Monday, December 22, 2008

Jews Don't Fish!?!

"Jews don’t fish.” It is a phrase I have heard again and again in the two and a half years that I have written this blog. Perhaps there is some kind of anti-fishing bias out there among my fellow Jews. What exactly is not kosher about fishing? Is it true that Jews don’t fish?

The most common Jewish objection that I hear about fishing is that it is cruel to the fish. It is one thing to eat trout since we need sustenance, but to fish for sport is not ethical. One person even wrote to me that if I enjoy being in nature so much, why not go for a hike, instead of torturing the fish?

I share these concerns for the ethics of fly fishing. I practice catch and release. I take steps to insure that the fish are returned to the water with a minimum of disturbance. I would argue that catch and release is better for the planet and the fish. If every fish caught was kept for food, our streams and lakes would soon be empty.

Fishing is not hiking; it is an activity that involves life and death, and connects us to a more primal side of ourselves that we do not often experience in our 21st Century lives. However, when I am on the stream, I seek to make fly fishing as humane and ethical as possible.

Along with concern for the ethics of fishing, perhaps the anti-fishing bias is an unintended result of the Jewish emphasis on eduction. We are the people of the book. Our most holy object is a scroll of writing, the Torah. Education helped our immigrant ancestors get out of the Lower East Side and the crowded inner cities and succeed beyond our wildest expectations in America.

Yet, this emphasis on education also created the stereotype that Jews only care about intellectual pursuits. Somehow it got to be a Jewish cultural value to say that success in sports and outdoor activities like fishing are less worthwhile than getting good grades and succeeding in school.

The fact is that getting into a good college is probably more important than being good at fly fishing. Education gives your more options in life. However, there is nothing wrong with pursuing activities that require you to use your body and not just your mind.

One of the reasons that I love to fly fish is that it gives my brain a rest. Casting a fly rod is about feeling the physicality of the line in your fingers and trying to make a small bunch of feathers and thread land gracefully on the water. Fly Fishing also feeds my soul. Standing in a stream at sunrise, I appreciate the beauty of our world, and feel a deep spiritual connection to all that is around me.

Along with hearing the phrase “Jews don’t fish,” I also receive many emails that begin something like this: “Dear Rabbi, It’s so nice to meet another Jew who loves to fish. I thought I was the only one out there!” I have learned that Jews do fish! And there are plenty of people who find fishing to be a spiritual experience, both Jews and non-Jews. It seems to me that our energy is better spent not worrying about stereotypes, but instead pursuing those activities in life that provide us with fulfillment and meaning, no matter what they are.


Rick said...

As a Protestant clergyman, I get the say statement every so often, "Preachers don't fish!"

And, despite my supposed skill with words . . . it is only when I can take them fishing, that they begin to glimpse what it is I am trying to share . . . that fishing is a sabbath experience.

I believe in a Sabbath day. But I also believe in sabbath moments, when I am alone, in nature, with the God who created nature.

I wish I could explain it better. I am passionate about the experience. If am able to catch a fish, and strive carefully to treat the fish, and the environment it lives in, ethically, then I see no problem with this activity.

Perhaps when fishing, I experience sabbath, and leave with a better understanding of stewardship.

Anonymous said...

If you eat fish, then fishing is an honest way to get it. At least you are, hopefully, respectfully engaged with the life that is about to sustain yours. Hunting is also an honest way to obtain meat for those who eat it. Unfortunately, it's a bit tough to run after a deer and slaughter it in the kosher manner. So fish away.

Anonymous said...

What kind of trout and to what extent are these rivers? Fish is calm, you live in contact with nature!

Anonymous said...

Rabbi, as a fellow fly fishing Jew, I am in complete agreement with your position. Fly fishing has become an important medium though which I connect with some fundamental features of our God given natural world. It has increased my sensitivity to the fragility and importance of all life, rather than desensitized me. I find it hard to communicate this to people who do not fish or who do not fish ethically. I am glad you understand.


Anonymous said...

While not overtly religious, I was always taught Jesus was as "fisher of men."

I don't think he planned on releasing them once caught...

I'd say whether you fish for pleasure or sustenance, there's ample precedent - perhaps even a tacit blessing or two.

Hu said...

I love fishing, but never tried fly fishing. Is it difficult to learn? or does flying fishing need expensive gears?

Anonymous said...

I often find myself in the awkward position of trying to explain the concept of catch and release. This seems like such a foreign concept to those who fish casually or have ready access to the sea.

I generally explain that this is the unfortunate consequence of generations of over-fishing and the incredible advances in fishing gear that make even the casual fisherman productive.

Unfortunately the number of trout in the river near my home here in Austin is critically finite. The combination an artificial environment (bottom release tailrace), drought, water temperature, osprey and poachers make the trout scarce. Each year various government and private clubs deposit over 32,000 lbs of trout into the river just to keep up with the annual loss.

After all of the work to stock and maintain the river it is easy to understand why avoiding taking trout out of the river is required.

I believe all of us would like to go back to a time when these fish were not so rare. Perhaps we would even find the will to exercise the moderation required to preserve them for future generations. However, we are in a time of rebuilding this resource. As absurd an act it is, catch and release is the price we pay for the acts of others - or our former selves.

Anonymous said...

you are so wrong! here in canada pretty much all the jewish kids go to summer camp, for seven weeks! everyone grows up knowing how to fish, build a bonfire, drive a boat, sail and waterski. there are very few jewish girls up here that are afraid to put a worm on a hook. nothing warms my heart more than a set of fake nails hooking a worm.

Anonymous said...

I fish therefore I am a Jew. I practice "Catch and Release" in the rivers with my fly tackle and I also practice fill the freezer on the Ocean. I find the two types of fishing entirely different.The fly rod a connection to me and the nature that surrounds me brings forth a serenity that can't be matched .The ocean brings a frenetic school of fish,and a fish to you drop mentality ,that doesn't invite the serenity of the rivers but still has it's rewards.

Freshwater Phil said...

As an observant orthodox Jew living in Montreal, I can tell you that not too many orthodox Jews are serious fishermen. However, the few of us that are, really invest much time and effort into our favorite pastime.

Most of me fishing buddies are Jewish, ranging from modern Orthodox to sephardic to non practicing. Some of our top fishing guides are Jewish as well.

I practice sustainable harvest, but occasionally bring home fish I wouldn't normally keep, as my hassidic friends love freebies.

Mark Hampel said...

i am jewish. I fish . I have a fishing boat.

Anonymous said...

So many people using shrimp and other non-kosher bait for fishing.. Just joined fishing club to learn how to fish. Can you recommend kosher bait?

Durk said...

Is it Kosher to eat a kosher species of fish caught with non-Kosher bait? Kosher fish species naturally eat non-kosher food; I don’t see how you could ever know.