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Boy, you gotta carry that weight, carry that weight a long time…

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I have to be honest, Rosh Hashana never really feels like a new year.  I don’t know if it is because I am a convert, or if it’s because I live life on the Gregorian calendar, I don’t even know if other people feel this way.  But generally it’s just a nice day to spend with family, go to services and eat.   The feeling I get on December 31st is not the feeling I get on Erev Rosh Hashana; the anticipation, the traditions, the leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, none of it is there.

However, this year it feels a little bit more like December 31st is fast approaching.  I feel rundown and long to take a deep breath.  But I also feel hopeful.  That’s generally how I feel as the year ends.  The last two weeks have been complete madness.  For days I worried about the safety of my loved ones (and, admittedly, about the safety of some of my worldly possessions).  I packed up my apartment, prioritized my belongings and went on a journey northwest (Tampa).  The northeast (Orlando).  Then braced for the inevitable (Irma).  My parents decided not to join us on that journey at the last minute.  It, inevitably, caused a huge blowup before we parted ways.  I left in tears and filled with regret.  I wondered if I would see them again.  I cried for some of the drive and apologized as best I could from afar.  Another blowup followed a day later.  We were all on edge and not handling it well, at all.

Yet, what followed was a week of witnessing humanity at its best.  Family and friends from afar checked in filled with love and concern.  They all helped as best they could.  My sister sent me weather updates when we lost power and had no radio, my mother-in-law helped us find dog-friendly accommodations, a cousin I reconnected with online offered here home, another offered her calming voice.

The monster storm passed and we were all safe.  I felt great relief when I was able to communicate with my parents again, despite the spotty cellular signal.  We got on the road early Monday, eager to reunite.  We returned to find our city rattled, but not broken.  Our homes were fine, albeit dark and hot.  I made friends with neighbors and we helped each other as best we could; we shared information, food and comforting words as necessary, even some laughs.

Sleeping in our apartment without electricity to power our air conditioning was not easy (especially for Finch and my mid-western husband, in that order), but we were quickly taken in by my aunt and uncle who had electricity, with love and a spare room to share.  The news from loved ones trickled in: my friends were safe my grandparents were safe, extended family members were safe.  Facebook became a lifeline for information and everyone was willing to share what they knew and offer what they could.  My grandmother was able to send a few e-mails from Cuba to let us know she was okay and how things were progressing there.  My grandfather’s home in Key Largo weathered the storm for the most part.  Some weren’t so lucky, like my aunt, but they knew their material losses would be restored with their loved ones by their side.  I felt infinitely grateful.

This week I have seen the worst of Miami make a comeback -the rude drivers, the short tempers, the self-centeredness- but it will not phase me (too much).  I am grateful for the safety of my loved ones, I am grateful to have weathered the storm both literally and figuratively, and I am grateful for an unexpected lesson on letting go of the stuff.

Before we left on our evacuation journey I secured what I felt was most important (family pictures and what I consider heirlooms) and felt at peace with coming back to an empty wardrobe and no electronic distractions. I had never felt so detached from the stuff that clutters my apartment.  It was freeing.  Now, I won’t lie and tell you I am not psyched to have come back to a closet full of nothing to wear and hours of mindless television to watch, because I am, totally; I have invested a lot of hard-earned money into both.

Still, I will carry that feeling into the new year with me, this new year that is feeling so new.  I will carry that gratitude and freedom, I will carry that love and that view of humanity into 5778 (and through what’s left of 2017).  I am taking my leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, carrying with me only what is necessary and truly important, and trying to peacefully leave all of that other stuff behind.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah

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Red Hair, Don’t Care

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I’ve thought about henna-ing my hair on and off for a while.  I’ve been trying to lead a cruelty-free life, as you know, and it seemed like a great alternative to those awful chemical dyes.  However, every time I looked into it I was dissuaded.  It’s messy.  It smells.  It’s permanent.  You cannot dye over it.  It can react badly to dyed hair (that is, it can turn weird colors and cause serious breakage).  But this long weekend, as I stressed about the hurricane headed straight for us, I decided to focus my nervous energy into my hair.  It was a bit brash; especially since I am kind of obsessed with my hair, but that is just what I jumped into.  I watched some YouTube videos on Saturday, read some articles, blogs and the like.  Then on Monday I decided to just do it.  I knew the only henna readily available to me was from Lush or Whole Foods, anything else I would have to order and wait for.  And that’s just not my style.  So I went to Whole Foods and picked up Rainbow Research henna.  I have read some mixed reviews about their henna (something about twigs, I didn’t find any in mine, and how it would fade quickly, that one we will see about), but it didn’t have any extra ingredients and it was on sale, so why not?

