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VEGETARIANISM GOES MAINSTREAM
by Rebecca Boroson
I HELD a secret celebration at my synagogue’s seder this year: Each of the seder plates at the fifteen tables bore a roasted beet, a rabbinically-approved vegetarian substitute for the traditional shankbone. And not one of the 150 guests seemed to think this was anything out of the ordinary.
Of course, this took place at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation,in a small upstate New York town famous for marching to its own beat (or beet). Still, it was a good sign: Vegetarianism seems to have become familiar, unremarkable, just another way to live, just another way to live Jewishly.
Forty years ago, when I gave up meat for the second or third time (but that time it stuck), shankbones were ubiquitous on seder plates and vegetarians were looked upon as eccentric cranks. We could not get a decent restaurant meal, unless we were willing to settle for salad. We presented a quandary at dinner parties, unless, to a host’s relief, we brought our own food. And if we ventured to attend a Jewish organization’s luncheon or dinner, we had to fill up on bread or go home hungry.
In today’s “foodie” culture, hosts are more attuned to their guests’ dietary needs, and many restaurants provide vegetarian choices. Menus note which dishes are vegetarian or even vegan (made without any animal products). And there’s usually a pasta alternative to organizational chicken or salmon.
It’s my gut feeling, so to speak, that vegetarianism in general and Jewish vegetarianism in particular are increasing. But I had no figures to back this up, so I turned to Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, formerly known as the Jewish Vegetarian Society of North America (jewishveg.org), for information. In a phone interview from his office in Pittsburgh, he told me that while there have been some attempts at surveys, people are not always truthful when asked what they eat. “The one solid figure,” he added, “is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has reported figures showing that meat consumption in the United States has decreased 12 percent over the past five years.
“People who are politically progressive and have higher education are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than the general population,” he continued. “Surveys have also shown this. Because the Jewish population is more politically progressive and better educated than the general U.S. population, the consumption of meat in the Jewish community can be estimated to have decreased more than 12 percent.”
Cohan’s venerable organization, which changed its name to stress its focus on vegan, not just vegetarian, advocacy, has seen “exponential” growth, he said. The group has an e-mail list of about 3,000, and “just in the past two years we received about six hundred donations,” including from three foundations, whereas “two years ago, we had zero donations and no professional staff.” Today, jewishveg.org lists three staff members, including Cohan; a board of directors, including Richard Schwartz, JVNA president emeritus; and a rabbinic council that spans the denominational spectrum and includes such well-known activist rabbis as Steve Gutow, David Wolpe, Barry Silver, and Shmuley Yanklowitz. A number of physicians and activists on behalf of farm animals sit on its advisory council, as does Roberta Kalechofsky, the founder and chief editor of Micah Publications, which publishes books on Jewish vegetarianism.
Kalechofsky’s Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, by the way, has a different take on shankbone substitution.“We use olives,” she writes in her introduction, “to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the olive trees for the poor, we use grapes to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the grapevines for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:20), and we use grains of unfermented barley (or other unleavened or unfermented grains) to commemorate the commandment not to muzzle the ox when it treads out corn in the fields (25:4), in other words, to recognize the natural appetites of the animal and not interfere with them.
“This commandment,” she notes, “is considered to be the oldest extant concept of ‘animal rights,’ and enshrines the notion of the dignity and rights of the animal.”
THE "DIGNITY and rights of the animal” are clearly given short shrift in modern life, and our appalling treatment of animals — visible at YouTube and other Internet sites at the stroke of a key — is behind many people’s decisions to turn vegetarian. “For the animals,” in Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s words, “it is an eternal Treblinka.”
I am old enough to remember the Carnation company slogan that its milk came from “contented cows,” with an accompanying claim that music was piped into barns to keep them that way. That was before factory farming — or, at least, before we knew about factory farming. But now we know, and once you know something, you can’t unknow it.
I won’t harangue readers with well-known facts and figures about the horror of factory farming. “Regardless of whether you are Orthodox or completely secular,” Cohan said, “what’s happening today in animal agriculture is gravely offensive to our sense of compassion. We as an organization feel that we are saving the soul of Judaism because there is no way that Jews or Judaism should be connected to this horrible cruelty. Jewish Veg rests on a very solid Torah foundation,” he added. “We are the organization holding up the highest ideals of Judaism when it comes to food.”
I. B. Singer, asked if he became a vegetarian for his health, answered, “I did it for the health of the chickens.” That said, some people do eliminate meat from their diets for health reasons — “because animal products are associated with so many of our chronic diseases,” Cohan observed.
Concern for the environment is another motivation. Richard Schwartz has long railed against the polluting impact of intensive livestock agriculture. In Vegetarianism: A Global and Spiritual Imperative (in Best Jewish Writing 2002), Schwartz writes that it “contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global climate change, and other environmental damage.” Our agricultural methods “and the consumption of meat contribute greatly to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.” Thus vegetarianism, in Schwartz’s view, is not just a personal choice but a “planetary imperative.”
How do you leave behind the “fleshpots of Egypt”? How do you change the way you plan and shop for and cook your meals?
It’s really not hard. Many people worry about getting enough protein, and they fear that they’re doomed to a diet of wheat germ. Not to worry: Vegetarian sources of protein include beans, lentils, hummus, spinach, peas, artichokes, nuts and peanut butter, and many other foods. As for interesting cuisine, the Internet is your friend: It’s replete with flavorful vegetarian and vegan recipes and suggestions. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, www.peta.org) has many useful suggestions for making the transition to a vegan diet, including recipes for making vegan versions of your favorite meals and suggestions about a wide variety of meat-free international foods.
Food-delivery companies like The Purple Carrot (thepurplecarrot.com) and Hello Fresh (hellofresh.com) sell plant-based meal kits, complete with recipes. This cuts down on planning and shopping. There’s also Lighter, a free service that does not deliver food at this time but provides customized plant-based grocery lists and menus.Jewish Veg’s Cohan reports that his organization is “considering entering into a relationship with one or more of the food box services, but we do think it’s better for people to cook for themselves.”
The organization provides recipes and nutrition information on its website — and, through its “Veg Pledge” program, weekly e-mails containing tips, information, and recipes. Pledge-takers can also choose to be connected to a “mentor.”
“We encourage and help people to reduce their consumption [of animal products], with veganism the end goal,” Cohan said. “But you can’t just encourage people. They need help.”
As Julia Child used to say, “Bon appetit!”
Rebecca Boroson is editor emerita of the Jewish Standard in Teaneck, New Jersey. She has also been a reference-book editor and a lexicographer.