Took up animal advocacy in mid-career as author & publisher
Roberta Kalechofsky, 90, author, animal advocate, educator, historian, and publisher, died on April 5, 2022 in hospice care in Chelsea, Massachusetts, near her longtime home in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
ANIMALS 24-7, unfortunately, only learned of her death on January 26, 2023, necessitating this late obituary.
Valued acquaintances for nearly 45 years
Roberta Kalechofsky was an esteemed acquaintance for nearly 45 years, as a colleague in independent publishing, fellow vegetarian when almost no one else was, occasional source of news and information, an always warm and encouraging presence in our occasional meetings at small press book fairs and animal rights conferences, and especially welcoming to Beth at the AR-2015 conference in Alexandria, Virginia, Beth’s first.
All the same might also have been said of her husband Robert “Bob” Kalechofsky (1928-2020), a retired math professor from Salem State University and an avid fellow runner despite three knee replacements.
Robert “Bob” Kalechofsky loved to talk running and answer––or debate––questions about his many topics of interest, which seemed to include just about everything.
“When was that?”
Roberta Kalechofsky told Beth that that most important lesson she had learned in her 67-year marriage to Robert was “when to shut up.”
Responded Robert, “When was that?”
Both were at once notoriously outspoken and an obviously close and affectionate team.
Born on May 11, 1931, to Naomi Jacobs and Julius Joseph Kirchik, “I was raised in Brooklyn by carnivores,” Roberta Kalechofsky told interviewer Susan Schnur on September 19, 2007.
“As a teenager, I would tell my boyfriends, ‘Please, no steak. Mom cooks it three times a week.’ There was one vegetable in my childhood: overcooked string beans. And one ingredient in salad: iceberg lettuce,” Roberta Kalechofky said, explaining her eventual contributions to multiple vegan and vegetarian cookbooks.
Beginning to write
Kalechofsky earned her undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College in 1952, then an M.A. in English literature from New York University in 1956, followed by a Ph.D. from New York University in 1970, also in English literature.
She later taught at the University of Connecticut and Brooklyn College.
Meanwhile, between raising sons Hal and Neal, Roberta Kalechofsky wrote.
She enjoyed just enough success to keep her encouraged, notably inclusion in the Best American Short Stories of 1972 anthology and a mention for “distinctive writing” in the 1976 edition.
Fed up with rejection slips
But, like practically every creative writer of the time, Roberta Kalechofsky had difficulty finding publication by the traditional markets for fiction.
Fewer and fewer commercially published magazines included fiction at all, hardly anyone read the academic journals that accepted fiction, and those fiction markets that remained were swamped in as many as a hundred manuscripts a day from younger writers, of the “Baby Boom” generation, mass-producing short stories in creative writing classes.
“After her 101st rejection slip, Roberta Kalechofsky decided to take matters into her own hands,” Christian Science Monitor reporter Stewart Dill McBride wrote in September 1976.
“Her four unpublished novels had gathered too much dust in the attic. She was fed up with editors telling her the stories were too long. She was fed up with her friends suggesting she change her name and take writing lessons from Harold Robbins.
Founded Micah Press
“So last year Mrs. Kalechofsky, a Marblehead, Massachusetts housewife and ‘unemployable PhD.,’ started her own publishing company, Micah Press. For $3,100 she printed and distributed two of her novels and confesses, ‘Now that I’ve taken the plunge, I can’t understand why I did’t do it 15 years ago.”
Hundreds and eventually thousands of other frustrated authors and poets were already doing the same thing. The “mimeo revolution,” printing and distributing poetry with recycled school mimeograph machines, gave voice to the Beatniks in the 1950s and 1960s.
The introduction of tabletop and washing-machine-sized offset printing presses, often actually powered by washing machine motors, gradually transformed the “mimeo revolution” into the “small press movement” of the 1970s.
This in turn evolved into the subculture of “zines,” or personal self-produced magazines, that took advantage of inexpensive xerography in the 1980s, before becoming subsumed into online publishing in the 1990s.
