that Zimmerman felt a personal threat beyond just seeing a teenager walking home.  What did he see?  A black kid he did not know, wearing a hoodie in his gated neighborhood.  I believe it was that profile that initially caused Zimmerman to feel threatened -- and I'll bet that if Trevon had been a white guy with an umbrella (it was raining that night, hence the hoodie up), he would not have been stalking him that night.

Which brings us back to the original question:  Are we now going to say it is OK to stalk somebody just because you feel their appearance threatens you?  I certainly hope not.  That would be a terrible step backward in society that claims to value diversity.   This is an important discussion, and if anything good can come of the Treyvon Martin tragedy, let it be this:  that we all take a long, hard look at our own prejudices, and take steps to correct them.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Importance of Pet Funerals for Children

When I was about 11 years old, my neighbor's dog had puppies.  Their four-year-old son accidentally dropped one on its head, and the puppy died.  The boy was not very upset about this.  He told his mother, "Just throw some water on it."  He had seen this in cartoons, where characters got blown up or crushed by a falling safe or whatever and then revived -- so why not in real life?

It was then that his mom realized her son did not understand the finality of death.  He really did think that a bucket of water would bring the puppy back to life.  So she decided to have a funeral for the little dog, inviting us neighbor kids to participate.

The puppy was wrapped in a soft blanket and placed in a shoe box for a coffin.  We all reverently watched as the box was put into a hole in their backyard.  Each of us then put in a handful of dirt.  When the hole was filled in, we marked the grave with rocks and added some flowers from the garden.  It was a beautiful funeral, and a lesson I never forgot.  I was old enough, of course, to understand about death.  It was the beauty of the simple ceremony that stuck with me forever.

Grave of the Two Kittens
July 1, 2013
This week, I passed the tradition along to my four-year-old grandson, Nick.  His brother's cat had 5 kittens on Friday, and Nick  got to see one of them born.  Unfortunately, two of them did not survive.  On Monday, he and his father brought the dead kittens to our place to be buried.  Usually I do this back in the field behind the woods, but because that is a long walk for both my grandson and my arthritic wife, we decided to bury them in a flower garden in the front yard.

The last time we had buried a pet, Nick was still too young to really understand what we were doing, but now he was older and very much wanting to participate.

Our memorial pretty much followed the format of that puppy funeral so many years ago, with the addition of putting tobacco into the grave.  This is a Native American tradition and, since Nick is part Indian, we wanted to honor that heritage as well.  Nick helped fill the grave, then helped me find and place the stones.  We all picked wildflowers to put on the grave, and my wife told the story of the Rainbow Bridge.  After saying our goodbyes, we all went inside to eat.  Later in the afternoon, when we were back outside, Nick decided on his own to walk over to the garden to visit the grave.

I believe these kinds of rituals are very important for children.  All too often, we assume that kids should be shielded from death, that it will be too traumatic for them.  I disagree.  Death is part of life, and it is much better for children to understand that, rather than just say their pet "went away"  and leave them wondering when kitty will come back.  Very often, the death of a pet is their first encounter with death, and a good time to teach about funeral customs.  Children need to grieve just as much as we adults do,  even if the deceased is just a turtle or goldfish.  Funerals, after all, are more for the living than the dead.  I never forgot the puppy funeral, and I hope my grandson will one day carry on that tradition with his own children.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Year of the Cicada -- again!

This year the 17-year cicadas are emerging in the eastern United States.  We don't get to see any here in  in Minnesota, unless a few stray westward -- Michigan seems to be the edge of the range.  We have the green-veined Annual Cicada, but those do not emerge in the huge numbers of the 17-year species.

17-year cicada adult
(Photo courtesy of USDA)
This particular insect holds a special place in my heart, because I credit them with furthering my lifelong interest in entomology.

There are several broods of cicadas that emerge in different years, because I distinctly remember seeing them in the Chicago area as a child -- but when I trace back this brood (Brood II) in increments of 17, I get 1996-1979-1962-1945.  I was born in 1947 and was in high school in 1962, so the brood I remember from childhood must be a different one.  I remember being in grade school at the time.

 According to this chart from the University of Michigan, in Illinois there were emergences of brood X in 1956  and brood XII in 1957, which is about the time I remember seeing them.   There were thousands of empty nymph cases clinging to the bark of trees after the adults had emerged, each one shaped exactly like a bug.  We kids used to stick them on the backs of people as a joke -- they really do cling well to clothes!  (Boys will be boys...)

 Not long after that, we moved to Philadelphia, where I encountered the 1962 emergence that was of this same brood II coming out this year.  At the time, we called them "17-year locusts," but they aren't really a locust, which is a type of grasshopper.   I suppose people called them that because they emerged in such huge numbers, reminiscent of the biblical plagues.  But these aren't as harmful.  They make a lot of noise and can be a nuisance (only the males buzz, but there are a LOT of them!), but they don't strip the trees or eat all the crops like real locusts.

They do naturally prune trees, because they lay their eggs in little slits they make in the branches.  When the eggs hatch, the little nymphs drop to the ground and burrow in, where they spend the next 17 years underground, feeding on roots, until the time comes to dig out and become an adult.  Nobody really knows how they can tel how many years have passed -- but they do.  One of nature's amazing mysteries.

Friday, April 26, 2013

My yard is full of birds -- and the Phoebes are safely back!

When I went outside this morning, the sun was out and the yard was full of birdsong.  I heard blue jays, robins, juncos, starlings, finches, pheasants, a drumming grouse and some geese overhead.  I also spotted a thrush in the bushes.  And best of all, the phoebe who nests in the open garage each year is back!  So glad they all survived the storm.

Of course, I'm not 100% sure the phoebe is the same bird -- maybe a descendant? -- but we have had phoebes nesting in the rafters of that building for years.  We've also had them nesting under the eaves of the chicken coop -- a good choice of location, since there are always lots of flies around there.  In 2009 I was lucky enough to get this picture of the coop family, which I made into a postcard:

I called it "Phoebe Fledglings Ready to Fly" -- and they certainly were.  The next day they were gone.  (You can buy a copy of this postcard online in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster.)

Now it's warming up into the 70s this weekend (it's 61 as I wrote this) and the snow is melting off fast.  A walk around the yard showed me bulbs starting to pop up and buds swelling.  I better get out the hummingbird feeders, because those little jewels will be arriving soon, too.  Since the flowers are very late this year, they  will be hungry!