Exploring the Shared Values of Vegans and Jews at Passover

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Veder Plate, a vegan Passover seder plate. Credit: Gene Blalock

This year will be the third year my Jewish vegan friends and I celebrate “veder,” our version of a vegan Passover seder. All of the traditional dishes are served – matzah brie, brisket, gefilte fish, potato latkes, matzah ball soup, kugel and macaroons – in veganized versions without meat, dairy or eggs. Though not all the dishes are appropriate for Passover, the meaning of the holiday and the traditional foods serve to reconnect us to our Jewish roots. Not only is all the food vegan, we incorporate nonhuman animals into our service.

Vegan matzo Ball soup. Credit: Gene Blalock.

Holidays like Passover are a difficult time for Jewish vegans and animal activists, a time of mixed emotions. As much as we love and find relevance in the meaning of the holiday, it’s difficult to be confronted by a table full of the body parts of animals that we love and fight for daily. Some vegans forgo Passover entirely, and some who celebrate with their families feel pressured to defend their ethical choices. Some are no longer invited to their family’s tables at all.
The Passover seder celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from the Pharaoh and the larger issue of the immorality of slavery. As Jews, we have a long history filled with suffering, oppression and slavery, which has informed our choices as a community to work with other groups to help their own oppression. Jews have played roles in the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement and feel a deep connection to suffering of others.
As ethical vegans, we see how animals are exploited for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research. Worldwide, around 58 billion land animals and trillions of fishes are killed for food each year. 40 million will be killed for fur garments and trim, not to mention others who die merely for fashion such as leather, wool, and silk. As many as 100 million animals will die miserable deaths in university and private laboratories, and 200 million more animals will be killed by hunters this year in the U.S. alone.

Vegan brisket. Credit: Gene Blalock

We see the liberation of animals as another social justice movement for which the Jewish community should naturally feel sympathetic. Jews and vegans share common values such as justice, fairness, equality and compassion.
While my friends and I celebrate the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery at our veder in the traditional way, we also honor the work that we are doing to move towards a day when animals are considered moral beings.
We have modified the haggadah to include nonhuman animals in the retelling of the Passover seder. We have an animal-friendly seder plate. Instead of the lamb shank bone, we use a dog cookie cutter to make a playful bone-shaped piece of tofu. We replace the egg with a small dab of commercial “egg replacer” used in vegan baking. We will be serving wines by Vegan Vine, which uses no animal ingredients in the fining/filtering process. Most people, including a large amount of vegans, don’t know that a majority of wines are fined with egg, gelatin or isinglass, the fish bladders of sturgeon. Even some kosher wines may be made with animal ingredients that render them unfit for the typical Passover meal.

Vegan latkes. Credit: Gene Blalock.

Last year, we were able to include Frederick and Douglass, our beagles who were rescued from an animal testing lab in Spain the day before Thanksgiving 2011. They were named after the famous escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Frederick and Douglass also escaped from a life of enslavement and are now part of our family. In fact, Douglass actually found the afikomen last year! Hundreds of millions of nonhuman animals suffer in private and university laboratories all over the world as test subjects whose rights and dignity are taken away from them.
Frederick and Douglass’ story is an important story to tell at our veder, because theirs is unique. Most animals in vivisection labs never make it out alive. Most are killed during testing. The ones that survive experiments are killed because they are no longer useful to labs and have no monetary value.
The Passover seder is the perfect opportunity to not only retell the story of our escape from slavery, but also a time to make a commitment to dedicate our lives towards ending all oppression and slavery, be it human or nonhuman. It’s also a time to consider how our behaviors and actions either move us away from oppression or cause us to participate. Use this seder as an opportunity to commit to justice and compassion.

Vegan gefilte fish. Credit: Gene Blalock.

Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus (www.evolotuspr.com), a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary started a blog in February of 2011 called The Thinking Vegan (http:thethinkingvegan.com) and has written for Elephant Journal, Jewish Journal and as a guest blogger for Mother Nature Network (MNN.com). Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat Chloe and their two rescued laboratory beagles, Frederick and Douglass, in Sherman Oaks, CA.