“Very involved in the world of independent publishers”
“At first Micah Press published only fiction; I was very involved in the world of independent publishers,” Roberta Kalechofsky told Schnur, which was something of an understatement.
Almost from her first involvement in independent publishing, Roberta Kalechofsky became one of the most successful of “outlaw” publishers, and a leader, mentor, and exemplar for many others.
Among her secrets of success was hiring professional printers and bookbinders to produce attractive books while most other “outlaws,” lacking the resources to do that, produced cheaply printed staple-bound books sold at poetry readings and by mail, since bookstores mostly would not stock books without a “perfect-bound” spine.
Judaism & Vegetarianism, by Richard H. Schwartz
Initially Roberta Kalechofsky published only her own work. Eventually, though, she took on a few books by others.
“One day in 1983,” she remembered in Autobiography of a Revolutionary, “I received an unsolicited manuscript called Judaism & Vegetarianism, by Richard Schwartz. I had no interest in the topic, but I believe in reading the first 25 pages of any submission — I feel it’s a responsibility — and this author is describing the veal industry, how calves are raised in crates on ‘factory farms.’
“I called my kosher butcher immediately. I read him a few paragraphs.”
The butcher confirmed the accuracy of Schwartz’s account.
“That was it. I became an instant vegetarian.
“The most important movement of our time”
“One thing led to another,” Roberta Kalechofsky narrated. “I published Richard’s book, and I became very active in the North American Jewish Vegetarian Society.”
In a later remembrance, Roberta Kalechofky affirmed that “Reading Richard Schwartz’s book Judaism & Vegetarianism changed my life. It made me a vegetarian and an animal rights activist and led me to write and edit about these issues.
“I have worked with Richard now for decades,” Roberta Kalechofsky testified, “in his tireless efforts to create a more compassionate, just, and environmentally sustainable world. Now the vegan/vegetarian movement is the most important movement of our time.”
Two bumper stickers
“Micah Publications sells two bumper stickers: ‘Vegetarianism is an Affordable Health Plan’ and ‘Real Environmentalists Don’t Eat Meat,’” Roberta Kalechofsky mentioned to Schnur.
“They get to the heart of the issue, which is that healthcare costs will always be high if people continue to eat the wrong things, and environmental costs will always be high because the meat industry puts a tremendous strain on the earth’s resources.
“If I were Neanderthal, I’d write for Neanderthals,” Roberta Kalechofsky added to Schnur. “But I’m a Jew — Jews possess the longest history of meditations on the ethics of diet. Who should be more involved in these issues than us? Our values oblige us to be involved — because of our history, because of justice, because this is the best diet for poor people.”
Autobiography of a Revolutionary
Roberta Kalechofsky offered further background to her personal evolution in her 1989 essay Autobiography of a Revolutionary, making clear that her concern with preventing cruelty long predated her actually having any personal relationship with animals of any species.
“I grew up in a patchwork of traditions and beliefs, lucky to survive the crush of contradictions in my family and in my culture.
“Animals had little to do with the first thirty-five years of my life.
“My parents were separated when I was a year old,” Roberta Kalechofsky remembered, “my mother an aspiring modern Jew, my father the only son of Orthodox Jews who regarded modernity as one more phase to be tolerated and ignored in the history of the Jewish people.
“Never heard of Darwin”
“I never heard of Darwin until I got to college,” Roberta Kalechovsky admitted, but––having a naturally rebellious, curious, and somewhat contradictory nature––this appears only to have stimulated her later intense interest in scientific history, shared with her husband Robert.
“The years that were responsible for this peculiar slant,” Roberta Kalechofsky wrote, “were spent in a partly rural neighborhood of Brooklyn, populated by Christians and Jews from Eastern Europe, Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox Slavs with Mongolian faces.
“Milk and fruit and vegetables were delivered by horse-drawn carts. Some people kept goats or a few chickens in their backyards. When the animals were killed, I did not see it. I did not go to the slaughterhouses, which were small local places at the time.
“Violent death was secret to me”
“The act of violent death was secret to me, until one night I went where I was told not to go,” to a vacant lot where she saw non-Jewish toughs from another neighborhood burning a kitten alive.
Young Roberta Kirchik ran to tell her parents and other adults with whom they were visiting, but “There was a pause in the gossip, nothing more. Only the breezes stirred. I did not know then that I was witnessing a common ritual [of violent young men],” on the eve of the Holocaust, of which Roberta Kalechofsky remembered hearing little or nothing from the adult world until she was much older.
“The first story of mine to be published dealt with this early incident. It was called ‘To Light A Candle,’” she wrote.
Even when Roberta Kirchik became Kalechofsky through marriage to Robert, at age 23, she wrote, “Cows in a country field terrified me. I couldn’t tell them from the bull, and the bull had a bad reputation. Animals belonged in cages or in books or on a leash.
“This prolonged ignorance about animal life began to disappear,” Roberta Kalechofsky recalled, “when my husband taught me how not to fear dogs.
“Being a jogger and a biker, I was made miserable by dogs who ran after me. My husband taught me how to talk to them.
“Instructed that almost any dog I would meet on a city street would most likely be domesticated, I learned how to say sternly, ‘Go home,’ the only two words I knew in their language, but they worked. To me, they worked like a miracle. Dogs wagged their tails and trotted away.
“Dogs, I learned, were sociable creatures,” Roberta Kalechofsky continued. “My next step was to pat the dogs I spoke to. Friendliness became an open sesame to the animal world.”
But Roberta Kalechofsky’s own first dog, Dylan, named after the poet Dylan Thomas, came to a sad end, she admitted with characteristic frankness, “suffocated in a parked car. We had done the ‘reasonable’ things, left the windows open enough for air, but not enough so that he could jump out, left a bowl of water which he turned over in panic, left the car parked under a shady tree. The temperature was about 83 degrees. In the three hours we were gone, it rose unpredictably 15 degrees. Dylan died in my arms.
“I know how a dog looks who has been subjected to a heat experiment,” Roberta Kalechofsky said, putting herself briefly into the company of the vivisectors whom she often exposed and condemned, yet with some empathy for those––even some Nazis––whom she felt just did not know better, and did not know how to escape their circumstances once they did develop a glimmer of understanding of the moral consequences of their actions.
“He became a symbol to me”
A mix of beagle with wirehaired terrier, “Dylan had not been a loveable dog,” Roberta Kalechofsky continued. “He was crotchety and jealous of babies. He loathed everyone in a uniform.
“Dylan could survive anything, except human stupidity. He became a symbol for me.”
Yet not right away. That came nearly 20 years later.
“My membership in the animal rights movement was unpredictable,” Roberta Kalechofsky acknowledged in Autobiography of a Revolutionary.
“I did not join the movement. I was catapulted into it. I did not go looking for it. I did not know it existed. I turned a page in a book, turned a corner in the universe, and was confronted with a terrible evil. But now I knew, and my life changed.
Pulled animal rights group ad out of the garbage
“The day before I read this passage, about a horrible experiment on devocalized dogs described in a novel, I had seen an advertisement in a newspaper about an animal rights organization, and had thrown it out with the paper. Now I went to my garbage can, found the advertisement, and called the telephone number on it.
“Like so many other people,” Roberta Kalechofsky admitted, “I had avoided the literature on the subject. Only a week before, I had seen a copy of Dallas Pratt’s book, Alternatives to Painful Experiments on Animals, in a local library, peeped into it, and had immediately shut the book. I had said to myself, what so many others now say to me, ‘I can’t bear to look at that.’ Now the material forced its way into my consciousness. It clutched me by the throat.
“I had thought, after I had absorbed the literature on the Holocaust,” Roberta Kalechofsky confessed, I would never again have to rebuild the world I knew. Now again, everything unraveled and had to be pieced together, had to be rethought, particularly that such evils could take place a short distance from where I lived and I could be so ignorant of them.”
