Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Memoriam: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

45 years ago today our 35th President was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and the nation and the world plunged into dalus (dalut = poverty). Every year today, a welter of memories rise to the surface. One of them is of the President in West Berlin, giving his famous ich bin ein Berliner speech, and throngs of people chanting "Ken-ne-dy Ken-ne-dy." They were not chanting because the President heralded a rosy future, not because he promised a new era of peace, but precisely because he was willing to risk war to keep them, and the rest of the world, free.

I dreamed I saw John K. last night
To the tune of Joe Hill:

I dreamed I saw John K. last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But John, you're so long dead,"
"I never died," says he
"I never died," says he

"In Dallas, John," says I to him,
Him standing by my bed,
"They got you with a rifle shot,"
Says John, "But I ain't dead,"
Says John, "But I ain't dead."

"Lee Harvey Oswald killed you, John,
He shot you, John," says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man,"
Says John, "I didn't die,"
Says John, "I didn't die."

And standing there as big as life
With smiling Irish eyes
John says, "What they forgot to kill
Went on to mobilize,
Went on to mobilize."

"John K. ain't dead," he says to me,
"John K. ain't never died.
Where Yankee boys for freedom fight
John K. is at their side,
John K. is at their side."

"From Iraq to Afghanistan,
Where tyranny holds sway,
Where Yankee boys for freedom fight,
That's where you'll find John K.
That's where you'll find John K."

I dreamed I saw John K. last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But John, you're so long dead,"
"I never died," says he
"I never died," says he

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gam Zu L'Tova - 3

Agriprocessors. The largest kosher beef slaughterhouse and processing plant in the country. Revitalized the economy of moribund Postville, Iowa and became its largest employer. Featured in Jewish Action and other publications. Then suddenly the whole house of cards crumbled. Federal immigration agents raided the place and arrested hundreds of illegal immigrant workers. Allegations of child labor and unsafe working conditions resulting in loss of fingers in some cases. Production crippled due to a shortage of workers. Finally the operation filed for bankruptcy. Retail butchers around the country face severe shortages of meat. Other kosher plants try to take up the slack but lack the production capacity.

Eventually the situation will get back to normal. Either Agriprocessors will successfully reorganize, another kosher producer will buy and operate the plant, or existing kosher suppliers will expand their operations and entrepreneurs will enter the field figuring to make a buck. But until then we will be thinking about where our meat comes from, whether we need to eat so much of it, or any at all, and whether the kosher meat industry as presently constituted is consistent with Jewish ethics.

Agriprocessors, like most American meat processing plants, was based on "factory farming." A factory farm has little to do with the family farms that used to be the backbone of American agriculture or the farming practices described in Tanakh. On a factory farm an animal is a production unit first, and a living, sentient organism a distant second. Male animals are castrated and shot full of female hormones so they could grow faster, but the growth is mostly fat. Cattle, which naturally eat grass, are fed grain instead, again for accelerated growth, but this unnatural diet makes them sick. They are packed into feedlots, wallowing in their own filth, which also makes them sick. The animals are then fed antibiotics to which the infecting pathogens develop resistance, which is transfered to human pathogens. Any number of gastrointestinal outbreaks have been traced to factory farms. It is an understatemet to say that factory farming practices raise issues of tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, unnecessary suffering of sentient animals. It also raises more mundane issues of kashrut. A modern slaughterhouse is an assembly line, where profit is maximized by processing the largest number of animals in the shortest amount of time. Can a shohet pay as much attention to the condition of the knife and the exacting technique of shehita as he could on a family farm where he could take as much time as he needed for each individual shehita? Clandestine video taken at Agriprocessors shows ghastly suffering from what looks to the layperson's eye like massively botched shehita. Granted, the video was taken by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a group hostile to shehita in general and not especially concerned with ethical treatment of humans if they happen to be Jewish. But pictures don't lie, and living cows writhing in pain with their trachea and esophogi hanging out is inconsistent with Jewish values, if not with halakha.

