Rosh Hashanah commemorates God’s creation of the world. During the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we evaluate our deeds and do teshuvah (repentance) for cases where we have missed the mark. And, during Sukkot, we leave our houses and live in temporary shelters to commemorate our ancestors’ journey in the wilderness. Hence, these weeks provide an excellent time to consider the state of the planet’s environment and what we might do to make sure that the world is on a sustainable path.
When God created the world, He was able to say, “It is tov meod,” very good. (Genesis 1:31) Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?
What must God think when so many species of plants and animals He created are becoming extinct at such an alarming rate in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats; when the abundant fertile soil He provided is being depleted and eroded; when the climatic conditions He designed to meet our needs are threatened by climate change?
An ancient rabbinic teaching is all-too-relevant today: “In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first human being [Adam], He took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created, for you have I created them. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world. For, if you destroy it, there is no one to set it right after you.’” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
Today’s environmental threats bring to mind the biblical 10 plagues. When we consider the threats to our land, water and air from pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, acid rain, deforestation, desertification, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate more than 10 modern “plagues.” The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while our modern plagues threaten us simultaneously. And the Israelites in Goshen were spared most of the biblical plagues, while everyone on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.
Instead of an ancient pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today seem to have been hardened by the greed, materialism and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats. While God provided the biblical plagues to free the Israelites, today we must apply God’s teachings in order to save ourselves and our planet.
There seem to be almost daily reports about record heat waves, severe droughts and wildfires, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes and other storms, and other effects of climate change. All of the above, and much more, is related to a temperature increase in the past century of a little more than one degree Celsius, so it is frightening that climate experts project a temperature increase of three to six degrees Celsius in the next 100 years. Some leading climate experts have stated that global warming may reach a tipping point and spin out of control within a decade, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes soon occur.
All countries, including Israel, are affected by climate change. Israel is already suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history, with below average rainfall in each of the past five years, and the Kinneret, a major water source, at dangerously low levels.
Israeli climate experts are concerned that, with additional climate threats, there will be a rise in temperature causing many severe heat waves; a significant increase in the Mediterranean Sea level, which would threaten the narrow coastal strip of land that contains most of Israel’s population and infrastructure; and a significant decrease in rainfall, estimated at 20%-30%, which would disrupt agricultural production and worsen the chronic water scarcity problem in Israel and the region. Making matters worse, much of that rainfall would come in severe storms that would cause major flooding.
Fortunately, there are many Jewish teachings that can be applied to shift the earth to a sustainable path. Briefly, these include our mandate to be shomrei adama (guardians of the earth), based on the admonition that we should “work the earth and guard it” (Genesis 2:15); the prohibition of bal tashchit, that we should not waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (Deuteronomy 20:19-20); the teaching that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1), and that the assigned role of the Jewish people is to enhance the world as “partners of God in the work of creation” (Shabbat 10a); and the ecological lessons related to the Shabbat, sabbatical and jubilee cycles.
As coworkers with God, charged with the task of being a light unto the nations and accomplishing tikkun olam (repair of the earth), it is essential that Jews take an active role in applying our eternal, sacred values in struggles to reduce climate change, pollution and the waste of natural resources. Jews must work with others for significant changes in society’s economic and production systems, values and lifestyles. The fate of humanity and God’s precious earth are at stake and, if we fail to act properly and in time, there may be “no one after us to set it right.”
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.
The value of ahavat ha’beriot, the love of God’s creations, is open to broad interpretation. The animal world, the environment, as well as other people, can all fall under this crucial tenet of Judaism.
Like positive values and most good things, of course, this is easier in theory than in practice. We all want a clean environment and a better world, but we also want the convenience of automobiles, abundant and varied food, and the panorama of disposable consumer goods that we associate with the “good life.”
Awareness is, on the one hand, the most important factor in social change. On the other hand, it can overwhelm us to learn the full scope of our impacts on the world. Leave aside the huge looming catastrophe of climate change and consider for a moment the impact of a single, almost universal item of clothing: the cotton T-shirt.
Some bumper sticker wisdom urges us to “live simply, that others may simply live.” We do not always think of our wardrobe when considering our carbon footprint. Yet, after housing, food and transportation, for many people, clothing is one of the largest expenditures. Since voting with our wallets is one important way of making change, it is worth considering the impacts of our wardrobe choices. And what we wear on our backs says more about us than merely our fashion sense. It speaks (whether we know it or not) about our views on the environment and matters like child labour and fair wages.
To this end, one might think that a basic T-shirt would be a good choice. Yet it can take up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton required for this simple garment, according to the World Wildlife Federation. Caring for the T-shirt over its lifespan takes further resources: each load of laundry takes more than 150 litres of water. Throwing it in the dryer (with a full load) consumes even more energy resources than the washing machine – about five times as much. Hanging it instead on a clothesline would reduce the shirt’s carbon footprint by one-third, but who remembers those? (Walk down a back lane in Vancouver a generation ago, and clotheslines snaked across almost every yard.) That few of us would be prepared to make this comparatively small shift indicates the glacial – to use an ironic term in the context – pace of human change in a time of rapid change in the environment.
Our food choices are even heavier with impacts. Researchers at institutions including the Weizmann Institute of Science calculated the use of land area, water and nitrogen fertilizer in animal food production. Potatoes, wheat and rice require half to one-sixth of the resources needed to produce pork, chicken, dairy and eggs in a calorie-for-calorie comparison. (Beef takes as much as five times the resources as chicken.)
Livestock for food are estimated to create about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions while using vast amounts of agricultural and water resources. Reducing or giving up meat consumption results in a huge reduction in resources. Producing a kilogram of protein from beef requires about 18 times more land, 10 times more water, nine times more fuel, 12 times more fertilizer and 10 times more pesticide than producing a kilogram of protein from kidney beans. But, again, many people love a steak or roast chicken and giving up these pleasures is not on the agenda.