“God’s covenant includes the animal world”
“Isaiah cursed the land because its inhabitants practiced the cruelty of tearing a limb from a living animal,” Roberta Kalechofsky remembered from scripture. “This bears thinking about in relation to vivisection. No amount of casuistic evasion can obliterate the fact that in the Torah, God’s covenant includes the animal world.”
Admitted Roberta Kalechofsky, “It took me several years to learn how to read material about animal research ‘voluntarily.’ In the beginning, I could read only a page at a time. I hated to come across it ‘by surprise.’ I had to prepare myself and learn, step by step, how to deal with my reactions to this material.
“I could extrapolate from my previous ignorance of it that most Jews, like most of the public, did not know what was going on. It was also clear that the animal rights movement did not understand Judaism,” though many of the early leaders were, and are, Jewish.
“Term ‘Judeo-Christian’ creates harmful confusion”
“The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ creates a harmful confusion, to the detriment of understanding the Jewish position vis a vis animals,” Roberta Kalechofsky realized.
She more thoroughly explained what she meant in a later essay, “Hierarchy, Kinship & Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World.”
Wrote Roberta Kalechofsky there, “Under the biblical perspective, a change took place in the status of animals from what had prevailed in Babylonian and Egyptian cultures: animals were demythologized––as were humans.
“There are no animal deities in the Bible; there are no human deities in the Bible. Animal life was neither elevated nor degraded because of the demythologizing process. Animals were no longer worshipped, singly or collectively, but they were accorded an irreducible value in the divine pathos.”
Jews for Animal Rights
Explained Roberta Kalechofsky in Autobiography of a Revolutionary, “Someone had to be a bridge between the different confusions. I did not wish that someone to be me. I was wary of creating another organization, in addition to Micah Publications, that would take me away from writing. I knew that organizations meant hours and hours of secretarial work. I said to myself, ‘No, no, no, no, don’t do it,’ then in 1985 sent two dozen press releases about Jews for Animal Rights to the Jewish press, dreading the erosion of time this would mean.
“Several weeks later I received a book of stamps from a lady (how prescient!) and a note: ‘God bless you for this holy work.’ I was hooked.
Jews for Animal Rights accomplished quite a lot for animals, both in the U.S. and in Israel.
Robert and Roberta Kalechofsky were particularly pleased to announce that on August 11, 2010 the Israeli Supreme Court “outlawed the practice of force-feeding geese and ducks for the production of liver pâté [foie gras], a practice that the justices said was unnecessarily cruel.”
They had worked toward this end, and also toward obtaining a 2019 ordinance forbidding the sale of foie gras in New York City.
The New York City ordinance, unfortunately, has not yet been enforced.
“Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets are now attempting to block the foie gras ban from going into effect,” Allie Taylor of Voters for Animal Rights emailed on January 17, 2023, but “New York City is fighting back. Just days ago, the city of New York filed suit against the state of New York in defense of the foie gras ban.”
“Why don’t you do something for the human race?”
Observed Roberta Kalechofky in another 1989 essay, My Good Works Resumé, “I am often assailed by the question, ‘Why don’t you do something for the human race?’
“No one ever accosts people on golf courses or at baseball games with this demand. So I take it that it’s not the observation that I am leading an idle life that annoys my assailants, but that my interest in animal rights arouses something akin to sibling rivalry in them––threat to their status!
“I was a volunteer teacher for a Head Start program in Lynn, Massachusetts for two years. One of my pupils was a mother on welfare, who subsequently passed her high school equivalency examination, got a job, and got off welfare, not all due to me, and it also happens that I worked on welfare legislation during my years of involvement with the League of Women Voters, as well as helped initiate recycling in my town.
Worked for gun control
“The number of non-animal causes I have been involved with includes gun control laws to keep humans from shooting each other, civil rights, interfaith dialogues, feminism, and emigration of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry.
“My membership in non-animal rights organizations includes the National Writers Union, Amnesty International, and the Anti-Slavery Society.”