Now, for the time being, factory-farmed kosher beef will be in short supply. What there is of it will be much more expensive, due both to supply and demand and to the rising cost of animal feed and transportation. Cash-strapped Jewish families will be eating less beef, and that will be to their benefit. Factory-farmed beef is much fatter than what our stone-age ancestors hunted down on foot with primitive weapons, and fatter than livestock raised before the advent of farm machinery. All that fat is unhealthy and a major contributing factor to obesity and its sequelae. In my family we eat beef very rarely; we eat chicken (much leaner than factory-farmed beef) on Shabbat and holidays, and vegetarian fare during the week. Thank God I am a healthy and vigorous 56, at an age when my father's health began to fail, as is that of many of my carnivorous contemporaries.

We are now in a position to insist that our beef be raised sustainably, in a manner consistent with the animals' well-being and our own, fed mostly on grass, with a minimum of fertilizers and pesticides. The operation will be less profitable, and less beef will be produced. What used to be on the menu every day if not twice a day will become a treat for Shabbat and Yom Tov. And we will all be better off for it.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gam Zu L'Tova (This too is for the good) – 2

Seemingly overnight, we find ourselves in the throes of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. AIG, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch – how have the mighty fallen? Foreclosures abound, as do bankruptcies. Gasoline prices through the roof – along with all commodities that depend on gasoline, or jet fuel, to get to us.

I am not directly affected by the price of gasoline since I never owned a car. When you can get to work by train in half an hour, who needs the hassles of a car? As a runner, I do a lot of my getting around on foot, and I see the streets the way automobile drivers do not. And what I see is many more bicycles on the street. A newly sympathetic city administration, goaded by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, is painting bicycle lanes on neighborhood streets, despite complaints from automobile drivers. Some of those lanes are even physically separated from automobile traffic. This is a welcome development that augurs well for the health of the city. Unless you live in a cave, you know that we have an "epidemic of obesity." Orthodox Jews seem to have more than their share, and the sight of pregnant men in shul is becoming more and more repulsive as time goes by. I put the phrase in quotes because it is not a true epidemic the way physicians and scientists usually define the word. You don't catch it like the common cold or cancer. Obesity and its dreadful sequelae, hypertension, diabetes and such, is almost always the results of a lifestyle choice. And its not so much that we eat too much, the weight loss industry notwithstanding. The problem is we move too little. Sorry folks, evolution occurred and our species is genetically programmed for a high caloric throughput – eat a lot and burn a lot. Enter all the modern conveniences that make housework easy (sorry ladies – your great-grandmothers had it much harder than you), the automobile, and computers and video games replacing outdoor play, continue to eat the way we're programmed to do, and the equation goes out of balance. Keep at it and you get fat. Stay fat and you get clogged arteries in your penis. Viva Viagra – until the arteries in your heart get clogged and you go on nitrates, or your heart simply can't supply enough oxygen for sex or anything else you enjoy. If you're lucky you can get Type 2 diabetes, go blind and have your legs amputated. And we are seeing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and hyperlipidemia (elevated cholesterol) in children as young as ten. A well-known pediatrician in the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park has been known to give patients prescriptions that read "play basketball." But too many yeshivot are indifferent or even hostile to physical activity. Their students are encouraged to sit at a desk all day and get fat - like their teachers. All of us need to move more, and parents should be urging their children to move more. If we really care about our children's health, we will do more than urge. We will refuse to drive our kids to school and let them walk a mile or so instead, or ride a bicycle.

Riding a bicycle to and from work or school goes a long way to restoring the balance. The energy for movement comes from food instead of fossil fuels. You're burning what you're eating, maybe a little more, and the fat comes off and stays off. The economic downturn is making us do what we all should be doing anyway – get around on our own steam. And we will all be happier and healthier for it.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gam Zu L'Tova

