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Rise of the vegan Jew

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In October 2018, Robyn Karmazyn got married. It was, in many ways, a wonderful event, held at Beth Torah, a popular Conservative synagogue in north Toronto. She and her husband stood under the huppah and smashed a glass to seal their commitment; they laughed as guests boosted them on chairs for the hora. But the night wasn’t perfect. After the ceremony, one guest quietly informed Karmazyn of a snide comment she’d overheard an older woman make about the menu: “What is my husband gonna eat?”

The menu, as per Karmazyn’s insistence, was vegan – just like the alcohol, the challah, her shoes, the cake and the bridesmaids’ shawls. Moroccan cigars and shish kebab were swapped out for soup shooters and pizza flatbread appetizers; fish and chicken were nixed for gnocchi, fried eggplant and a Middle Eastern salad.

Presumably, the carnivorous husband found something to eat.

“To me, it seems a little crazy that you have to have meat at every meal,” Karmazyn says. She stopped eating meat at age 14 for ethical reasons. Today, over two decades later, she’s devoted to the vegan cause. She worried she’d have to break her family’s tradition of being married in a synagogue, presuming Beth Torah couldn’t accommodate her plant-based requests. She was relieved to be proven wrong: the catering company’s chef, it turned out, was excited to cook something different.

“On such a happy day, I wouldn’t have felt right about serving our guests meat and dairy and eggs,” she says. “As much as I identify as Jewish, and that’s important to me – I grew up going to Hebrew school and everything – ultimately, to me, it’s literally a life-and-death situation when it comes to veganism.”

Karmazyn is one of a rapidly growing number of Jewish (and gentile) vegans around the world. According to a recent food industry report, the four million vegans in the United States in 2014 nearly quintupled to 19.6 million in 2017. According to a 2018 study from Dalhousie University, 850,000 Canadians have joined the movement. All these numbers exclude vegetarians, who also eat dairy, eggs and honey. Vegans strictly eat food derived from plants.

While the trend transcends Judaism, it certainly doesn’t avoid it. After all, separating milk and meat is a whole lot easier when one simply avoids both.

READ: ARE PLANT-BASED MEATS A HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE?

Emily Karlovitz Perry moved from Pittsburgh to Oklahoma before settling in Hamilton, Ont., where she felt drawn to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. She and her husband, both Jewish vegan chefs, opened Planted in Hamilton in January 2018. When their rabbi at Beth Jacob Synagogue caught wind of their enterprise, he suggested they certify it kosher.

“There really wasn’t a lot to do to make it a place that’s comfortable to people,” Karlovitz Perry says. Their rabbi surveyed the kitchen and required them to swap out a few ingredients, such as their balsamic vinegar and barbecue sauce. Planted in Hamilton was certified kosher in August; since then, the spot has sprouted into a gathering place for the Jewish community, as it’s one of the only kosher restaurants in the city.

“We got a lot of people, especially older people, who say, ‘Oh, I ate jackfruit!’ It was kind of a fun thing for them,” Karlovitz Perry says. There are no statistics that track Jewish vegans worldwide, but there are for Israel: as of 2016, five per cent of Israelis identified as vegan, one of the highest percentages in the world. That number doubled from 2010, when 2.6 per cent said they were vegetarian or vegan.

In recent years, hundreds of Israeli restaurants have begun offering vegan options or substitutes, including Domino’s, whose Israeli franchise made international headlines as the first to sell a soy-cheese pizza. The 837 residents of Amirim, a moshav near the Golan Heights, won’t let people in with meat – the entire place is 100 per cent vegetarian.

Down in the Negev Desert, a community of 3,000 Hebrew Israelites, a group of Africans who believe they’re the descendants of Israelites, likewise maintain what they call a “Garden of Eden” diet: plant-based, low sugar, no booze and no tobacco. They believe it’s the secret to a fulfilling, possibly never-ending life.

“Our parents, who were not born to veganism, but took it upon themselves in midlife, ruined their bodies with meat and therefore can’t expect to live forever,” Yair Israel, a Hebrew Israelite in the vegan food business, told Haaretz in 2016. “I believe that members of my generation and I will live forever.”

The reasons for going vegan are myriad. Animal welfare has traditionally been the leading rationale, as was the case with Karmazyn and Karlovitz Perry. But environmental concerns are gaining traction.

As glaciers shrink and forest fires grow, the fact that a Beyond Meat burger produces 90 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a quarter pound of beef is, for many, a compelling reason to eat less meat.

Personal health may also convince Jews who suffer from gastrointestinal problems to make the switch. Tracey Brown, a 48-year-old mother of two in the Toronto area, switched to veganism three years ago, after decades of being unable to figure out why she “felt so crappy all the time.” She had been tested for Crohn’s, colitis and other common digestive problems, but every specialist and doctor simply prescribed pills and steroids, instead of trying to find a proactive solution.

“They really don’t push that in the medical community,” she says. “Nobody said ‘eat plants.’ ”

Veganism wasn’t a big leap for Brown. “It never felt good to me eating animals,” she says. “I just always felt, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But as a Jew, you do – from a very early age.”

When it comes to children, their diets rely on fewer daily calories, which means they need to be deliberately packed with a variety of essential nutrients. That leads some nutritionists who encourage plant-based eating, such as Dr. Rena Mendelson, a professor of nutrition at Ryerson University, to caution against a blindly vegan diet for everyone.

