Thursday, December 24, 2009

Chicken Feet Or the Sole

Part I. In Theory

Chicken feet. Many people will probably feel a little sick just reading those words, and yet for most of our bubbies, chicken feet were an essential ingredient for a rich, nutritious soup stock. And according to nutrition writer Sally Fallon, it was with good reason. "Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain." Maimonides prescribed chicken soup for a range of maladies (Rosner, Fred. The Medical Legacy of Moses Maimonides. KTAV Publishing House, 1998, p. 243). The American cooking classic The Joy of Cooking also has high praise for the humble foot and calls it "perfect for stock." (Rombauer, Irma, et al. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking. Scribner, 1997, p. 579) (For studies on positive health effects of chicken soup, see, e.g., here).

Besides the general health-fortifying qualities of chicken soup, chicken feet are full of gelatin. "Gelatin acts first and foremost as an aid to digestion and has been used successfully in the treatment of many intenstinal disorders, including hyperacidity, colitis and Crohn's disease. Although gelatin is by no means a complete protein, containing only the amino acids arginine and glycine in large amounts, it acts as a protein sparer, allowing the body to more fully utilize the complete proteins that are taken in." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, pp. 116-117). So if chicken feet are so good, how did they disappear from our soup?

Well, one answer is that convenience became the catchword of the latter part of the 20th century. People took less time to prepare their own food and depended more and more on the burgeoning industrial food complex. Traditional soup stocks at home and even in most restaurants were replaced by less expensive synthetic flavorings and vegetable oils, and for soup this meant soup mixes and instant soups, which did make life more convenient, but at what cost? Food producers totally embraced those changes, and heimish food producers were no different.

For instance, someone recently gave me a pack of Manischewitz Vegetable Soup Mix. The company's tag-line is "Quality Since 1888"... sounds wholesome and traditional, right? Just like Bubbe made. But among the ingredients are: partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, and corn starch. Back in Bubbe's day, soy oil was used in the US in the manufacture of paint and glue products, not as food. (Lierre, Keith. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 224). And soybean oil and cottonseed oil are both extracted from two of the four main genetically modified crops grown in the world. Cotton is not even classified as a food crop and therefore more potent pesticides are applied liberally to it. It sounds like the definition of "quality" has changed a little around Manishewitz since 1888. But, life is more convenient. All I have to do is drop that soup mix in a pot of boiling water and let it simmer for two hours, and it tastes pretty good.

Real chicken soup is, however, still a Shabbos-table staple, although without the feet. And why is that? Well, when our society embraced synthetics, chicken feet became kind of gross and the market was lost. Today, you can't get ahold of chicken feet even if you try. When you buy a whole kosher chicken at Trader Joe's, the word "whole" is qualified; it comes with a chicken body and maybe a neck if you're lucky, but no gizzard, no heart, no liver, and certainly no feet. In fact, you can even buy your kosher chicken with no skin or bones, in a nice little plastic package, if you want, without all the stuff that's great for making stock, and they charge more for it.

So what do they do with the feet that belonged to all these chicken bodies? They export them to people who still value chicken feet. According to documentation on the USDA website, $64 million worth of chicken feet were exported to Hong Kong in 2005 alone. I have read one estimate that the chicken foot export business to China is today worth over $380 million per year. Meanwhile, they're taking all those good chicken feet in exchange for lead-laden toys for our children.

That being said, those chicken feet are from factory farms and maybe there is some wisdom in avoiding factory-farmed chicken feet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the effects of factory farming "include groundwater contamination, air contamination, respiratory disease, and the creation and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria." Yum. Taking into consideration that those effects are just on the community around the farm, I don't really want to take the risk of eating the feet of the chickens who lived on the farm. Fine, so send them to China.

Part II. In Reality

I want to contrast factory farm conditions to a polyculture farm, where, rather than approaching farming from a factory model, it is instead approached as an ecosystem, similar in the way it functions to a forest or plain (and similar, I imagine, to the farming practices that the Alte Rebbe encouraged his brethren to take up). Yesterday I spent the day on such a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. It's called Green Oaks Creek Farm and about thirty of us were gathered for the shechting, plucking, eviscerating, and salting of a number of poulet rouge chickens. The chickens were raised entirely on pasture, specifically, on a fallow field which was at rest between growth cycles. The chickens ate bugs, rodents, seeds, and whatever else they found in the field, in addition to certified organic feed, and in exchange they left their droppings as manure and their thighs became plump. They were not treated with antibiotics or growth stimulants, which are de rigueur in factory farming.

We were there working with Caleb Barron, the actual farmer who had raised the chickens, Naf Hanau, a compassionate shochet who is a personal acquaintance of mine, and Rabbi Seth Mandel as the mashgiach, overseeing the process for the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California. I was particularly impressed by Rabbi Mandel's knowledge and experience in the industry, and his down-to-earth and approachable manner. I also was thankful to Anna Hanau, under whose tutelage I worked as an organic farmer during the summer of 2008. She was slated as the event "mentor," and indeed she gave me a couple tips on evisceration. The event was organized by Hazon in conjunction with the Hazon Jewish Food Conference taking place over this weekend in Northern California, and I am very thankful to have been a participant.