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After reading their instructions I realized they were not dissimilar to most online suggestions, so I followed them.  The only thing I altered was the wait time of the product in my hair (I went with four hours) and the time I let the mix sit (about 2 hours).  I also did something I had never cared to do before (given my adventurous and brash spirit I usually chance it, that has resulted in green hair (unintentional) and highlighted eyebrows (also unintentional)).  I only let the mix sit about thirty minutes before my strand test, and about an hour on my stand of hair, but it seemed fine so I went ahead and applied it to all of my hair.

The mix I used consisted of a little more than half of the container of red and 2-3 plastic tablespoons of light brown (I didn’t want the color to be too orange and I read that the Cassia used in the brown is also very moisturizing).  I added about a cup and a half of just brewed Rooibos tea (only one bag) and a few drops of vitamin-e oil.  I did so slowly and whisking it together with a plastic fork until the mixture was smooth, shiny and had the consistency of yogurt.  It was initially mud green, but as the dyes released it was more brownish.  The smell is awful.  At first it smells like tea, but as you’re applying it (and wearing it) it smells like a farm, even my dog was grossed out and he is of the “the stinkier the better” variety.

 

The application was not as messy as I had read and the color did not really stain my skin (even the parts I had not covered in oil seemed relatively normal, like my arms and neck), but gloves are a must!  I was also not really bothered by keeping it on my head for four hours while I cleaned my apartment and watched 90 Day Fiance.  I had rinsed my hair immediately before applying it and I felt that the wet (towel-dried) hair made the mix a bit cold so I did blow dry a couple of times (heat is an important part of this whole process).  I also wore two Publix shopping bags over my head.  It was a very romantic experience for my husband all around.

I washed it off with a Giovanni shampoo and conditioned with the same.  Still, my hair smelled faintly like tea (at least the barn smell was gone!).

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I am THRILLED with the results.  No itching or burning on my scalp (like with chemical dye), great gray coverage, less hair loss when washing and brushing, thicker and shinier hair, and my hair is still just as wavy as it was before the henna.

I must also note I have been dying my hair for years (decades).  The last time I had dyed all of my hair (root to tip) was late May so I had a pretty noticeable root growth (with so many grays!).  I think the roots blend pretty well with the rest (especially since my grays now look like highlights), and the variations in color look relatively natural.  The tips of my hair (which were so fried they were blonde) look much healthier too!  I guess, in my case at least, three months was enough to avoid any issues with the chemicals.

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My roots, before and after (wet and dry).IMG_8991

My hair in dark lighting, before and after.

Overall I think this is a great option (for going red at least, not sure about the other shades) and one that I will stick with. I only hope I can maintain this golden red.  I will share updates, come what may!

 

Shema: listen, heed, pay attention.

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Four years ago I officially became Jewish.  It was something I felt strongly about, thought at length about and could not go on without doing.  There is no real explanation as to why.  I grew up in an atheist household, was baptized Catholic because the woman who became my godmother was very concerned about my spiritual life (or rather, afterlife), and I attended a Presbyterian school for all of my middle and high school education.  I don’t know where my spirituality came from, but I felt it, strongly, at all times.  I often credit my godmother; I have never met a person who was more exemplary of true faith, any faith.  She was the kindest, most tolerable and understanding person to walk this earth, she was worthy of great admiration.  Yet, I cannot say that it is because of her that I wanted to be Jewish, for obvious reasons.  I think that part came from my soul.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

Here, I have often discussed my soul’s connection to something seemingly so foreign.  Yet, recently I heard a sermon that brought back thoughts of my seemingly inexplicable connection to Judaism.  “Judaism is a religion of listening, not seeing. . . . Listening is the sacred task. The most famous command in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, ‘Listen, Israel.’”  Interestingly enough the Shema has been one of my favorite prayers, from the very beginning.  I’ve always felt a very strong emotional connection to those very foreign words; I close my eyes and open my heart and I feel like I am coming home.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