Our tradition teaches us to look for hidden good when seemingly bad things happen. And it's not too hard to see a silver lining in Barack Obama's victory last week. It might just be an end to the culture of victimhood that oppresses the African-American community and, to a lesser extent, our own. I see it every day as a teacher, the alienation and cynicism in my students, the mindset that holds them back from becoming what they could become. I tell my students on the first day of class that my course would be difficult but not impossible, and if they study and put in some effort they will succeed, that everything in life worth having comes from struggle. Once a student piped up that that's what white people say. That student had the guts to say what many many black students were thinking. Studying, speaking and writing proper English, attention to personal cleanliness and the like are "acting white." With that attitude how far can one expect to go? And then there's the N-word. I cringe whenever I hear it from a black student directed to himself or other black students. It is the ugliest word in the language. It is loaded to the gills with baggage, 100% negative. It is pure poison. A kid who thinks of himself as a n----r will never get anywhere. I can tell my students not to use that word till I'm blue in the face and I don't get anywhere because my skin is the wrong color. Well, come January 20 we will have a black President. He did not get to Columbia College, Harvard Law School or the White House by thinking of himself as a n----r. If he walks into a school and tells black kids from poor backgrounds to think and speak well of themselves and others, that he too comes from a broken home and that he got where he is as a result of hard work and study, and that they could do likewise and have a future of unlimited possibilities, maybe they will listen. And then our children will be closer to a world where the color of their skin is as inconsequential as that of their hair or eyes (gentlemen prefer blondes but end up marrying brunettes). And such a world will be that much closer to the ultimate ge'ula.
And what about us? After surviving the Holocaust and coming to America and Israel, few of our parents allowed themselves to wallow in victimhood, or to become parasites on the community and the larger society. They rebuilt their lives, married, had children and imbued them with a culture of opportunity: Study hard, get good grades, go to college, make something of yourselves and have everything we didn't have because we grew up in miserable lands of persecution. For some inexplicable reason, that mindset has largely broken down in the Orthodox community. Education is frowned upon, as is working for a living. Even speaking and writing fluent English someone makes you Grade B in sectors of our community. And breaking the law is okay if you profit from it and if you don't get caught. Maybe a minority President telling those people that neither he nor they are above the law, that the only route to success is education and hard work, it will carry some weight. And if it does, Obama's presidency will have done us a world of good.

Hat tip: Emet Ve'emuna

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Monday, November 10, 2008

President-elect Obama

It ain’t over 'til it’s over, and it’s over. Barring a major misfortune or worse, Barack Obama will be our President on January 20. My readers know that I supported John McCain, and that the president-elect's epidermis had nothing to do with it. Mr. Obama's philosophy, his vision of America, is one that I do not share. John McCain's thinking was more in tune with my own. What now? Those who listened to McCain's concession speech heard a manly and gracious piece, worthy of the great American John McCain is. It ill becomes us to be churlish and mean-spirited, and to wish the President-elect anything but the best as he begins his monumental task. At 56 years of age, I have voted on the losing side of elections before. Mr. Obama's accession to the presidency will not be the end of the world, if. . . .

If he realizes that campaign oratory is one thing and governing the country is another. He might have run for office from the left (actually he more or less put together the coalition that Democrats since Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together in successful runs for President), but he will have to govern from the center or he will find himself without a good deal of the support and goodwill he enjoys today. And if he does govern from the center, we should have little to fear. As a biology teacher I can breathe a little easier, knowing that for at least four years we won't have to worry about pressure from the White House to teach anything but sound science in science class. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned anytime soon, and possibly not in my lifetime. That is a source of sadness; for me Roe v. Wade is this generation's Plessy v. Ferguson (the discredited "separate but equal" decision). But we are not Red China, and no woman will be forced to have an abortion under President Obama. He can be expected to pressure Israel to give away bits and pieces of God's patrimony, but so has every American president since the Six-Day War. We cannot realistically expect the President of the United States to be a disciple of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook when a majority of Israelis and their government are quite willing to give away the store.