Was it beautiful? In a certain way, yes. Although the most accurate descriptor for me at the time was "natural." However cheesy it sounds, it felt like I was back in place, back in the "Circle of Life." I was back with Adam haRishon who named all the creatures, when he slaughtered his first animal and was thankful to G-d; back with Avraham Avinu, raising flocks in the pastures of Bethel. For one morning, I was back in that circle, and it felt natural, and because of that it was beautiful. Please don't misunderstand--there is nothing innately beautiful in taking another creature's life; nor about watching a chicken's body flail as its blood drains and its dying nerves fire hotly; nor is it innately beautiful reaching inside a chicken's carcass and pulling out a handful of guts. But to know that it can be done with respect, that we can raise G-d's creatures with respect, and respectfully kill them as G-d allowed, that is beautiful. The process was flanked by explicit praise of G-d as halacha prescribes, al pi r'tzono yishtabach shemo.

Needless to say, I took a bag of feet home and I will be making some gelatinous soup stock.

Basic Sauerkraut Recipe

This post is a follow-up to my Fermentation and Jewish Culture post.

Recommended tools:
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Grater/shredder
  • Bowl
  • A jar made out of either glass or earthenware (like a ceramic crock) (you can also use food-grade plastic if you must)
  • A rock, or small jar that fits in the bigger jar, or plastic bag
  • Square of cloth to cover mouth of bigger jar (optional)
  • Rubber-band to hold cloth over mouth of jar (optional, but highly recommended)

  • Cabbage (preferably organic and locally grown) (about 2.5 lbs. of cabbage should render about 1/2 gallon/2 liters of sauerkraut, so plan your jar size accordingly)
  • Sea salt (or any type of salt except chemically iodized salt)

A word on lacto-fermentation and ingredients: Sauerkraut depends on the action of bacteria present on the leaves of cabbage to provide the pickling magic, and you want to encourage them as much as possible. Pesticides may kill or restrict these naturally-occurring bacteria, which means the sauerkraut may not pickle if using non-organic cabbage. Similarly, iodine definitely kills bacteria and that's why I suggest not using iodized salt.

A word on checking cabbage for bugs: One of the methods the OU recommends for checking cabbage is to peel off the first few layers of leaves (approximately six leaves) and check each leaf on both sides under a bright light for bugs. If only one or two bugs are found among all those leaves, the rest of the head may be used without checking "provided the remaining leaves of the head are very tightly packed together." If three or more bugs were found, it's necessary to check an additional layer. If that one is clean, you're good to go without further checking. But if more bugs were found there (which is highly uncommon), it's necessary to check the whole head. (The OU Guide to Checking Fruits, Vegetables, & Berries, 2nd Edition, Orthodox Union 2007, pp. 21-22)

  1. Chop the cabbage in half from top to bottom and cut out the core. You can eat the core right now if you want... it's crunchy and tastes fresh and usually a little spicy, kind of like kohlrabi, or you can shred it and throw it in with the sauerkraut. Or you can throw it in the compost bin, as you prefer.
  2. Shred the cabbage. You can achieve this a number of ways. I often just use a knife and chop the cabbage into the smallest pieces I am able. You can also use a hand grater, and grate the cabbage to the grade you like. Or, the fastest and easiest method is to shred with a food processor. Use what is available to you or what you prefer, and gather the shredded cabbage into a bowl.
  3. Add salt to the shredded cabbage at about a 1:1 ratio, one tablespoon of salt per head of cabbage. It doesn't really matter whether you're using large or small cabbages because about one tablespoon of salt will be fine for either. Mix the salt and shredded cabbage well.
  4. You will notice that the mixture is starting to get wet. This is very good. The salt is beginning to extract juice from the cabbage leaves, and that juice is essential to the sauerkraut-making process. You need to rough up the cabbage a bit at this point. Punch it and knead it for a couple minutes like you would to bread dough. This aides the juice-extraction process.
  5. Start transferring the shredded cabbage mixture to your jar. As you fill in every couple inches, give it a good few punches. Some people use a wooden tool instead of a fist to do this packing down, which is easier and more convenient, unless you don't have such a tool.
  6. Once all your cabbage is packed in, or the jar is getting full (remember that you will need to leave enough headroom for the liquid to rise, and for a weight, and a little airspace under the optional cloth cover), you need to use something heavy to weigh down the cabbage and make sure it remains under the liquid which will be extracted. This can be achieved a number of ways. You can use a rock (make sure you wash and boil it first), or a smaller jar filled with water, or a plastic bag filled with water (or create your own method). Either way, the point is that when the salt extracts enough liquid from the cabbage, you want the cabbage to remain submerged under the liquid, and the weight will do this. The worst thing that will happen if the cabbage floats to the top and is exposed to air is that the top layer will get moldy, and even then, you can just remove that top layer and eat what's underneath it.
  7. Let it sit with the weight on about twelve to twenty four hours, and check to make sure enough liquid has been extracted. There should be about an inch or two of liquid above the cabbage. If there is not enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add a well-dissolved mixture of water and salt at about a 1:1 ratio, one tablespoon salt to one cup water.
  8. If you want, attach the cloth cover with rubber-band and let it sit in a cool, dark place for between two weeks to three months. You can taste it as it ages, and when it tastes best to you is when it's ready. At least visually check it every few weeks to make sure too much water hasn't evaporated, otherwise the cabbage will become exposed. The cloth cover is optional, but I think it's a good idea just to keep out dust and bugs.
  9. When it's done, you can move the whole jar into the refrigerator, or pack the finished product into smaller jars and refrigerate those, and then start a new batch in the big jar. The refrigeration essentially freezes the fermentation process where it is, although it is actually still occurring at a much slower pace. This sauerkraut should be fine for at least six months to a year, if not longer.