This is not to instil hopelessness that even our simplest choices are leading to environmental disaster. Rather, it is to be aware of the power of small changes to have significant results.
We can extrapolate the outsized impacts of larger choices. When faced with the realities of carbon fuels on our environment (and health), most of us will not choose to sell our cars. But we might use them more judiciously. Or buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle. And, when it comes to making big political decisions that impact our environment and health, we might consider that, on balance, we should be moving toward investing in alternatives to fossil fuels, not pouring public or private billions into perpetuating deleterious and nonrenewable resources. We may not go cold turkey on gasoline and oil overnight, but our discrete choices should be leading incrementally in the right direction, not the wrong one.
Israelis and tourists enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on a hot summer day. (photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90 via Israel21c)
A new study says that, by 2100, climate changes will extend the summer season in the eastern Mediterranean – an area that covers Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey – by two full months. Winter, the rainy season, will shorten from four to two months.
The study, published in the International Journal of Climatology, was overseen by Prof. Pinhas Alpert and conducted by Assaf Hochman, Tzvi Harpaz and Prof. Hadas Saaroni, all of Tel Aviv University’s School of Geosciences.
“Pending no significant change in current human behaviour in the region, the summer is expected to extend by 25% by the middle of the century (2046-2065) and by 49% until its end (2081-2100),” Hochman said. “The combination of a shorter rainy season and a longer dry season may cause a major water problem in Israel and neighbouring countries.”
Other serious potential consequences include increased risk of brushfires, worsening pollution and altered timing and intensity of seasonal illnesses and health hazards.
“One of the main causes of these changes is the growing concentration of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activity,” said Hochman.
The research team is currently exploring the possibility of establishing a multidisciplinary regional centre for climate adaptation.
The World Health Organization has labeled climate change “the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century.” As a physician, it is difficult to ignore such a dramatic statement.
Climate change is real. The sea levels are rising, temperatures are increasing, more violent storms are becoming the norm. As Canadians, we are seeing consequences of climate change even more than other countries. Last year, Fort McMurray in Alberta was almost destroyed by a massive forest fire. This year was the worst year in British Columbia’s history for forest fire damage. (While climate change is not the sole cause of these events, it is known to be a contributing factor.)
Our glaciers are shrinking, as anybody who has visited the Athabasca Glacier in the Rockies can confirm. Temperatures in the Yukon and Northwest Territories are rising faster than in most other parts of the world. Traditional indigenous life in the north is being made much more difficult by the shortening of winter and the melting of the permafrost.
Climate change is also a Jewish issue. When the environment is changing so dramatically that human lives and well-being are at stake, Jewish values tell us that we must take action.
Pikuach nefesh (the saving of a life) is a fundamental Jewish principle. Climate change is believed to share some responsibility for present-day wars and loss of life, including the conflict in Syria. The World Health Organization predicts that 250,000 people will die each year between 2030 and 2050 due to the effects of climate change. Is it not incumbent upon us as Jews to try to mitigate these effects in line with the pikuach nefesh principle?
Climate change is a complex issue. Many people find it too complicated and too overwhelming, such that they are paralyzed into inaction. So what we can do about it?
In line with Jewish practice, the first response should be educating ourselves about the issues. There are many articles and books about the subject. One of the most compelling authors for me is Bill McKibben. He has written a book called Eaarth (Henry Holt and Company, 2010) in which he describes how the earth is changing, such that it is becoming a new and unfamiliar place.
Fossil fuels are the main culprits. Weaning ourselves off coal, oil and natural gas is paramount. Substituting sources of renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal is crucial.
On a society level, we can try to prevent further construction of oil and gas pipelines, and further development of the LNG (liquified natural gas) industry in northeast British Columbia. We can elect members of the Legislative Assembly and of Parliament who share our concerns.
On a personal level, we can drive less, fly less, use hybrid or electric vehicles, and support public transportation. We can eat less meat, as the cattle industry is a major contributor to increased greenhouse gases. We can consume less, recycle more and compost more.
Everybody can do something to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
I take inspiration from the talmudic Choni, otherwise known as the Circle-maker.
One day, Choni was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Choni then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another 70 years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
This week, as we are sitting in the sukkah, let us contemplate the fragility of our planet, and strive to make the earth a more secure place for our children and grandchildren.
Larry Barzelaiis a Vancouver-based family physician, who has a special interest in geriatrics. He administers the annual Public Speaking Contest organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. He is a member of the board of CAPE (Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment).
President Donald Trump has received well-deserved condemnation from, among others, leaders of many nations, many governors, mayors, environmentalists, corporate chief executive officers and Jewish and other religious organizations for withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris climate change pact that was agreed to by all the 195 nations that attended, including Israel, Canada and the United States. How should Jews respond to the U.S. withdrawal?
First, Jews should become very familiar with the issues involved. Ten important climate-related factors are:
Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists and 99.9% of peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals argue that climate change is real, is largely caused by human activities and poses great threats to humanity. All 195 nations at the December 2015 Paris climate change conference agreed that immediate steps must be taken to combat climate change.
Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade and all of the 17 warmest years since temperature records were first kept in 1880 have been since 1998. The year 2016 was the warmest globally since 1880, breaking the record held before by 2015 and previously by 2014, meaning we now have had three consecutive years of record temperatures.
Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections. This has caused an increase of elevation in oceans worldwide, with the potential for major flooding.
There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms and floods.
California has been subjected to so many severe climate events (heat waves, droughts, wildfires and mudslides when heavy rains occur) recently that its governor, Jerry Brown, stated, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.” California serves as an example of how climate change can wreak havoc.