My choice to become Jewish makes a lot more sense in terms of listening than in terms of seeing.  There was no visible reason for my feelings, there was no physical manifestation of my connection, but if I closed my eyes and listened to the deepest parts of myself, the choice was clear as day.  Although, I guess that expression doesn’t really work here.  Rabbi Sacks notes that “[t]here is something profoundly spiritual about listening.”  And I have always felt that, really felt that.  Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that “Jews and Judaism taught that we cannot see G-d, but we can hear Him and He hears us. It is through the word – speaking and listening – that we can have an intimate relationship with G-d as our parent, our partner, our sovereign, the One who loves us and whom we love. We cannot demonstrate G-d scientifically. We cannot prove G-d logically.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

Accordingly, I felt I had found merit to what I always thought; my soul felt a connection I listened to and regardless of how inexplicable, it was real.  Yet, I could not leave it well enough alone, because not having clear answers just doesn’t sit well with me.

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

As you may have read I have become obsessed with genealogy; I am on a half-dozen genealogy websites and have taken three DNA tests.  Every time I log on or review my results something new jumps out at me and I try to pursue it until I hit a wall.  It’s a thrilling and exhausting process.  Two weeks ago I went back to Family Tree DNA and did just that.

Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

There is a lot of discussion about proving Jewish roots through genetics, but there are no real answers.  Allegedly Ashkenazi genetic ancestry is easier to ascertain that Sephardi, which sounds logical.  Consequently several companies will advise they can’t assign Jewish genetic ancestry with certainty, but if you have a large number of Jewish genetic matches then the chances that you are Jewish are pretty high.  So given my varying percentages of Jewish ancestry, I decided to focus on my matches and that of my parents.  In my best Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw voice I asked: could my inexplicable connection come from my blood and not be inexplicable or foreign at all?

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As you can see my percentages assigned to Jewish genetic ancestry are all over the place, ranging from 0% to almost 11%.  23andMe actually gives me a pretty good guesstimate of what their .2% could be and even shows me where my ascertainable Jewish gene is.  Many would probably call this “noise,” percentages so small that they could be false and assignable elsewhere.  However, this “noise” was music to my ears.  Really, I don’t think it is noise at all.  Science is certainly not my forte, but if it was just noise I don’t think my matches would confirm my genetic connection.  Looking at my matches across the websites I was surprised by the number of matches who were of Polish Jewish descent (a woman whose parents perished in the Holocaust, a man whose Jewish roots can be traces to the Ottoman Empire, a daughter helping her father trace their Sephardi ancestry), countless Goldbergs, Cohens, Levins and even a Moroccan Jew.  That noise, that sound only my soul could hear, it was begging for me to shema.

V’hayu had’varim ha’eileh asher anokhi m’tzav’kha hayom al l’vavekha.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.

The most surprising thing about all of this was that I shared most of these matches with my father, not my mother.  I always thought if I was Jewish it would be on my mother’s side, but it seems that if I am Jewish that connection is, at least, much closer in time on my father’s side.  I know that to many Jews that doesn’t make me Jewish, but I respectfully disagree.  I disagree for many reasons, including the fact I carry those ancestors with me; their lives, their suffering, their blessings are all part of my genetic makeup and their gender can’t change that.  I also am Jewish, officially and by choice; I find most comfort in Hebrew prayers, I find my light in shul, I have a Jewish family and will raise Jewish children (when the time comes).  I hope to find that Jewish genetic link in my tree, I hope to know their story, I hope to connect to them by name.  But even if I don’t, I am and will always be Jewish; my descendants will never have to wonder.  And if down the line anything happens, my story is lost to time and anyone wonders who their Jewish link is they can contact the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and get a copy of my Certificate of Gerut.  In it, my descendants will find my commitment to live in accordance with the Jewish religion, be one with the Jewish people, come what may, and raise my children as Jews, and I hope it will mean as much to them, as it does to me.

V’shinan’tam l’vanekha v’dibar’ta bam
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them…

My Genealogy Project: I’m a collage of features and qualities.

