Monday, September 14, 2009

A vegetarian, a vegan, and a Jew

I’ve been asked many times, but no, I’m not vegetarian; I just happen to like vegetarian food. I would happily eat fish more often if I could afford it, but I can’t, and since I don’t feel especially strongly about chicken, I simply don’t happen to eat much meat.

I have considered going full-on vegetarian several times, because I already don’t like red meat, eggs, or cheese; however, I have never been able to justify making the commitment. Basically, I cannot find a compelling enough reason. I’m not sympathetic enough toward farm animals (yes, I think their living conditions are despicable, but only when I read books and articles about the issue; it doesn’t bother me enough to warrant a lifestyle change). I am not lactose intolerant or possess any other unusual food allergies. I like ice cream, I love fish, and I see no reason to deprive myself of these things. Plus, I don’t consider the inconvenience to other people—particularly when it comes to eating in their homes—worth the payoff. Therefore, I have remained a vegetable lover who is not opposed to a bit of fish or chicken and eats a lot of ice cream.

This being said, when I am asked “Are you vegetarian?” I always feel complimented because I interpret the question as a way of saying, “You seem like someone who has the willpower and dedication to become a vegetarian.” And that association—with qualities of loyalty, self-control, and commitment—appeals to me. However, committing to vegetarianism is nothing compared to committing to veganism. Or Judaism.

After a night of rock'n roll in the rain, firecrackers on the roof, and Jameson's, I ended up at the Jersey Shore with my friend D___, his girlfriend Karen, and two of his other friends, Larry and Joe. Before we even left, I already knew that Karen was vegan (because D__ sometimes brings me leftovers from his vegan dinner experiments), and I found out the night we drove to the shore that Joe was Jewish and, consequently, kept kosher. (Although I realize that one eating practice is linked to a religin and one is not, I still find it odd that we say Jews keep kosher but that people who don't eat animal products are vegans.) When we arrived at the beach and convened to eat lunch the next day, I discovered that even Larry was vegetarian. Oddly enough, that made me and D__ the "odd men out." However, even D__ was being vegan for the weekend (he does this to support Karen), so it seemed that I was the only one without who wasn't making a moral/political statement with my mealtime choices.

With three such differently inspired eaters dining together, meals generated the kind of conversation I like best: debates. Joe had just returned from a few months in Isreal, and was filled with awe and respect for the lifestyle and culture he experienced there. I never did find out his personal reason for keeping kosher, but I am positive he had one, because he interrogated D___ and Karen about their food choices the way I only wish I had the courage to do.

One evening, Joe and I went to the local Wawa (a 7-Eleven-type grocery mart that, when mentioned, never fails to make me think of Hellen Keller) to pick up ice cream for dessert. Thinking of Karen, I suggested we get sorbet, too. I scrupulously examined the list of ingredients on the container, wondering aloud over "pectin" until Joe assured me that that ingredient was fine. We ended up getting 2 pints of Edy's ice cream and a pint of Hagaan Daas rasberry sorbet and walked back to the beach house, satisfied with our purchase, only to have Karen take one look at the sorbet container and inform us that she couldn't eat it. Why? It "contained traces of milk product."

"You can eat it," Joe told her, "You're just choosing not to."

Karen looked shocked that this man, Dan's friend, had the nerve to talk to her this way. And a man who kept kosher, no less! The same thing that flashed through my mind must have run through hers: If it weren't kosher, would you eat it?

As if reading our minds, Joe replied, "Even Judaism has a degree of allowances. They say, 'You tried? Okay, that's what matters.'"

I wanted to hug this man. As silly and outdated as I think keeping kosher is (from what I know of it), this response to veganism is exactly how I feel about it. The militance, to me, seems oppressive, not liberating. You can fight your battles, but why nitpick the tiniest details of one battle when there are larger issues at hand?

My second moment of appreciation for Joe's brilliance came on the beach, when he told D___ he would be grilling steaks for dinner. D__ told him he wasn't going to have any, and Joe demanded to know why.

"Because I decided that when I'm with Karen, I'm going to respect her choices," D___ told him.

"So respect them," Joe said. "She doesn't have to eat the steak."

"I'll eat meat when I'm with the boys," D__ replied, ,"but when I'm with her, I don't want her to be the only vegan in the room."

Joe looked disguested. "Oh come on. Stand up, be your own man and make your own decisions. You don't see her eating meat just to make you feel better do you?"

Finally, D__ acquiesced. At this point, I couldn't keep quiet; I pointed at Joe and exclained, "I like you!" D___ wasn't very happy with me after that. I think I was supposed to be his ally.

