The quality of our food for purchase in restaurants and grocery stores has gotten new attention of late. A series of articles have been published in the New York Times and other prominent newspapers and magazines detailing the amount and the quantities of added ingredients in our products. All of them seem to focus on the tremendous weight gain that has occurred across all demographics in the United States in the last ten years.
What has happened in the last ten years to our food?
We have gone through food fads as usual. The no-gluten fad for those who do not test as celiac is still going strong. Every aisle of the grocery store contains items with “No gluten” or “Gluten-free” labels. Alas, weight gain is still on the uptick.
One Times article goes into great detail on fat, salt and sugar. Chefs have known decades (?), centuries (?), or millennia (?) that prepared dishes tastes better with more fat, salt and sugar in the food. Indeed, I remember standing in the kitchen with a prodigious Cajun cook who invited me to taste a dish cooking on her stove. “Good” I declared. In response she scooped a dollop of fat and added it to the deep skillet. “Now it is very good,” she announced.
Food companies have pushed their clever campaigns aggressively to gain a larger share of the trillion dollars a year food industry. Cereal companies are advertising whole grains while adding more sugar and salt into the same product. What were once products with few ingredients on the label have expanded to long lists of names that look almost familiar but are not.
The fight for our dollars at the grocery checkout has led to ever more deceptive practices. Pure salt now contains citric acid. Milk products are no longer pasteurized but ultra-pasteurized, which is not a good development. Yoghurt cultures cannot grow in ultra-pasteurized milk because the milk is dead; so one must ask, what is in the yoghurts in the dairy case that are using ultra-pasteurized milk? Products declare “No MSG” on the label, quite legally, when the ingredients used in the product already contain MSG. MSG and soy is in 90 to 95 percent of the items on the grocery shelves today, a 100 percent increase from a decade ago. We like the taste.
No matter what your diet is, carnivore, vegetarian, vegan, kosher or opportunist (if it is there, I eat it), our diets are under assault. Every shortcut offered, in cans, boxes, or bags, is loaded up with ingredients to promote our hunger for the product. We more than like the taste, we hunger for the taste, meaning we will return and buy more of the same product.
Being a Reform Jew is taking upon oneself the obligation of responsibility. We are responsible for the choices we make and we are not allowed to say, “it is in God’s hands.” God gave us intelligence, memory and curiosity; we believe we are obligated to apply these gifts. The dramatically changing landscape of industrial food forces new responsibilities upon us. No one likes to stand in the aisle and read labels but responsible people do so.
Eric was old, well into his eighth decade yet he was standing tall with a straight back in the winter sun. We were waiting outside of the cafeteria in Plaquemine (PLAK-ah-men), LA to speak with the eleventh and twelfth grade classes. Eric was a Holocaust survivor and I was his rabbi. Another one of my congregants had grown up in this small town nestled on a tight bend of the Mississippi river, squeezed by nasty-smelling chemical factories on either side of the city limits, and she had arranged our speaking engagement.
“What do you know about the Holocaust?” I asked the hundred-odd students.
“We read ‘Anne Frank,'” a student replied.
“Great,” I said, feeling quite the opposite. Eric had survived work camps and had been liberated from Auschwitz. While the book was a great introduction into the times and the fear, the text was never meant to capture the enormity of the Nazi extermination machine, especially the camps. Their history textbook had thirty pages on World War II and two paragraphs on the Holocaust. I had twenty minutes to create an accessible milieu for Eric’s heartfelt testimony. I sweated that lesson.
We plunged ahead and we made a significant, positive impression that day on a bunch of kids that live on the edge of bayou. However, walking back to my car I knew that what we had done was not enough. Eric’s testimony had been dramatic and my lesson had been memorable but we were ninety minutes out of their entire lives. What would they remember?
“What would they remember?” – the question has haunted me for years since I first posed it. I look into the faces of our own Religious School kids and the same question bounces around my skull. Are we reaching deep inside these students? Are we a part of shaping their future choices?
“Exodus – movement of the people,” Bob Marley sang a couple of decades ago. When he sang his composition in Kenya, he moved a country’s worth of people. The theme of the Exodus of Egypt, once thought to be exclusive to Israelite history, has become an enduring theme of redemption from slavery and oppression throughout the world. In this day, in this very month, the themes of Exodus resound from our seder tables to the main squares of countries across North Africa and the Middle East. For us, Exodus has become a lesson in the endurance of the human spirit.
Tyranny favors the few by oppressing everyone else. Despotism thrives on the enslavement of everyone for the sake of complete freedom for the leaders. Dictators impose fear, intimidation, torture and death to secure their lofty posts. Yet, regimes age and tyrants grow old. Our world changes in a manner never before conceived and at speeds never before seen. Many of the corrupt leaders are powerless against the waves of change; others are expending tremendous amounts of capital and human life as a bulwark against the worldwide changes that seem impending at the moment.
Do not make the mistake of calling the ousting of these dictators “peace”. Call these expulsions a crisis and an opportunity. The issues that these new governments face are deep and painful. The damage wrought to cities and communities may require the complete rebuilding of infrastructures and government institutions. Criminal trials loom at both the international and national levels. The hunger for revenge by victims of secret police and national security forces is ravenous. Peace is a hope far in the distance, obtainable only after countless hours of hundreds of thousands of people sweating to rebuild their countries.
Yet, their world is infused with bright optimism. Like the holiday candles that are lit at the beginning of the seder and remain illuminated throughout the reading of the hagaddah far into the night, their new found freedom burns bright.
This Pesach, whole countries have moved from slavery to freedom and from tyranny to representative government. The mighty themes of Exodus resound across the world. On this seder night, many will break bread just as we break matza as free people. The bread of affliction is a recent memory upon their tongues. How much sweeter does the same bread taste today in their mouths?
The ancient lessons hold true not just for us, but for oppressed peoples everywhere. Let the fresh taste of freedom infuse our seder this year in our homes and in our synagogue.
Each year we struggle to commemorate Yom HaShoah, the Remembrance of the Holocaust, wondering how we can convey the devastating condemnation of the goodness of humanity that the Holocaust represents while offering hope that humanity can raise above its failings. The term has been overused and exploited at one extreme and studiously ignored or denied at the other extreme. When I was in high school, the Holocaust was two paragraphs out of two chapters on World War II. Now the eyewitnesses are dying of old age.
I’ve taught Holocaust Studies many times. I read through the literature and viewed the gruesome archival films in preparation for classes. The preparation was thorough and the lesson plans were comprehensive. Convinced that my preparation was above reproach, I taught teachers how to teach the Holocaust at regional conferences, adding another checkmark to my rabbinic expertise.
Then I read a short piece a few years ago by Elie Wiesel and I learned that every construct that I built was slightly askew, which is a nice way of saying “off target”. In his article, Dr. Wiesel focuses on a famous photo taken at Auschwitz inside the prisoner barracks. In this photo of the bunks, the men are lying side by side with heads shaved and they are staring at the camera. This photo is blown up to eight feet tall and resides at the heart of the Holocaust exhibit at Yad V’shem in Jerusalem.
We, the students, stare at the photo and see the misery and inhumanity of the Nazis and their Concentration Camps. The photo provokes revulsion. “Not so,” says Elie Wiesel. Looking at that photo he sees men huddling together companionably at a moment of relative quiet. They are not working and they are able to lay together for warmth. The photo captured a moment of their small creature comforts in the midst of horror.
The survivor of Auschwitz gently explains to us that our view is skewed and doesn’t match his experience of that moment. We will always be outsiders looking in upon the skewed universe that is the Holocaust.