Many climates experts believe that we are close to a tipping point due to feedback loops, when climate change will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major positive changes soon occur.
While many climate scientists think that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for climate stability, the world reached 400 ppm in 2014 and the amount is increasing by two to three parts per million per year.
While climate scientists hope that temperature increases can be limited to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), largely because that is the best that can be hoped for with current trends and momentum, the world is now on track for an average increase of four to six degrees Celsius, which would result in great human suffering and significant threats to human civilization.
The Pentagon and other military groups think that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism and war by reducing access to food and clean water and by causing tens of millions of refugees fleeing from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms and other effects of climate change.
The group ConservAmerica, formerly known as Republicans for Environmental Protection, is very concerned about climate change threats. They are working to end the denial about climate threats by the vast majority of Republicans, but so far with very limited success.
Second, Jews should consider Judaism’s powerful teachings that can be applied to environmental sustainability. These include:
“In the hour when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, he took him and let him pass before all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are. Now, all that I created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt or destroy my world. For, if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” (Midrash: Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
Genesis 2:15 indicates that the human role is to work the land but also to guard and preserve it. Jews are mandated to be shomrei ha’adama, guardians of the earth, co-workers with God in working for tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world.
Judaism teaches: “Who is the wise person? The one who considers the future consequences of his or her actions.”
The Jewish sages expand Deuteronomy 20:19-20, prohibiting the destruction of fruit trees in wartime to build battery rams to overcome an enemy fortification, to make a general prohibition against unnecessarily destroying anything of value.
Jews should be on the forefront of efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe. We should try to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprints by recycling, using efficient light bulbs and other items, eating less meat, reducing our use of automobiles by walking, biking, sharing rides and using mass transit, when appropriate, and in other ways. We should support efforts to increase efficiencies of automobiles and other items, shift to renewable sources of energy and make societal steps that reduce greenhouse emissions.
We should try to arrange programs on climate change at synagogues, Jewish centres and other Jewish venues, write letters to editors, speak to family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers, and take other steps to increase awareness of the seriousness of climate threats and how applying Jewish values can help reduce them. We should do everything possible to reduce climate change and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.
The Weizmann Tree Lab, left to right: Dr. Tamir Klein, Ido Rog, Yael Wagner, Omri Lapidot and Shacham Magidish. (screenshot from wis-wander.weizmann.ac.il)
While studying trees during his postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Tamir Klein made such a startling discovery that his research supervisor at the University of Basel at first declared that it must have been a mistake. In the forest, trees are known to compete for resources such as light and nutrients, but Klein found that the same trees also engage in sharing: he showed that carbon molecules taken up by the canopies of mature spruce trees were passed through the soil in large quantities to neighbouring beech, larch and pine. As he reported in Science in 2016, the carbon was being transferred via “underground highways” formed by overlapping networks of root fungi.
“Neighbouring trees interact with one another in complex ways,” said Klein. “Of course, there is a great deal of competition among them, but they also form communities, sorts of ‘guilds,’ within which individual trees share valuable resources. In fact, trees belonging to a ‘guild’ usually do much better than those that don’t.”
In his new lab in the Weizmann Institute’s plant and environmental sciences department, Klein follows up on these findings to investigate tree ecophysiology: how the tree functions in its ecosystem.
“Studies on ‘underground’ tree collaboration may reveal which tree species get along well, and this may help determine which trees should be planted next to one another,” he said. “Our studies have additional relevance to forestry and agriculture because we elaborate on the mechanisms of growth and drought resistance of different tree species.”
Only five percent of Israel’s land is covered by forest, but the country nonetheless offers unique advantages for forest research: its hot, dry climate provides an opportunity for investigating how trees adapt to drought and stress. Many trees common to Israel are already resistant to drought; understanding the mechanisms that allow them to live with little rain may help develop varieties of lemons, almonds, olives and other tree crops that can grow in even drier areas.
Projects in Klein’s lab aim to clarify how trees manage their water and carbon budgets – both separately and as a forest community. In one study, the team focuses on emboli: tiny air bubbles that form inside the tree’s water channels during drought. When drought persists, the emboli can kill a tree, much like blood vessel clots that can cause a fatal heart attack in a human being. After injecting fluids into tree branches at different pressures, Klein and his students analyze the emboli in the minutest detail, using micro-computed tomography.
In Weizmann’s greenhouses, Klein’s team members experiment with seedlings of pine, cypress, carob and other trees commonly found in Israel. The researchers make use of advanced technologies, including nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, to study hydraulic conductivity in trees and a special lamp-equipped belowground camera to study the growth of tree roots in the soil.
When conducting field studies on their research plot near Beit Shemesh, Klein and his students hug trees – not to have a spiritual experience, but to follow a tree’s growth by encircling the trunk with a measuring tape. In parallel, they apply laser isotope analysis and analytical chemistry techniques to trace carbon metabolism in individual trees, and they investigate carbon transfer among trees via different types of fungal “highways.” The scientists also employ thermal imaging, which enables remote temperature measurements, to study the rate of evaporation in the foliage.
These studies will help predict how future climate changes, including global warming and the rise in greenhouse gases, may affect forests. In one set of experiments, for example, Klein will double the concentration of CO2 to mimic the atmospheric conditions that may emerge on earth as a result of pollution. Klein hasn’t owned a car in 10 years, so as not to contribute to CO2 emissions, but he warns against jumping to conclusions when it comes to the impact of increased CO2 on tree biology. “Higher CO2 concentrations don’t help trees grow faster – contrary to the hopes of industrialists – but, surprisingly, recent research suggests they might render the trees more resistant to drought-induced stress. This doesn’t mean it’s OK to carry on with CO2 pollution, but it does mean that we need to deepen our understanding of its effects on trees in general and on agricultural tree crops in particular.”