Other tips:
  • You can mix in liquid from old batches of sauerkraut into new batches, which is not necessary but it acts as an inoculation of the new batch.
  • When you get comfortable with sauerkraut making, you can get creative with ingredients. Some traditional and modern sauerkraut flavorings include: apples, fennel, juniper berries, seaweed, and hot peppers. You would add these flavorings at the beginning of the fermentation process.
  • Like the ecosystem in a forest or meadow, different communities of bacteria "rise and fall" the longer the sauerkraut ages. Like Sandor Katz says, "Bacteria called Coliform start the fermentation. As the Coliform produces acid, the environment becomes more favorable for Leuconostoc bacteria. The Coliform population declines as the population of Leuconostoc builds. As acids continue to be produced and the pH continues to drop, Lactobacillus succeeds the Leuconostoc. The fermentation involves a succession of three different types of bacteria, determined by the increasing acidity." (Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation, p. 40)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kasis L'ma'or

"The most excellent way to fulfill the mitzvah is to use olive oil for Chanuka candles... and similarly... to take wicks of cotton or linen... We have the custom that the "shamash" should be a wax candle." (Shevach HaMoadim, Kitzur Hilchos Chanuka, 3:1-5) (translation my own).

In order to be mehader the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka this year, I sought out the nicest locally produced organic olive oil I could find, which happens to be Tehama Gold's Mission extra virgin olive oil, based in Northern California. It is a family owned operation and is certified kosher by the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California, based in Berkeley, which is supervised by Rabbi Welton, with whom I am acquainted. I also bought a bag of Maxim organic cotton to use for wicks (they also claim their cotton is free of pesticides, herbicides, chlorine, and viscose), and pure beeswax candles made by Honey Candles of Canada for the shamash. Needless to say, I did feel like a yuppy at the check-out counter, what with buying all these luxury items.

Objectively speaking, these pure and high-quality ingredients are mehudar materials to use for the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka, as they are the most mehudar of the general category of materials that suffice for "mitzvah min hamuvchar" (namely, olive oil, cotton wicks, and beeswax). But subjectively speaking, I wondered if "organic" or some of the other standards I was seeking "count" as a hiddur as well.

The concept of hiddur mitzvah comes from the Gemara in Shabbos 133b, which discusses the passuk "zeh keli v'anvehu" (lit. "this is my G-d and I will glorify Him") (Exod. 15:2). R' Yishmael asks "Is it possible for a person to add glory to his Creator? What it really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvos. I shall prepare before G-d a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzis, beautiful tefillin, a beautiful shofar, etc." But is the standard for beautification objective? In an essay on hiddur mitzvah, Rabbi Josh Flug notes, "The requirement to have 'nice' items used for the mitzvah clearly has no objective standards. There can be two sukkot that look nothing alike and the construction of both can be a fulfillment of hiddur mitzvah." For instance, in some communities to beautify the sukkah includes decorations and hangings, while in other communities, the hiddur is mainly the guests who sit inside the sukkah, their singing, and the words of Torah spoken there, with no hangings.

Rabbi Flug also cites there the idea to spend one-third more for the sake of hiddur than you would spend for the baseline product. Granted, organic and local definitely doesn't necessarily equal higher quality for hiddur mitzvah, and paying more for an inferior item is not a hiddur by any means. But let's say there are two olive oils of, as far as you can tell, equal quality, but one is organically grown four hours away from you and it costs one-third more than the non-organic which is from Turkey (and thus required a large amount of oil to be burnt in transporting it, and pesticides may have been applied, and the workers may have been treated worse). Is it considered a hiddur at that point? It seems like it depends on your personal and community standards. So for me, yes.

But, if you'll indulge me, I think there is a deeper reason for the choices I made, and that is that they make it more possible that my great-grandchildren will also be able to fulfill the mitzvah the same way that I am. There is a beautiful story in the Gemara in Taanis, 23b about Choni Hamaagal. If I remember correctly, Choni didn't understand what the first line of Shir Hama'alos (which we say before benching when no tachanun is said) meant. "A song of ascents. When Hashem will return the captives of Zion, we will have been like dreamers." This line is referring to the 70-year exile between the First and Second Temples, and Choni didn't understand what it meant to dream for 70 years. He later encountered a man planting a certain fruit tree, and Choni asked when the tree would bear fruit, to which the man replied "in 70 years." "But you're already a grown man, you won't be around to see it bear fruit," Choni wisely responded. [The man paused from his shoveling, wiped the sweat from his brow and took a good long look at Choni. Then he said,] “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.” (I added the part in brackets for dramatic effect.) That was a partial answer to Choni's question.