“It can’t be just, ‘I’m not eating this anymore’ – it has to be what you are eating,”  she says. Some vegans erroneously believe they’ll get healthier by eliminating meat from their diet, even if they’re still eating junk food every night. “It’s a matter of making really calculated dietary sources and planning a diet that’s got a range of nutrients,” she says.

A vegan diet is known to cause deficiencies of vitamins A and B12, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. For anyone hoping to lose weight, Mendelson points to Canada’s current food guide as a better reference point: make half your plate fruits and vegetables, a quarter protein (plant- or animal-based) and a quarter whole grains.

“You want a diet that’s satisfying – not only physiologically, but also socially and emotionally,” she says.

For observant Jews, there is another reason to go vegan: it simplifies a kosher diet.

That was the entry point for Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, the new associate rabbi at the Beth Tzedec synagogue in Toronto. In 2011, during the hectic High Holiday season, when she was living in a place with a small kitchen in New York, she and her husband found they didn’t have time to cleanse their kitchen after big meals, in order to switch from meat to milk dishes.

“So we just ate out of our meat dishes for basically six weeks,” she says. By the end, “my husband and I just felt disgusting.” They made a pact to go vegan until American Thanksgiving, which was six weeks away. “All of a sudden, I felt better,” she says. “My body didn’t make noises … my skin looked better, I had more energy.”

Rabbi Fryer Bodzin sees nothing in Jewish texts that demands carnivorism. In fact, she points to Torah passages such as Deuteronomy 20:19, which command environmental responsibility. She summarizes the passage: “If there’s a war, don’t destroy the trees, because what did the trees ever do to you?”

To her, caring for animals is a Jewish value. “There’s no need for us to eat these animals,” she says. “Just because we are supposed to heal the world and be master of the world does not mean we have to eat the world.”

The hurdles for her adopting a plant-based diet are more cultural, rather than religious. “The only obstacle I’ve had to overcome is my family thinking I’m weird,” she says. For Passover, she used to place one of her kid’s plastic toy eggs on the Seder plate. These days, she uses “a beautiful picture of an egg.”

Dozens of rabbis agree with her interpretation of Jewish values. In September 2018, an international association called Jewish Veg published a letter signed by more than 70 rabbis urging Jews to go vegan.

“Judaism’s way of life, its dietary practices, are designed to ennoble the human spirit,” Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, wrote in the widely distributed letter. “It is therefore a contradiction in terms to claim that products that come through a process that involves inordinate cruelty and barbarity toward animal life can truly be considered kosher in our world.”

A growing number of Orthodox Jews are agreeing, especially in Israel, where veganism has created an unlikely alliance between secular Tel Aviv hipsters and socially conservative Jerusalemites.

Rabbi Asa Keisar is the vegan Orthodox movement’s leading figure, a militant and convincing speaker who blends biblical and talmudic citations into a 60-page booklet that he freely hands out at synagogues and yeshivas.

A sleek video recording of one of his Hebrew-language speeches, in which he spends 10 minutes outlining the religious argument against eating meat (“We’re transgressing the commandment against cruelty to animals,” he says), has racked up more than two million views on YouTube. The interpretation is pedantically complex, but the gist is simple: veganism is all but commanded by the Torah.

Rabbi Keisar has been lauded by Jews around the world, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who wrote to him personally. “It is clear that you are doing groundbreaking and courageous work,” wrote Rivlin, who has been a vegetarian since the 1960s. “I am very hopeful that over the next few years more and more people will join your righteous journey and that soon, the Jewish people and the State of Israel will be a light among the nations of the world.”

However, not everyone believes Israel is that light. Critics of the country and proponents of the BDS movement see Israel’s embrace of veganism as a disingenuous distraction from the Palestinian conflict. On Aug. 8, a group called Vegans for BDS organized a panel discussion on the University of Toronto campus called “No Veganwashing Israeli Crimes!” wherein speakers challenged the authenticity of Israel’s vegan movement and voiced support for Palestine’s stifled animal rights movement.

“It is getting close to five years since veganism has been on the radar as something that has been increasingly weaponized by the Israeli state,” said Michael John Addario, one of the event’s organizers, in front of a crowd of a few dozen supporters. “We need to take a very strong stand against this kind of thing being done in the name of the animal movement.”

Rabbi Keisar finds those accusations absurd. “The fact that Israel has decided to try and promote tourism by advertising itself as a vegan centre has nothing to do with the Palestinian issue,” he told The CJN. “Veganism is strongly rooted in Jewish texts and cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden in the Torah…. These texts and the Jewish learning predates the State of Israel and the Palestinian conflict by thousands of years.”

Whatever their reasons for going vegan, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that between Internet recipes, popular substitutions and meatless burgers, eating purely plant-based is easier than ever.

“It’s really a fantastic time to be vegan,” Karmazyn says. Jews might worry about the High Holidays, she notes, but a little creativity solves every problem. To break the Yom Kippur fast, try bagels with cashew cheese. For Rosh Hashanah, dip apples in date syrup. For Passover, you could follow Karmazyn’s lead: mash an avocado and spread it on a slice of matzah.

“It’s like Jewish avocado toast,” she says with a laugh. 

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