Klein is the incumbent of the Edith and Nathan Goldenberg Career Development Chair. His research is supported by Nella and Leon Y. Benoziyo; and Norman Reiser. More on Weizmann Institute research can be found at wis-wander.weizmann.ac.il.
Jewish community member Erika Babins co-stars in How to Adult: The Musical. (photo from Coffee & Screaming)
As with the Jewish community Fringers profiled in the last issue of the Jewish Independent, the performers interviewed this week seek not only to entertain audiences but to spur self-reflection and even societal change. And they do so in a range of styles – musical, vaudeville and drama.
How to Adult: The Musical opens Sept. 8 at the Cultch Historic Theatre. It features three 20-something roommates who are trying to get their lives in order.
It is Amy Dauer’s writing debut and it is directed by Eleanor Felton, whose Eurydice received critical acclaim at last year’s festival. Dauer and Felton know each other from university.
“Last year, during the Fringe Festival, I told her she should write me a show to direct. And so she did,” Felton told the Independent. “It’s fantastic because Amy and I are also roommates, so a lot of what is in the script are things I recognize from our lives. I love the mixture of hilarity and disaster that feels very close to my life. And I love that, above all, this show is about the relationships between the characters rather than the events that are going on in their lives.”
Being a new musical, however, posed some challenges, the biggest of which, said Felton, “has been working with an evolving script and score. Peter [Abando] and Amy have worked really hard and the actors have been incredibly flexible, which was a huge blessing in the process.”
Jewish community member Erika Babins plays Imogen.
“Imogen is your textbook introvert,” explained Babins about the character. “She works from home on her computer all day as a graphic designer and, when she’s done, all she wants to do is curl up on the couch and watch Doctor Who on TV. When her friends suggest they go clubbing for her 25th birthday, it’s the worst thing imaginable. She finds it hard to stand up for herself and voice her opinions and usually defers to the judgment of her outspoken and confident best friend and roommate Holly. Throughout the course of the play, you see her getting frustrated with constantly being talked over and her ideas being vetoed, especially with Holly, who’s always been the alpha in their relationship, but with their other roommate Rosie and her brother, Graham, who suddenly reappears in her life.”
Babins can relate to her part.
“When I first read the character description, I joked that I was being type cast in this role. I even wore my Doctor Who shirt to the audition,” she said. “Like Imogen, I would rather stay home and read than go to a club or a party. I’ve also been able to bring my experiences with anxiety and panic attacks to the role, which has been both enlightening and really hard to explore. I’ve definitely had many moments in the five years since I graduated university where I’ve seriously sat down with myself and thought, ‘What is the point here? What am I actually doing?’ The big difference between Imogen and myself is that, unlike her, I have an amazingly strong support system of family and friends who I know I can talk to and who will either give me great advice or complain and berate the universe right along with me.”
A strong support system is also at the heart of Bella Culpa, where Portland-based circus theatre duo A Little Bit Off – Amica Hunter and David Cantor – must rely on each other, as their comedy shows are not just vaudevillian and slapstick but acrobatic, as well.
Bella Culpa, which opens Sept. 9 at Waterfront Theatre, is set in an Edwardian-era manor house, and Hunter and Cantor play two servants who are trying to finish (unsuccessfully) all of their chores before a big dinner party.
“We tend to approach our work from many angles at once,” Cantor told the Independent about their creative approach. “Once we have an idea for a show, we think of the overarching theme, the props we want to use, the characters, and we tend to approach all of those areas by playing games, or doing exercises. Through the games, we find things we like, which we take and apply some structure to. Once we have a few well-crafted bits, then we start weaving them together and making things flow together, to grow and expand out into a full show.”
Cantor – who is first cousin, twice removed of famed vaudeville and film actor Eddie Cantor – met Hunter at the Circus Centre in San Francisco in 2013.
“We were inspired by many of the same artists, so we started working together,” he said. “When the opportunity arose to travel to Europe and perform in some festivals, we jumped at the chance, and A Little Bit Off was born.”
About the enduring popularity of vaudeville and slapstick, Cantor said, “Language can be a very useful tool when it comes to conveying ideas to other people, but it can also be a mask. While it lets us connect on an intellectual level, it also distances us. Having our work centre around the body, it gets closer to what makes us all human. It’s a way to speak across any language barrier, any generational gap, any cultural differences. Our work is very much about tying people to their humanity and giving them a shared experience with the temporary community that forms any time you see a show in a theatre.”
As to the physicality involved in their performance, Cantor said, “All art takes risks. Our risks are sometimes with our bodies. We take care to use good technique, which mostly protects us, but there is an element of chaos that we choose to include, that makes the slapstick a bit more real, and the audience can see that, and we hear it in their reactions. They gasp at the falls, and then there is a laughter that comes with the relief of tension, as they realize that it was part of the shtick.
“We, luckily, to this point have avoided any serious injuries from our slapstick. We have had other show mishaps. In our last show, Beau & Aero, we use a tambourine as a prop. We were nearing the finale of the show and Amica stepped on one of the tambours, the little metal cymbals, that had fallen off, due to the abuse we put the prop through in the show. It was razor sharp and sliced Amica’s foot open quite badly. She left bloody footprints all over the stage and on my costume as we finished the show with an acrobatic number. Luckily, the footprints were up my back and, hence, not visible to the audience. We left immediately after the show to a pharmacy to get superglue and glue her foot shut. Had we been in Canada, with proper health care, we could have gone to the ER, but we do what we have to.”