At the risk of sounding as though I idolize Joe, however, I understand keeping kosher even less, I think, than I understand "keeping vegan". Vegans at least have their animal-loving argument. At the risk of seeming anti-semitic (which would be ridiculous, because my father is Jewish), keeping kosher seems like one more way for Jews to be “special.” Yes, Jews have been discriminated against in the past and almost certainly still are today, but the more things people do to separate themselves from society and the mainstream (e.g. needing their own exclusive restaurants and own specially prepared food), the more they force others to see--and treat--them as separate. It is like a form of self-discrimination: wanting to be be viewed as a separate, privileged group to which only a select few have access and deserve to be members. What better way to do this than to make what should be a communal event, such as a meal, into an idealogical battleground?

Ironically enough, the person whose eating habits I least understood but most appreciated were Larry's. He has been a vegeterian for 20 years, and although I never asked what promted him to give up meat, I found his approach to food the most sensible of the group. He didn't fuss over whether or not steak had touched the grill when he went to grill his vegetable burgers, and he did not scrutinize the ingredient list on the package of Oreos when one was offered to him. Ultimately, were I to become a vegetarian (or as I would prefer to say, to "keep vegetarian," since I wouldn't really become anything I'm not already!), I would most likely follow these sort of self-guided dietary "morals."

For now, though, I am satisfied to eat what tastes good, avoid what doesn't, try to limit my intake of things I know are unhealthy, and marvel at the impressive dedication of vegetarians, vegans, and Jews.


K said...

Keeping kosher is based on a set of laws in the Torah and elsewhere about what foods by themselves are okay to eat (pork/pig is not allowed in any form ever), what foods can be mixed together (cheeseburgers are a no-no, but plain hamburgers are okay), and special rules about preparing food or slaughtering the animals. Not all modern Jews keep kosher but some do. Some people argue (I don't have the source, but I've heard it before) that some of the rules were created as a way to keep people from eating things or doing things that would make them sick or were harmful to them thousands of years ago. Obviously, it is perfectly safe to eat pork products today. I cannot think of something analogous in any Christian denomination, except for perhaps Methodism's temperance belief, but that is not rooted in ancient laws and practices, but rather modern societal issues. In short, keeping kosher is part following their religion, and has nothing to do with trying to be "special" or self-exclusion. While Judaism does have a cultural aspect in addition to being a religion, anyone can convert and practice Judaism.

(I made breakfast for my sorority sisters a few weeks ago, and a handful of them are Jewish and keep kosher, so I had to do some research on what is kosher and what isn't.)

I also really like Joe, because he's right. D__ does need to man up. Karen is a big girl and if she wants to be vegan, that's her choice and she can deal with it herself. I'm obviously assuming here, but she's probably been a vegan for a long time and has grown accustomed to being the only vegan in the room at times. I could see if she recently made the switch and needed/wanted the extra support.

Side notes:
-I abhor vegetarians/vegans whose definition of vegetables is French fries and a house salad. Even I, a hard-core meat eater, know that doesn't count!
-Once again, I am reminded that I need to learn how to cook vegetables and vegetable dishes.
-I am also reminded that I need to lay off the bacon sometimes.
-I can't believe that you don't like cheese. Not at all? What don't you like about it? And eggs, too! I know they are high in cholesterol, but once a week is not bad. I love a good omelet with fresh green peppers, onions, and some cheddar cheese!
-Wawa makes me think of Helen Keller, too!

Mike S. said...

"A vegetarian, a vegan, and a Jew". Sounds like the title of an up and coming sitcom to me!

Daniel said...

dear k,
i simply respect my girlfriend's views. it has nothing to do with "manning up" it has to do with being incredibly in love with someone who you respect and want to show that respect to them. i don't make a big deal out of it...e.g., if your boyfriend(s) wanted to quit drinking, would you open up a bottle of whiskey in front of them? if some fat-dude you may want to date wants to lose weight, would you buy them a cheeseburger? being a recent divorcee i understand that respecting your partner and showing compassion to their views is the basis of any good relationship. karen has NEVER asked me not to eat anything, nor has she ever stood on a pedestal and declared her veganism to ANYONE--allison included--the only time she speaks of it (usually amongst half-brained, tongue-in-cheek attacks--e.g.: "do you wear leather"--she simply says, "well you have to pick your battles, but if i need a new pair of boots, i will buy them second hand..." i do eat meat (sometimes)--i am pretty much evenly aligned with allison on eating issues, the only reason i agreed to eat joe's steaks is that, as a chef-in-training, i appreciate the amount of prep that goes into certain dishes. and i saw how much prep went into joe's steaks (side note: joe and i argue and speak to each other--little brotherly digs and jabs included-- as said brothers. it's a very healthy, fun relationship. i also really like joe, i respect his judiasm--i am going to be taking part in his shabatz (sp?) every friday throughout the winter, cause i love him too. what people want to eat is their decision, comment on health care or something important. i can assure you, this is the biggest spotlight that has ever been placed on karen's veganism. (and it's been since new years...) no hard feelings, but i simply had to state to actual truth.