Visiting Sustainable Paradise: Berkeley

There are cities with a holy stature (like Jerusalem), and there are cities with cultural eminence (like New York) – but my family just came home from a vacation to a place that holds my nomination for Paradise on Earth: Berkeley, California.

I already knew that Berkeley residents are required to collect their food waste for composting (with weekly pick-ups), but to see it operation, with ordinary citizens scraping their plates (and all food-related paper) into their home-sized composting bins was truly inspiring.

Our friends belong to the modern Orthodox congregation Beth Israel in West Berkeley, which recently voted to allocate money for compostable plastic flatware for their weekly kiddushim. This came after intense discussion about priorities, because the additional expense impacted their educational budget. One of the regulars frets about people absentmindedly throwing their leftovers into the regular trash bins, but they’re already operating at a higher madrega (spiritual plane). Also impressive (especially for an Orthodox shul) is the presence of ramps to the bima from both the men’s and the women’s sections and gates in the mechitza for the Torah to be passed to a woman for carrying through the women’s section. So, this is a shul that believes in total inclusion as well as community responsibility.

Walking back from shul (an urban hike of 2-1/2 miles past gorgeous yards where even the strip between the sidewalk and the street is lushly planted), we detoured to visit Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project, which occupies one acre of a former parking lot on the campus of the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. The students plant, harvest, cook and bake (in an outdoor stone bread oven!) their fruits and vegetables as well as composting the organic waste. A substantial proportion of the students’ lunches comes from this garden. There’s also a lovely chicken coop on the premises. This is a wonderful educational community project that has brought together neighbors to help in its maintenance.

Visiting Berkeley felt like Paradise on Earth to this Pennsylvanian. Where is your sustainable paradise?

The Kosher Olympics?

As a Chinese Jew, I have been hesitant to express myself publicly about the many crises that have made recent headline news about my mother country. Ancient custom demanded obeisance to the Emperor, with no recourse in civil disobedience. Life under the Communists has yielded progress in some areas – suspension of periodic famines from crop failures and the wider promotion of literacy – but dissent is still not a societal right. There is also my reluctance to be mistaken for a spokesperson for my people.

China is notable in being a country that has never experienced anti-Semitism.[Also notable is that Myanmar, another Asian nation under crisis, enjoys comfortable relations with Israel.] This is mostly because few Jews were known or resident in its realm, with the two exceptions being the Jews of Kaifeng (who thrived from 1163 until the 1860s) and the nearly 20,000 Jews who fled Europe during World War II and re-created a community in Shanghai. A more subtle reason for the acceptance of Jews derives from its culture, one in which a blending of beliefs is tolerated and common. In most of Asia, the Judeo-Christian view of the world with its monotheism and an exclusivity of one religion is alien. The Buddhists believe that short of reaching Nirvana, one can be reborn in any of six realms of existence. And how one is reborn is determined by one’s good behavior, not by the god of one’s faith.

The announcement by the Chinese government that it is building a kosher facility for the Olympic Games in Beijing sparked a public debate among Jews. Was this a welcome gesture, being courted as visitors? Or, was this a whitewash for China’s egregious conduct in national and international affairs? [Notable is that only Jews as a group reflexively wonder if some public act is “good for the Jews or not?”].  After two prominent Orthodox rabbis, Yitz Greenberg and Haskel Lookstein, protested in print over China’s actions in the New York Jewish Week with a petition signed by 185 Jewish leaders across the religious spectrum, the mainstream Jewish organizations— the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, and the National Council of Young Israel— were quick to reject the rabbis’ call for a boycott. Their concerns seem to be to not muddle political affairs with personal needs, specifically, for Jews to eat kosher food.

I am not naïve enough to think that nations can have perfect allies or that national organizations need not look at a broader picture of cooperation.As a Jew, however, I am mindful that one’s actions express one’s values more than any professed expression of faith or commitment to justice or human rights. We can choose how we spend our leisure time or money, according to the values we hold dear.

I, for one, do not plan to tune into the Olympics in August.I will not cheer for America, Israel, or China. Maybe it’s time for the Olympics to return to its Grecian roots and allow the athletes to compete in an arena devoid of politics.

Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The expression often cited to demonstrate patriotism is “as American as apple pie” but when was the last time you ate apple pie? Now compare that with your most recent meal of Chinese food.

For an immigrant group that was despised and feared from its earliest arrival on these shores (to date, the only group meriting a dedicated act by Congress, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882), the Chinese has made tremendous in-roads into the American society. Americans, and especially the Jews, have embraced Chinese food, both as takeout comfort meals as well as for celebratory occasions. But the beloved foods known as chop suey (now considered passé, but wildly popular in the years after World War II), fortune cookies, and General Tso’s chicken are as American-born as apple pie. In fact, an ill-fated endeavor to introduce fortune cookies to China in the 1990’s was met with abysmal failure, because the treat was considered “too American.” The tastes that Americans love— intensely sweet, crispy, deep-fried, and —are just not authentic Chinese ones.

The Powerball scandal of 2005 when 110 lottery winners nationwide all claimed to have obtained their winning sequences from a fortune cookie lead Jennifer 8. Lee to an journalistic investigation, from which she proceeded to write an intrigue-filled book on Chinese assimilation through the prism of food, titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Ms. Lee is a reporter for the New York Times, a graduate of Harvard with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, and an American-born Chinese.

One chapter in her book is devoted to answering why have Jews embraced Chinese food? I learned from Ms. Lee’s book that there are academic treatises written on this subject, including a paper written by Gary Tuchman and Harry G. Levine called “Safe Treyf” (treyf being the Yiddish word for non-kosher food) in which they propose that of all the foods encountered in America, Chinese food was the most foreign, the most “un-Jewish.” Yet, writes Ms. Lee, “Jews defined this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”

Hanna R. Miller in her paper, “Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine,” cited the geographic proximity between these two immigrant groups in New York City’s Lower East Side (ignoring the third ethnic group living in nearby Little Italy). Other scholars note the absence of dairy in Chinese cuisine, which makes it more easily compatible with kashrut (laws on kosher food preparation, specifically the forbidden mixing of meat and dairy ingredients) than Italian or French cuisine.

Ms. Lee even sought out a literary angle, quoting Philip Roth’s character, Portnoy, on his perspective on Chinese food: “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white—and maybe even Anglo Saxon. Imagine!”

Finally, the author traveled to China to seek someone who could speak with authority about both Chinese and Jewish cultures. There she met an 81-year-old Chinese woman who lived on Jiaojing Hutong or “Teaching Scriptures Alley” in Kaifeng, where the Jewish faith was known as “the religion which removes the sinew.” (The Jewish community of Kaifeng thrived from 1163 until the 1860s.) The author hoped that “she, being one of the rare Chinese Jews in the world today, would be able to shed light on a question that had vexed academics, bolstered comedy routines and intrigued Portnoy.

‘“Why,” I asked, “do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?”

With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table.

She knew.

I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.

Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:

“Because Chinese food tastes good.”’

Another chapter introduced the soy sauce trade dispute in which the Japanese delegation petitioned to the international trade regulatory organization to set standards for soy sauce, as the French has done for champagne, the Italians for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the Koreans for kimchee. However, these latter are known and consumed by few connoisseurs in comparison to the worldwide market for soy sauce. The version of “soy sauce” consumed by most Americans (most often served in little plastic packets distributed by Kari-Out, owned by the Epstein family of Westchester, NY) is not made from actual soybeans. Instead, its list of ingredients are: water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup—essentially, thick, brown salty water. This is not an atypical story of the American alteration and mass-processing of foods from around the world, including beer, chocolate, and cheese (to the dismay and frustration of their original compatriots). After several years of hardball lobbying by the Americans, the Japanese quietly withdrew their petition in 2005. The Americans had won: soy sauce does not have to be made from whole soybeans.

There are other chapters with fascinating insights on how Chinese immigration has impacted American society. To find out the real deal on fortune cookies, check out Jennifer 8. Lee’s new book.

Photo credit: Rasa Malaysia