To me, this story illustrates the idea in Yiddishkeit that we are meant to support sustainable farming practices for the sake of future generations, that we are meant not only to dream for ourselves, but to imagine those who will come after us and what world we want to hand down to them. I personally would like to pass on a world filled with trees and fruit, a world with clean air and clean water. Cotton, for instance, is responsible for "25% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop." (also see GM Cotton Fiascos). That includes not only common cotton used for Chanuka wicks, but also in mostly all cotton clothing. Honeybee populations are also threatened by the use of pesticides and spreading colony collapse disorder (CCD), which if continued unchecked will majorly limit the way we produce food in this country and the amount and variety of food we have access to.

The Honey Candles company claims to have a "commitment to sourcing from ethical beekeepers... [and] organically managed hives in the Peace River Region of Northern Alberta."
Also, unlike soy and parafin candles, "beeswax is used essentially in its native state. There is no bleaching or hydrogenating and does not require large amounts of agricultural land. Beeswax is the purest of all waxes (including vegetable waxes such as soy) with the least processing and no additives." And they burn slower with a beautiful flame, which makes up somewhat for the extra cost.

So, has it come to that, that my hiddur mitzvah is the baseline for ensuring that my great-grandchildren will have a beautiful world to beautify their mitzvahs in? Let's hope not. It is a Chassidic idea that a little light dispels much darkness. Happy Chanuka to all, and may we spread abundant light this year in every way possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fermentation and Jewish Culture

I was reviewing some of birchos hanehenin last week and came across a particularly interesting piece of information. In his Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 205:3, the Alte Rebbe notes the following:
There are types of vegetables that it is not customary to eat them raw (even with bread) but rather cooked (or cured, or pickled which have the same status as a cooked food). For example, cabbage, gourd, and beets and other similar things, you bless "she'hakol ne'hiya bidvaro" on them when they are raw, and if they are cooked or pickled, "borei pri ha'adamah." (emphasis mine) (translation mine).
It's obvious from this that, at the Alte Rebbe's time at least, it was so foreign to eat raw cabbage that if you did eat it, you would make a she'hakol! No one that I know today would dream of making a she'hakol on cabbage. But the point that I want to emphasize is how cabbage often was consumed, namely, fermented (pickled) as sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut was not only common in the Alte Rebbe's time. Historically, one of the most common ways of consuming cabbage (indeed, perhaps for all of history until recently) was as lacto-fermented (pickled) sauerkraut ("zauerkraut" in Yiddish--literally, "sour cabbage"). The method of producing sauerkraut is actually one of the oldest methods of food preservation, having enjoyed documented popularity as far back as early Roman society, up until 18th century Europe, and even playing a vital role in preventing scurvy among sailors (see, e.g. Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 148-151). For obvious reasons, it was reputed to have health-fortifying effects.

Today, we have more than intuition to guide our understanding of the health benefits of sauerkraut.
"Cabbage and other Brassicaceae family vegetables ... have long been recognized as rich in anti-carcinogenic nutrients. According to a new Finnish study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, fermentation breaks down glucosinolates in cabbage into compounds called isothiocyanates, which are already known to fight cancer. 'We are finding that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage, especially for fighting cancer,' says Eeva-Liisa Ryhanen, one of the paper's authors." (Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003, p. 40) (See also Sauerkraut Packed with Cancer-Fighting Compounds)
Additionally, fermentation enhances the digestability of cabbage and increases vitamin levels and, upon consumption, encourages the growth of "healthy bacteria throughout the intestine." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, p. 89).

And yet, in large part, this aspect of our culture has been lost. A fixture of shabbos tables today is the cabbage salad or coleslaw, no doubt sprayed with pesticides and shipped some great distance and purchased at Costco... not exactly the local, organic, lacto-fermented health-fortifying food that the Alte Rebbe would have been familiar with. Even what most of us know as 'sauerkraut' today is not real sauerkraut. If it's not in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, that means it was either pasteurized or bathed in vinegar, effectively killing the live-cultures that sauerkraut is praised for.

But there is unquestionably an appreciation at the shabbos table for fermentation, the magic transformation of the mundane and perishable into the magnificent. How is that? The two cornerstones of the shabbos meal are fermented foods, wine and bread (specifically, the kiddush wine and the challah). In fact, I've heard it told that these two foods (among others) were built into creation as special shabbos foods, as a little exploration of their gematrias implies: wine=yayin=10+10+50=70, 7+0=7 (the 7th day); challah=8+30+5=43, 4+3=7.

Some chassidic groups actually still observe a specific minhag to eat pickled products on shabbos. They call it in Yiddish "zoyerlach" (lit. "sours" or "ferments") and say it sounds like "azoi erlech" (lit. "so honest"). (Meisels, Dovid. Shabbos Secrets: The Mysteries Revealed. Israel Book Shop, 2003.) Indeed, shabbos "is based on a profound truth, the word of G-d." (Sperling, Abraham. Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions. Bloch Publishing Co., 1968, p. 147). Coincidentally, the gematria of sauerkraut in Hebrew also adds up to seven (kruv kavush=20+200+6+2+20+2+6+300=556, 5+5+6=16, 1+6=7).

The deeper lesson to take from the process of fermentation, indeed, a lesson applicable to every single parsha in the Torah, is internalization. The way fermentation works is that these microorganisms in the air and on the skin of, for instance, cabbage leaves and grapes, are waiting to get inside, to get at the starches or sugars inside, and to transform them. When we crush the cabbage leaves and the grapes, we allow those microorganisms access and they, in turn, create a whole new product, much more valuable and special than cabbage or grapes on their own, and yet at the same time, the cabbage and grapes had the spark of potential waiting to be expressed the whole time.

