Wrestling with Food Traditions: A Thanksgiving D’rash

Wrestling with Food Traditions: A Thanksgiving D’rash, originally published in the Jewish Journal.

By: Melissa Hoffman

Jewish and partaking in a Thanksgiving meal this year? It’s time to wrestle with the impact of participating in the most food-centric American holiday.

Many if not most Jews in the US have come to celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday with secular origins since its proclamation as a national holiday in 1863. Influenced by the food traditions that have emerged since that time (which reflect few, if any, of the actual ingredients the original pilgrims would have had available), Jewish Thanksgiving tables mirror their fellow Americans’ in featuring the requisite cranberry sauce, stuffing, and—most of all— a turkey.

At the Jewish Initiative for Animals, we’ve worked for several years to help Jewish communities understand why, of all factory farmed animals, broiler birds—that is, intensively hybridized chickens and turkeys bred and raised for meat—suffer the most egregious abuses of any land animal we raise for food. The Los Angeles Times featured an article in 2016 explaining why the Broad Breasted White, which is essentially the only type of turkey Americans eat anymore, endures an especially horrendous life. As articles like these surface and enlighten the broader public, Jewish communities are taking action. In 2018, our partners at Hazon committed to no longer serving conventional turkey at their central campus retreat center, because the product does not align with their religious and ethical values. In addition, they committed to incrementally transitioning their poultry to kosher heritage chicken—chickens raised from healthy genetic lines outside of the factory farming system.

Heritage turkeys are available, too, but not yet in the kosher market. So what is a kosher-keeping Jew to do for Thanksgiving?

The Torah portion that coincides with Thanksgiving this year imparts some relevant wisdom. Parshat Vayishlach includes the seminal scene in which Jacob wrestles with an unnamed “man” in an evening-long struggle. Finally, Jacob triumphs over the angelic being and receives a new name: Israel, a compound title meaning “to struggle with God. ” That scene births the Jewish archetype for wrestling with the biggest questions of faith, identity, and tradition. The narrative conveys to us the need for introspection to become who we are, and that process can be challenging, if not painful. Curiously, the story ends with our first ever negative commandment in the Torah: a dietary restriction. During the encounter, Jacob sustains an injury to his hip. The text introduces a law in commemoration, prohibiting people from consuming the sciatic nerve in bovids (e.g., cattle and sheep), which runs along the lower back into the hindquarters (Genesis 32:33). Kosher meat companies and kashrut-observant Jews abide by the rule to this day. And as with the rest of kosher food preparation, we have little reason to investigate the practice ourselves—with farms out of sight and out of mind, we rely on kosher certifiers to ensure that an animal is slaughtered and processed in accordance with Jewish law. We trust the system.

But in a time when halacha doesn’t necessarily mean that animals were spared awful treatment in industrial hatcheries and farms, how do we make an informed, values-based decision about the meat we eat? Even if slaughter was carried out to the letter of kashrut, can we, as the People of Israel, consume factory-raised turkey in good conscience?

As a ritual to which we have no particular religious ties, Thanksgiving may be the perfect opportunity for considering the impacts of our food traditions. Maybe, in taking a more honest inventory of our participation in the holiday, in addition to the animal welfare implications, we could also examine how we respectfully take part in a day that is rife with trauma for other minority communities. For many indigenous peoples, the holiday is a somber reminder of surviving genocide. One of the ways indigenous peoples continually practice cultural reclamation also happens to be through food: native food educators and chefs research and promote “decolonizing” indigenous diets by uncovering and reinstating a food heritage that relies on original native ingredients. This process involves eschewing what has become a typical westernized US diet, high in animal protein and processed grains and sugars. Importantly, decolonizing food is about restoring a more respectful relationship between humans and the plants and animals we use for sustenance. Perhaps the extreme suppression of that very impulse—to live in a state of reverence towards nature and other living beings—is what allowed, and allows, people to mutate, torture, and consume en masse the Broad-Breasted White turkey.

Jewish author Jonathan Safran Foer highlights the Thanksgiving turkey as the quintessential paradox of eating animals today: what we do with their carcasses may feel right and enjoyable, but how we breed, confine, and ultimately kill turkeys paves an evil-strewn path towards the relatively short-lived pleasure of human consumption. Toward  the end of the book, Foer contemplates:

And what would happen if there were no turkey… Is the holiday undermined? Is Thanksgiving no longer Thanksgiving?

Or would Thanksgiving be enhanced? Would the choice not to eat turkey be a more active way of celebrating how thankful we feel? Try to imagine the conversation that would take place. This is why our family celebrates this way. Would such a conversation feel disappointing or inspiring? Would fewer or more values be transmitted? Would the joy be lessened by the hunger to eat that particular animal? Imagine your family’s Thanksgivings after you are gone, when the question is no longer “Why don’t we eat this?” but the more obvious one: “Why did they ever?”

Most Jewish people have a plethora of choices for creating a healthy, delicious, and often less pricey vegetarian or vegan meals. It only takes a quick Google search to find an array of plant-based recipes compiled by Martha Stewart, The Food Network, and countless food bloggers. Some Jewish people and institutions can afford to spend more on a kosher heritage chicken or 100% kosher grass-fed beef, instead of conventional kosher meat. But most of all, all of us have the ability to consider alternatives to a food system that, animal treatment aside, continues to devastate our natural ecosystems, heightens the threat of climate change, and disproportionately burdens lower-income communities of color.

Perhaps before Thanksgiving this year—in the same spirit as a Passover seder, where we hold up each food and consider its significance to the holiday and to us as people—we will consider the turkey, and wrestle with its meaning. Maybe we will question what it is to have a more gracious, harmonious relationship with animals, nature, and other people, and how that should be reflected in all of our meals. Perhaps, just like Jacob, we will emerge from that intellectual and physical struggle with a new sense of self and purpose that defines our tradition—and our dietary choices—for generations to come.

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