Moving from health policy to the environment, climate change is front and centre of the program Generation Hot, which features nine “young artists responding to the climate crisis through new performances.” Guided by The Only Animal co-founder Eric Rhys Miller and mia susan amir of The Story We Be, the mentees have created various works. Divided into three programs, local Jewish community member Ariel Martz-Oberlander’s The Lilacs that Come a Month Early are Still so Beautiful shares Program C with Cosmic Justice by Nelson Ellis and Howard Dai. Program C opens Sept. 10 in the Anderson Street parking lot.
“This piece is vitally personal, there are parts that are deeply vulnerable and, therefore, risky to present publicly,” Martz-Oberlander told the Independent about her play. “I believe strongly that the personal is political, and that we can only talk successfully about large-scale issues by addressing the specific ways these issues are experienced in the small details of the day to day. For this piece, I am working with a cast of six enthusiastic, intelligent actors who fully bring their own worlds to this piece in such a rich way.”
The play’s description reads, “A grandmother, millennials, a woman coming to terms with abuse and ‘The Last of His Kind’ all share the stage. What is the everyday normalcy of climate change, or the deep abnormality of ignoring a crisis so large it already affects everyone? The characters struggle to hold on to the answers even as a world that ended five minutes ago slips away.”
“In the play,” said Martz-Oberlander, “the last of an unidentified species struggles to curate a message that will illustrate the urgency of the situation; however, the vignettes presented always get away from him, and the result is bittersweet.”
She added, “Jewish viewers will recognize a twist on the traditional Passover seder scene halfway through the play, as a young girl struggles to bring social justice to her family table.”
The Mercy Journals is a new novel by Claudia Casper, author of The Reconstruction and The Continuation of Love by Other Means. In it, she creates a compelling post-climate change West Coast, where nations no longer exist. Her hero, Allen Levy Quincy, lives in Seattle, now called Canton #3, Administrative Department of Cascadia, and the novel consists of the journals he writes in a desperate attempt to evade suicidal urges, brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder. In this layered, hopeful post-apocalyptic novel, Casper looks at the future through the story of Cain and Abel. In fact, one of the early titles for the novel was The Last Murder, as a bracket to the story of that first murder.
Jewish Independent: The novel takes place in the (near) future in a climate-changed world. Is it a dystopian novel, science fiction or eco-fiction? How would you describe it?
Claudia Casper: Genre-bending fiction was being written well before the advent of ebooks, Amazon and the internet’s stretching of the forms of fiction, but I would say there are a number of writers who pay less mind to the dictates of genre and simply go wherever the story takes them. One example would be The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. [Michael] Chabon combines detective noir with fantasy or alternative history to create a miraculous new, possibly one-of-a-kind thing.
Science fiction readers have proven a generous and open-minded community and seem to have embraced the new raft of novels whose driving force is the environment and climate change. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Hilary St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven – all are “literary” (I use the air quotes not to comment on these novels’ literariness, but because “literary fiction” is an over-precious, stifling term for a genre) novels written in the future, with only Atwood using some of the classic tropes of science fiction. This kind of writing, trying to find a place in the speed-of-light marketing world, calls itself variously eco-fiction, cli-fi, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, speculative fiction, each sub-genre carrying its own nuance. I would place The Mercy Journals in all these categories except dystopian, as the government imagined in 2047 is actually pretty good.
JI: While the book does not explicitly make reference to Judaism, there are parallels between the story of Allen Quincy and Leo (Quincy’s brother) and the biblical tale of Cain and Abel.
CC: I read the story of Cain and Abel closely, using the Jewish Publication Society of America translation, and studied the midrash on the text. The language is so rich and layered, from “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to “You shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” The story in the Torah is short but its power resonates throughout our literature and our culture.
In The Mercy Journals, I sewed in references to Cain and Abel throughout the text. At one point, when Leo, the long-lost, nihilistic brother of my main character, Allen Quincy, returns, Allen says wryly, “I suppose that means I have to keep you?” The earth drinking blood, also an image I use at least twice. The final scene, which I cannot give away, reenacts Cain going out to the field.
What I wanted to do in this novel was bookend the Cain and Abel story with a metaphorical last murder, as opposed to the first murder, to write the murder of Cain by Abel, a closing of the circle. Of course, I could not believably write about a time when humans completely stop murdering each other, but I do carry the narrative of our species to a possible turning point, where we turn away from murder and its practise becomes truly taboo and despised in every context.
JI: When Quincy, a soldier, is ordered by his superiors to do something against his own moral code, he obeys, though reluctantly, and with some subversive evasions. Although genetics and environment affect who we may become, Judaism teaches us that we have free will and can choose to do right or wrong. Quincy suffers from PTSD partly because of the unresolvable internal conflict following those orders causes in him. What influenced you to make your main character an individual suffering from PTSD? How do we reconcile liking him with the fact that he is complicit in two of humanity’s worst sins?
CC: After the genocide in Rwanda and post-9/11, I felt deeply uneasy at the rhetoric used by the media and by politicians, in which it was implied that only “those” people, “those” cultures – read Africa, Cambodia, Germany, the Arabs – commit atrocities. First Nations people must have read those articles with a deep sense of irony. Because the lens through which I look at the world is always informed by evolution, I believe that genocidal behavior, for example, is a part of our species. It has been documented in chimpanzees and any behavior that exists both in living primates and ourselves is behavior that was very likely present in our ancestors.
There’s a kind of implied self-righteousness and superiority in that kind of distancing rhetoric that seeks to separate us from the behavior of the “bad” cultures. I felt very deeply that, if we are to have any hope of truly limiting atrocities within our species, we have to accept that they are part of who we are. Part of the reason The Mercy Journals was set in the future in the first place was because I wanted to write about a genocide that hadn’t happened yet, and that happened in North America, that was committed by “our” culture, “our” team.
