Monday, October 31, 2005

The Veggie Chronicles

Though never a vegan/raw or live food adherent, like any good crunchy person, I was for a time a vegetarian.

It all started when I was 8 and impressionable, especially, apparently, when it was a militant vegetarian teacher doing the impressing. Mrs. Dinner (her real name! for Yonah's benefit) had been an eighth grade teacher at , my school, who after hitting a student, was "demoted" to teaching third graders. Wise move. No, she didn't hit any of us, but she did tell us in explicit detail how cows are taken on the conveyer belt and sent to be slaughtered. Many an 8 year old went home that night and announced to their parents, "I'm a vegetarian" to which most parents, including my own, replied, "No you are not. You are eight." Not realizing at the time that vegetarians and eight year olds need not be mutually exclusive, I acquiesced.


But it stuck with me. And at age 14, I silently resolved not to eat meat - which worked for about three years, until I was told by a rabbi that I could not be a vegetarian for the reason I was a vegetarian. He had obviously never had Mrs. Dinner as a teacher. Nevertheless, he explained, since God gave us permission to eat animals, who are we to say we are above that or that it is cruel? I rationalized in my mind that it was better to kill chickens than cows, and became a chicken eater, though only a tiny amount on shabbat, with ocassional pastrami allowances. Later, as an adult, I read a number of responsa which indicated vegetarianism is fine, but the damage had been done. I was now a shabbat chicken eater.

And a reasonably happy one at that. There's some good chicken eatin' to be had out there! If there was a vegetarian option, however, I would almost always take that over the poultry selection. So, though I would now eat chicken, I often chose not to, but rather just entertained it as an option. As it was limited to second choice shabbat entree, I felt I was still somewhat vegetarian (lacto-ovo chicko?), while not being holier than God, and at least I wasn't eating dead cow. I also felt healthy and had no cravings for red meat.

Somewhere into my second year of yeshiva, I was invited to the home of a Temani (Yemenite) couple for shabbat. I would never tell people in advance that I did not eat meat, as I did not want them to have to go to the trouble of preparing a separate dish just for me, and truth is, there are almost always enough veggie side dishes to fill you up if the main entree is a roast, and a shabbat meal would often feature chicken. I followed that same policy in this case.

This particular couple, however, were hardcore carnivores, which I only realized upon presentation of the meal. There was red meat in EVERYTHING - and I mean everything - the soup, the salad, the main course, the sides. I was their only guest, and I could tell they had put a lot of effort into preparing this meal. When I told them I did not eat red meat, their faces fell, and I quickly added, "until tonight." I consider myself very principled in general, but when pitting a cause I was not fully embracing vs. the feelings of others, the feelings of others will win out with me every time.

So I ate the meat dishes.

And it was fine. I had not had red meat like that in many years. It tasted good, but I was happy I could take or leave it. No sudden red meat cravings developed as a result. The only change was that I was now willing to eat red meat on select ocassions as well. Although I still prefer veggie options, my days as a card-carrying vegetarian and pseudo-vegetarian were over.

Mrs. Dinner has had a lingering effect, though: handling raw chicken makes me want to throw up; I still cannot eat chopped meat, and only rarely partake of steak or brisket; lamb, cornish hens, or anything that is a baby animal or presented at table as an entire carcass will not enter my mouth; I do not eat chicken drumsticks, wings, necks or pupiks, only breasts and thighs.

Hmmm, not sure exactly how that last one is attributable to Mrs. Dinner, but we'll give it to her anyway.....


18 comments:

Elster said...

Commie!!!!

MC Aryeh said...

Elster, I'm going to take that in the most positive, complimentary sense possible....once I figure out what that might be...

BrownsvilleGirl said...

You should read Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen's article "Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective" in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Number II--Fall 1981). I borrowed it from my uncle over Sukkot and found it fascinating.

Just btw, there's a story in Bava metziah pay-heh that he quotes about Rabbi Yehuda. Not to go into the story now, but the point of it is that while animals were created for us to eat, one must have compassion on them. There are even laws like that...a baby can't be cooked in its mother's milk...a mother and baby cannot be slaughtered on the same day...etc. And another point he mentions is that one who just eats meat to eat is a navul b'reshut haTorah. We can eat meat because we also use the leather for tefillin, Torah scrolls, etc. We're not just killing for the heck of it. But we shouldn't overdo it. Anyway, as an Orthodox vegetarian, I highly recommend the article to ALL Jews whether they care for animals or not.

Enjoy. :)

Shoshana said...

I went through a similar phase. I was never a vegetarian, but I abstained from red meat for three years after a friend made a comment about turning cows into hamburgers. Even stopped wearing leather when someone pointed out that it was hypocritical to wear cows but refuse to eat them.

Eventually, I also decided that I felt bad asking people to prepare special dishes, and I realized that I didn't actually feel so strongly about my decision to avoid red meat. Now I eat red meat when others prepare it, and I like it, but don't prepare it myself, mainly because I just don't have any real desire to eat it on a regular basis (and I think that raw meat is kind of gross). I just never get that craving that others I know seem to feel.

I guess some people just really channel their inner carnivores!

Stacey said...

I guess I am a "hardcore carnivore." I love meat...all meat (almost as much as chocolate). The thought of being a vegetarian is pure torture to me.

It is a struggle for me to eat veggies because I really just do not like them (I can't imagine wanting a carrot when I can have a filte mignon??), but I do so for the health benefit and to set an example for my children.

Lamb, chicken, steak...bring it on. I love it all!

MC Aryeh said...

BVG - Thanks. I will b"n check that article out. There is also a wonderful responsa from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky on the issue which is worth seeking out...

Shoshana - Definitely a similar experience. I never gave up wearing leather, though.

Stacey - Now chocolate I can get behind! Tastewise, there is no argument from me on the meat vs. veggie issue - filet mignon will trump carrot every time. It wasn't so much a taste issue for me, though.

Glad you are setting a good example for your kids. Do you make them eat okra and brussel sprouts (yuck on both counts)?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I consider myself a non-practicing vegetarian. ;-)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I had to stop wearing suede yarmulkas because i found out that suede is made from baby animals.

Any idea if they make cool leather jackets out of adult cowskin?

Stacey said...

I actually likee brussel sprouts. And I grew okra in the backyard this year. It was pretty yummy (as far as vegetables go).

I hear you, though. I prefer that the meat doesn't look like an animal. And I cannot buy fish unless it is a fillet.

Kalman Rushdie said...

"When pitting a cause I was not fully embracing vs. the feelings of others, the feelings of others will win out with me every time." -You obviously did the right thing there, according to my moral compass. But what would you have done in that situation were you truly committed to vegetarianism? I'm tempted to say the feelings of others would win then as well, but, as an unrepentant meat eater, I don't think I have the proper prespective.

I think you raise a fascinating question: How high do the feelings or others rate on the moral scale?

Neil said...

I don't buy the vegetarian's argument that we shouldn't eat meat, but I think in the old days, we were more aware of what it took to kill an animal because we saw it, and we gave the animal more respect. Now most of us just buy the package of meat and eat it without any acknowledgement that it was once an animal.

MC Aryeh said...

Steg - if you were a YU guy, I think you'd have to wear a suede kippah anyway...

Stacey - so interesting how we each have our lines we won't go past (fish fillets for you, I guess).

Kalman- Feelings of others is usually the main area I get myself in trouble with in terms of halacha. If I had really been a full-on vegetarian, I am not sure what I would have done. Depends on how obsessive a veggie I was - would I just eat around the meat or not eat anything that even touched meat. Hard to say, but an interesting question...

Neil - You raise a good point. It probably also bothered people less to skin an animal and deal with raw meat as that was what was done. Even two generations ago...I remember my grandmother telling me how when she bought meat, it would be freshly killed and she would have to salt it herself to get the blood out....

There are many vegetarian arguments for not eating meat. I know a number of vegetarians who would not eat meat based on how the animals were treated while being raised. Many of these are now willing to eat organic free range animals.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Rav Kook (cited in Nechama Leibowitz on this week's parsha)says that being allowed to eat meat was a concession after the flood. It's like G-d was saying, better you kill animals than eachother. he says vegetarianism is a higher level. He was a vegetarian as are many of his followers.

Tamara said...

Great post! I am what I've coined a "fishatarian" or "pescatarian". I don't eat red or white meat (with exception of chicken soup if it has matzo balls in it AND there are no chicken chunks floating around), but I will eat kosher fish.

I became a vegetarian in the tenth grade when I had a hardcore veggie neighbor who told me about factory farming, chicken beaks being cut and other yucky stuff I won't bother your readers with:). After two years I started eating chicken again and then stopped again in 1995. I've eaten no solid meat since then. I do LOVE the taste of meat, and remember it fondly. Luckily, living in groovy California, I still get my fix of KOSHER veggie bacon (didn't really eat bacon before anyway), chicken nuggets, hot wings (minus the wing bone), soy knockwurst, oh and smoked tofurkey slices which are quite tasty. It's so easy to eat vegetarian/fishatarian.

I never did stop wearing leather shoes. However, I couldn't bring myself to wear a jacket of leather. Maybe I'm all mixed up...and if that's the case...so be it :) I'm happy.

MC Aryeh said...

Neil - I have read another responsa which says eating meat is the higher level, but that most of us are not capable of the proper mindset to elevate the meat we are eating to the level it deserves, and so we aree better off being vegetarians!

Tamara - Welcome to the blog. Doesn't sound so mixed up to me....and who could resist a good matzoh ball?

Kangi said...

Suede is made from adult cows generally -- it is the inner layer of the hide, with the grain (shiny) side scraped off. The closer to the "meat" side, the softer the hide, and the location of the skin determines the thickness (the skin of a cow's back is very thick; the skin in, say, an 'armpit' is very, very thin).
While they may indeed use some calfskin for suede, 90% of the suede and leather for sale is from adult cows.
I make brain-tanned buckskin from deer hides, which involves "sueding" both sides by removing the outer layers.

heebnvegan said...

First of all, Lisa Simpson went vegetarian at age 8. It's a splendid age.

I'm disheartened that a rabbi would tell you it's wrong to be a vegetarian because G-d conceded that mankind could eat meat (different from the argument that we're not required to be vegetarian). I think the article I posted in my Nov. 10 blog entry gives a great run-down of how mainstream, prominent, and consistent vegetarianism is with Judasim. (http://heebnvegan.blogspot.com).

And finally, I take issue with the "it's better to eat chickens than cows." It takes 220 chickens to supply the same amount of flesh as one cow! I'm not saying there's any use to eat either species, and they both suffer immensely in modern animal agriculture, but the chickens are in no way better off than cows.

MC Aryeh said...

Kangi- Thanks for all the information about suede. I am sure Steg will put it to good use.

Heebnvegan - If you are looking for an argument, you won't get it from me! I have been a Lisa Simpson fan since I was a teenager.

I think the rabbi's real objection was that since God allowed us to eat meat, it was impudent of me to say I wouldn't eat meat because of cruelty to animals. I personally believe that vegetarianism is the higher level, and there are many Torah sources to back me up.

As far as the chickens vs. cows issue, I do not actually think it is better to kill chickens than cows. It was a rationalization which I recognize as such.

All that said, God did allow us to eat meat, and so I take no issue with hard-core carnivores, although I personally still prefer the veggie option.