Myself Surprised at Becoming a Jewish Vegetarian

If, as the author posits, in Judaism the sensual precedes the intellectual, how do you give up Bubbie’s delicious brisket for tofu?

Like most Eastern European Jews, my Jewish roots were intertwined with Jewish culinary traditions. Shabbos meant challah baked by Bubble, chicken soup, and meat cholent. On summer Friday nights, when windows were open, the entire neighborhood smelled oi Shabbos cooking. Every Jewish holiday had its own particular smells and tastes. The Jewish calendar is a calendar of the senses—not only of historical moments. Like most others in my wider culture, Jew or non-Jew, I regarded vegetarians with bemused tolerance and wondered what you fed them. The break with my culinary heritage occurred when I began to learn about meat containing DES, the sex hormone that causes vaginal cancer in women and breast development in young boys. I had two pubescent sons at the time.

My first cautious change was to announce that our family would “cut down on meat.” My concern was the health of my children, not of the planet. At that point I didn’t know of the relationship between meat and environmental decay (cattle-grazing leads to soil erosion and desert-like conditions); of the possible public health danger caused by meat production (half of all antibiotics made in the U.S. are used to promote growth in cattle, thus unnecessarily increasing the possibility that resistant strains of bacteria will develop); or of the dreadful modern cruelty of turning a cow into a hamburger—kosher or not. Like most of my friends, I vaguely believed that if you didn’t eat meat your bones and brains weakened and your husband courted impotence. I started to make a distinction between “modern meat” (the title of an influential book by Orville Schell), which was bad for you, and “good meat”—the kind without hormones or chemicals. I blindly trusted that kosher meat—which I used exclusively—was good meat, not only free of additives but also of cruelty.

Then I happened upon Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard Schwartz (Micah Publications, 1988) with its dreadful descriptions of “factory farming,” including exactly how veal calves are confined and how chickens are kept in cages the size of shoe boxes. When I soon thereafter asked my butcher where my meat came from, he understood the rising ethical and health import of my question. “Mrs. K..” he said sympathetically, “all meat for the commercial market is raised the same way. We just kill the animal differently.” Suddenly, shekhita. [kosher slaughter], which I had always viewed as having distinct respect for animal life, took on a different cast. If a baby cow is tormented by being confined to a crate nearly the size of its own body, made to live in darkness and lie in its own excrement, then its entire life becomes a slow dying. So much for the humanitarian, quick, and painless death of shekhita.

I slowly gave up meat-eating, though I still held to the “meat myth.” I remember looking at a large poster with the caption, “Meat Builds Strength,” in a butcher shop. Years of socialization had me believing that canard still, though a vegetarian friend of mine consistently reminded me that the strongest animals, such as the bull, ox, elephant, and horse, are herbivores. I began to understand vegetarianism as a truth struggling throughout history—against a profound propaganda pitch—to be told. I began to feel that Jewish vegetarianism recaptured the spirit of the first law of kashrut in Genesis: “See I give you every herb, seed, and green thing to eat. These shall be yours for food.” Decidedly not Bubble’s chicken.

People frequently ask me, “Why Jewish vegetarianism? Vegetarian is vegetarian!” The answer is that Judaism traditionally and historically has been steeped in dietary ethics, and not just in the celebration of eating. There is a dietary tradition in Judaism which is far older than chicken soup or meat cholent. For example, our messianic tradition rests upon our becoming vegetarians again (as we were in Eden); there is no blessing for the eating of meat, and “meat is never included among the staple diet of the children of Israel” (Encyclopedia Judaica). The traditional biblical era diet consists of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey, according to Deuteronomy 8:8.

When I realized that I could no longer celebrate Pesach with a shankbone on the table, I believed that what was true for me must be true for other Jews as well. Hence, I published the Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. Two years ago, a woman called me from a small town about a hundred and fifty miles from Tokyo to order a copy of the haggadah. “My goodness,” I gasped, “how many Jews can there be where you live?” She responded across ten thousand miles. ‘Tm the only Jew out here, but I happen to be a vegetarian.”

During Talmudic times, the rabbis discouraged Jews from becoming vegetarians, despite the earlier, strong vegetarian undercurrents in Judaism. They did so because vegetarianism, at that time, was associated with asceticism and celibacy. However, modern Jewish vegetarianism has nothing to do with ancient ascetic cults; it remains true to the Jewish tradition of celebrating of life, health, food, and festivity. We celebrate our holidays with some vegetarian foods that are distinctly Jewish. Below is Rose Friedman’s recipe (from Jewish Vegetarian Cooking) for a cholent with Knaidels that rivals my Bubble’s meat cholent.

With the cholent and soup, serve challah, wine, nuts, dates, candles and song. You have a vegetarian Shabbos that tastes as good as the Shahbos of your childhood. The Jewish tradition enjoins us to make Shabbos a joyful occasion; therefore we should have foods we love and wines we enjoy, both of which are amply possible with a vegetarian meal based on the original biblical diet of “the grain, the wine, and the oil.”

Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D., is a writer, publisher, and lecturer, and founder of Jews for Animal Rights. She is also the founder of Micah Publications.

Jewish Vegetarian Resources

Jewish Vegetarians of North America: Established in 1983 as a support group for Jewish vegetarians, with chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada; $24 membership (S26 for families) includes a quarterly newsletter as well as membership in the International Jewish Vegetarian and Ecological Society, based in London. You will also receive the society’s quarterly international magazine, The Jewish Vegetarian. Contact; Jewish Vegetarians, 6938 Reliance Rd., Federalsburg, MD, 21203.
Jews for Animal Rights! Micah Publications: Dedicated to promoting Jewish ethics as they relate to the treatment of animals. Contact; 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA, 01945.

Richard Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism, Micah Publications, 1988. Louis Berman, Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition, Ktav,1982.
Roberta Kalechofsky, Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian and egalitarian Haggadah), Micah Publications, 1988. Rose Friedman, Jewish Vegetarian Cooking, Thorsons Press, England, 1985. (Available in U.S. through Micah Publications or Harper/Collins.)

CHAI-Concerned for Helping Animals in Israel. Established in 1984 to help the Israeli animal welfare community improve the conditions and treatment of domestic animals (those not protected by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) in Israel. Contact; Nina Natelson, Box 3341, Alexandria, VA, 22003.
The ECO-Kosher Project. Created to “encourage institutions and individuals to make purchases and investments and use resources in accord with a Jewishly rooted and defined ethic of social responsibility—in particular, responsibility for the environment.” Contact; Institute for Jewish Renewal, 7318 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA, 19119. Shomrey Adamak:  A Jewish environmentalist group at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Contact; Ellen Bernstein, Church Road and Greenwood Ave., Wyncote, PA, 19095. 
Feminists for Animal Rights. Works to raise the consciousness of the feminist community, the animal rights community, and the public at large about the links between the objectification, exploitation, and abuse of women and of animals in patriarchal society. Membership costs from $12-20/yr. (based on a sliding scale) and includes a twice-yearly newsletter. For more information send SASE to; PO Box 694, Cathedral Station, NY, NY, 10025-0694.