Allen Quincy is a good man, a decent man, even though he’s haunted by the sins – and he counts them as sins – he has committed in the past. His brother Leo, the Cain figure, also is pushed towards sin, and there is even a scene where Leo literally crouches at Allen’s door and Allen writes wryly in his journal, “Salvation comes in many forms.” The novel really is about whether Allen Quincy, standing in for our species, has the possibility of moving forward, of living a life with his dark legacy.
JI: Quincy carved a covenant on a rock, which seems a very Jewish thing to do. After Cain murdered Abel, God said to him: “… your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth.” As the word used for blood is plural, does this mean that what cries out is not only Abel’s blood but all of his descendants that will never be born? Was that what Quincy was saying about murder when he said the murder of one is the murder of all? How does a person atone for murder?
CC: Yes, Rashi says that the plural here indicates also the extinguishment of all Abel’s descendants with his murder. Because The Mercy Journals is about the future of our species, compressed in the suspenseful tale of a West Coast, post-apocalyptic, post-climate change tale, I take it one step further. The murder of Abel, the murder of anyone, is expanding the place of murder in our species, is further entrenching its place in our repertoire. Thus, the murder of one is the murder of all. Thinking about climate change shows us again how deeply connected we all are, that we can never really escape each other, we have to find a way to deal with one another, and murder is always a failure. There is no possible atonement for murder in my mind, it is irrevocable, yet still, short of suicide, one must find a way forward. Who is without sin? And whose life exists without the legacy of murder at its very root? God’s punishment of Cain seems to acknowledge this.
JI: Quincy’s brother Leo was jealous of Quincy as was Cain of Abel. Why did God reject Cain’s offering? Why did Leo’s parents reject him?
CC: Without being an expert in midrash, I believe one of the main interpretations these days is that Abel, as a shepherd and a man who did not gather possessions, represents a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence, while Cain, as a farmer who cultivated the fields and, therefore, had property, represents an agrarian one. God’s preference for Abel’s offering can be understood to be preferring nomadic values over agrarian ones, or the old ways over the new.
That being said, if we interpret God in this story as in a parental role, the choosing of favorites is always destabilizing to family unity, creating deep wounds and lasting resentments. From an evolutionary perspective – so, viewing our behavior with the understanding it arose in a pre-birth control context – such favoritism can result in a life and death situation for an individual. We are living in a time of relative wealth, but it wasn’t long ago when a family could easily have eight or nine children and be faced with drought or famine. The favored child would thus be the one who received a little more food, a little more medicine, the one who would be picked, even if unconsciously, to be prioritized to survive. Studies of mothering behavior in human evolution bear this scenario out.
When I reread the story of Cain and Abel eight years ago as I was beginning this novel, I felt sympathy for Cain, and felt that God was shirking responsibility a bit. Why can’t God see Cain’s pain? Surely telling the less-favored child to not worry about the advantages their sibling is getting and take their own good behavior as its own reward, doesn’t pass muster in a family. Why doesn’t God see Cain murder Abel? Why doesn’t God punish Cain with death? Why does God decide, when Cain cries out that he will surely be killed by strangers if he’s banished, to put his divine mark on him to protect him from death? Is there an implicit acceptance of the fact of murder in this story? And, if so, I wanted to imagine forward to a time when God would find murder utterly unacceptable, as taboo as incest, for example. In our society, murder is still seen as inevitable between human beings in certain circumstances; in wartime, it’s accepted. What would the world be like if humans were starting to evolve past murder, past genocide? Those seeds are at the core of The Mercy Journals.
Barbara Buchanan, QC, is a Vancouver lawyer who provides practice advice to other lawyers. She and Claudia Casper are longtime friends who are in the same book club. Buchanan recently attended the Los Angeles launch of The Mercy Journals with Casper, who was introduced by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, a big fan of the book.
Canadians have been in an uncharacteristically self-congratulatory mood lately over our national response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The federal government has come through on behalf of thousands of people fleeing the catastrophic violence in Syria, with the prime minister and what appeared to be most of his cabinet showing up personally to greet the first arrivals. Perhaps more impressive still has been the mobilization of ordinary Canadians to sponsor and aid refugees, with synagogues, churches, community groups, neighborhoods and individuals stepping up to help. In contrast with the response from many in the world, including the Gulf states and divisive figures like Donald Trump, Canadians should be rightly proud of our collective response.
Certainly there are concerns among some Canadians about the newcomers. The idea that “radicalized” individuals could slip in under the guise of humanitarian status is frequently mooted. More likely is the potential that some refugees may carry with them ideas about women, Jewish people, gay people or others that are not consistent with this country’s norms. This is not something to gloss over. We should be aware of it and ensure that, along with our clearly demonstrated willingness to offer a heart-felt welcome to the refugees, we also model for them other Canadian ideals, including respect for difference. The fact that the groups sponsoring refugees are themselves representative of Canadian diversity should be a good head start in this regard.
The joyous welcome we have witnessed is an uplifting way to draw 2015 to a close. This has not been a year filled with happy news, yet the last few weeks have brought us several encouraging lights in the midst of the winter’s darkness.
In Paris last weekend, 195 countries made an historic step toward reining in the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. These two issues – refugees and the climate – are not unrelated. Scientists and other warn that if something significant does not change quickly, the world will be awash in populations struggling against each other for arable land, potable water and habitable space. It is a daunting prospect, put mildly, and events in Paris suggest the world may finally be taking the danger seriously. Of course, we have made false promises before. Again, we may have reached a moment of truth where the arc of history is bending toward repairing the damage we have done to the world.
There has been another very significant development in recent days. The rapprochement between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church that began five decades ago took a very major and substantive leap forward with remarks by Pope Francis and the release of a landmark statement by the Vatican.
