One of the hottest culinary trends in Israel this past year can be summed up in a word: vegan.
Increasing numbers of Jews and Arabs, religiously observant and secular alike, are abandoning meat and dairy produce and embracing a parve diet of sorts, based largely on vegetables, grains, nuts, fruits and soy products.
The number of vegans in the country has more than sextupled in the past four years, and Israel is touted as second in the Western world, behind the United States, in terms of the percentage of the population opting for exclusively vegetarian cuisine.
Omri Paz, one of the country’s most famous vegans and founder of Vegan Friendly Israel project, says surveys show there are more than 300,000 vegans in Israel, up from around 60,000 about four years ago. That figure is in addition to the estimated half-million vegetarians who eschew meat products, but unlike vegans, generally eat eggs and dairy.
The rapidly rising number of vegans in Israel is widely attributed to the effects of Facebook, YouTube and the Internet. Many graphic videos documenting the horrors faced by animals led to slaughter have come into plain view and gone viral on the Web, often narrated by animal rights activists who can make you feel guilty within seconds for even thinking about continuing to partake of animal flesh.
A voluntary NGO, the Vegan-Friendly project spreads the pro-herbivorous message, and helps restaurants and food manufacturers adjust their menus and products to accommodate the needs of the expanding vegan market.
Paz went vegan more than three years ago, at a time when many others in the country were beginning to think about it and adjust their lifestyles, too.
Being vegan means you forgo all animal products, meat and dairy alike. For most, it involves giving up leather, wool, silk, honey, down coats, pillows and blankets as well – anything taken forcibly or unnaturally from an animal or any living creature, which in many cases results in either maiming or killing them. In the case of the dairy industry, cow milk is mass-produced by immediately isolating the females from their calves, many of which are then taken to slaughter.
For Paz, a Tel Avivian, the cruel treatment of animals by the meat and dairy industries segued with a sense of being a justice seeker, which has led him to pursue a career in law, a degree that he is studying for at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I see veganism as a moral imperative, not because I want to be warm and fuzzy with all the pigs and cows, or kiss them on the nose. It comes more from a deep feeling of injustice,” said Paz, who sees the way animals are treated by the livestock industry as “one of the worst injustices on earth.”
His own transition to veganism occurred after viewing YouTube videos by American animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky, whose “peace begins at the dinner table” message has spurred people to give up meat throughout the Western world.
Paz thinks the message took off in Israel because, being a smaller country, popular videos tend to get more widely shared and viewed. Paz’s NGO even brought Yourofsky over to lecture locally.
Vegan Friendly has toured the country, providing lectures, panel discussions and mass picnics, all designed to show the public how abandoning meat and milk products is not necessarily a sacrifice, but can be fun and tasty.
In the past two years, dozens of restaurants have either gone vegan or revised their menus to offer many choices sans animal ingredients. Examples range from Nanoutchka in Tel Aviv, a Georgian eatery whose owner reworked the entire menu when she herself went vegan, to Domino’s Pizza, which offers vegan pizza options.
You no longer have to go to specialty shops for vegetarian hamburgers and the like; you can now pick these up in most standard supermarkets as well.
The trend has embraced a broad cross section of Israelis.
It is strong enough to have taken even the IDF by storm, which has adjusted its rules to accommodate vegan soldiers. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also increasingly embracing the vegan lifestyle, backed by teachers and rabbis teaching that in many ways it better suits the Torah’s message of the mitzva of showing compassion toward animals than the consumption of the byproducts of modern mass slaughterhouses.
While kosher slaughter may technically meet the standards of Halacha, some religious authorities feel there is room to question whether the letter of ancient law handed down from a time when the Jews lived a more agrarian existence and took care of their own livestock is being met by today’s meat and dairy industries.
Asa Keisar, of Petah Tikva, is a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man who grew up vegetarian and became a vegan more than two years ago. He feels passionately enough about it to spend a good deal of his time touring the country to lecture about his lifestyle, and has written books about the subject, which he discusses with whoever wants to listen.
Keisar doesn’t know of any particular surveys showing how persuasive he has been, but feels there is a lot of interest among the religious public in the vegan diet.
“There has been a significant increase. Every day another religious family enters the circle. Every day I get approached by people who tell me they are going vegan after hearing a lecture of mine or reading something I wrote.”
In his talks, Keisar says he quotes from Jewish sages and prophets who, as he puts it, have pointed out how not everything permitted by the Torah is what ought to be done, and that parts of the scriptures suggest “that God would prefer that you not eat it [meat].”
For many Orthodox Jews, Keisar says, the issue is more how to find a handy substitute for chicken and fish at the Shabbat dinner table. A woman in northern Israel has written a recipe book, which he hopes will soon be published, to help facilitate the growth of vegan eating, he says. Because fewer haredim are on Facebook, which helps secular vegans figure out what to cook, Keisar is looking at setting up a telephone center that religious families can use to help them come up with suitable herbivorous menus.
“It has been permitted, but it is not the will of God,” for Jews to consume animal flesh, Keisar says.
“The bottom line is that the Torah permits it, but with a lot of limitations,” he adds. Showing mercy is an important part of Judaism.
Paz sees veganism spreading across segments of Israeli society, rather than being limited to the more bohemian or secular types, as in the past.
“Before the vegan revolution, most belonged to a specific social category, but now it is going mainstream, attracting left- and right-wingers, and people of all ages,” he says.
Vegan Friendly has helped dozens of restaurants across the country adjust their menus to offer customers vegan alternatives – even places where meat and potatoes are the main fare. Paz finds it difficult to keep up with the demand of about a dozen restaurants approaching him each week about how to revise their menus to attract more vegan customers.
Another role played by religion in the vegan craze is more indirect.
Vegan-style eating has been made easier, thanks in part to the laws of kashrut, which have spawned many parve food products to assuage the appetite and sweet tooth, such as chocolate, cookies, imitation ice cream, non-dairy creamers and the like.
After decades of the Israeli food industry producing parve foods, vegans are now encouraging them to come up with more, says Paz.
He says his organization played a role recently in persuading Strauss Group to manufacture a parve version of a popular wrinkled chocolate bar called Mekupelet.
The Mediterranean dietary staples of humus, falafel, tehina, eggplant, also play a role in easing the way to being vegan, too.
Israeli chutzpah also seems to play a role in spreading the word.
In many Western countries, people are more reserved about querying each other about dietary choices. In Israel, though, many “are more amenable to discussing the issue; you feel less uncomfortable raising the subject with people you hardly know,” says Paz.
While athletes and health food aficionados have also embraced a more herbivorous diet, going vegan is more a commitment to animal rights and showing compassion toward animals than about a healthy eating choice, Paz feels.
You need a bit more of a commitment to give up the steak and chocolate layer cake forever.
“Most of the vegans I know in Israel are vegan for moral reasons.
In my opinion it’s difficult to become 100 percent vegan based on health reasons alone,” says Paz.