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“When you look in the mirror you see not just your face but a museum.  Although your face, in one sense, is your own, it is composed of a collage of features you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.  The lips and eyes that either bother or please you are not yours alone but are also features of your ancestor, long dead perhaps as individuals but still very much alive as fragments in you.  Even complex qualities such as your sense of balance, musical abilities, shyness in crowds, or susceptibility to sickness have been lived before.  We carry the past around with us all the time, and not just in our bodies.  It also lives in our customs, including the way we speak.  The past is a set of invisible lenses we were constantly, and through these we perceive the world and the world perceives us.  We stand always on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them.”  – The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David w. Anthony

I’ve graduated law school, found a job I love, met a wonderful man, fell in love, planned a wedding, got married, settled into our temporary home, adopted a furry baby, learned about cruelty free cosmetics and made the switch, researched food labeling and conscious producers and made that switch, educated myself on improving my financial management and opened a retirement account, and then ran out of projects.   And politics?  Well, let’s just not talk about that.  What could I possible put all of my extra mental energy into?  Genealogy.

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On and off I’ve delved into family history throughout the years.  I collected lots of information last time my paternal grandmother visited the U.S. over a decade ago and since then I have added bits here and there, but never really took the time to take it any further.  I am not sure when the world became so fascinated with genealogy and websites like Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage, and Geni started popping up, but by the time I joined the trend there was a wealth of information out there.  I was able to fill in a lot of blanks, find reference documents and connect to unknown family members with ease.

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Then, genetic genealogy caught my attention.  Sending off a sample of my DNA to Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23 and Me could not only genetically match me to remote family, but could also provide some insight into where I am from, geographically.  I was hooked.  Now, I know, it’s scary to send off your DNA and have it stored forever by some company.  The term and conditions you must consent to are complicated and all vary – some won’t sell, some will sell, some will release your genetic information without your personal information for medical research, some will provide some of your personal information.  Add to that the lack of certainty in the geographic results, although the continent matches are probably pretty solid anything more specific is a little iffy, and the fact that these results are constantly being updated as the companies get new data and make internal changes.  You may reasonably ask, what’s the point?  Personally, I found it simply fascinating, innovative, and valuable and I did not care about any of the other stuff.  My parents, grandfather and I were all tested with Family Tree DNA.  I chose Family Tree because they had great reviews as to the certainty of their geographic estimates, good terms and conditions and were having a holiday sale.

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We received our initial results before the 2017 update and were all generally surprised, especially my mother (who happened to have traces of British Islander and Native American DNA).  After that, I threw all caution to the wind.  I ordered the Ancestry DNA tests for my mother and I (results still pending ) and uploaded our raw DNA information to Gedmatch, DNA Land and My Heritage (I can say their Terms and Conditions are fair and you do not have to agree to the Consent Agreement, I also like that they changed their Terms and Conditions after their users complained about certain terms).  With the DNA results I have also been able to connect to people, although our actual relationships are still a mystery.  I am somehow related to a doctor who lives in California, a programmer/analyst at UCLA, and a perhaps distant cousin who lives in Virginia.

Before taking the DNA test I had also made some great connections through Ancestry.  Using their “hints” I met a cousin from a side of the family that had lost contact a couple of generations ago and we have become very close primas.   I highly recommend Ancestry if you want a place to start.  It’s not cheap, but they do offer a free trial and their website is the best; it’s got the most resources and it is the most user friendly.  Less user friendly, but with vast resources and free is Family Search, it’s actually the site where I began my research more than a year ago.

The highlight of this process was probably hiring a genealogist in Cuba who amazes me every day.  With limited resources (and unbeatable prices) she’s truly helped me expand and deepen my knowledge of my family’s history.  In this process I have learned that my maternal second great grandmother attended Harvard for a summer in 1900 as part of a special session hosted for about 1,500 Cuban schoolteachers to train in American style education after the Spanish-American war.  On my paternal side I have learned that my great grandfather was born in Key West while his father was working for Jose Marti and the freedom of Cuba.  His family eventually returned to the Island and one of my great uncles went on to be a writer.

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If you choose to begin your own genealogy journey, be prepared for anything; be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused.  Be open-minded about what you may find.  A lot of what you may have been told or believe about your family history may be wrong.  Be open to the possibilities and the history, try not to impose your modern views and believes into the lives of your ancestors.  So far I have more questions than answers.  I have hit countless walls and made many mistakes.  Every time I learn something new it creates a myriad of questions in mind. I still struggle with the idea that I won’t ever know everything about everyone and that some ancestors will always remain a mystery and their stories, sadly, died with them.  But I have learned so much about myself in the process and I have fallen in love with each story, with each person.  Every minute devoted to this task has been worthwhile and it feels quite exceptional to find human stories lost to time and bring them back for posterity.  I think my personal project can turn out to be a lot more than that in the future.

