One Upper West Side family’s experiment in sustainable living.
The heat arrived earlier than expected this June with the type of humidity that caused our thoughts to hang inside our heads like a damp heavy cloth. It looked like we were going to have to break our family’s “no air-conditioning” policy, made four years ago at the time almost everyone, including our kids, discovered global warming. As the proprietor of Beacon Hardware waved his hand across the mammoth air conditioner that we would need to cool our apartment, we caught the corner of each other’s eyes. No way. We weren’t going to be defeated, yet. We left without an air conditioner.
Sustainable living has become a new mantra in some New York City families. This urban jungle, divided into discrete some-more-livable-than-other ecosystems, has given rise to a type of ecological sensitivity that is both spiritual and practical. People carry cloth shopping bags, eschew cars in favor of walking and convert light bulbs to compact fluorescents. When families try to live the so-called green life, this message also becomes a gift to the future as environmental responsibility becomes the only way children know how to live.
Like most green families, no one moment defined the decision to live sustainably. During Shabbat morning services there is a prayer, yotzer ohr, a blessing for all of creation and God’s making of it. When our children stood at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun’s junior congregation to pray those words, the meaning of the prayer became one with mountains disappearing into clouds, the grassy tundras and rocky coastlines, places where we vacationed. A mother moose and her baby swimming across a lake, bears playing in a grassy knoll, a wolf running across the tundra and a people surviving in the hottest sun for 40 years exemplified a single narrative of oneness — our God, Torah and the natural world. When encountering Israel’s majestic Negev, fertile Golan Heights, dancing Galilee and the stones of Jerusalem, only a concept of God could make sense of the differences between the deep red-brown interior of the Makhtesh crater, the glistening blue water that curled with every bow of the sea, and stone that had been carved into a civilization.
So when the children, then 6 and 8, asked us what we were going to do about the threat of global warming and climate change, we found ourselves invoking the mitzvah Baal Taschit, “thou shalt not destroy.” It was our spiritual responsibility to care for our planet and preserve its life forms, habitats and resources. Waiting for the government or the Messiah was out of the question. The kids were worried now. So like many of our friends, we forked right and took the green path, knowing that we would often step off the trail and sometimes get lost.
The first step in creating a sustainable family is countering excess with a home that reflects harmony and balance and shuts out all the materialistic noise that has become so much a part of everyday living. Childhood has become synonymous with overindulgences of all kinds: too many presents, too much food and too many things taking the place of a creative use of the mind. In this generation, most kids and adults expect that things like prepackaged $12,000 backpacking trips or the latest version of Wii should remediate hurt, suffering or complexity. In February of this year, Evan Thomas wrote in Newsweek, “The problem is not the system. It’s us — our ‘got mine’ culture of entitlement.” Later in February, in an op-ed in The New York Times, Al Gore asked the people to become the opposite of what they are in order to save the planet.
New Yorkers find their homes in any number of ways. We originally rented a stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side. When the apartment next door became available during my pregnancy, we rented it as an office to simplify breastfeeding. Eight years later the building converted to condominiums. With a certain degree of financial risk and sacrifice we found a way to buy the apartments, mostly because we found New York City living more commensurate with our environmental values: public transportation, easy walking, small carbon footprint.
A woman I know had blended the feel of the outdoors with her prewar apartment by using natural fiber window treatment and by growing a giant basil plant in her kitchen. In collaboration with the children, and Michael Chen, our young and inspired architect found on Craig’s List, we designed our apartment to also emphasize the relationship between inside and outside. This also meant working within a modest budget because we wanted our home to express the sanctity of living within limits. Using outside light and air flow, as well as warmth from the floors below, we could illuminate, cool and heat our apartment naturally. In addition we used sustainably harvested woods, like bamboo, highest- energy-efficient appliances and recycled building materials. The simple choices created a home where we can watch the moon travel across the sky at night and where breezes can annoyingly flutter the newspaper, making it hard to read.
