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“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink. There’s no such place as away!” I was lucky enough to learn this chant from the remarkable instructors of Teva, an ecological learning experience for Jewish children. It seems like a simple and direct truth appropriate for a child; when we throw something “away,” it doesn’t go far. Carelessly discarded plastics, metals, toxins, and prescription medications can remain in our landfills, soil, water supply, and even bodies, for years. Yet this week many of us will participate in Tashlich, the ritual “throwing away” of those characteristics and misdeeds we do not want to bring into the new year. Since Judaism often conflates the spiritual and the physical, this led me to wonder: when is it o.k. to throw things away?

If you’re like me, it may be your first instinct to berate yourself for every plastic bag, paper plate, and Styrofoam cup that passed through your transgressing little hands this year. You’re ready to swear that next year will be entirely different, already knowing it will probably be pretty much the same. Instead, stop and entertain the possibility that it might be legitimate, even beneficial, to toss things out now and then. Everyone will come up with different examples (perhaps social, economic, or personal), or even none at all, but we might all find that what we have really discarded is our automatic sense of guilt. Too often the environmental movement works by doom-and-gloom, frightening and accusing people into action. We rely on that knee-jerk, extreme response to a guilty conscience to propel us into good works. However, the changes we make based on these feelings are often temporary, lapsing as the sense of urgency fades into the haze of our daily routines. Similarly, the behaviors we try to hard to “throw away” at Tashlich are usually back by December.

Apparently, it’s not that it’s wrong to throw things away: it’s impossible. Both our physical and intangible undesirables stick with us for a good long time. Rather than waste our energy trying to distance ourselves from those times in the past year when we’ve violated our principles, rather than struggling fruitlessly to throw them away, let’s try the environmentalist’s approach. Let’s compost them. It works for physical waste, so why not the spiritual “trash” as well? By choosing to understand and accept our moments of weakness and the practical demands of limited time and money, we can nourish our confidence and conviction. Action rooted in deep self-knowledge, instead of the usual ephemeral guilt, will grow stronger all throughout the coming year. We can’t throw our mistakes away, so we’d better find a good way to “reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink” them. It’s a simple child’s truth- and yet it is one of the most difficult and mature realizations we can embrace.

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Soiling our soil

Now THERE'S some nice soil

Now THERE'S some nice soil

National Geographic’s last cover story presented a detailed analysis of a troubling ecological development: the degradation of our soil. Man-made farming techniques and a concern for what comes out of the soil, rather than what happens to the soil itself, have caused significant amounts of erosion and desertification around the world. This issue is additionally problematic, because while we use up more of our land, the population of the world continues to explode, which means we need more and more out of less and less. To steal the snappy closing quote of the article, “we have to stop treating our soil like dirt.”

Even organic farming, usually thought of as the bastion of sustainable and healthy living trends isn’t necessarily helping. It has been documented that many organic fertilizers put more heavy metals into the soil than “regular” types of farming. If neither typical nor organic methods of farming are helping the soil, what can we do? As with all things sustainable, we need to take a big picture view and begin thinking about the best ways to interact with our environment as a whole, rather than thinking of it in a piecemeal way to simply get what we want in the immediate future. One option National Geographic presents is using carbon to re-engineer soil that has disintegrated. It’s a large scale solution, to be sure, but if we want to have a long term positive relationship with the earth, we need to look at it as a marriage, rather than a series of one night/meal stands.

So what’s the Jewish connection? Admittedly, neither of these stories are explcitly Jewish, but a simple glimpse at the first few chapters of the Torah gives us a clear indication of how taking care of our earth, especially our soil, is of vital importance. First of all, there is the statement in Genesis 2:15 which gives one of the first purposes of man on the earth, which is to “till and protect” the earth. Secondly, a basic etymological analysis of the Hebrew word for man, adam, clearly shows its connection with the word for ground, adama, as we also learn earlier in the chapter than we were made from the soil itself. Therefore, we all have an intrinsic connection to the soil, and you could even say that the way we treat our earth is indicative of the way we treat others, created out of the same soil we were, as well as ourselves. All were created by God, and all deserve the respect and honor of being treated carefully and with love, rather than as means to an end.

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It’s a political season, and the issues that drive us at Pitaron Park are part of the discussion. During his speech at the Republican National Convention last night, Rudy Giuliani praised VP hopeful Sarah Palin’s plans regarding off-shore drilling, and then led the convention floor in a chant of “Drill, baby, drill.” Thousands of people were chanting in support of an environmentally risky, quick fix solution to oil shortages that might not even decrease domestic gas prices.

A few minutes later, Giuliani went after Barack Obama for flip-flopping on the issue of Jerusalem; while speaking at an AIPAC conference in June, Obama called for Jerusalem to remain Israel’s “undivided capital,” but then shifted his opinion shortly after to reflect a more moderate position. Even as an Obama man, I can see how this move could register as nakedly political to those who don’t want to Barack the vote. However, I consider the continual efforts of the right to paint any shift in opinion or understanding of an issue over the course of time to be “flip-flopping” as childish and ignorant. I do not remember when learning became un-American; perhaps that’s what happens when you don’t believe in evolution.

There is a basic lack of complexity inherent in both of Giuliani’s positions. Finding solutions for sustainable energy is a key challenge today, and it is true that weaning ourselves off foreign oil is a critical piece of that puzzle. But, given concerns over peak oil and pollution, the answer is not to tear up our own country in search of another hit of that delicious black stuff, but wide-ranging, revolutionary re-imaginings of how we can reduce energy usage in our lives as well as how we can provide ourselves with the energy we need (bonus: wind and solar power programs could create many more jobs for Americans, in addition to providing more sustainable energy solutions).