Shabbat Shalom

All You Need is Chesed

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“Mankind’s true moral test . . . consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” ― Milan Kundera

I have never doubted my Jewish soul.  Yet more and more I feel it revealing itself to me.  For my year of change I embarked on a journey to humane and cruelty free living.  It has not been easy; it has been challenging and at times it feels impossible, but I will not give up.  More and more I have excised things from my life that come as direct result of the suffering of a helpless living creature.  I have researched the food I eat and try my best to purchase strictly humanely raised and certified humane.  I have found that the most difficult item has been milk, I have yet to locate milk that is certified anything but “organic” and that means nothing in terms of how the cow is treated.  Organic Valley has grass-fed and “pastured” dairy products, but that doesn’t seem to be regulated.  I have found great eggs (conveniently sold in the Fresh Market and Winn-Dixie), meat (sold at Whole Foods, just ask the butcher), and chicken (sold at Publix by the Greenwise) that are now staples in my home (FYI, there’s an app for that!).

So I decided to shift to the next cruelty free aspect of my home, an area I have indulged in for decades: cosmetics.  I was horrified to find out most of the products I was using come from companies that test on animals.  I was horrified.  I simply could not continue to be this consumer, so I started researching.  First, I learned that a lot of companies basically lie about their animal testing, which is shameful.  Second, I learned that most companies are forced into animal testing because their products are sold internationally and other countries have rules about that sort of thing, like China.  Thankfully I was able to find great guidelines online from several sources like Peta and Paula’s Choice.

What I also learned along my journey is that my newfound passion is super Jewish.  On my quest to learn about cruelty free living I came across the phrase tza’ar ba’alei chayim.  According to Wikipedia it “literally means the suffering of living creatures.”  It turns out that I have been concerned with tza’ar ba’alei chayim, a little known mitzvah, my entire life.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis explained that while medical research on animals is acceptable if it will save human lives, animals should not be subjected to pain during these experiments or be used in frivolous experimentation, like for cosmetic testing.  In terms of consumption, Professor Richard Schwartz notes that although “Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, today most farm animals – including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on ‘”factory farms”’ where they live in cramped, confined spaces and are often drugged, mutilated . . . and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any enjoyment of life before they are slaughtered and eaten.” I am, therefore, inclined to believe that consuming an animal that has been made to suffer is not keeping kosher.  Rabbi David N. Young is quoted in The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic as explaining:

 God commanded Adam and Eve to be vegetarians. That was what God wanted for our dietary practices. God commanded Noah to eat whatever he wanted, as long as it was dead. That is what humans want for our own dietary practices —unrestrained omnivorism. In ultimate wisdom, God offered a compromise: God commanded Moses concerning prohibited and permitted meats and forbade boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. These were developed and evolved by the Rabbis of the Talmud into the dietary laws called kashrut. If we are able to live by this compromise, that is wonderful. If we are able to live closer to what God wants and go vegetarian, even better.

There is another phrase that I feel goes hand-in-hand with tza’ar ba’alei chayim and that is shomrei adamah.  According to an article on My Jewish Learning humanity is charged with the task of protection and renewal of the earth, “[w]e are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land.”  It is a natural extension to think that includes all of the living things on earth and this extension is clear from several passages in the Torah.  In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism adapted from Edith Samuel’s Your Jewish Lexicon an installment of 10 Minutes of Torah that directly addresses these mandates:

The Torah shows exquisite sensitivity to the feelings of animals —sensitivity rare in the ancient world. On the Sabbath, domestic animals as well as human beings must rest (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14). Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits the muzzling of an ox while it is threshing (it may want to eat). An animal may not be slaughtered on the same day as its young (Leviticus 22:28). Before the days of tractor, farmers were forbidden to plow with an ox and an ass yoked together (the ox, being larger, might cause pain to its smaller partner). Deuteronomy 22 spells out additional injunctions for Jews living an agrarian life: If you see an ox or an ass collapsed on the road under its burden, you must help it get on its feet; if you find a stray sheep or ox, you must return it to its owner or, if the owner is unknown, you must care for it until the owner claims it.

