Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cultivating the inner-Jew...

I have always thought that being of Jewish heritage was the first way in which I felt different from the inside out. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, a place not exactly without members of the tribe, but WASPs definitely created the dominant social order of the North Shore in the 1970s and 80s, and until Dr. Levin’s family moved in across the street when I was ten or so, we were the lone Jews on our block. We were just different and probably most of our differences had little to do with religion or even culture but I think that some did. Maybe this sense of alienation was rooted in an internalized anti-Semitism, but it has always just felt like Christians, no matter their race or nationality, simply had a different genetic code than us and that this filtered down into everything: how we looked, how we viewed the world, how we communicated, how we were. Even as a very young child, I felt like an outsider looking in, truly, like I was standing outside with my nose pressed up against the window as I observed a Protestant family in their comfortable home where nothing unhappy or worrisome ever happened. Clearly, I idealized the non-Jewish experience, reducing its vastness and variance to a singular charmed life of security and contentment. This was a child’s perspective, where almost everything is seen from a self-centered vantage point and with not much nuance. Jews did, though, just seem to have a totally different orientation and I still feel the same way.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when those terrifying words “The Holocaust” entered my awareness, but they have always chilled me to the bone. My family was not religious in the slightest but we did have a silver menorah in the living room – the kind intended for real candles that we kept until my mother got tired of the messy wax and went electric – and that menorah was the cause of a lot of anxiety in my life.

It seemed to me even as a young child that with not much difficulty, the Nazis could rise to power in the United States. Why not? Was Germany that uniquely suited for Nazis to grab a foothold? Was this country that uniquely unsuited? With just a few conditions and circumstances over time, the stage could be set for such a horrifying fog to roll in. So I became fixated on our menorah and I really wished it weren’t there in plain view. In my mind’s eye, I saw Nazis in their terrifying uniforms and ramrod spines at our front door, demanding in cold, flat voices that our house be inspected. I thought that if I didn’t have much time, I would shove the menorah under the couch; if I had the benefit of a minute or two, I would hide it in a pillowcase and put it in the dryer under a mound of clothes. Once I figured out what I would do with the menorah if the Nazis came to our door, I relaxed a little. Then I could focus on how long my family of four could hide in our crawl space without detection. (Answer: I hid two boxes of Pop-Tarts, sodas and extra clothes in there.)

This awareness of our ultimate vulnerability – and everyone is vulnerable to tyranny, I know this, but to my young mind, it was just the Jews and African Americans – was probably instrumental in my identification with non-human animals. I disagree with those who say that the Holocaust is synonymous with what food animals endure not because I find it offensive but because these are unique horrors, specific to that particular and individual experience. This doesn’t stop me from seeing unavoidable parallels, though: Jews were seen as disposable; food animals are utterly disposable, deposited in our stomachs and finally excreted. Self-serving, irrational and unexamined beliefs were used to justify unconscionable cruelty against the Jews; clearly, a similar mentality is at work when humans feel that other animals are here for our use alone. For any of this to work, Jews would have to be seen as what eco-feminist author and scholar Carol J. Adams termed as an Other; animals in food production are the ultimate Other. The process through which another being is objectified, exploited, abused and killed would have to be reinforced at an institutional and cultural level, be viewed as necessary for society to function, and also be chillingly normalized. This was true of the Jews in the 1930s and 40s: it is also how the food animal industry functions and creates disconnection among those who consume the product of it. It was not a stretch at all for me to extrapolate how I felt being born of Jewish descent – and being fortunate enough due to circumstances outside of my control to be safe - and see parallels with those who happened to be born of oppressed species, who do not share my very fortunate circumstances.

So now Hanukkah is upon us and with it, the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. The word Hanukkah means “to dedicate” in Hebrew. In this case, the word is referring to the rededication of the Holy Temple after religious oppression, the unfathomable victory of the outnumbered Maccabees over the Syrian army after a three-year battle and the defilement of the holiest synagogue. Historically, Jews pride themselves on standing up to oppressors, speaking up for the underdogs and not caving to social pressures to get in line and reinforce the status quo. Veganism is perfectly consistent with this. And though the verb “to dedicate” refers to a different meaning here, I can’t help but see how appropriate this is again: vegans are dedicated to living compassionate, mindful lives despite outside pressures and our society’s emphasis on living convenient, conventional lives. This is not to say that vegans are perfect at all (I for one am deeply flawed) but that we tend to be guided by a different compass. When I became vegan, I didn’t mind feeling different from other people – this never factored in even slightly – because I had already always felt different. And this is where being Jewish and valuing a different sort of dedication helped me along the way. I think that cultivating this inner-Jew in all of us – the outsider by circumstance and choice, the person who knows her own vulnerability and deeply cherishes her freedom – has the potential to make us all more compassionate, ethically consistent and loving people.