We also didn’t install cable, thereby disrupting access to television. We wanted the home to protect our children from being raised as consumers. Now that the television program “Glee” is so popular, and the kids (now 10 and almost 13) are entering adolescence, this is a slightly harder sell. We know there to be a lot of great programming available on many cable stations. We therefore try to compensate for the loss by spending time outdoors and using live Web streaming to watch important events like the Oscars, or the last presidential election.
Imagine most families at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday. Arriving home from a long day, exhaustion renders the refrigerator and stove as daunting as the final trek up Mount Everest. Am I tempted to call take-out? To run the family across the street to the local “second kitchen?” Yes, and sometimes it does happen. More often than not however we cook at home. I have always been impressed with friends who focus on the kitchen as the family hearth. They are the same people who insist on bringing guests into the kitchen, where the conversation is intimate and the words genuine. These kitchen tables soothe broken hearts, record dreams and impose a bit of discipline and order. We gather at ours at the start and finish of every day and eat food prepared by mom, or, on good days (rare), by all of us. It isn’t always local, but we are always thoughtful about what we buy, where and when. Mindfulness takes center stage of our very active urban life even though we still buy distinctly non-local bananas (albeit organic).
Like many of their friends, the children became vegetarian because they still consider animals to be our life partners on the planet. They also found it appalling that kashrut doesn’t require that animals be allowed to roam or graze, or be fed real food. It seemed hypocritical to slaughter animals with sensitivity without allowing animals to live with sensitivity. We discovered more reasons for vegetarianism, one of them being the amount of resources used in the raising and slaughtering of meat. In a kashrut upgrade, we don’t bring meat or meat byproducts into the home, or processed foods or high fructose corn syrup, a detail that arouses a bemused smile from our children who find their parents quaint but endurable.
This year B’nai Jershurun has started a community supported agriculture (CSA) program in partnership with Free Bird Farm in upstate New York. Each week, from June through October, each member receives his or her share of fresh produce. Better, everyone has a relationship with farmers. The weather used to mean, “do I need an umbrella today?” Now, the vicissitudes of the seasons are no longer mere poetry. The weather determines what will grow and therefore what we will have to eat. Sometimes that means cooking with greens for weeks at a time. That challenge can inspire creativity as well as the satisfaction of partnering well with the limits of the earth.
Community is the last anchor of sustainable family living. The creation of internal sacred space has little value if those values aren’t enacted in the outside world. Our children and their school buddies have held bake sales to raise money for environmental causes, distributed and signed petitions (one to Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed by hundred of children from their school) and asked their families, synagogues and schools to do things differently (like not using inhumane mouse traps). One day, I came home to a group playdate where the kids were making jewelry to sell for Haiti.
When people think of sustainability, they don’t imagine New York City families coming together to do some good for the world. Nor do they imagine these urban families turning off TVs, cooking and eating together, launching CSAs and figuring out how to mindfully balance all the conflicting pulls of life in the modern world. Sustainability, however, is nothing if not living in harmony with one’s ecosystem, whatever it may be. Our friends, our delicious community of green parents, often chide us about our lack of air conditioning. In some ways it is more symbolic than effective.
Yet, they would have all been a bit disappointed if we had given in and purchased that air conditioner. We didn’t, in part, because we owe it to our community to keep trying for the mitzvah of not destroying but protecting life around us. Note the emphasis on the word trying. For the record, every day is a negotiation between our aspiration and the pull of everyday life. The green intentionality, however imperfect the result may be, still ends up conserving energy and resources. And, our sustainable mindfulness is one exquisite exposition of a Jewish way of life.
Yet, on the hottest, muggiest day of the summer season, you will find us sitting by a fan with a glass of ice water, ready for another cold shower, wondering, “Should we have just bought that air conditioner?” n
Susan Bodnar lives, works and raises her family in New York City. She is a practicing psychologist, writer and an adjunct faculty member of Teachers College/Columbia University and the Stephen Mitchell Relational Center.
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