This article appeared in the Jan. 11, 2007 Jewish Advocate.
Keeping it conscientious:
Modern simchas help hosts and guests feel their best
By Susie Davidson
Gala, indulgent, flashy and wild are images often associated with simchas. Emerging trends, however, may be adding conscientious, global, healthy and purposeful to the mix.
“Years ago, my mother explained to me that hosting a wedding was like having people to your home,“ says writer Sheryl Eisenberg. “Therefore, you shouldn't do anything in the hall that wouldn't be Kosher at home. She meant it literally, as she kept Kosher,“ she recalled, “but also figuratively.” Eisenberg, a New York-based consultant who writes the monthly “This Green Life,“ for the Natural Resources Defense Council, carefully planned her son's recent bar mitzvah. “Consuming a huge amount of resources wouldn't be exactly Kosher for an environmentalist like me,” she said.
She served local, organic food and flowers to minimize transportation pollution and support local farmers, and fair-trade coffee and chocolate to help preserve rainforest and songbird habitats. She recommends a plant-based entrée to protect ”land, water and animals from the abuses of industrialized animal farming.” Eisenberg used tree-free and recycled paper goods, and kept the event in one locale to minimize travel pollution. She suggests using old or recycled gold to reduce mining, and keeping gifts and clothes simple and useful, to avoid overconsumption.
“Certainly parties generate a lot of waste - food, paper (wrapping paper especially), and the impact of travel,” agrees Leise Jones, Toxics Campaign Organizer for Clean Water Action, part of the statewide Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow.
“Research shows that everyday exposure to small amounts of toxic chemicals can lead to health problems,“ says Jones. This includes common party gifts. “Many children's products are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl,“ she says, “a flexible, highly toxic plastic that through production, use and disposal exposes people to harmful chemicals, some linked to reproductive disorders, learning disabilities and even cancer.“ The flexible vinyl can easily be found in raincoats, plastic bibs, teethers and bouncy balls. Jones says look for wood or safer plastics.
“New kitchenware items are popular wedding, shower and engagement gifts, but Teflon, often used to coat non-stick pots and pans, has been classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen,“ she cautions, advising stainless steel, cast iron, glass or enamel-coated cookware.
Popular scented candles are often made of paraffin wax, which is oil-based and can emit harmful chemicals and produce dark soot, very bad for those with asthma. Jones recommends soy candles, found at retailers and online, which burn both cleaner and more slowly.
For larger gifts, Jones says, read labels. “These days, most furniture, clothing and electronics are flame resistant.” A good cause, certainly, but the most commonly used flame retardants cause neurological damage, behavioral changes, and memory loss in animal studies. “Look for products that are not treated with chemicals,” she says. Opt for wool, a natural flame retardant, or polyester clothing. Try organic cotton clothing, also available online. Sony, Philips, IBM, Dell and Apple do not use flame retardants in their products.
“At our celebration with under a hundred guests, we would spend four hours eating and drinking,“ says Eisenberg, who, as Project Director for Caroline Kennedy’s husband’s company Edwin Schlossberg, Inc., managed exhibit development at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. “And there would be printed invitations, flowers and decorations, travel, and oh yes, a chocolate fountain for the kids. Just imagine if it were a big affair. The impact could equal weeks of daily living, possibly months.”
About that chocolate fountain. Recently, New York City followed the lead of various school systems, even McDonald’s and Disney, in transitioning to no-trans-fat, healthier fare. The City of Boston may be next, and local efforts such as the Boston Public Health’s “We Can!” Program are helping kids develop nutritional and lifestyle awareness. Celebrations should be no exception.
Jules Catering, based in Somerville and Boston‘s third-largest caterer, offers a Mediterranean Platter with Lemon-Oregano Chicken Breast Pita Pockets, Stuffed Grape Leaves with Roll-up Breads, Hummus and Tabbouleh and Asian platters with cabbage cole slaw, barbequed chicken breast, eggplant, gingered asparagus, tuna, cucumber and daikon radish salad with wasabi, and other healthful and satisfying items. Their vegetable dishes and sides pair innovation with nutritional sense.
But the trend is slow to catch on in some quarters. “You would expect people to ask for lighter or lower-fat items for affairs,” says Barbara Malamut of Tova's Catering, based in Norton. “But it seems that for any celebration, people don’t want to think about the ‘everyday’ fare that has become their lives. They would like the ‘guilty pleasure’ every once in a while, and what better time than at a simcha,” she says.