In chassidus, there is an emphasis on taking the external and superficial in our learning and making it real, to internalize it so that it transforms us, affecting us deeply in actuality. Last week, when we read that Yaakov "laid down in that place," the Midrash emphasizes, "Bamakom hahu!" In that place he laid down to sleep, but for the 14 previous years and the 20 following years, he didn't lay down to sleep. Why? Before he went to Charan, he was learning and internalizing the Torah that he would take with him to the house of Lavan. He was so focused that he didn't have time to sleep. Once there, he had to remain steadfast in his dedication, take care of his family, and raise his children with a strong Jewish education, and this also did not allow him to sleep. He was so successful, that when he left, he could honestly say, "Im lavan garti" ("I sojourned with Lavan") which Rashi notes, "The numerical value of garti is six hundred and thirteen, as if to say, 'I sojourned with Lavan, the evil one, yet I kept the six hundred and thirteen commandments and did not learn from his evil actions.' " (Artscroll Sapirstein Edition Rashi, p. 360, on Gen. 32:5). May we also internalize all that we learn, as the Rebbe Rayatz taught (in yesterday's apropos Hayom Yom), "A fundamental principle of Chabad philosophy is that the mind, which by its innate nature rules over the heart, must subordinate the heart to G-d's service by utilizing the intellectualization, comprehension and profound contemplation of the greatness of the Creator of the universe." The spark is there inside each one of us, we just need to draw it out through our own fermentation.

On a last note, I've been producing my own lacto-fermented foods for over a year now. I eat homemade sauerkraut usually every day. If anyone has any questions regarding how to make sauerkraut or how to find a lacto-fermented variety in the local market, don't hesitate to contact me.

Monday, November 23, 2009


"[Yaakov] said to [the shepherds], 'Do you know Lavan the son of Nachor?' They replied, 'We know him.' And he said to them, 'Is it well with him?' and they replied, 'It is, and behold, Rochel his daughter is coming with the flock.' [...] While he was still speaking with them, Rochel came with the flock which belonged to her father because she was a shepherdess." (Gen. 29:5-9)

This post is dedicated to the first explicit mention of a woman farmer in the Torah, namely, our third matriarch Rochel. In her honor, I will spotlight a modern, Jewish, woman-owned and operated farm called Jacob's Ladder Farm, which is coincidentally named after Rochel's husband, Yaakov (or Jacob).

I have to be honest, I don't know that much about this farm, but they have consistently appeared in Google searches over the years, and I've read enough on their website to be very impressed. It is a traveling farm with the primary purpose of connecting children and adults with traditional knowledge and appreciation of Hashem's world, and in particular, to do it in a holistic way. In their own words,
"To see our precious new generation caring for Hashem's creatures with breathtaking sureness is to re-encounter the process through which our Jewish leaders--Yaakov, Moshe, Shaul, David--developed their compassionate shepherding of flocks and so were chosen, later, for compassionate shepherding of Bnai Yisrael. So, too, is ecological training at the child level-in a Torah context--a worthy start for future Jewish leaders."

I love their compassionate approach to teaching about animal husbandry. For instance, they offer a class on "How the Animal World provides us with 'gifts,' and how we harvest those gifts without hurting the animals we care for. Activities may include: milk a goat, shear a sheep, feel the down on a duck, learn how to hypnotize a goose for down- gathering, pluck a molting Angora bunny, balance a peacock feather, and (in season) put baby birds down for a nap!"

It is interesting to point out that, despite their impressive goals and programming and being a women-run business, I can't find the above reference to Rochel on their website, e.g.
"[The] Jewish nation began as shepherds and animal owners: Just about anybody you can think of in the Torah had flocks--Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, 12 brothers, Bnai Yisrael in Egypt, Moshe, Shaul, David. Very early on we see our Avot being kind to animals: Rivkah includes the camels when she gives Eliezer water; Jacob builds Sukkot to shelter his flocks; Jacob and David fight off predators to save sheep; Jewish leaders are chosen based on their mercy developed as shepherds (Moshe, David)."
The farm is based out of Maryland, so if you're ever in the area, think about showing them some support. This is really an amazing and necessary endeavor, and I hope they will be successful and that many more similar farms will develop in Jewish communities across the US. Their point is very well taken, and it is the same point that inspired me to start this blog. Dai l'meivin.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kosher Kombucha Culture

I'm happy to announce that I have kombucha cultures available that I synthesized from a certified kosher source, namely GT Dave's Organic Raw Kombucha, which is certified kosher-pareve by Rabbi Eli Frankel at the Kosher Certification Service of Los Angeles (see Kosherquest for more information). I'm happy to mail them out for free, as long you pay shipping costs. And please only contact me if you're a person who keeps kosher and wants to secure a culture from a certified kosher source.

