Thursday, December 17, 2009

Making the Oil Last

A Purloined Letter from the Raven.

image source: Jewish Review

Chanukah/Hanukkah is a beautiful holiday celebrating the universal hope for the return of the light as we approach the winter solstice.

It is also a time when Jews celebrate both the victory of the weak against the mighty, as well as the "miracle of the oil" when one day's worth of sacred olive oil in the eternal lamp stayed lit for eight days as the early Jews rededicated their temple after its desecration. This event was perhaps the world's first oil shock, and resource conservation is obviously the moral of the story. (Well, perhaps everyone doesn't read it that way.)

We are facing questions of oil again now. Again we ask ourselves: "How long will it last?" Peak Oil activists deal with this issue. And climate activists ask us to try to use less oil in order to save the planet. We have to recognize that this time, we should not expect a sequel to the Hanukkah miracle.

Thinking about the holiday from these perspectives can shake our ideas about long-celebrated traditions. Jews all over the world celebrate by eating foods cooked in oil, especially latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). As Culiblog says, "Now I don’t know why it took me so long to question the logic of this, but why do we celebrate this miracle of oil conservation by massively increasing oil consumption? Shouldn’t we be eating the opposite of oily foods? Shouldn’t Chanukkah be an oil fast, a holiday of raw and steamed vegetables and bike riding?"

* * *

There are many simple acts we can do to green our holiday: Put non-petroleum beeswax candles in our menorahs (or CFLs if you really want to go, um, whole hog) or using the traditional olive oil. Find Fair Trade gelt.

If you give presents, be mindful of giving sustainable gifts and consider any wastes you might create in the wrapping. I personally love these Hanukkah cloth wraps and these cloth bags. Or better yet (and better than we do), keep the minor holiday in perspective and don't give gifts, a "tradition" which is actually a completely new invention coming from a desire to compete with Christmas and increase the sales at the big-box stores.

If you have a holiday party, try to use reusable plates and glasses, cutlery, and napkins. And if you weren't persuaded to celebrate with raw veggies, you could even use local potatoes to make your latkes in a solar oven.

* * *

But those are just the basics.

"A Light Among the Nations," a project of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, aims to get Jews to switch to compact flourescent light bulbs during the holiday--both in their homes and in their synagogues. This guide is a fabulous way to work your way through the eight nights of CFLs, complete with a slew of lightbulb jokes.

* * *

Another proposal to make Hanukkah greener is from Green Hanukkia. They suggest that Jewish environmentalists burn one less candle this Hanukkah, saving 15 grams of carbon dioxide per person. (For those considered about keeping things kosher, the unlit candle could be the shamash, which is not required for the mitzvah.)

Says Tom Wegner, "There are many people who just light candles for the tradition and for their children," he said. "To tell a child on the eighth day that we are not lighting the last candle as a sacrifice for the environment is an act that is not only educational but also will prevent the release of a huge amount of carbon dioxide that would hurt the environment."

According to the Jerusalem Post, Green Hanukkia campaign founder Liad Ortar said, "The campaign calls for Jews around the world to save the last candle and save the planet, so we won't need another miracle. Global warming is a milestone in human evolution that requires us to rethink how we live our lives, and one of the main paradigms of that is religion and how it fits into the current situation."

* * *

My favorite proposal is Arthur Waskow's Green Menorah Covenant, which has an ultimate aim of cutting oil consumption by seven-eighths by 2020. We will quite literally live with the one day's oil and make it last for eight days. Here are a few excepts from his proposal:

I. Safe, Renewable Energy:

A) We will convert our electricity source to green power; or offset our electrical usage by buying offsets from clean energy producers

B) We will carry out an energy audit to find ways to conserve energy

II. Transportation:

A) If we have vehicles that need to be replaced, we will do so with vehicles that average at least 30mpg.

B) When attending community events, we will make every effort to take public transportation, bike, walk, or carpool.

C) We will not idle our vehicles

III. Public Policy:

We will actively advocate in the public policy debate for at least one of the following:

A) Better public transportation

B) Government investment in and conversion to clean renewable energy

C) Pushing both the government and the automobile industry to develop and make available more energy-efficient vehicles.

D) Support for an "carbon tax" on energy sources scaled according to how much CO2 they force into the atmosphere.

IV. Festival and Life-Cycle Observance:

We will use Hanukkah as a time to focus the attention on ending America’s oiloholic addiction and, by the year 2020, reducing the use of oil by American society to the 'Hanukkah Standard': One Day’s Oil for Eight Days’ Needs.

If you are interested in the a Jewish religious approach to environmentalism, check out the full Green Menorah Covenant. For more information and inspiration, be sure to check out these articles by Arthur Waskow as well.

* * *

May this be a season filled with light--but not oil--for all of us, regardless of how we celebrate it.


Eco Yogini said...

that is very cool! It was very interesting to read about Jewish culture and traditions, then your interpretation from a green standpoint.

Thank you! :)

panamamama said...

So interesting! Thanks!

Green Bean said...

Thank you so much for sharing. BTW, I've got to admit that I think the title is a very clever play on the meaning behind the holiday.

Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish said...

I love Divine Chocolate! (Just had to get that off my chest first.)

Even though I have no religion (I lost it long ago listening to an REM song) and Michael is a non-religious Jew, we have been lighting the candles every night and saying the prayers. I have memorized one of them. It's such a simple beautiful ritual compared to all the general excess of the season.

I didn't know there were beeswax menorah candles. Where do you find them? I'll totally get them for next year.

We haven't eaten any oily Hanukkah foods, but I've had plenty of rich Christmas treats that have taken over our office. Is there a way to make latkes without oil???

This is a beautiful post, Raven. Thanks.

The Raven said...

Thank you all very much.

We have used this brand for the last few years and find them in the local beads-and-other-cool-stuff store, They seem to be fairly easy to locate:

These are really beautiful and can be ordered from what looks like a social justice site (anybody know anything about the site?):

You can even make your own:
(No need to buy the kit if you can find some wick and beeswax sheets. Just quarter the sheets.)

If you google it, you'll find many more. Many synagogues seem to have little gift shops where you can almost certainly find some, too.

Good luck!

The Raven said...

But Beth--the ones we used this year are individually wrapped in plastic!

If you know a beekeeper who sells candles at the farmers market, I bet you could commission a set. I think we'll have to try this next year!

Anderburf said...

Great ideas! A great company I discovered for gifts is Sustainable Sourcing They have these beautiful organic gift sets (I found one with Himalayan sea salt and organic peppercorns and another with massage stones and bath crystals) that are all made by Green-e certified wind power and they donate 5% of their profits to environmental causes.


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