From Roberta Kalechofsky’s perspective of concern for human rights and suffering, as well as animal rights and suffering, she was simultaneously understanding of people who draw parallels between the Holocaust and the treatment of animals in factory farming and laboratories, and critical of analogies that she felt were glib, simplistic, and generally missed the point.
Though an early and strong backer of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Roberta Kalechofsky in particular objected to some PETA uses of Holocaust imagery in campaign literature.
She explained her concerns in an otherwise highly favorable June/July 2002 Satya magazine review of Eternal Treblinka, by Charles Patterson.
“No one can predict the future of an image or symbol, or coterie of images and symbols,” Roberta Kalechofsky wrote. “The cross was a Jewish symbol for Jews in the first century. In that desperate century, far more Jews, including women and children, were crucified than Christians. Elsewhere, more Gauls were crucified than Christians. Behind the crucifixion of Jesus is the crucifixion of countless unremembered others, but the cross became a symbol for Christianity, not for these others.
“When a culture loses control over the symbols of its history,” Roberta Kalechofsky declared, “it loses part of its history, so Jews have a right to be concerned about the uses of Holocaust imagery and symbolism, and comparisons with the Holocaust.”
A year later Roberta Kalechofsky wrote in her 2003 volume Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem with Comparisons that while there is “connective tissue” between animal suffering and the Holocaust, they “fall into different historical frameworks, and comparison between them aborts the force of anti-Semitism.”
Kalechovsky added that she “agree[s] with [1978 Nobel Prize for Literature winner] Isaac Bashevis Singer’s statement, that ‘every day is Treblinka for the animals’,” but concluded that “some agonies are too total to be compared with other agonies.”
Philosopher Tom Regan, whose books Animal Rights & Human Obligations (1976) and The Case for Animal Rights (1983) were instrumental in building the animal rights movement, stated on multiple occasions, before multiple audiences, that if he could only listen to one lecture by one historian, his choice would be to listen to Roberta Kalechofsky.
The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer
Comparably, if a person wished to gain a thorough understanding of the entire history and philosophy behind the practice of animal experimentation, by reading just one book, and not a long nor especially gruesome book at that, despite some inevitably gruesome descriptions of horrific experiments that helped to fuel the growth of anti-vivisectionism, ANIMALS 24-7 could not more highly recommend Roberta Kalechofsky’s 2009 volume The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer: Vivisection & the Emergence of a Medical Technocracy.
Altogether, Roberta Kalechofsky produced at least 38 books as writer, editor, and/or major contributor, a partial list of which is below.
George Orwell (1973)
Orestes in Progress (1976)
La Hoya (1976)
Rejected Essays and Other Matters (1980)
South African Jewish Voices (1981)
Phoenix Rising (1982)
Stephen’s Passion (1984)
Jewish Writing from Down Under: Australia & New Zealand (1984)
Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (1985)
Bodmin, 1349: An Epic Novel of Christians and Jews in the Plague Years (1988)
The Global Anthology Of Jewish Women Writers (1990)
Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary (1992)
Haggadah For The Vegetarian Family (1993)
Justice, My Brother, My Sister: Life and Death in a Mexican Family (1993)
A Boy, a Chicken & the Lion of Judah (1995)
Rabbis And Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition (1995)
Figlie di Sarah (1996)
by Roberta Kalechofsky, Johanna Kaplan, Norma Rosen, Lynne Sharon Schwartz
The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook (1997)
Vegetarian Judaism: A Guide for Everyone (1998)
Solomon’s wisdom & other stories (1999)
The Vegetarian Pesach Cookbook: Feasts For Freedom (2002)
Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem with Comparisons (2003)
Works of Roberta Kalechofsky in Context (2004)
Job Enters a Pain Clinic & Other Stories (2005)
The Poet-Physician and the Healer-Killer: Vivisection and the Emergence of a Medical Technocracy (2009)
The Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook, with Roberta Schiff & Sara Feldman (2010)
Four Women from Ravensbruck: 5 Stories from the Shoa (2013)