Despite the fantastic rise in popularity of kombucha in recent years, I have seen nary a peep about it in kosher and Jewish forums, neither online nor in print, and believe me, I searched. I even sent a request to the people at Kosher Blog quite a while back asking them to address kombucha, in particular because it is becoming quite common for people to brew kombucha at home (and it's so expensive to buy), and as long as Kosher Blog is covering pickling, canning, home stock-making, home salami-making, and home cheese-making, I thought home kombucha-making would be quite relevant. Obviously I was a little disappointed that they didn't cover it.

So, I did my own research. I spoke with three different halachic authorities about kombucha, two of them being representatives of their respective kosher certifying agencies, namely the KSA and the KCS (previously mentioned). I understood from my conversations with these three authorities that a kombucha culture is kosher and pareve by nature. Halacha's conception of it is more similar to beer or bread yeast, than to, for instance, wine yeast or bacterial cultures for cheese (yeast (other than wine yeast) doesn't need kosher certification according to Rabbi Eidlitz at KosherQuest, see here, although the Star-K takes a more machmir stance and requires kosher supervision; although, based on the fact that all major kosher certifying agencies don't require kosher supervision for domestically brewed beers, and all beers use yeast, the logical conclusion is that yeast doesn't require kosher supervision either).

A word on the kombucha making process: Kombucha brewing is an artisanal process. The utensils and ingredients must be very clean and pure or else the scoby will be likely to get moldy. The culture is never exposed to hot temperatures, as that would kill it as well. When a batch of kombucha is starting out, the scoby, a saucer-like symbiosis of bacteria and yeast is placed in a room-temperature mixture of water, tea, and sugar (none of which require kosher certification on their own), and is left to ferment for about a week. That being said, because of the dearth of information about the kosher status of kombucha in general, I decided to provide a secure source for people seeking kosher peace of mind.

I personally started brewing kombucha over a year ago. These days, the only liquids I drink on a regular basis are water and kombucha. Why? Besides for the fact that I feel kombucha generally boosts my immune system and gives me energy (I have never been sick as long as I have consumed kombucha regularly, keineina harah) it also coincided with the sudden retreat of a virus I was experiencing prior to when I started brewing kombucha. It was nothing serious, but the virus completely subsided within two months of drinking kombucha on a daily basis.

If anyone has anything at all to add here, or if anyone feels that I was misinformed about anything, please don't hesitate to let me know. And if you want a kombucha culture that was synthesized from a certified kosher source, I'm here for you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Men of Tents, Men of the Field

"And the youths grew up, and Eisav was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents." (Gen. 25:27)

And so the story goes that Eisav became evil and murderous, and Yaakov was a good yeshiva bochur, his head in the books all day. But I thought it was a virtue to be "a man of the field"? Afterall, didn't Moshe Rabeinu and King David spend significant time in the field tending their herds before their fated rise to leadership? Also, many of the mitzvahs assume we will be farmers and regulate how and what can do in our fields--how we sow our crops, when we can harvest certain crops, what we are to do with the harvested crops, etc. So what gives? Are we meant to be "of the field" or in the books?

There are two points that I want to make here. Firstly, we have to define "man of the field" in context and distinguish it. Something is lost in translation when we simply say "man of the field." The implication for Eisav was that he was a shark, he had street smarts from the very fact that he was out in the field (or as we would say today, out on the streets), not that he was 'one with nature' as the phrase connotes in English. He was not a farmer nor a shepherd. Rather, he was a hunter and a con-artist (see Rashi there).

On the other hand, Yitzchak was a farmer, as the Torah says,
"Yitzchak sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold; thus had Hashem blessed him." (Gen. 26:12). The midrash refers to him as an "olah temimah" ("blemish-free offering") (Rashi on Gen. 26:2) who was so holy that Hashem didn't want him to leave Eretz Cana'an. Yitzchak was holy and a farmer at the same time. So that sufficiently establishes that we can be men of the field and men of the book at the same time. But is there an argument that we should only be men of the book?

There seems to be a genuine disagreement among the sages on whether we are meant to farm (what I would colloquially call "of the field") or learn 24-7 (be "tent-dwellers"). For instance, in Perek Shishi of Brachos, the Gemora records:
The Rabbis taught: "And you shall gather your grain..." (Dev. 11:14) Why does the Torah say that? Because it says elsewhere, "Do not remove this book, the Torah, from your mouth." (Joshua 1:8) Is that meant to be taken literally, as it is written? The Torah comes along and says "And you shall gather your grain" to show that one who follows the words of Torah has an occupation (derech eretz); these are the words of R' Yishmael.

R' Shimon ben Yochai says, is it possible that a man would plow at the time of plowing, and sow at the time of sowing, and harvest at the time of harvesting, and thresh at the time of threshing, and winnow at the time of the winds... What would become of his Torah study? Rather, understand it this way: At the time that the Yidden are doing the will of Hashem, their labor is done by others, as it says, "Foreigners will stand up and herd your flocks" (Isaiah 61:5). At the time that the Yidden are not fulfilling Hashem's will, their labor is done by themselves, as it says "and you shall gather your grain." (Dev. 11:14) And moreover, at such a time they also have to work for non-Jews as it says "and you shall serve your enemy" (Dev. 28:48). (translation my own) (Brochos 35b)
That's the discussion, and the Gemara rounds off that sugya by saying the proof is in the pudding, namely that many who followed the way set forth by R' Yishmael succeeded, and many who followed the way set forth by R' Shimon did not succeed. And so this seems like good proof that we are not meant to have our heads in the books all day; not only is farming, generally speaking, the right thing to do, but it's required of us by the Torah. We are meant to be both in the books and in the field!