So this year I’ll be making latkes, vegan as always, grated on my grandmother’s old-fashioned grater, and I’ll chop onions, cry little tears (involuntarily and joyously, purposefully) and I’ll heat the oil in the ancient cast iron skillet I bought for $10 at the resale shop back in college. When the oil is hot, spoonfuls of latke batter will be dropped in with a satisfying hiss and I’ll stand close by with my spatula, ready to turn, thinking to myself how much I love being different and how much I adore all my wonderfully different loved ones, those of us driven by our unique dedication. We are so incredibly fortunate to be living in a time and a place where we can safely give expression to that dedication.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone. May everyone – Jews and non-Jews, humans and non-humans – enjoy wonderful and meaningful live of our own design.


  1. This is a great post, Marla. As someone raised to be an atheist, raise without religion and taught that religion is a false, a crutch for weak people, so blatantly flawed only stupid people could be religious, I too often felt different from my peers as a child. In an all white community it was typical of children to identify as Protestant or Catholic and that was a typical playground question. "What are you, Protestant or Catholic? I felt so cornered I used to answer Protestant because that is what my family background was until my parents rejected religious teachings. My own story of being raised an atheist, looking for God and then feeling convinced of my own atheism is not appropriate to describe at this time and place. However what I don't understand is what you mean by being a Jew if you are not religious. Do you mean you were a non-practicing family that would admit to a belief in God if pressed? Judaism is a religion, not a race. There are Jews of many races and many colours. Cultural traditions combine with religious ones. I have always found Christmas irritating because I don't want the Christian images invading my life. Still, caught up in a culture that identifies as Christian (typically western European/North American ancestry identifies with Christianity) my family has always celebrated a secular Christmas. If I look at your photo I don't say, Oh a Jewish woman. What makes you a Jew? Are you of Israeli decent? Why would that make you a Jew if you are not religious? I just don't understand.

  2. Hi, BF -

    Thanks for your challenging questions. I have asked myself them before as well: if I don't buy the whole "kit and caboodle" of Judaism or organized religion in general, how do I still identify as being Jewish? It's complicated: I probably identify closest with being an agnostic as it is ultimately unknowable but I do have a strong need for the spiritual in my life. Unfortunately, that usually accompanies New Agers and I do not like to associate or personally identify with that. I would say that I call myself Jewish - and this is very recent, for most of my life, I just say I was raised Jewish, meaning we did celebrate the holidays and go to synagogue and call ourselves Jews - because I identify strongly as a Jew from a cultural point of view. There are aspects of Judaism that are beautiful, as with Christianity and Islam and all the other faiths, but it never resonated with me as something I believed in. There is also sooo much ugly baggage with organized religion that I just can't accept it into my life. So I would say that I'm an agnostic by leaning and Jewish by culture. When I say that I'm Jewish, I mean that I identify as a Jew culturally, but I certainly understand that this is confusing. :) Thanks again for your feedback.

  3. And I would never call myself Christian even though I was raised in Christian culture but without the religion. I find it interesting that there is a similar experience resulting in a different way of attaching to our culture. (shawna)

  4. It may be specific to being Jewish, Shawna, because I understand and agree with what your saying. Some things are very hard to understand, let alone describe. :)

  5. You are so incredibly talented. Your writing takes my breath away. Thank you so much. :-)

  6. Oh, VV, you are so sweet. Thank you! And I think the same of you. Great new website, by the way. Everyone should check out this pioneer's website at Your food always looks so, so good! (By the way, I pitched VegNews on a story about you and they're interested. What do you think?)

  7. I was taught that koscher food is ancestral, going back to the prescriptions of the Torah.

    More recently I found out that one of the old Jewish parties, the Pharisees, was vegetarian, opposed to the priestly party, which was sacrificer and flesh eater.

    It's interesting to see that long before the canon of the Hebrew scriptures was put forth, the writer of Jeremiah book had denied the divine origin of the animal sacrifices: «I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices: but this thing I commanded them, saying, Hearken unto my voice» etc. Also the first half of the Psalm 50 denies the animal sacrifices.

    There's curious to see that the way of celebrating the Passover is not the one of the Torah, but one with cups of vine (the use whereof is forbidden by the Torah's Passover), which confirms the hypothesis of vegetarian Passover.

    Again in Isaiah we find the parable of the Shepherd. If the shepherd be as evil as the wolf, what would be the difference, and whereonto the purpose of the parable in itself? In other words, the writer of Isaiah's book implies vegetarism.

    But now my question is the following: when did Pharisees switch back to flesh-eating? Celebrating a vegetarian-shaped Passover but with flesh added thereunto makes no sense. And this is what's happening today in all the Jewish Passovers, save for the veggies.


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