Similarly, with regard to Jerusalem, the easy, quick fix answer for a politician in the US may be to keep AIPAC, the OU and the other “voices” of the American Jewish community happy by praising an undivided Jerusalem without question, but any realistic look at the situation recognizes the growing Palestinian population of Jerusalem (which creates serious demographic issues), the insistence of Palestinian groups on the importance of the city, and the fact that more and more Israelis are becoming ambivalent about living there. I am not saying Jerusalem should be broken up no matter what, but making promises without accounting for the possibilities that could occur is short-sighted at best.

True sustainibility and true Judaism, especially with regard to Israel, involve deep complexity of thought and careful examination of how we live our lives. This may involve occasionally rethinking our previously held opinions or taking risks with new ideas, but we must move forward and keep our minds open, otherwise we will never grow and develop. Think about it.

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If you are coming here via Green Prophet, then welcome! Pitaron Park is a community based on the intersection between Judaism and the environment. You can get in touch with us at pitaronpark (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Within the realm of cosmetics, Ahava certainly holds a certain respect. Founded in 1988, the Israeli company exports its skin-enriching products, infused with minerals from the Dead Sea, to over 30 countries around the world.

On its website under the Environmental Responsibility tab, Ahava writes that “the Company’s activities are undertaken with a view towards preserving the pristine environment and delicate balance of the natural forces in the Dead Sea region.”

Is this true?

To give Ahava some credit, their products are enclosed in recyclable containers and are not tested on animals for research. That’s always a good thing. But there is a bigger, more important issue here.

The Dead Sea, where Ahava harvests its minerals, is fragile territory, reducing in height by as much as one meter a year. Sure, Ahava claims to “take what is strictly needed” for its products, but how can we be certain that their business practices are environmentally conscious?

I think the company should show its own ahava (love, in Hebrew) for the environment by publishing more substantial information about the eco-aspects of its business practices. What do you think?

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Making Jewish Jam

My obsession began because I dislike the taste of honey. Several years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, I tried to think up a way to serve the customary apples and honey to my friends without actually having to eat the nasty stuff straight out of the bottle. The result: my now world-famous (ok, friend-famous) apple honey butter.

That day, I caught the canning and preserving bug. Since then (and with mixed results), I’ve jammed, sauced, pickled, and fermented anything that holds still long enough for me to squeeze into a jar. I have been consistently thrilled by a process which promotes seasonal cooking yet still allows me to enjoy the taste of fresh fruit in the winter. I love that preserving is fun and can be done easily at home. However, in the excitement of those intervening years, I somehow forgot that my original canning frenzy had Jewish roots.

Having just moved halfway across the country, I’ve been feeling homesick for something familiar. So when I discovered that this is the last week for blackberries here in Seattle, I couldn’t wait to get my little home cannery going again. However, this time the process brought me back to my jam roots in a new way. Now that I am temporarily without a local community, Jewish or otherwise, preserving berries helped me to feel a sense of place and purpose.

So while I was waiting for my jars to boil, it finally occurred to me that modern Diaspora Judaism has a lot to do with making jam. Like my honey apple butter, almost everything which was once religious has become secular. Though this is not inherently a bad thing, and in fact may help to unite people of many different faiths, we have unwittingly sacrificed our sense of the sacred.

I believe that a large part of the urge modern Jews feel to connect our religion with sustainability is an attempt to bring the sacred back into the everyday. To follow the commandment of Bal Tashchit, not to destroy, is to transform the daily grind of composting, recycling, cooking, and shopping into the sacred act of preserving part of Creation. It helps us to separate out a few holy, restful moments for ourselves each day. When we allow religion to infuse our activism, our acts elevate and connect us in a way impossible without the acknowledgment of the separate and sacred.

Today, I made Jewish jam. And when I open a jar and taste fresh blackberries in the middle of February, I will only be able to describe that moment as a miracle.

*If you would like any recipes, or if you have any preservation-related questions to ask or advice to offer, please post a comment! Now is the time to make summer fruit jams and pickles!

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A bit ironic, don’t you think?

Three weeks ago, the World Bank organized three public hearings to discuss the Red-Dead conduit, a plan to import water into the rapidly waning Dead Sea from the Red Sea in the south. Over the last 30 years, the Jordan River (the Dead Sea’s primary source of water) has been diverted for agricultural use. These diversions, along with naturally occurring evaporation, are reducing theDead Sea by as much as one meter a year.

The project is expected to cost around $15 billion. On the surface, it seems like a viable option, one that could even exist as a peaceful symbol of cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. But Hannah Doherty, in an article titled, “Can the Dead Sea Be Brought to Life?“, points out that the Red-Dead conduit might not be the most sustainable option:

By introducing water of a different density and composition to the Dead Sea, however, engineers may drastically alter the very thing they are trying to save. The Dead Sea is rich in calcium, while the Red Sea is rich in sulfate; mixing the two could create a surface layer of gypsum. New algae growth might also change the buoyancy of the water and alter its blue water to appear red. These critical changes could damage the tourism industry in both Israel and Jordan.

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As an alternative to the diversion project, environmentalists and local geologists propose rehabilitating the Jordan River. According to Dan Zaslavksi, a former Israeli water commissioner, regenerating the flow of the river to bring water to the Dead Sea will cost no more than $800 million, substantially less than the $15 billion estimated for the Red-Dead plan, Al Jazeera reported. Critics also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea.

I encourage you to read the full article and am curious to see what the course of action will be.

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