Catholics, the document states, are obligated to demonstrate their faith in Jesus to all people, including Jews, but the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports” missionary initiatives aimed toward Jews. From the perspective of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine that situates the Catholic Church and Christianity as the preemptive successor religion to Judaism, this is a revolution. It is the antithesis of the sort of language and ideas that have caused incalculable strife for Jews in Europe and other primarily Christian lands. It suggests that the leadership of the church, once deemed infallible and all-knowing, admits that some things are unknowable. The Christian dictum that eternal life requires belief in and dedication to Jesus as the messiah is neither negated nor affirmed by this new statement, deeming it “an unfathomable divine mystery” that salvation can come only through Jesus while the church also affirms the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people, the Vatican says.
“While affirming salvation through an explicit or even implicit faith in Christ,” the Vatican document says, “the church does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel.”
The Pope has repeatedly made friendly gestures to the Jewish people, rejecting millennia of hostility and continuing a trajectory of reconciliation begun in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council.
These three developments – the welcoming of refugees to Canada, the recognition that we must care for our planet for its and our survival, and an historic reappraisal of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism – seem like pleasant things to reflect on as we close out a year in which bright lights are a welcome respite.
Left to right, Talia Martz-Oberlander, Stephanie Glanzmann, Erin Fitz, Mike Houliston and Frances Ramsey wait in Wai Young’s office for a meeting with the MP on July 3, as part of a cross-Canada call for action on climate change. (photo by Sam Harrison)
On July 3, students across Canada visited the offices of seven members of Parliament. “Our asks on that day were twofold,” local participant Talia Martz-Oberlander told the Independent. “Firstly, to have a meeting with our MP and, secondly, to discuss climate policy that would keep Canada’s fossil fuel involvement below seriously harmful levels. To have those two demands met, we were willing to formally sit-in and occupy the offices. Some groups risked arrest, others chose not to.”
Martz-Oberlander was one of the students who waited in Conservative MP Wai Young’s Vancouver South office for a meeting, to no avail. Actions that day also took place in Victoria (Murray Rankin, NDP MP), Toronto (Joe Oliver, minister of finance and MP for Eglington-Lawrence), Montreal (Thomas Mulcair, leader of the opposition and NDP MP for Outrement), Shédiac, N.B. (Dominic LeBlanc, Liberal MP for Beauséjour), Calgary (Prime Minister Stephen Harper, MP for Calgary-Southwest) and Halifax (Megan Leslie, NDP MP).
Mainly organized by 350.org as part of their We Are Greater than the Tar Sands campaign, cities across Canada held rallies on July 4 “in solidarity with climate-related struggles across Canada, such as the poisoning of water from industries like fracking or open-top mining in rural Canada, the fight for a living wage for Canadian workers, or the continued breach of indigenous territory for extractive purposes,” explained Martz-Oberlander. On July 5, she said, “around 10,000 people gathered in Toronto to march for jobs, social and climate justice, headed by indigenous groups, Canadians living on the frontlines of fossil fuel projects like pipelines, students, workers, elders and every other demographic imaginable.”
Martz-Oberlander said, “The weekend was planned to send a clear message that Canadians want strong climate policy. We are asking for policy that will safely transition Canada’s socioeconomic fabric away from the one-track-minded fossil fuel industry with its large government subsidies towards industry that supports long-term economic prosperity and ecological health, both at home in Canada and globally by being less carbon intensive.”
Entering her third year at Quest University, Martz-Oberlander told the Independent that she has been involved in climate-action work since she was 15 years old. “At that age,” she said, “I didn’t understand the ‘justice’ part of climate change. Through more careful examination of human rights and oppressive social hierarchies like race or gender, I started to realize how closely all social issues are tied with climate change. It is this web of injustice that establishes how most carbon emissions are controlled and released by the richest few and the first stages of the effects of climate change hit the poorest few hardest.”
Homeschooled by her mother until Grade 9, Martz-Oberlander then attended Lord Byng Secondary, initially part-time but then full-time, graduating in 2012. Towards the end of high school, knowing that leaving home to live on her own meant “my religious practice would have to be more intentionally sought out on my part,” she started thinking about how to actively maintain a Jewish lifestyle.
“From a gap year in Boston and a summer learning Yiddish in NYC, I made strong connections in different Jewish circles, including some that identify Judaism with strong social activism,” said Martz-Oberlander. This link “tied together two previously disparate values of mine: Jewish life and supporting long-term life on earth as we know it.”
Before starting university, Martz-Oberlander said she knew she wanted to focus on environmental studies. “However, I’ve always been interested in solar energy alternatives to fossil fuels. This, coupled with a newfound love of physics I found in first year, led me to focus my undergrad research on how we can use electromagnetic radiation, or light, in our design of materials on very small scales. So, my passion for climate justice is fairly macro but I’m asking micro-scale academic questions.
“There is a tiny Jewish community at Quest, although we’re quite active. I and a few others make a point of organizing Shabbatons, celebrations of other Jewish holidays and Jewish discussion group sessions with the belief that existing in the world with a Jewish lens can enrich our lives through finding deeper meaning and practising cultural preservation.
“Of course, I can work on making the world more socially just without acting in a Jewish way, and I often do,” she acknowledged. “However, I strongly believe that living Jewishly is a way of experiencing life that no gentile can truly understand. Outside of religious practices that specifically involve community, such as a minyan or simply having people to spend Shabbos with, there truly is a difference to leading a Jewish life that can impact how one conducts business, studies science, or forms social beliefs and values.”
While her academic studies aren’t currently tied to her climate work, Martz-Oberlander believes that “everyone in any field should be advocating for policy to keep fossil fuels in the ground. After all, it doesn’t matter who burns it – if we keep using known and prospective reserves at our current rate, we won’t be able to sustain ourselves. Internationally recognized scientific findings on these changes can be found in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] 2014 report on climate change,” she said, before returning to the topic of justice.