Many people are comparing the President-elect to President Kennedy, whose yahrzeit (on the civil calendar) is coming up in less than two weeks. He has JFK's youth and vigor, and his charisma. If he had JFK's steely moral clarity, I would probably have voted for him, but God made President Kennedy once and threw away the mold. JFK was not infected with the cancer of moral relativism, at least in his public life. There was a good and an evil. America was good, and its enemies (i.e. Communists and Communism) were evil, and his words and actions flowed from that clarity. In all probability, he would not be welcome in the Democratic Party today. He believed in "American exceptionalism," a doctrine familiar to Evangelical Protestants that holds that God gave America economic and military power beyond what any nation on earth ever dreamed of, and with it comes a sacred mission to confront evil and vanquish it. It was that calling that actuated FDR, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. It has even greater authority today, because the world is a smaller place and a tyrant anywhere, especially an Islamic fascist who thinks he has a sacred calling to spread his brand of tyranny around the globe, is a danger to free men everywhere. That philosophy failed to carry the day last week, and so I have a sense of deep foreboding. The new President, like the young and inexperienced John F. Kennedy 48 years ago, will be tested soon after taking office; even now the Russians are threatening him. If he orders a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq or otherwise projects an image of weakness, every terrorist on God's green earth will be emboldened to attack us. It will not be a question of whether there will be another 9/11 but when. Mr. Obama got elected in part because Americans forgot 9/11, or deliberately choose to pretend that 9/11 never happened and not have to deal with the logical consequences of our country having powerful enemies sworn to our destruction. How many Americans even know the difference between a "dirty bomb" and a "suitcase nuke?" The latter probably doesn't exist – yet. The former is well within reach of any amateur with access to radioactive material, perhaps waste from a hospital. We were told during the campaign to vote our hopes and not our fears, but a little fear can be a good thing. If, God forbid, our worst fears are realized, then I and those who think like me will, I hope without self-righteous gloating, fulfill our role of loyal opposition. Thankfully we live in a country where, if we think our government is doing the wrong thing, it is not only our right but our patriotic duty to speak out – if we are still alive, and that might well depend on which way the wind is blowing when the terrorists set off a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

We have a President-elect. He is entitled to the respect due his office (Ya'akov sat up in bed out of respect for the viceroy of Egypt – his own son) and to a chance to prove himself. We can hope and pray that he proves us wrong.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Williamsburgs

Due to an arthritic knee, I haven't run the New York (or any) Marathon since 2003. In order to feel part of the festivities, I watch the Marathon and cheer from the sidelines. I like to watch from Williamsburg. It is ten miles into the race. Runners, especially those attempting the race on minimal training, are getting tired and in need of a lift. But the Hasidim are (in)famously impassive. Few are on the street. Those that are mostly ignore us, or else eye us like we're visitors from space. No applause, no "looking good," nothing, not even when I run past wearing an Israeli-flag top and shouting something in Hebrew. Once I managed to garner an "Amen" after shouting out a loud shehakol on a cup of water. So I ride to Bedford and Flushing Avenues, park myself on the sidewalk, and give the runners the encouragement that they need and aren't getting from the Williamsburg Hasidim. I shout out names that runners wear on their tops, and give a Hebrew cheer to runners that are identifiably Jewish or Israeli. This year I had purchased a shofar to use on Rosh Hashana, and I blew teki'ot for the runners. A policeman nearby remarked to another that it's the "most annoying sound in the world" and he'd never known where it came from until now. Perhaps I'm just a bad ba'al toke'a, but I've heard worse. One wonders how long he'd been living in New York not to know what a shofar is. I told him that before sirens were invented that was how people sounded the alarm. The cop is entitled to his opinion, but he could have kept it to himself while wearing the uniform.

When most of the runners had passed, I jogged a mile or two on the sidewalk, past the Williamsburg Bridge. I was now in the "other" Williamsburg, what used to be the Hispanic part but is now increasingly populated by "hipsters," young artists and such. There was a noticeable lessening of tension. People lined the sidewalks cheering, they stood on rooftops, terraces and fire escapes cheering. They hung out of windows cheering. Bands set themselves up on the sidewalk playing drums and music. They were happy to see us. We [I'm moving easily from the third person to the first because I still identify strongly as a runner] were happy to see them and hear them. What a difference between Hipster Williamsburg and Hasidic Williamsburg. It's the difference between feeling alive and feeling dead. Where would you rather be and who would you rather be with?

From the 2006 race in Williamsburg

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