I understand a counterargument would be that the Torah is speaking of labor in general, and most people happened to be farmers back in those days, and the real maskana is that a person needs to work (even as a doctor, or lawyer, or whatever) in addition to Torah study, and I agree with that. But I would add that there is something special about farming.

I think Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz (the freilich farmer), who is also a gentleman maple syrup farmer in Vermont, hit the nail on the head when he spoke about some of the lessons that are essential to farming and how they relate to integrating the lessons in Yiddishkeit:
"And what you really see in a Jewish agrarian setting, and what I teach, is process. You know, where does maple syrup come from? It doesnt come from a jar. Somebody went out, cut a trail, tapped a tree, hung a bucket, and collected sap. And all things are connected, the seasons, the harvest, the holidays, how we treat the animals and use the land. So I use the process of making maple syrup as a metaphor for teaching Torah."(Wolfson, Paula. "Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love", pp. 59-60)
May Hashem bless our efforts like those of Yitzchak, that we should gather me'ah shearim (100x portions) b'gashmius u'b'ruchnius!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Roots of Eastern Religion

"Avraham gave all he had to Yitzchak. And to the children of the concubines of Avraham's, Avraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Yitzchak his son, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east." Breishis, Parshas Chayei Sarah. (Gen. 25:5-6 in the Sapirstein Edition of Rashi: The Artscroll Series, pp. 266-7).

The question is asked, if Avraham just gave everything he owned to Yitzchak, then what did he give to his other children? Rashi addresses this by saying, "Our Rabbis explained, he gave over to them a name of an impurity. " (Id.) In other words, it was a spiritual gift. What was the nature of this spiritual gift?

The Gemara, in Sanhedrin 91a goes on to explain that it was "A name by whose pronunciation they would be able to perform sorcery. The 'gifts' here do not refer to property, for Avraham had already transferred ownership of all of his property to Yitzchak." (Id.)

To summarize: Avraham sent his children to the east with powerful spiritual gifts, and those children presumably became the progenitors of the spiritual traditions of the east that we have today.

I understand why American Jews are often dissatisfied with the experiences they've had in organized Jewish life growing up, and seek something more spiritually satisfying as adults. But I have wondered why these Jews are so attracted to Eastern religions specifically.

This source makes a good argument for why that is. Apparently, the root of those spiritual traditions is in Torah and in the acknowledgment of the One True G-d, however obscured those roots have become today. There is obviously still residual power from that original spiritual energy that Avraham sent, enough so to draw spiritual seekers to attempt to slake their thirst there.

Over the course of this week I'm going to see if I can find any further information on this subject.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Land of Milk

"[Avraham] took cream and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before [the visitors]; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate." Breishis, Parshas Vayeira (Genesis 18:8).

This is the first time milk is mentioned in the Torah. It is interesting to note that here we are in the fourth parsha since the beginning of the creation of the world, and out of all the things that G-d wished to convey to us, G-d chose to enumerate the foods that Avraham served to his guests, the first of them being cream and milk.

Needless to say, this was raw, unpasteurized cream and milk. There were no refrigerators back then (obviously) so if you wanted milk, you went out and milked your cow (or goat, etc.). Additionally, as Rashi notes (id.), "As he prepared each food, he brought it near and presented it to them." Presumably, it takes less time to milk a cow than to slaughter a calf and cook it. This post will be the first in a series dedicated to milk.

First of all, raw, unpasteurized milk seems to be a tradition in Judaism, if only by default. It's what Avraham served, after all. "But isn't unpasteurized milk poisonous?" you ask.

Pasteurization is a modern process, discovered by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Before that era, all milk was consumed raw. The idea behind pasteurizing milk is that you heat up the milk above a specific temperature for a specific period of time in order to kill most micro-organisms, especially the ones that cause disease and make milk go bad, which is good, right? We don't want any dangerous bacteria in our milk. Well, then how come in Avraham's time (or even in our great-grandparent's time) they could drink raw milk without getting sick? What changed?

Pasteurization proved itself in bolstering the burgeoning food industry of the 19th century. It allowed for a more consistent taste and standard production method in fermented food products like beer; a consistent product allows for better branding and marketing. It also allowed food to be preserved for longer periods of time and shipped farther distances, which allowed for a broader consumer base. These benefits to industry were often at the expense of nutrition and ultimate quality for the consumer.

As industry expanded, production of any particular thing was concentrated and put on a production line; the same was true of the dairy industry. What happens when you take the factory model and apply it to farming? The advent of the factory farm.

Today, in concentrated dairy operations, thousands of cows live in a confined square of barren land and dwell in their own drek day in and day out. They may spend their entire lives never tasting a blade of fresh grass, the food that is called their "bread" by King David (Psalm 147); additionally, G-d designed their stomachs with a rumen specifically to digest grass, and it is by that digestive process ("rumination") that they are designated as kosher animals in the Torah (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). Normally diseased conditions and lack of grass in their diet would eventually kill a cow, but they are kept alive with antibiotics and other methods. I got to see the workings of such an industrial dairy farm firsthand (a kosher one, in Israel), the cows marching to the milking machines with dung hanging from their overly swollen udders. With such cows and such milk, it's true, their unpasteurized milk is infested with harmful bacteria and would be poisonous to drink. (Never drink unpasteurized milk from cows raised in factory farming conditions!)

