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Plant-Based Jewish Eating

Vegan food and Jewish food come together

Flora Tsapovsky
May 07, 2020
Courtesy Jewish Food Hero
Mushroom and walnut gardener’s pie with butternut squash topping, from ‘Feeding Women of the Bible, Feeding Ourselves’Courtesy Jewish Food Hero
Courtesy Jewish Food Hero
Mushroom and walnut gardener’s pie with butternut squash topping, from ‘Feeding Women of the Bible, Feeding Ourselves’Courtesy Jewish Food Hero

Deli sandwiches without real meat. Shavuot-appropriate cheesecakes without dairy. A vegan revolution in Tel Aviv. In recent years, as veganism evolved from a fringe trend into a worldwide movement, an unprecedented surge of Jewish foods embracing all things vegan has emerged.

But could what seems like piggybacking on a newly popular wave of plant-based eating actually reveal a deeper, historic bond that goes back centuries?

“The idea that vegan food is somehow a new idea is a myth,” said Kenden Alfond, the Cambodia-based, U.S.-born nutritionist behind Jewish Food Hero, a website dedicated to healthy, plant-based Jewish living. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Nowadays we are consuming meat, dairy, eggs, and fish in wildly excessive quantities and with startling frequency, far unlike anything in our Jewish tradition.”

Alfond has a new book out called Feeding Women of the Bible, Feeding Ourselves. Plant-based foods and recipes are front and center in the cookbook, inviting readers and home cooks to journey all the way back to the Torah. The book is dedicated to stories of 20 biblical female characters, from Eve to Sarah to Naomi, which appear alongside vegan recipes, each developed by a different female food and wellness expert. For example, “Tamar’s story shows her using the power of disguise to reach her goals,” Alfond told me, so the chapter about Tamar, written by Ora Weinbach, features “chocolate truffles that appear one way on the outside, concealing something altogether different within, mirror her story.”

The relationship between veganism and Judaism is fascinating not only to food writers and wellness experts, but scholars, too. Last year, professor Jacob Labendz and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz published Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism. In the book, scholars analyze the Talmud, Jewish societal dynamics and lawmaking, and teachings by key figures like Rav Kook, to debate the convergence of veganism and Judaism throughout the history of the Jewish people. The authors’ conclusions aren’t decisive: “One would indeed be amiss if they were to argue that biblical or rabbinical Judaism promotes either veganism or vegetarianism,” they write in the book’s introduction. “To be sure, none of the contributors in this volume make such a case, even if some argue that the proper normative application of Jewish law and values today should lead one to adopt either veganism or vegetarianism.”

But whether veganism in Judaism is age-old or not, what both books aim to achieve is adjusting the discourse around Jewish foodways to include a vegan narrative at all, a goal published works like the recently translated The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook had set out to achieve as early as 1938. One takeaway: Traditional Jewish cuisine, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, isn’t just about brisket, succulent lamb, or gefilte fish. Another: The decision to go plant-based fits perfectly within the core values of Judaism. “Veganism serves our physical health, but for me it is also deeply spiritually nourishing,” said Alfond. “The way I eat is deeply aligned with Jewish ethical principles.” She mentions tza’ar ba’alei chayim (do not cause animals unnecessary suffering) and bal tashchit (do not destroy) as biblical sources, framing veganism as a theme woven into the core of Judaism. In Israel, some Orthodox rabbis have voiced a similar outlook, mining the Torah for clues promoting a vegan lifestyle.

It’s not too surprising, as Jews integrate veganism into their lives, that emerging food brands by Jewish creators keep leaning into veganism, or that certain vegan brands are going kosher. The crossover seems like a win for both sides. When Jenny Goldfarb, the creator of the L.A-based brand Unreal Deli, decided to launch a series of plant-based deli meats last year, it was out of conviction. Growing up in New York, Goldfarb is no stranger to pastrami; “I ate kosher meat until a new friend posted a harrowing video, then I watched some documentaries, and became vegan,” she told me. Goldfarb started a vegan recipe blog, coming up with recipes on the go. One of them, corned beef made from chickpeas and tomatoes, among other ingredients, turned out so well that she decided to market it. Last November, vegetarian mogul Mark Cuban backed Unreal Deli with $250,000 on the TV show Shark Tank.

Indeed, Jewish foods are worth big bucks; a product can open itself up to a new market by adding kosher certification, and that’s much easier done when it’s already plant-based. Take Country Crock Plant Butter, a new product by the non-Jewish, Holland-based food company Upfield; getting the product certified kosher pareve in 2018 was “a no-brainer,” according to brand manager Jessica Bernheim. The product acquired its certification before launching. “It makes cooking easier for all communities,” Bernheim told me, “including those following a plant-based diet or a kosher diet.”

For Goldfarb, however, Unreal Deli is both a business and an act of activism. “I believe that as Jews, we raise the bar for those of us who got clued into what’s happening with animals,” she said. “I believe we are revolutionaries. Jewish people aren’t afraid to stick out, be a little strange, to lead the way.”

Was veganism always there for Jewish people? Goldfarb believes so. “The Bible starts with Adam and Eve given access to all the fruits and vegetables,” she said. “The kosher laws end up separating milk and meat, and I believe they should be separated out. All the brachot (blessings), most of them are for vegan foods. Eating meat was never the ideal way to put fuel in our body.”

Vegan Jewish celebrity activists echo her sentiment; actress Mayim Bialik published an essay titled, “Yes, There Is a Jewish Connection to My Veganism” back in 2015, in which she cites Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 book Eating Animals as an influential factor in her decision to switch from vegetarian to completely vegan. “The Torah discusses the intimate and significant relationships we humans have with animals, and it designates animals’ rights as unique and valuable,” she writes. And while the Torah has always been open to interpretation, one thing seems clear: Jewish veganism is here to stay.

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.

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