“Climate change follows the same cause and effect that social hierarchies implement, so if you keep the ‘justice’ in climate justice, we can make strides in income gaps, which improves society for people of all demographics. With a Jewish lens, one can clearly see the relationship between texts like Deuteronomy or Mishna Bava Batra, which discuss the need to ensure financial holdings are not contrary to others’ well-being, and that industrial toxins are safely managed. A common theme is acting towards tzedeck, justice, when we know what is right and wrong.
“Within issues of fossil fuel use lie many avenues for positive change,” she continued. “These include policy to move subsidies from the industry towards others, such as renewable energies, tourism industries, etc. Another avenue is to input moratoriums on known harmful practices like natural gas fracturing, like Quebec has. Another is divestment from fossil fuels.
“Divestment is by no means a goal, but only a path towards a climate-just future. Currently, we’re caught in this backwards world where we’re investing with the goal of amassing money for the future but we’re doing so by supporting an industry that inherently undermines life to come as we know it.”
One way in which we are doing this is through our mutual funds, said Martz-Oberlander. “Until a few weeks ago, when Vancity released Canada’s first mutual fund that excludes fossil fuel companies, all investment portfolios depended largely upon Canadian fossil fuel companies for their success. This college [or other] fund may grow for a few years but, first of all, finite resources will always eventually be used up and, more importantly, this bank account created to support a child’s future success is ultimately harming this younger generation’s ability to live in an environmentally, economically and socially stable world.”
For Martz-Oberlander, “The science is clear – current, widely accepted climate models dictate that 85% of the Canadian tar sands have to be left in the ground if we are to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius (the target agreed upon by the UN and other international bodies).”
She added that “the divest fossil fuels movement is not meant to financially harm companies. Its success lies in taking away social licence from the fossil fuel industry by waking the public up to the absurdity of investing in something that undermines future human success.”
Martz-Oberlander is one of 10 youth fellows at Fossil Free Faith Canada, an organization that looks at climate justice work from a religious perspective. She found out about the fellowship from a post on the Young Adult Club of Or Shalom Facebook page, she said.
“The post advertised applications for their new Youth Fellowship program, launching late spring of 2015,” she explained. “After the applications closed, the 10 fellows started our work through a weekend of training…. Our mission is to work with faith communities and institutions to support them in divesting from fossil fuels. In this way, our current project is similar to any divestment work, only that we are specifically targeting faith institutions, predominantly larger national or international groups that have endowments or offer pension plans for their members. Without careful financial planning, these investment portfolios almost always include stocks in fossil fuel companies.
“Working in this interfaith setting is quite inspiring because I get to witness how folks of many religions connect to social justice,” she said. “We have diverse approaches to religion and spirituality, but we all share our love of the role faith plays in our lives, coupled with a dedication to what can be really tough climate activism work.
“From my work with Fossil Free Faith, I got in touch with some folks in the U.S. working on divestment from a specifically Jewish perspective…. We’re currently working on forming a supportive network across North America for Jews looking to ask their community institutions to divest from fossil fuel holdings. A brief on Jewish divestment work has been published by a few religious and climate leaders from the U.S. … and, via the use of Skype, a few folks have started a network to support fellow Jews around North America on helping their communities divest.”
In the video that encapsulates the highlights of the 350.org July 3-5 weekend of events, one of the clips has a speaker mentioning the need for “just, rational and difficult choices.” Martz-Oberlander explained that the difficult choices aren’t the ones about “the design or engineering of alternatives. We have used and continue to further refine techniques for using energy from renewable sources, such as the sun, wind or water currents, for many generations. What’s difficult with the energy sector is transferring social and political licences from fossil fuel industries – which, at the rate at which we consume them, are highly destructive not to mention finite – towards energy sources that provide long-term, enjoyable work. That is where divestment comes in.
“Transitioning Canada to a renewable energy nation will mean a change in our economy. Right now, we’re still a raw materials economy, much like we were when this area was first colonized by Europeans, which means we inherently get the short end of the stick – economically and socially. Financially, depending on finite resources is always a losing battle, and Canada needs to get out now. Instead of worrying about changes in global oil supply, we can create financially profitable industries around training engineers to design and run high-tech renewable industries. Which would you rather work – on an oilrig or at a wind farm?”
Martz-Oberlander believes that, “by creating an economy that functions on local industries, such as the service industry, we strengthen communities by keeping jobs where people live and emphasize enjoyable work that provides trickle-down opportunities for multi-generational employment and provision of essential services. One tactic towards this is creating livable cities where life essentials, such as groceries and jobs, can be found close by. This decentralized model is known to increase total employment, which is one of the greatest concerns individuals bring up when I address the issue of reducing fossil fuel industry jobs.”
For anyone wanting to become involved in the type of climate action in which Martz-Oberlander is engaged, she suggested visiting the Fossil Free Faith Canada website (fossilfreefaith.org) for more information. “One great place to start,” she added, “is to get in touch with the board of their synagogue to find out the state of finances there, whether there is an endowment, how finances are handled, etc. There is a growing trend of banks offering socially responsible investment options, so divesting from fossil fuels doesn’t mean reducing profit. I also encourage people in the upcoming federal election to vote for the candidate in their riding whose platform will move Canada away from its dependence on fossil fuels.”
The election on Oct. 19 will be the first in which Martz-Oberlander can vote. “Needless to say, I am very excited,” she said. “However, the novelty of this privilege reminds me of the responsibility that comes with having a say. It is my duty as a Canadian to stand up for the country I want to see all the other 364 days of the year, as well.”