However, such was not the state of Avraham's herds. As was noted in last week's parsha, Parshas Lech L'cha, Avraham's herds were free-range and ate grass and were, presumably, superbly healthy. Indeed, there was not enough grass near Beth-el to support Avraham and Lot's herds, and so they had to part ways. (Gen. 13:6-7) These were healthy cows, living well as G-d intended them to live, producing healthy unpasteurized milk.

I personally drank raw goat milk that I milked myself almost every day during a three-month apprenticeship I did on a small, sustainably run farm on the East Coast, and enjoyed robust health during that time. Apparently, not only can raw milk be safe, but it can be abundantly more nutritious than pasteurized milk. According to the Campaign for Real Milk, "Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Calves fed pasteurized milk do poorly and many die before maturity."

Before I end, I want to note that I have noticed a vociferous aversion to farming among a number of my teachers and peers over the years, based on the misguided argument that Jews are meant to be businessmen or professionals, and chassidim are meant to be on shlichus, and you can't do shlichus on a farm. I don't know what these opinions are based on. As a bit of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the life of Zusik Rivkin, a Lubavitcher chassid and dairy farmer who lived in Kfar Chabad in Israel, is illustrative. The following is a patched-together accounting from a couple articles about his life:
[As a youth, his] family made it to Israel, where Zusik was sent to study in the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva-Tomchei Temimim in Lod. Unlike the other students, the young Rivkin did not pursue rabbinical studies, instead following the personal directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, who instructed the boy to take up agriculture. “He believed it was part of his mission as a Chasid to show the world that a religious Jew works hard on the field and at the books,” recalled one of Rivkin’s family members in an interview after his passing. Until his very last day, Zusik, as he was known to his friendly neighbors, saw dairy farming as his "mission in the world," lording over a herd of some 130 cows that collectively produced more than 1,500 liters of kosher milk each day.
(see the full articles here and here.)
Hopefully this will provide something for you to think about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it.

So many of our metaphors and analogies in Judaism are rooted in an agricultural perspective of the world, but I'm afraid that many of us have forgotten or become estranged from the real thing from whence the metaphor sprang. At one time we were well connected with the natural world--we were farmers, shepherds, craftspeople. At this time around 3,000 years ago, we would all be arriving back in our cities, towns, and hamlets after having spent a week celebrating the harvest festival of Sukkos at the Beis HaMikdash in Jerusalem, praying for the coming year's rain and for the strengthening of the land with vegetation. To this day, we pray for salvation for "the cattle from miscarriage[,] the granary from the palmer-worm[,] the olives from rotting[,] the wheat from the grasshopper[,] the wine cellar from the canker-worm [...]" (Siddur Tehillat Hashem, 2003, p. 372).

And yet, last week, when it started to rain, many of us grumbled. Why should we care about cattle, granaries, and wine cellars today? The supermarket shelves are always stocked with food, more food than we know what to do with. Meat comes in a nice plastic package. Who still knows how to do melicha on their own, much less raise a sheep and have it slaughtered (how many people today have even seen or touched a live sheep?)? And yet we still can throw around a good sheep metaphor. It is noted in the Alte Rebbe's biography that when he was a youth, he would "encourage his brethren to engage in agricultural pursuits." (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: A Biography by Nissan Mindel, p. 7). Undoubtedly, when he compared a certain personality type to the sheep, it was because he had observed how a sheep acted (for instance, see the ma'amar in Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, which begins "Adam ki yakriv mikem"). For many of us, we only have the archetypal sheep - the sheep itself has become a symbol, a caricature.

"And what's the matter with that?" you might ask. Afterall, whether or not we have known real sheep, we still "get the idea." But that's exactly it, maybe we don't completely get the idea. On a number of occasions, I have overheard the bemoaning of our generation's ability to learn, or rather lack of it, compared to previous generations. But maybe it's because we have been alienated in large part from the substance of our great Tradition? For example, when we learn Perek Shishi in Brachos, page 36a, when Shmuel says, "Oh yeah, it's like the raddish that becomes hard in the end," how many of us understand that comment immediately which was so rational to Shmuel? Presumably, not many of us. Shmuel, on the other hand, lived in an agricultural world and he applied his knowledge of how things function in the natural world to his study of Torah. We are exactly the opposite: we learn about the natural world from Torah.

Obviously there is what to be learned about the world from Torah, but Shmuel (which is just an example of any pre-Industrial Age Jew) came into his learning with a certain appreciation for how things work. So what does it mean "a raddish becomes hard in the end"? Most root vegetables and many fruiting bodies of other plants (e.g. beans), become hard and woody and lose their flavor if left to their own devices. But if we grew up on ripe red bulbs from the supermarket, how do we know what happens to that plant later in its life? Many of us would not even recognize a raddish still in the ground.

One of the poet-farmer Wendell Berry's well-known quotes is that "eating is an agricultural act." Once a person realizes what that means, she will begin to realize how distant she has grown in state-of-mind from her ancestors, and will begin to return; and that is truly living the age old wish "to renew our days as of old."