Remembering Pauline

Today I turned off the news and social media to sit outside and watch the clouds drift overhead while I think and write. Once again, Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, עליה השלום, entered my thoughts as she has so often in recent months since she died.

Pauline was Managing Editor for the Chicago Jewish News, where I came to know her. She was also vegan and an animal rights activist long before I considered it. My journey included many detours,  and for years, I wandered back and forth between meat-eating and vegetarianism. Veganism was out of reach for me during most of the years I knew Pauline, an exotic idea somewhere on the fringes of my consciousness.

That is, until it wasn’t, and that is when I really started to appreciate Pauline, her unerring sense of ethics, big heart and impatience with fake news, foggy thinking and peripheral issues. Exploring 100% plant-based eating opened my eyes and consciousness to so much, healed so many mental and spiritual disconnects, that I marvel I didn’t see years ago what I see now. And I miss connecting with Pauline to ask her questions or benefit from her clear-eyed insights.

One day I shared with Pauline a post I had written when Cecil the Lion was killed in a sanctuary. She reminded me that Cecil was one animal, and we cause suffering to and kill billions of animals every day without recognition or comment. When I wondered about eating eggs from backyard chickens, she opened my eyes to the ways in which even backyard chickens happily living out their lives are part of a brutal system.

Pauline always urged me to expand my boundaries of awareness and think more deeply and consciously about the choices I make. At the same time, she never pushed me. Rather, she offered me a friendly, humble but compelling example and responded to my questions directly and with solid information.

I shared another post with Pauline a year after I began a serious exploration of veganism. It was about the mental and spiritual disconnects that happen every day in our lives. I sometimes wonder if full awareness of suffering on the planet might not otherwise overwhelm us.

I first stopped eating animals 45 years ago because I didn’t want to do what was required to put them on my plate. I didn’t want to buy their remains neatly wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, completely removed from the life that was and removing me from conscious responsibility for that death. Then one day after a year of eating only plant foods, I looked down and noticed my leather shoes. How did I miss the fact that my shoes come to me in the same way?

That sudden awareness reminded me how easy it is to put up fences in our consciousness. I thanked Pauline for inspiring me to do the work of breaking down those fences.

Pauline’s compassion was active. She volunteered for a no-kill animal shelter in Evanston, and she was active with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I follow them for a while, then unfollow them when their often graphic pictures overwhelm me. Pauline’s deep compassion for all creatures rested comfortably side-by-side with her tough realism.

Thanks to Pauline, I gradually expanded the range of what I can tolerate seeing and knowing in this world. Breaking down barriers of consciousness in relation to our treatment of animals generated a similar process in other areas. I read and understand U.S. history differently as I do what I read and see in the daily news. I relate differently to the planet on which I live. Never more than superficially political, I began to understand the profound connection between politics, policy and life on the planet. I read the Torah differently and appreciate more than ever the expansiveness and inclusiveness of its ethical consciousness.

And so as I sit to enjoy this extraordinarily beautiful day, watching the clouds overhead, I think of Pauline and wish she were sitting here on my porch with me so I could thank her face-to-face, ask about her thoughts on the news of the day — and serve her a delicious vegan lunch.

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7 thoughts on “Remembering Pauline

  1. Leslie, I feel a certain peace when I read this post. Your genuine consistency in presenting your thoughts and ideas gives me a sense of confidence. I admire your POV. You at a good teacher.

  2. Here is the question that occurs to me when I read similar points of view in various publications. If we all stop eating meat or eggs or dairy products, if we stop wearing leather shoes and belts or making silk sweaters or wool coats, what is the fate of the domestic non-pet animal? What would happen to the animals that are not in the category of “pet”? Who keeps the bovine animal as a pet? Where do the existing cows and and sheep and goats end up? Do we monitor their reproduction? Do we need more zoos to house the formerly “produce” animals? What does the Torah say about why animals were put on the earth?

    My questions are not meant to be facetious. I am seriously considering leaving animals out of my diet. I just want to avail myself of your clarity in my decision-making process.

    1. Hi Esther – thanks for your questions! I’m going to think out loud for a minute, and I’m sorry in advance if this gets long. These are things that occur to me:

      1) There is no possibility that we would “all stop eating meat or eggs or dairy products” or wearing leather shoes and belts or making silk sweaters or wool coats.

      2) Anything that happens will be a very slow process of first, raising public consciousness (already underway), bringing financial pressure to bear, and creating policies. I don’t envision there will ever be laws disallowing use of animal products, though I hope we set laws that radically change our current food supply system, especially animal agriculture.