The Rabbis of the Talmud and of later generations went even further: Jews were enjoined never to sit down to eat before their animals had been fed; they were prohibited from buying an animal unless they could afford to feed it; and hunting for sheer sport is brutally cruel and hence forbidden to Jews. Slaughtering animals for food must be done as quickly and as painlessly as possible to avoid unnecessary or prolonged torment for the animal. In Modern Hebrew, tsa’ar ba-alei chayim is refers to the mitzvah of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”

Further, Judaism101 notes:

In the Bible, those who care for animals are heroes, while those who hunt animals are villains. Jacob, Moses and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals (Gen. 30, Ex. 31, I Sam. 17). A traditional story tells that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'” Likewise Rebecca was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife (Gen. 24).

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim really seems rooted in one of my favorite (and sometimes most difficult) things about Judaism: thoughtfulness.  You are encouraged to think beyond yourself even about things that may make you uncomfortable or may create difficulties.  Sure, it is easier to live in ignorance and to lead your busy life day to day as best you can, but it is much more meaningful to make time to think about your life and how your actions affect others.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim also goes hand-in-hand with tikkun olam, the call to repair the world through social action, and with another of my favorites, chesed, loving-kindness.

So in furtherance of this mitzvah I have decided to share my favorite cruelty free products and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions you may have on this topic.

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While fully recognizing the Jews don’t have a patent on humane living, but simply because the lessons here stem from Jewish teachings and values, I encourage everyone to be a little more Jewish on this issue.

Shabbat Shalom

The Dirty Thirty, or How I am Choosing to be Thirty, Flirty and Thriving‏

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     This year I am turning thirty.  It sounds relatively terrifying as a number.  I definitely thought I would be in a completely different place in my life at thirty.  However, the more I have agonized over it, the more it has become clear that these ideas are total bullsh*t and that whining about it makes me sound exceedingly ungrateful.  I love my life.  I feel as though I have been blessed, even on the most difficult days.  I have an incredible family comprised of wonderful individuals who have all taught me something, loved me, supported me.  I have a job that I love.  I have the loveliest of friends who put up with me.  I have an amazing husband who makes me believe in soulmates, makes me laugh everyday, makes me better.  I won’t allow myself to hate some number anymore just because it is attached to my age.

These thirty years have been a testament to my blessed life and I look forward to continuing on this path, but more than that I want to push myself in the next thirty years to be better, to do better.   Here is where it starts: Diet.  I know, that does not in any way seem groundbreaking.  A woman turning thirty who wants to slim down, big whoop, but that is not what I am referring to.

Over the last few years I have become very cognizant of what I eat, particularly the animals I consume to nourish me.  I have even cut some out completely and I have felt like a better person for it, not to pat myself in the back or anything.  Still I continue to eat most others, beef, chicken, turkey, and a plethora of dairy products.  I consciously upgraded to things labeled “cage-free” and “free range” believing that what I was consuming was humanely raised and that I should feel okay with my consumption because I am an omnivore and it is a necessity of my diet to have the habitual burger.  Now, I don’t proffer to know if we are really omnivores or were just “opportunistic feeders” trying to make sure we got enough nutrients in our diet or if at this point we don’t really need to consume other animals because we can get the necessary vitamins from other things,  I honestly don’t even know for sure if in an ideal world where farm animals were humanely raised and slaughtered I would feel a-okay about consuming their flesh.  But here we are, at a turning for my diet.

When I  first started reading about USDA standards I was pretty horrified at what people were allowed to do to animals.  I immediately felt sick and swore off animals products completely.  I will refrain from posting the absolutely horrifying information, but I will share a little bit of the Humane Society’s “How to Read Egg Carton Labels”:

First of all, virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.

Cage-Free
Hens laying eggs labeled are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting and forced molting (losing feathers) through starvation are permitted.

Free-Range/Free-Roaming
While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no government-regulated standards in “free-range” egg production required to make the claim. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Because they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.

Pasture-Raised
The USDA has not defined the meaning of “pasture-raised” for egg production, and therefore no government-regulated standards in “pasture-raised” egg production are required to make the claim. Typically, pasture-raised hens are kept outdoors for most of the year, on a spacious pasture covered with living plants, and are kept indoors at night for protection. While on the pasture, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as dust-bathing and foraging. However, because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount of time spent on the pasture, the amount of space per bird, or the quality of the pasture. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.

Certified Organic
The birds are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forded molting through starvation are permitted.

