I know the jokes. I see them posted on Facebook and Instagram and I even chuckle at them myself:
How do you tell if someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry; they’ll f*%!#ing tell you.
Or the one about what would a vegan do if someone’s choking and dying? They’d tell you they’re vegan.
Ha ha ha.
I understand the jokes, but being vegan is no joking matter. I’m vegan for a lot of reasons. It started as a child and teenager when I felt guilty eating animals, because I liked animals and there just wasn’t an option not to eat them in my family and in the cultural and social climate I was raised in. (As for the snarky comments I hear, “The way I show I like animals is by eating them!” ha ha ha.)
When I became a vegetarian at 19, I chose to eat no animal products, except for eggs and dairy. The year was 1994, and it was considered very odd to restrict one’s diet this way. My mom was pretty annoyed she had to accommodate my weird eating, my dad thought it was plain nuts, and there were no “vegetarian” restaurants to even eat at that I knew of. I ate a lot of salads and French fries and pasta in those days.
And nowadays, many young women have been reported to use vegetarianism and veganism as a mask for eating disorders, but in 1994, that was not on my radar at all. I didn’t want to eat animals, and I was desperate to find a way to not eat them.
With time, I gained a larger understanding of the other aspects of veganism.
After cutting out dairy in college, I stopped needing antibiotics and constantly having sinus infections and colds. My seasonal allergies improved tremendously. Health reasons for being vegan: check.
I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” after having my second son, and learned about the practical and very critical ways that harvesting animals for our consumption is damaging the environment. It leads to the destruction of land and resources that we are now starting to hear about more and more. Environmental reasons for being vegan: check.
I have learned from doing research, and from the work of organizations like PETA, The Humane Society, and Mercy for Animals, about the way animals are systematically treated and mistreated in large farms, even the ones that claim they are cruelty-free and free-range. I cannot continue to participate in eating foods that are so poorly regulated when it comes to not only animals’ rights, but the rights of the workers in those factories. Ethical reasons for being vegan: check.
What I am asked a lot about, though, is the Jewish angle on my veganism. I get lots of questions: What about chicken soup? Isn’t it a mitzvah to eat meat on Shabbat? What do you eat on Passover? What about the Paschal lamb? What about honey cake for Rosh Hashanah? (That one’s easy—I just send them my vegan honey cake recipe!).
Besides people asking how I can live without brisket or chopped liver (trust me, I can, and so can my cholesterol levels and gall bladder!), many people want to know if there is a religious or Jewish connection to veganism. In fact, there is.
For thousands of years, the importance of respecting animal life and minimizing pain and suffering to animals has been a part of Jewish tradition. The Torah discusses numerous ways to minimize the cruelty of animals and emphasizes their treatment, including, for example, the requirement that animals be fed before we ourselves sit down to eat. The Torah discusses the intimate and significant relationships we humans have with animals, and it designates animals’ rights as unique and valuable. While the Torah describes a time in history where animals were sacrificed in ways we do not do any more, it also described a culture where meat was certainly eaten less frequently than the SAD–Standard American Diet–describes. And when animals were sacrificed, there was a sense of awe and respect.
Even today, ritual slaughterers recite blessings as they take the life of an animal. (There have been animal rights violations at even the most stringent kosher butcher factories, highlighting the need for even the Jewish community to continue our understanding of the ways we need to respect animals if they are being used for our consumption.)
There are Jewish people and organizations that believe not eating animals is a way to honor our tradition in meaningful ways, even calling veganism the “Jewish ideal.” One such organization is Jewish Veg (formerly JVNA). Since 1975, they have been a great resource for support, recipes, and information about Jewish vegans and their way of life.
All in all, being a Jewish vegan is really not a big deal for me. Just as kosher people often have to find substitutions for non-kosher foods, vegans do the same. And although there may be more foods vegans have to substitute for, I am so grateful for organizations like Jewish Veg for existing.
Because it can feel lonely to be a Jewish vegan without others sharing the journey.