      3) Factory-farmed animals are dead within a year or two anyway after a miserable short life, if you can call it that, so it’s hard to imagine we’d all stop eating meat in a year or two and would be left with billions of animals with no place to go. What I imagine would happen is that economics would dictate it, and those factory farms would reduce their numbers over time by reducing breeding until they hopefully go out of business. We monitor animal reproduction now by force-breeding them. We can just as well do it in the other direction and decrease herd sizes and quit forcing dairy cows to bear calf after calf for milk production.

      4) There are traditional and subsistence farmers in some parts of the world who don’t have plant foods available year-’round, and they rely on animal products to survive. I’m not really concerned with them, although it would be wonderful if someday technology made inexpensive plant food protein widely available (real food but made from plants into substitutes for familiar meat and dairy products). In this country, although we haven’t reached the level of refinement in that process I want to see, we’re making progress, and it’s easy for most people to live and live well on plant foods.

      5) Animal agriculture as we engage in it is destroying the environment. It contributes more to greenhouse gases than all transportation including cars, trains, ships, airplanes — and the gases are the most dangerous, methane. Poor farmers who live near CAFOs are poisoned by the toxins put out from them. Animal agriculture destroys the rain forest as our appetite for meat (which is rising, not falling, around the world) requires tearing up the rainforests. Those who rely on rainforests for life — like orangutans – are starving and dying out. Animal agriculture requires a ridiculous amount of land and water and other resources compared to veggies. It is not sustainable.

      6) Animals don’t belong in zoos any more than they do on factory farms.

      7) Animals of all kinds in more traditional scenarios often are family “pets” until they get old and are slaughtered for family food — so at least the family recognizes they have personality and experiences responsibility for their life and death. Farm animal sanctuaries rescue suffering animals from factory farms and keep them through their lives as pets. This is a tiny drop in the bucket, but it is a drop, and these places have shown over and over again that animals of all kinds are compassionate, intelligent and feel fear and pain and respond to compassionate treatment.

      8) The Torah presents a vegan ideal in the first chapters of Genesis and in the wilderness — but then goes on to deal with things as they are, a world in which people eat meat. In surrounding that act with many restrictions, the Torah demands conscious choice, awareness, responsibility, gratitude and compassion. I believe it also suggests that we could as easily be food, we owe a huge debt, and in ways I can’t yet explain, I think those ideas are involved in sacrifice. The Torah sees ethical consciousness throughout creation, in animals as well, even the land. This week’s Torah portion, in fact, with the story of Balak and Balaam, presents an ass as more capable of hearing and seeing what G-d wants than his human rider. I don’t think the Author/s of the Torah ever envisioned today’s animal agriculture and would be horrified by it.

      9) The main question is, are humans superior to other life? Increasingly my answer is no. If the answer is yes, then I would want to see the argument to make that case. Right now, I don’t. I wrote a post about that a while back — Our Brain: All It’s Cracked Up To Be? If we are not superior to other life, what gives us the right to take life for our use, especially if we don’t need to in this day and place? I am moved by a quote I often hear, “If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?”

      10) Finally, my biggest concern is that in the U.S., in our unique way, we have commoditized life. We raise 50 billion animals a year just to kill them. This happens out of sight, and you and I have little awareness of millions of hogs, for example, kept in enormous sheds in North Carolina, fed through tubes at one end, waste eliminated through tubes at the other end where it is dumped into giant cesspools, poisoning the environment. Ag Gag laws protect these operations. We are able to escape any sense of responsibility. I think this negatively affects the ethical consciousness of us all, of the entire planet. This commoditization of life cultivates opportunism, greed and rapaciousness throughout our society and is utterly alien to anything in the Torah.

      I am comfortable with a symbiotic relationship with animals — if I could have backyard chickens and let them live out their lives, well-fed and in relative safety, I wouldn’t feel bad about eating their eggs. Some argue that perpetuates a horrific system where chickens are bred into unnatural configurations, for fast growth, some too fat to stand or move, or for more frequent egg laying, and where male chicks are gassed or suffocated in plastic bags or shredded alive. Life is a continuum, and we all have to find a place to make our choices, and I would feel ok about taking a few chickens out of that cycle and giving them a life. If I had land and a cow and could afford to keep her calf with her, I would drink her milk.

      And so to return to your original question, everything we do has consequences. In thinking about dismantling our current food system and practices, we’re talking about something unimaginably huge and complex, and the transition would be long and difficult — but it is essential. What we are doing is unethical and unsustainable. Until the day we accomplish the transition, demolish the current system and put something more just and compassionate in its place, I’ll eat vegan with an occasional egg from a no-kill home for chickens. The truth is, I would continue even if the food system were different because unless I’m prepared to take the life of an animal myself, and I can’t imagine I ever would be, I won’t eat it.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!