Larry Levine's Kosher Deli of Peabody does it on their own. “Our delicatessen retains great taste and authenticity even though we make sure to trim the excess fat,” said owner Todd Levine. He said that they offer an array of low-sodium and low-fat products. “In place of fatty oils, many of Levine’s signature recipes are prepared using canola and olive oils,” he said. Levine also features many poultry and fish-based entrees, and can substitute ground veal or turkey in any recipe. “For a lighter dessert, we specialize in our famous fruit tree,“ he said, “as well as many low sugar pastries.”
Recently, the deli added an official sushi chef to their staff, who is available for any catered event. “Here at Levine’s, we value healthy eating,“ he said.
“We use only the freshest ingredients,” says Jules’ party planner Elissa Kupelnick, who said that Jules uses only organic chicken. “Not only is it a higher quality of meat, but it is healthier,” she said, adding that it has been a common request. “We try to put a new twist on an old favorite,” she said. “For example, we offer a potato latke bar that is not just the same old potato pancake full of oil. We offer several varieties instead, such as Asian, Sweet Potato or Salmon Latkes, and in place of deep frying them, we pan fry them so that less oil is absorbed.” She says that instead of the traditional brunch with bagels and lox and noodle kugel, which can be very heavy, “people are choosing a specialty salad station with varied options.”
“We have had many requests for allergy-sensitive foods: Gluten Free, Nut Free, Egg Free,” says Malamut of Tova’s. She sees a greater demand for vegetarian fare as well.
Shapeup.org’s suggests serving your own “safety” foods, veggies and fruits with nonfat dips, baked tortilla chips with salsa, or bagel bites and pita toasts with nonfat cream cheese, low-fat mayo, mustard, light margarine and low-fat hard cheese, angel cake, fig bars and low-fat frozen yogurt. Beverages can include seltzers, nonalcoholic calorie-free drinks, skim milk for coffee.
It’s more than health. According to Rabbi Ariel bar Tzadok, founder of Yeshivat Benei N'vi'im and Rabbi of KosherTorah.com who has appeared on NBC and Fox television, it’s a mitzvah. Bar Tzadok says that besides those between man and G-d, and man and his fellow man, there are mitzvot between man and himself, such as that of health and proper eating.
He cites Maimonides’ Hilkhot Deot 4:1: “…maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d”; Deot 5:2: “One should eat food that is healthy for one’s body”; Deot 3:2: “One should not eat all that one desires like a dog or a donkey. Rather, one should eat what is beneficial for the body, be it bitter or sweet”; and Deot 4:15: “Overeating is like poison to anyone’s body. Most illnesses are caused by harmful foods or by filling [the] belly and overeating.”
“Not for naught has the norm of the Western diet been given the term ‘junk food,‘” says Bar Tzadok. “Many…eat in such a manner that they violate the Biblical definition of gluttony. People just ‘stuff their faces’ regardless of the health and spiritual consequences.”
Kosher food does not escape his admonition: “Although we are allowed to eat all the permitted foods that we desire, this does not give us license to violate other mitzvot that govern the realms of health, proper diet or to commit the sin of gluttony,” he says. “The greatest troubles facing our decadent society today are the sins of over-indulgence and addiction,” he adds. “This leads us to ill health and spiritual harm, which separate our souls from our Creator.”
Maimonides advocated exercise, too. In Deot 4:14, he writes, “As long as one exercises, exerts oneself greatly and does not eat to the point of being full…he will not suffer sickness and he will grow in strength.”
Don’t nix the party altogether, says Eisenberg. “Of course, it would be easy enough to eliminate all the adversity by eliminating the party,” she says, “but that would prevent us from sharing our happiness with the people we love best, certainly not the point, whichis to celebrate, joyfully, without being unnecessarily wasteful.”
And if you can’t do away with it all, you can check out the new trend of purchasing carbon offsets, to help make up for the environmental damage you can't avoid.
Visit Jules Catering at www.julescatering.com, email email@example.com or call 617-628-5977.
Larry Levine's Kosher Deli and Sandwich Bar is located at 474 Lowell St., Peabody. Visit www.levineskoshermkt.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-884-1406.
Tova’s Catering is located at 253 Mansfield Ave. in Norton. Check www.tovascatering.com, email email@example.com or call 508-286-2242.