I spent a week with family in Manhattan, eating.
And when I wasn't eating, I was reading a landmark book -- about food.
And when I wasn't eating or reading about food, it was food that provided, literally, food for thought.
I was raised in a Reform household in Encino during the 1960s and '70s. My family's idea of fasting on Yom Kippur was waiting until the sermon ended before we went to Du-Par's for pancakes and bacon.
Those were the days before Reform Jews started davening in Hebrew and wearing tallit and kippot in synagogue -- you know, the days when Reform really stood for something.
To me, the laws of kashrut were beyond strict. Even as a child, good food was important to me. My kosher relatives, who willingly cut themselves off from fresh Dungeness crab, steamed clams and Tommyburgers, struck me as fanatical.
Then, in college, I met a man named Chuck Matthei. He had come to campus to speak against a proposed nuclear reactor nearby, and we became friends. Chuck's brand of vegetarianism made my strict kosher relatives seem Rabelaisian. He didn't eat milk or eggs. In fact, he eschewed all animal products, including honey. He didn't believe any animal should live its life in servitude to any other, including human animals. For him, that ruled out bananas and coffee, which he said were the fruits of exploited labor. Also, each Friday, he fasted -- to heighten his appreciation for the food he did eat.
I have a terrific memory for good meals I've eaten, and none of my dinners with Chuck come to mind. It was the late '70s, and a lot of tofu and tamari had fallen into the wrong hands. Every home Chuck lived in smelled of popcorn sprinkled with brewers yeast -- his favorite junk food.
Chuck died of cancer in 2002, at age 54. But you can wipe the smirk off your face: Chuck never pretended to follow his diet for health reasons. His regimen was purely an outgrowth of his moral code. He felt an affinity for his friends who kept kosher, since he believed at root these diets filled their followers with a sense of awareness of where one's meal came from, a sense of moderation in consumption, and a sense of gratitude for the Provider.
One needn't follow the Chuck Diet, or even keep kosher, to understand the logic of approaching our meals with awareness, moderation and gratitude. That was the thrust of the book I read this week, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, 2006).
Pollan, a Jew who also likes good food, is a first-rate reporter and thinker. His descent into the food industry, with its reliance on animal cruelty, petroleum, chemicals and economic injustice, raises critical questions about the food choices we make. In other chapters, he experiences the contemporary alternatives to this madness, from sustainable farms to large-scale organics.
And while no solution is perfect, his ultimate argument is that not seeking alternatives is not just immoral, but deadly.
Many kosher-observant Jews would argue that kashrut is not about morality, but about obeying a set of divine but incomprehensible laws. That's a fine line of reasoning for infants and automatons, but most of us who struggle with kashrut do it to elevate our souls -- and you simply can't do that while debasing the world.
Thankfully, the new year brings news of two very positive developments in the world of kashrut that are of a piece with Pollan's conclusions.
Just before the holidays, leaders in the Conservative movement announced they would work to create a tzedek hechsher, a certification to complement Orthodox kashrut label that would mark food produced in socially just, environmentally sustainable way. "Tzedek" is Hebrew for justice. Animal products would receive a tzedek hechsher if the methods of husbandry and slaughter were found to be as humane as possible.
The label, which must still be approved at the Rabbinical Assembly's April convention in Cambridge, Mass., would complement but not replace an Orthodox kosher hechsher.
"I believe most Jews who are serious about kashrut as a means for sanctifying the world in which we live are concerned about both the product and the means by which it is produced," said Rabbi Morris Allen, one of the organizers.
Meanwhile, a cutting-edge Jewish organization in New York, Hazon, just announced it would expand its program linking synagogues with local, sustainable farms to five congregations across North America and one in Israel in 2007. Through Hazon's Tuv Ha'aretz program, synagogue members buy shares in a local farm and receive a box of organic produce each week.
"In some locations," JTA reports, "subscribers must work several days a year on the farm, ensuring that they have not only a direct connection with the farmer who grows their food but the place where the food grows."
None of the congregations Hazon has signed on is in Los Angeles. I hope a large, local flagship synagogue (or two, or three) joins soon.
Moderation, gratitude and awareness. The more we can institutionalize those, the stronger we'll make our connection to kashrut, and to a better world. To connect with Hazon and its Tuv Ha Aretz program, go to www.hazon.org.