Vegetarian-Fed
These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions. In fact, this label often signifies that the hens spend no time outside foraging.

I, for one, feel cheated not only of my money but also of my peace of mind.  So going vegan was the only answer to my nauseous and unsettled feeling.  But a vegetarian lifestyle is difficult to maintain, let alone a vegan lifestyle!   First of all I don’t really like vegetables and second I love dairy.  I struggled, I drove my husband crazy, and I researched.  Eventually I came to my step one: cutting back, choosing some substitutions, making well-informed decisions.

     Thinking and learning about my food led me to find out that there are non-profit organizations involved in the third party certification of farm animals.  The Animal Welfare Institution (which offers an Animal Welfare Approved certification), for example, makes yearly visits to certified farms to ensure continued compliance and on the Certified Humane website you can read the standards and policies in place for farms to receive the Certified Humane certification.   Food Alliance Certified also has some information on their website about their standards, but I did not find it as thorough and I could not find information about products they certify, however the Humane Society  notes that they have very specific standards for egg-laying hens:

The birds are cage-free and must be provided with at least 1.23 square feet (177 square inches) of floor space per bird. Access to outdoors or natural daylight is required for at least eight hours per day. If an outdoor area is provided, it must have living vegetation. There are specific requirements for perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. No meat or animal byproducts are permitted in feed.  They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes.

For these third party certifications the facilities must meet precise and objective standards established with the help of doctors, veterinarians and the like and they often employ well-qualified third party inspectors.  This is the well-informed decisions element, the meat, dairy and poultry I consume will come from farms and facilities that have received independent certifications from organizations I can learn about.  For example I learned about White Oak Pastures on the AWA website and my supportive husband pointed me to a recent article about White Oak published by the New York Times.  After reading the article, which focused largely on its chief cattleman Will Harris who I found to be charming and smart, I felt comfortable with the thought of buying their products, for the first time all week I didn’t feel nauseous.   Harris thinks and operates like a true farmer “With two of his three daughters and about 100 cowboys and meat cutters… [h]e grows vegetables and raises 10 species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. Goats goof off near a pile of sleeping hogs. Chickens wander past cows. Sheep hang out with ducks. The idea is that together, the animals make a stronger ecosystem. Some eat certain plants but not others. Some species eat the feces of others. All totaled, the animals and pasture are healthier for it.”  He built his own slaughterhouses on site with the help of Temple Grandin, “We are professional herdsmen. We do all that we know to do to show our cattle dignity and respect and give them compassionate care every day of their lives, including the day that they are slaughtered to become food for me, my family, and for my customers.”  He may have the heart of a farmer, but Harris saw a growing market in the practices he believed in so he took risks and incurred debt to grow his farm, but keep his practices “we never let even one animal within the herd suffer if I can prevent it. I am their steward and they are my responsibility.”  It looks like it is paying off and he can add my few dollars to his pot; I will be going to Whole Foods today to pick up some White Oak Pastures products instead of our usual Greenwise from Publix.

Lastly, I had to consider substitutions.  So I googled recipes for meatless meatballs and vegetarian enchiladas, I read about vegan butter and milk and made a shopping list.  I feel better for having taken the time to understand the effect my careless choices have had on the world, I feel better equipped to make well-informed decisions,  I have started to ask questions and find answers and I will go into my thirties trying to be better.  I read somewhere that 29 is a year of major changes and it definitely has been so far, this will just be the last one before the big three-oh and tonight it starts with tofu stir fry.

Shabbat Shalom

My Big Fat Jewban Wedding

Standard

I don’t get the ‘party’ element of a wedding, it is just not in my nature to be excited about a room full of people drinking where the music is too loud to talk and the faces are too many to remember.  I like casual, relaxed, and limited social settings.  I love spending time with friends, listening to their lively rants and sharing some of my own.  I like deep and meaningful relationships and exchanges where I can hear my thoughts and their words.  I like knowing everyone in the room and having the time to have a valuable exchange with them.  This unquestionably expands to my wedding day.  I want a room full of people happy to share the moment with us, a room full of people we know and love who won’t care about the shade of the tablecloth or the temperature of the salmon.  I want laughter to ring louder than the music.

