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Jewish Journal

My Chanukah miracle

Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight

by Jonah Lowenfeld

December 1, 2010 | 5:06 pm

While some Jews forgo Chanukah candles completely, others are finding alternatives to paraffin (a byproduct of petroleum) and using candles made from beeswax.

While some Jews forgo Chanukah candles completely, others are finding alternatives to paraffin (a byproduct of petroleum) and using candles made from beeswax.

And on the fifth day, I learned how not to compost.

It was a sunny mid-November morning when I found out that potato peels, celery tops and other vegetable pieces — in other words, most of the 7 pounds of organic matter I had been saving in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer for the past four days — were, in fact, still food.

“What’s wrong with that carrot?” Danila Oder, the manager of the Crenshaw Community Garden, asked. She looked down, horrified, at my contribution to her garden’s compost bin and plucked the floppy, slimy orange root off the top of the pile. “What you’re throwing out here — that’s vegetable stock.”

I took the carrot from Oder’s hand, picked the least yucky-looking bits of vegetable matter out of the black plastic drum and stuffed them back in my blue plastic bag.

What began as a simple, circumscribed idea for an article — reducing oil consumption on Chanukah — had somehow morphed into an all-encompassing challenge: To make a single day’s worth of the stuff we consume last for eight days. The experiment was loosely inspired by one of Chanukah’s miracles in which oil that was to have lasted for one day instead burned for eight. I intended to reduce my consumption of petroleum, electricity and water by 87.5 percent. Since transporting food from farm to table also involves burning fossil fuel, I decided I would buy only the most local, least-processed food I could find. I also committed to cutting out the trash I would produce by seven-eighths, as well — which helps explain why I was keeping decomposing vegetable scraps in my refrigerator in the first place.

All this is not exactly in my nature. I am a very particular kind of environmentalist — a lazy one. I buy reusable shopping bags and then forget to bring them to the store. I found author Jonathan Safran Foer’s environmentally based argument against eating animals wholly convincing but haven’t been able to kick meat from my diet. A bit of Web searching showed me that “hypermiler” drivers can get more than 40 miles to the gallon driving their 2001 Honda Civics; I don’t remember the last time I checked my tire pressure.

I believe I’m not alone in wishing that environmentally friendly living were easy, in wishing it didn’t require much thought. Unfortunately, as I found out when I decided to take my own personal environmental impact seriously — some might say altogether too seriously — choosing to live more lightly on the land does take some thought, and re-enacting the miracle that took place in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period in 21st century Los Angeles required equal parts creative thinking and hard work. For eight days, I commuted by bike. I captured half of the water from every highly efficient shower and used it to flush my toilet. I checked my electric meter every morning. I weighed the contents of my garbage can every night.

By the Numbers

What We Use in a Day:
Water: 83 gallons per person per day (for apartment dwellers, LADWP)
Electricity: 16.9 kilowatt hours per residential customer per day (2009, LADWP)
Food (average miles from farm to table): 1,500 miles
Trash: 3.3 pounds per person per day (includes refuse, recycling and yard trimmings, Los Angeles City, 2009)
Petroleum (miles driven): Average weekday car commute in Los Angeles County: 25 miles round trip (Southern California Association ofGovernments 2008 Regional Transportation Plan)

What the Author Used in Eight Days:
Water: 100 gallons*
Electricity: 30 kilowatt hours
Food (average miles from farm to table): It’s nearly impossible to measure.
Trash: 24 pounds (10 pounds recycling, 7 pounds compost, 7 pounds refuse)
Petroleum (miles driven): 36.5 miles *Or thereabouts. And he didn’t do laundry that week.

And when the experiment was over, I found that I had overshot my target numbers in every one of the five categories of consumption — in one case by more than 600 percent. Still, what I learned along the way was more than worth the effort.

Chanukah is more often associated with gift giving than with conservation. But Adam Berman, who has been working at the intersection of Judaism and the environment for 20 years, has long known that environmental messages can be found in every Jewish holiday, and Chanukah is no exception.

“There was this obscure part of the holiday, that there was a race against time that had to do with running out of oil,” Berman said. “We don’t use oil lamps anymore,” Berman continued, but with only 14 percent of our electricity coming from renewable sources like hydroelectric plants, wind farms and solar panels, the miracle’s lesson could still be made applicable. “The light that we use in our homes comes from a finite resource,” Berman said.

In 2006, the documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” inspired activists concerned about climate change across American communities to action. Green Jews have been using Chanukah as an opportunity to organize their communities around issues of sustainability and renewable energy for years. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, first drew attention to the holiday’s “conserve-oil aspect” in 2001. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) runs an annual program to increase environmental consciousness through actions around Chanukah nearly every year. In 2006, Liore Milgrom-Elcott drew on Waskow’s work to devise COEJL’s campaign to get Jews to switch from incandescent to more energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). This year, COEJL director Sybil Sanchez has used the organization’s Web site to promote a number of programs, all of which are dedicated to getting Jews and Jewish communities to “use less oil, rely less on fossil fuels, [and ] emit less greenhouse gas emissions.”

Eco-stunts like mine are not original. Any writer embarking on such a path is, at some point, going to come across Colin Beavan, the writer better known as No Impact Man.

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