This year at Passover, Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, had a different kind of seder. Instead of a shank bone, he put a beet on his table, and in place of an egg, he used an avocado. The reason? Yanklowitz, 31, is part of a growing number of Americans—and Jews—including former President Bill Clinton, Academy Award-winning actor Natalie Portman and boxing champion Mike Tyson, who have adopted a vegan diet.
In contrast to vegetarianism, a diet that shuns meat—and usually seafood—veganism is often described as an entire lifestyle that goes beyond what a person eats. “Vegans don’t participate in the use of animals, period,” says Gary Smith, a Jewish vegan who owns a California-based PR company that represents several animal rights groups. In addition to a diet that excludes meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey, vegans “don’t use leather or wool for clothing, don’t support animal entertainment—so no zoos, circuses or aquariums—and also don’t support using products that rely on animal experimentation,” Smith says.
While veganism as a way of life is a recent phenomenon—the term was coined in 1944 by two members of Britain’s Vegetarian Society, and the practice gained steam in the United States during the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s—plant-based diets are nothing new. The Bible even describes the first humans as vegan: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,” God instructs Adam and Eve in Genesis. According to Yanklowitz, who is also the founder of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a group that advocates kosher veganism, the Torah depicts all early humans as living off fruits and vegetables; it was only after the Flood that meat was introduced at meal times. “Once humans started killing each other and acting immorally, God made a concession and said, ‘You can eat animal products, but I’m going to give you a lot of restrictions on how to do that,’” Yanklowitz says.
For Yanklowitz, even the laws of kashrut reflect a vegan ethic. On the most basic level, he explains that both dietary restrictions elevate food to a sacred level and encourage mindfulness while eating. In the specifics of kashrut, Yanklowitz also sees a link: “The idea that a person should wait six hours after eating meat to have milk is one of the many ideas that’s moving us toward veganism,” he says. Veganism also has a deeper spiritual meaning. He points to the belief of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, who said that when the Messiah comes, all humans would revert to their plant-based diets. “Becoming vegan is, in a sense, moving toward the messianic era,” says Yanklowitz.
Judaism is not the only religion with tenets that overlap with veganism. Many sects of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism officially endorse plant-based diets as part of their ethic of nonviolence. A number of Greek philosophers, including Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras, also endorsed veganism or vegetarianism, and prominent thinkers in later centuries such as Benjamin Franklin, Leo Tolstoy, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Ralph Waldo Emerson are said to have adopted the diet for at least part of their lives. In the mid-20th century, however, one of the strongest justifications for abstaining from meat—that it fosters peacefulness, while eating animals leads to aggression and violence—was debunked when another vegetarian gained notoriety: Adolf Hitler.
When the metaphysical argument against meat eating lost credibility, others emerged. The 20th century witnessed a dramatic shift in food production, with small family farms giving way to large-scale, industrial farms and slaughterhouses. This change made meat, dairy and eggs cheaper, but at the same time, resulted in increasingly brutal living conditions for livestock—from which kosher facilities have not been immune. While these developments dramatically increased the amount of meat and dairy Americans consume daily, awareness of the inhumane way animals are being treated has prompted more consumers to forego animal products altogether.
Many Jewish vegans say their religious values condemn this abuse of animals, citing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, a Talmudic principle that bans inflicting unnecessary harm on animals. Jews have also popularized opposition to the modern mistreatment of animals through secular ideas. Princeton scholar Peter Singer, for example, laid the philosophical foundation for animal welfare in his seminal 1975 work, Animal Liberation, in which he argues that “speciesism”—discrimination based on belonging to a certain species—has prevented humans from seeing non-human animals as worthy of equal consideration.
Climate change has also been connected to industrial farming. But a more common reason to turn to veganism has been health, particularly in the wake of the nation’s obesity epidemic and skyrocketing rates of other chronic diseases. Food writer Mark Bittman (temporarily) adopted a vegan diet after a heath scare, and for good reason. The U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has said that a vegan diet is “healthful, [and] nutritionally adequate.” Studies have also shown that a vegan diet is tied to lower rates of heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes. Mayim Bialik, the Emmy Award-nominated star of the television show The Big Bang Theory, says that she became a vegan for health reasons. “My whole life, I’ve always had allergies—sneezing pretty much every day of my life, sinus infections and antibiotics,” she says. “On someone’s suggestion, I cut out most dairy, and I never had a sinus infection since.”
While there are some benefits to being an Orthodox vegan—like not needing to keep separate milk and meat kitchens—it’s not always easy, explains Bialik, who is writing a kosher vegan cookbook. “I can’t be invited out easily to someone’s house for Shabbos, without having to modify it with, ‘Well, here’s the deal—we’re vegan. That means no eggs, no cheese, no fish, no meat,’” she says. “If I do spend Shabbos with people, it’s either with vegan friends or people who are very comfortable cooking vegan stuff.” Bialik also says that the dual restrictions of keeping kosher and being vegan can be tricky, since most vegan products are not hechshered, and vice versa.Instead, the actor relies on what she calls vegan “power foods,” such as quinoa, avocados and nuts—and also on vegan versions of her Jewish favorites, such as her grandmother’s Hungarian strudel and latkes.
However, not everyone agrees that veganism is the solution to the nation’s health and environmental crises and guarantees animal welfare. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food guru Michael Pollan calls veganism a “utopia,” pointing out that even farming plants has its dangers for animals, and that on a global scale, veganism is impractical and unsustainable, since grazing animals are an efficient source of protein and add essential fertilizers to the food chain. “If our concern is for the health of nature—rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls—then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do,” he writes.
Still, veganism is enjoying a surge of popularity in Jewish circles, inspiring dozens of specialty cookbooks and recipe websites, such as the NewKosher Cookbook and the Heeb’n’Vegan blog. Kosher vegan restaurants are also popping up around the country, from Caravan of Dreams and Babycakes Bakery in New York, to Planet Raw in California. Gary Smith attributes the growing number of vegans to several factors, including the fact that celebrities such as Bialik—who was recently featured in a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) advertising campaign—who are going public with their vegan diets. “Even though vegans are 0.5 to one percent of the population in the United States, they’re very vocal,” he says. “They’re kind of like the Jewish community—we don’t make up a big percentage of America, but we have a vocal, powerful way of being in the culture.”—Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil