Here’s a tricky one: If a vegan were to garnish his or her “nonmeat meat” product (say, a tofu dog) with nondairy cheese, would the culinary combination prove to be a violation of kosher law?
“Our goal is not to go around rules like that,” said Debra Wasserman, who is the co-director and co-founder of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. As with this nationwide nonprofit she has successfully run for the past 35 years, Wasserman’s goal is one of educating and “making it easier for anyone who wants to become a vegetarian or vegan in any situation.”
One such perfect situation, Wasserman — who has been a staunch vegan since 1980 — suggested is the High Holiday dinners, when delectable yet salubrious alternatives to traditional recipes can be attempted to stimulate one’s and one’s family’s taste buds while heartily fortifying the rest of the body.
Born and raised in Long Island, N.Y., Wasserman received her master’s in international relations from Georgetown University. It was in Washington, D.C., where she became involved in a vegetarian group before arriving in Baltimore with her husband, Charles. The spousal team was dedicated to either finding a similar vegetarian group in its new home city or, barring that, starting one of its own, which is exactly what happened.
Three decades later, Wasserman is a national beacon for healthy dietary choices, having authored such books as “Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook” and “No Cholesterol Passover Recipes,” whose recipes she has demonstrated for salivating audiences through such largescale outlets as “Good Morning America.”
“People need to focus on healthier foods: fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and stop focusing on processed garbage,” Wasserman said. “Because I’m Jewish, I often work in that area. I’ve always told people who don’t know where to begin to consider their history.”
As Wasserman extrapolated, “If you look at Jews in the past and from around the world, they were certainly much more organic in their culinary choices. Jews come from all over, and there are so many recipes for the holidays to choose from, as long as people keep an open mind.”
“No matter what your level of Judaism,” Wasserman said, “you can do this.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about what vegans eat, but almost without exception I can tell you vegans love food.” — Jeffrey Cohan
If anything, preparing vegetarian and vegan foods for the High Holidays “makes keeping kosher infinitely easier,” according to Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg (formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America).
Cohan’s group, which he has been running for the past four years, is based out of Pittsburgh but has satellites in California and New York, where the 41-year-old nonprofit’s board meets.
“Our mission is to encourage and help people to transition to plant-based diets, partially on the basis of Jewish values and primarily within the Jewish community,” Cohan said.
Cohan believes that his organization’s proposition of “veganism as ultimate objective” by way of “reducing consumption of animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy” is essentially as Jewish as, well, apple kugel.
“Our organization couldn’t even exist if a plant-based diet wasn’t a Jewish ideal,” Cohan continued. “This was how we were supposed to be eating all along.”
As Cohan put it, there’s a three-part argument at work here about which “there’s no debate from rabbis.”
Firstly, Cohan pointed to the Torah’s recounting of the first conversation between God and man as dictated by Genesis: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.”
Cohan again referenced the holy tome for his second piece of evidence.
“While meat eating is permitted, more often than not, the Torah presents it in a negative context and in some contexts, extremely negative,” Cohan said. “So the idea is clearly communicated.”
Cohan rests his case with “three words all Jewish people should know: tzar baalei chayim, or the ‘prevention of animal suffering.’ This is a core concept of Judaism, rooted in numerous verses in the Torah.”
As Cohan pronounced, “Simply put, what’s happening in animal treatment today is a desecration of tzar baalei chayim. Therefore, no meat could be considered kosher, because you can’t have a mitzvah enabled by a sin.”
Baltimore native and Pikesville resident Diane Bravmann became a vegetarian “and mostly vegan,” as she made sure to add, 42 years ago after the birth of her first child “taught me to focus more on food and quality from the standpoint of prepared baby food versus making your own.”
In concert with Cohan’s assertion, Bravmann views the restorative choice she’s made as an inherently Jewish perspective.
“For me, it all goes together,” she said. “Our purpose is to heal the Earth and help others and do work beyond ourselves. All that goes with taking care of the environment and all the inhabitants of our environment. Judaism fits right into that.”
Along with her elevated sensitivity toward animal treatment and awareness of the kinds of food she was preparing for her children, Bravmann credits another crucial factor in her galvanization toward vegetarianism: a wider availability of product.
After seeing more and more specialized foods in markets, particularly the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, Bravmann and other vegetarians/vegans discovered an entirely new colorful palette of ingredients with which to design their strategy toward foodie wellness.
Wasserman concurs that proliferate specialty stores such as Whole Foods and, now, other mainstream chains carrying a larger spate of alternative products makes the vegetarian/vegan transition that much simpler.
“You can imagine the demand is pretty high right now,” she said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what vegans eat, but almost without exception I can tell you vegans love food,” Cohan cheerfully proclaimed.
“We believe in our movement that food is our greatest asset and we’re not suffering any deprivations.”
Cohan is equally excited as Wasserman and Bravmann that, for example, “whereas it used to be a real problem for vegans, now the quality and quantity of nondairy cheese is really tremendous.”
Hence a favorite of his: lasagna made with nondairy cheese in lieu of mozzarella and ricotta.
For the Holidays in particular, Cohan suggested starting with something that is basically as familiar as that lasagna of his with the vegetarian/vegan twist. This way, family and friends won’t be too inhibited from eating the new concoction that they may end up finding surprisingly delicious if only they’d give it a chance.
“You might bring something that they may have never tried before and they might be wary, but when they do try it, the vast majority of the time, they’ll find that what they’re eating is just as good as the animal-based version,” Cohan said.
“Use the same names as traditional dishes like kugel and challah and then increase health properties and variety by using vegan recipes,” Bravmann said. “Use tofu for your kugel instead of dairy products, for instance. You’re taking the familiar and traditional and making them even more nutritious and appealing.”
Bravmann has in the past made stuffing with vegetable broth and mushrooms as opposed to chicken or beef stock, throwing in various nuts and chia or hemp seeds that boost the nutritional value further still. Bravmann said she enjoys only using the same recipe once, improvising subsequent preparations to keep the process creative.
She’s struggled to figure out a name for the dish mentioned, which she referred to merely as a kind of “un-soup”, adding that it “will look like a chicken soup but it’s not. And people say, ‘Wow! This is even better than chicken soup.’”
Wasserman prefers the sweet to the savory and brought up her Romanian sweet pasta dish, which involves cooking pasta, heating up some maple syrup with ground walnuts or poppy seeds in a pot, adding lemon rind, clover and raisins in order to create something that can replace kugel on the dinner table.
What about apples and honey? Wasserman revealed a Jewish vegan would need to find an alternative here as well, since honey is an animal product, one whose acquiring can often lead to a cataclysmic disturbance of bee communities, including decimation of whole hives and, as we’re discovering these days, the diminishment of bee numbers to near extinction.
Instead of honey, Wasserman might use agave nectar or an organic product called Bee Free Honee that is made from organic apples, a little bit of lemon juice and cane sugar.
Even a kind of brisket can find itself on the table of a Jewish vegan family, one that might use a wheat-based product called seitan as a mouthwatering replacement.
“It’s really just as tasty as any brisket your mom makes, but without the cholesterol and without the saturated fat,” Cohan said.
“You can get anything — cakes, pies, puddings, rugalach —without dairy or eggs. And it’s all relatively easy to make. You can modify any recipe to taste or dietary restriction.”