Many of my childhood food memories are of my grandmother and her holiday dishes. Standing by her side, she showed me how to roll the dough of mandelbrodt, properly fry a latke and make sweet noodle kugel. Conversations fluctuated between what would be cooked for the next meal and commentary about what was already bubbling on the stovetop or browning in the oven.
When I was ten years old, I told my parents that I did not want to eat animals and would henceforth be a vegetarian. Then, a few years ago, I decided to become vegan after I learned that the animals raised for egg and dairy products—even from local farmers—were eventually slaughtered when they stopped “producing.” With a vegan diet, out went most of my grandmother’s cooking.
While food is integral to being Jewish, we are also required to fulfill our responsibilities to the treatment of animals. The Torah offers many radical ideas about our relationships with animals and the natural world that were a few thousand years ahead of contemporary thought. Historian Cecil Roth wrote, “Until the nineteenth century, cruelty to animals was nowhere illegal, except in Jewish law.” All animals—including humans—ate plants until after the story of Noah. Rabbi David Sears of the Breslov Center of New York argues, “The Torah espouses compassion for all creatures and affirms the sacredness of life,” including tza’ar ba’alei chayim (prevent suffering of animals).
We are challenged to live these values within the reality of our industrial food system. Over nine billion farm animals are slaughtered each year in the US. They are the victims of our single-use, consumer society, raised to fulfill our food preferences as quickly and efficiently as possible and deceptively packaged in sanitized and neatly wrapped trays and cartons depicting quaint farm imagery.
In reality, 99% of all animals are raised in the US on massive factory farms under very inhumane conditions. Without access to the outdoors, they are pumped with hormones and antibiotics, and mutilated and bred to be unnaturally large, to cheaply generate as much milk, eggs or meat possible. All of this occurs within a short lifespan of about five to eighteen months. Unless you buy kosher meat from the few boutique companies that raise and slaughter their own animals, the meat for your shnitzel and cholent comes from factory farms, according to Jewish Veg.
Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary is a 400-acre farm sanctuary about an hour from Washington, DC. As a volunteer, I clean barns and fields and feed animals. Farm animals have sophisticated social structures, communication skills and behaviors. Whether it’s Lily, an elderly immobile dairy cow, who expresses appreciation when I serve her breakfast, a turkey that excitedly greets human visitors or the horse who guides a blind mule, they are intelligent and emotional beings.
We need to deeply think and question our responsibilities as Jews: When we engage in the industrial system of raising animals, are we following Jewish law? How can we live as closely to Torah’s ideals as God’s partners in protecting this Earth, through our food choices?
As Rabbi Moses Maimonides, one of our religion’s most influential rabbis and philosophers, wrote in the Guide for the Perplexed, “When we view [animals] as simply a product to eat or wear, we are dishonoring them and ourselves. It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.”
Eating less meat and dairy, or being vegan, does not mean forsaking all of one’s favorite Shabbat and holiday dishes. We pass down recipes—often with modifications determined by dietary preferences of the era—because such foods are integral to our memories and experiences. If Jews shift toward more sensitivity around animal welfare, then recreating recipes to reflect such ideas is the appropriate next step. I’ve decided to challenge myself to update some of my grandmother’s beloved recipes, including her noodle kugel dish. I think she’d agree.