Veggie Pioneer: Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, 76
Writer, public speaker, the brains behind Micah Publications (www.micahbooks.com), the source for Jewish vegetarian and animal rights books
I was raised in Brooklyn by carnivores. 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.
I started Micah Publications in 1978, and at first we published only fiction; I was very involved in the world of independent publishers. One day in 1983, I received an unsolicited manuscript called Judaism and Vegetarianism by a 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 call my kosher butcher immediately. “I want you to listen to this,” and I read him a few paragraphs. “This guy’s got to be crazy,” I tell him. “Isn’t the whole point of kashrut that animals are raised humanely and slaughtered humanely?” “No,” he says. “All meat raised for commercial markets is raised the same way. We just kill the animals differently.” “Then this meat was never kosher and never will be,” I said. That was it. I became an instant vegetarian.
One thing led to another. I published Richard’s book, and I became very active in the North American Jewish Vegetarian Society. We used to meet in the Catskills at The Vegetarian Hotel, which is no longer there. I educated myself on how to become a good cook — I really had to, it was a new regime, and otherwise I would have had rebels on my hands, my husband and children. And of course it was necessary to think about the cost of drugs. I’ve written and edited many books, including Hagaddah for the Liberated Lamb — there’s a beautiful gift edition on purple linen, as well as the paperback; The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, which is vegan; Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition; and an anthology, Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary Responses, which has 41 articles by rabbis, doctors, veterinarians and activists. My interests grew to involve everything that has to do with food: food labeling, politics, gene-tampering, nutrition.
Micah Publications sells two bumper stickers: “Vegetarianism is an Affordable Health Plan” and “Real Environmentalists Don’t Eat Meat.” 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. Cattle contribute more to global warming than automobiles do. For me, organic means “God’s plan.”
If I were Neanderthal, I’d write for Neanderthals. 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.
Roberta, whom would you like to invite into Lilith’s sukkah?
My bubbe. I used to sit on her porch in Brooklyn eating bags of gribenes [chicken skin] and schmaltz. She’d save them for me. What did we know from diet or exercise?
Who’s been a significant role model?
David Rosen, the diplomat (and Orthodox rabbi) who engineered the Vatican’s recognition of Israel. When people ask him why he’s vegetarian, he says, “Because I’m a Jew.
What shakes your lulav?
Vegetarian eating and cooking are tremendous adventures.
The Earth is a fragile sukkah. What one act of repair can we offer?
As the saying goes, “Don’t eat anything with a face.”