We are going to take a break from recipes today and just do a little riff on living a vegan lifestyle here in The Holy Land. This is not going to be a post with facts and stats, because I just don’t have the time for that today (it’s Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of our most sacred holy day). Rather, I will just share my own first-person account of my personal Israeli vegan experience.
Vegan at the Campsite? No problem! Here, my husband cooks me an amazing hummus and grilled pepper laffa on the camp stove. It was delish!
When my family and I moved to Israel in 2007, I was already a long-time vegetarian. Vegetarianism is pretty well known here and I never felt any problem with people understanding my needs or thinking me to be weird or anything. Because of the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) there can be no mixing at all of meat and dairy in kosher restaurants and homes, so a lacto-ovo vegetarian can eat in a kosher dairy restaurant and know that, aside from fish, the entire menu is vegetarian. There is even an entire village in Israel dedicated to vegetarianism. Guests staying in one of their many lovely vacation cottages are asked to keep to the village’s vegetarian standards and not cook or barbecue any meat. See Amirim.
Israel’s most prevalent and common street food, falafel, is not just vegetarian, but vegan.
photo: Michael Parlapiano
In November of 2009, finally ready to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan, I chronicled my 100-Day Vegan Challenge right here on this blog. 100 Days turned into the rest of my life and I have been happily vegan ever since.
At that time, veganism was already on the rise in other parts of the world, but here in Israel, my choice was still a little “weird”. I was able to find things to eat if we ate out – obviously there is always hummus and falafel – but sometimes there would be one dish like pasta with plain red sauce, or rice with lentils, that I could eat. But getting anything other than cow’s milk in your coffee was unheard of and soy milk was the only non-dairy offering in the stores.
I combatted the dietary loneliness by running Vegan Potluck dinners in my home and a friend’s home. Every single dinner was a sell-out, bursting to the rafters with old time vegans, new vegans, and the vegan curious. One of my closest friends in Israel, a woman I met in my first Hebrew class, also happened to go vegan, which was a tremendous support to me as well.
Then, sometime in late 2010, according to this article chronicling the rise of veganism in Israel, two Israeli animal activists added Hebrew subtitles to Gary Yourofsky’s famous you tube speech, began to promote the hell out of it, and a fire of vegan fervor spread through Israel like dry brush on a hot, windy day.
If you haven’t yet watched this speech, please do so.
Now, I had seen Yourofsky’s speech myself several years ago when I was still vegetarian, and although he makes a great case for veganism, it didn’t move me personally the way it seems to move Israelis. I think they relate to Yourofsky’s in-your-face style and frank, no-sugar-coated language. He is “speaking their language” if you will!
Another big turning point came when one of Israel’s most well-known restaurant critics and food writers, Ori Shavit, moved by the Yourofsky talk, loudly and publically embraced a vegan diet for herself and started one of Israel’s first vegan food blogs. You can read Ori’s story, in English, on her blog here.
Well, things started cracka-lackin at such a rapid pace I cannot even tell you, my head was spinning! Under the initiative called Vegan Friendly, restaurants and shops were canvassed, educated and encouraged to start serving vegan menu items and to carry vegan products. Vegan blogs started popping up all over the place. One vegan website I now write for in English, The Vegan Woman, was founded here in Israel. I was just surfing their content one day and noticed that the editor-in-chief had an Israeli name. I reached out to her anonymously on Facebook and discovered she lived 10 miles from me!
I went to the gym one day and saw a trainer with a vegan quote in English tattooed prominently on her back. I introduced myself and discovered that she is one of the leaders of Israel’s animal rights movement and a founder of own our home-grown 269 Life animal rights movement. 269 Life stages massive protests in Israel that have spread, again like wild fire, throughout the entire world. (Update: that trainer was Tal Gilboa, who went on to win the reality show Big Brother season 6, exposing thousands more people in a totally different demographic to veganism! A couple of the other contestants on the show with her that season also went vegan. It was really a big leap forward.)
Here’s a photo of me, showing my support for 269 Life:
As Jews, we have been mandated to be “a light unto the nations” of the world. Our society strives to do that in the midst of a very difficult geographical and political situation. There are many social justice initiatives that are important here in Israel. Israel’s growing animal right’s based vegan movement is just one of the many ways Israelis work to challenge the status quo and strive to find creative solutions for contemporary problems such as animal cruelty, animal testing, the horrendous conditions in egg hatcheries, dairy farms, cattle lots, fish farms, on the tankers that transport cattle to Israel from Australia, leaving the cows in terrible, over-crowded conditions, exposed to the elements for weeks on the open seas. It ALL matters, it all needs to change and Israelis are at the head of the charge to change it.
Vegans now entering the Israeli army for their mandatory national service are currently offered a stipend for extra food, and a pair of non-leather army boots. A friend told me that her son’s commander in the Israeli Air Force is a proud vegan, further shattering the stereotypes of weak, vegan hippies.
All of Israel’s major cafe chains are now offering entirely vegan menus. There is a boon of new vegan restaurants and catering services, new vegan products to buy in the supermarkets, such as burgers and vegan cheeses and milks. I cannot count the hundreds of Israeli vegan Facebook groups I have seen and participated in, many with specialty interests such as Israeli Vegan Body Building and Fitness, Vegan Parenting in Israel, Israeli Raw Foodists, and even Israeli 80-10-10 diet followers, recipe groups, vegan classes and workshops and so much more.
A few months ago, we stopped off in a small town to bring pizza to my son’s camp visiting day. We just stopped at a local kosher pizza restaurant and I stayed in the car, knowing that there wouldn’t be anything for me in a pizza place. We would pick up a falafel for me later. My husband came rushing back to the car waving the menu “They have a vegan pizza! Should I get you one?” My man, what do you think?!
Some of my non-vegan friends, completely disconnected from this growing world of veganism in their midst, still think I am somehow weird, fringe and lonely. I hope this post has shed a little bit of light on what is happening here right under your noses. Our country, our Israel, is a major player in this new world stage of veganism and animal rights. If you have been unaware of it before today, now you know!
Maybe you think it is some passing fad? I am not a fortune teller, so I can’t say. But I do believe that when sane people learn what actually happens to these harmless, sentient beings before they reach the dinner plate, they have no other option than to stop participating in the cycle of hell and abuse. There was a time when food was scarce and eating animals our only way to survive. But that is not the case anymore. We have PLENTY to eat and as opportunist omnivores, the human animal can thrive just as well on a plant-based diet (or even better, as recent research is showing!) as a meat-based one. Not to mention the massive environmental devastation animal agriculture has wrought. Soon, we will have no choice but to shut it down and try to reclaim our planet’s health or none of us will be able to survive here.
And honestly, if half of these new vegans feel as great as I do living a vegan lifestyle, then we are certainly here to stay!