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Hello, Wilbur

If we love adorable animals in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to raise our kids vegetarian?

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In the current issue of The Horn Book, the venerable magazine about children’s literature, there’s an essay by children’s-book author Jennifer Armstrong called “Eating Reading Animals.” Armstrong points out that of the all-time bestselling children’s books, fully a third feature animal protagonists. We love to read about our furry and feathered friends. We immerse our kids in animal-centric educational and caretaking experiences. We take them to zoos and farms and encourage them to lavish love and care upon our kitties and doggies. We tie our explanations of global warming and deforestation to how these phenomena endanger adorable fauna. Animal talk is central to the ethical lessons we try to impart to our kids.

And, Armstrong writes, just as we no longer burn live cats or engage in bear-baiting for amusement the way fun-loving Westerners did centuries ago, we need to continue to evolve as moral people. Which is why it’s time to stop eating meat. “[W]hat I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun,” she writes. “There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion.” Her best line: “What is [a child] to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?”

It’s a valid question, even for those of us who nix the nugget because McDonald’s isn’t kosher. Meat is still part of the American Jewish family experience—Shabbat dinner often still revolves around the roast beast; the Jewish deli, while disappearing, still holds iconic cultural pride of place.

Some Jewish writers have recently considered the moral issues around what we ingest. Sadly, as we all know, kashrut isn’t always synonymous with eating morally—look at Postville and the way the Rubashkins’ plant treated animals and workers. I’m involved in a kosher, ethical meat co-op and have followed with interest the attempts by Conservative and Modern Orthodox activists to certify kosher meat as ethical as well as “kosher” according to the letter of halakhah, Jewish law. Ethical kashrut should involve respect for humans and animals. I don’t eat much meat—I joke that I’m in a mixed marriage because I married a Reform Jew from Wisconsin who lives for bratwurst and owns a “Bacon is a Vegetable” t-shirt—but when I do eat meat, I need to know its origins and trust the source. My standards of kashrut wouldn’t be acceptable to some other Jews, and my standards of what’s ethical wouldn’t meet those of vegetarians or vegans. We all have our line in the sand.

And that line can shift. The one time as an adult I willfully broke my own standards of kashrut was when I was writing for a travel guide in rural Greece. On a remote island in the late 1980s, a family insisted I come home with them for dinner. They were fishermen. They caught a fresh squid and smashed it against the side of their fishing boat. I felt just as caught as the cephalopod. I thought about having to explain not just kashrut, but what a Jew was. And I decided that their philosophy of philoxenia, kindness to strangers, was more important than my kashrut. Just that time, and just for me.

At that family’s table I stared down that calamari, heart pounding—I’d never had any unkosher seafood before—and slowly brought one of those ring-y things to my mouth.

Holy moly, it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.

Thus ended my one and only foray into non-kosher seafood. So, what’s the moral here? That it’s hard to generalize about ethical rightness. We’re often weighing different goods. And of course, for many people kashrut isn’t about morality at all—it’s about following God’s literal word. Attaching Western values to kashrut is specious, according to many Orthodox folk, because kashrut is about obedience, not moral choice.

My kids love the story of me quaking over a plate of squid rings. Josie tends to follow Daddy’s religion (meat is God), and Maxie tends to follow mine (an occasional hot dog, some white meat, but generally not a fan of the fleisch), and they both revel in tales of my anxiety and waffling—welcome to childhood, where parents’ dithering is children’s joy. Both my kids have experienced that classic youthful moment of revelation, drumstick on way to mouth: Wait, you mean chicken is chicken? Both were briefly horrified; both also forgot or compartmentalized. I expect the classic “OMG, I am so going vegan” to happen, on schedule, in the teen years. If at any point they choose to go fully veg, we’ll accommodate. The amount of meat we eat now is a constant, low-level source of tension (Jonathan wants more; I want less), so adding still more thrumming demands to the mix will only add to the merriment.

In any event, for now, despite my family’s love for our kitty Yoyo and for William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, we will continue to eat meat. Some more, some less; some only kosher, others wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with crawfish. But Armstrong’s essay should make us all think, wherever we fall on the fleshtastic and/or kosher end of the spectrum. Where does food come from? How do we refrain from exploitation of workers, animals, resources? How do our consumer choices affect the planet? We should all be sweating a little. That goes for kashrut-keepers who don’t think the conditions in a slaughterhouse matter, or who wish to shove any further questions about this issue under the blood-stained rug; it goes for vegans with easy answers about what everyone else should do; it goes for Michael Pollan, whose seven-word mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) doesn’t allow for class or cultural nuance.

The word “mitzvah” doesn’t actually mean “good deed,” though many people think it does. It actually means “obligation.” And one obligation that comes with having kids is not getting to go for easy answers anymore. Let’s keep reading, and keep asking the questions. It’s a mitzvah.

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Excellent response. Thank you for coming to the same conclusion I did regarding this piece in the Horn Book. It is not just a simple matter of “reading about baby chickens = seeing baby chickens in hand = vegetarianism.” Our role as adults in children’s lives is to ask the difficult questions, then present and discuss the many possible answers. Making choices about where our food comes from, how it arrives at our table, etc. may lead to more ethical dilemmas than we bargain for. Even keeping kosher has its “issues” as you point out. What if our vegetables are harvested by migrant workers who are underpaid and have no benefits? Is being a vegetarian the right answer in those circumstances? I appreciate the discussion this article has started. I hope the outcome is an awareness that there are no easy answers when it comes to the subject of food.

ralph shapiro says:

no! in fact the question is misleading because of the authors biases.

proper care of and killing of the anmals we eat is of course important and we should vigilantly pursue. but eating of animals? i totally disagree.

were i to want to go as silly as this writer i’d ask do not veggies have feelings also? they are alive in the sense of grow, reproduce, respond to their environment, they communicate with each other.

so please stop with this loony stuff. before the only solution is to drill for oil and manufacture food from the carbohydrates oil is composed off. whoops there is the possibility of oil spills.

this loony thinking will lead many to the thought that mankind should not exist. oh, i forgot we already have such great thinkers.

i feel no guilt in eating animals. i will not eat veal. and think animals should be raised with care and concern, am against tightly penned cages and want humane killing processes. i am not against kosher killing procedures. one can be humane without falling off the edge of the earth.

eli says:

All living involves killing in some form.

If a vegan drives a car on the highway they kill many insects. And of course vegetables are alive, as are the insects of all sorts who are disturbed and killed to grow food. And we kill all sorts of bacteria and so forth without a second thought to insure our life.

It is a matter of what decisions we make and actions we take in how we provide the food and other things needed to live that determine the nature of our life. And mitzvahs are one way to guide our actions.

I can’t help but think that it’s high time for a nice anthology of real-world Jewish resposes to kashrut. If all of us have little rules we won’t break, or little exceptions to iron-clad rules, and everyone is wondering how far others will go (“Well, I certainly won’t go so far as to eat oysters!”), why isn’t there a book sampling the wide range of Jewish responses to…food, and the ethics of eating and being Jewish at the same time? If any enterprising editors out there read this, it could be a newly burgeoning niche.

Communicating Veggie says:

OMG! Vegetables “communicate with each other”?! I never knew. Thank you, Ralph. Thank you.

Great article, Marjorie.

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If we love blond girls and boy in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to marry blond people?

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Hello, Wilbur

If we love adorable animals in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to raise our kids vegetarian?

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