I always thought we would just go down to the courthouse and be married, since I’ve never really understood weddings except for legal purposes.  Furthermore, that way we could avoid the awkwardness of planning a nontraditional and totally uncool reception,  but after a reasonable discussion between two attorneys we reached a reasonable settlement.  If it was to take place, my fiance and I discussed our wedding in similar terms.  We both wanted something small and meaningful and we agreed that the ceremony was the most important part.  We both continually and tirelessly emphasized the importance of the ceremony, of our vow before G-d and our loved ones to be together for the rest of our lives.  Without that, I figured, we might as well walk down to City Hall during our lunch hour and be legally bound.  Still, neither of us knew absolutely anything about Jewish weddings.  I asked Greg, hoping he could be a helpful resource and as far as I can recall he could only offer a chuppah, some wine and the breaking of the glass.  “When do we say our vows?”  I wondered, he shrugged.  “When do we kiss?”  I asked, he googled.  We were hopeless, so I turned to the only resource I could think of: books!

My sister sent me books, my friend who had just gotten married sent me books, and then I rushed to the library for more books (I owe $30 in overdue fees).  Here’s some of what I learned:

The Jewish wedding ceremony is a two-parter, consisting of the erusin and the nesuin. The erusin, or betrothal, was a ceremony that traditionally took place about a year before the second part of the wedding ceremony and it is sort of the equivalent of a modern engagement.  Traditionally the erusin begins with the hakafot, the act of the bride circling the groom seven times to set aside sacred space and ward off evil spirits.  Thereafter the groom says Haray at m’kudeshet li b’ataba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael (Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the tradition of Moses and Israel.) and then gives his bride something of value (now we use a ring, and halakha states that wedding ring must be a pure, solid band, so that its value may be easily assessed). However, traditionally the groom presented the bride with a coin and not a ring.   Similarly a traditional wedding custom in Spain consisted of the groom presenting the bride with 13 coins known as arras, which represent his commitment to support her.   By following these formulaic steps the woman was thus set apart exclusively for that one man for the purpose of procreation.  Hooray! 

The second part of the ceremony is the nesuin (from the verb “to carry”) and it is in vast contrast from the legal nature of erusin. This is where love, spirituality, and connection to G-d enter the picture with joy and the timeless quality of two people loving each other.  It begins with the sheva brachot, the seven blessings and end with the breaking of the glass.  The latter custom has a plethora of fascinating explanations, from medieval superstitions that the shattering of the glass would ward off evil spirits to the more common interpretation that the shattering of the glass is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, a reflection that even in moments of greatest joy we remember the sadness and lack of wholeness in the world.  My personal favorites are that a broken glass cannot be mended and likewise, marriage is irrevocable and it is a transforming experience that leaves individuals forever changed and also said to represent that the couple’s happiness will be as plentiful as the shards of glass (or that their children will be as plentiful as the shards of glass).   Traditionally the following song is sung after the glass is shattered: “Siman tov u’mazel tov, mazel tov siman tove (3x) Y’hei lanu Y’hei lanu, y’hei lanu, u’lichol Yisrael (2x)” (It is good and fortunate sign for us and for all Israel).  Interestingly enough it is also an Italian wedding tradition to break a glass when the ceremony is complete and to then count the shards of glass that remain to indicate the number of years the couple will stay happily married. Mazel Tov!

The Jewish wedding ceremony is to take place under a chuppah. According to The Creative Jewish Wedding book by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer “throughout Jewish history the chuppah has been most commonly interpreted as a symbol of the matriarch and patriarch, Sarah and Abraham. It is said that Sarah and Abraham’s tent was open on all sides to let guests know that they were always welcome to come in. Because both Sarah and Abraham were thought of as having special relationships with God, their tents marked a sacred space where God’s presence could be felt upon entering. So, too, in contemporary weddings, the chuppah serves to create a sacred space, both open and private. It is open for all the bride and groom’s friends and relatives who are present to witness their covenant to each other. At the same time it is private, creating a feeling of warmth and intimacy that surrounds the special couple.”  Another pivotal element of the Jewish wedding is the  ketubah. Ketubah means “writing” or “written” and came to refer to the written marriage contract that is signed and read as part of the Jewish wedding, it traditionally contained the obligations of the husband to the wife, but currently can describe just about anything the couple wishes to include.

The we could be married by one o’clock thought still crosses my mind sometimes on very stressful days, it would be so simple, so fast, and then so over.  Yet, after reading countless books on wedding traditions I can’t help but want to incorporate so much history and meaning into the day we make that forever vow.