For a man who hasn’t eaten a morsel of meat in 20 years, Pete Cohon is pure beefcake.
The San Francisco mediation attorney cuts a dashing figure: tall, handsome and Jewish, his imposing physique quashing the stereotype of the scrawny vegetarian noshing on wheat grass.
A happy missionary for meatlessness, Cohon, 54, loves busting such stereotypes almost as much as he loves dining at one of the Bay Area’s fine vegetarian restaurants. He does so at least once month, along with other members of VeggieJews, a 128-member organization he runs.
Recently, VeggieJews held its monthly meet-and-eat at New Ganges, a heaven-scented Indian restaurant not far from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. About 20 people showed up: an eclectic mix of Jewish men and women, observant and non-observant, vegan purists — and even a few dietary fence-sitters who sneak the occasional turkey sub.
Jeff Brody of Palo Alto attended the feast, his first VeggieJews event. He says he still eats meat but is leaning toward a plant-centered diet. “I was never partial to meat,” notes Brody. “Now I’m in transition.”
Brody’s gradual conversion is just fine with Cohon, who prefers to gently encourage new veggies than resort to the browbeating tactics of groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (remember PETA’s “Meat Stinks!” campaign?).
“Kosher is good,” he says. “Vegetarian is better, because it’s cruelty-free.”
A 2003 Harris Interactive Poll indicated 6 percent of the U.S. population never eats meat. The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that between 4 to 10 percent of the U.S. population maintains a meatless diet, and among the group’s own members, a recent poll showed 10 percent identified as Jewish.
Animal cruelty is indeed an oft-cited reason for adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet (vegans consume no animal products at all, including eggs and dairy).
For veggie Jews in the broader sense, this includes condemnation of shechita (ritual kosher slaughter), even though kashrut experts say it is more humane than conventional techniques.
But, as most vegetarians will claim, there are plenty of other good reasons to just say “no” to meat, among them the “massive waste and environmental ruin” argument.
Most baby boomers might remember Francis Moore Lappe’s bestseller, “Diet for a Small Planet,” the first popular book to expose the extravagance involved in meat production. It takes about 20 pounds of grain and hundreds of gallons of water to make one pound of beef, and at least 70 percent of the edible grain grown in America is fed to livestock.
Deborah Kalman, founder of Milk & Honey, a Foster City-based kosher vegetarian catering company, and a vegetarian herself for most of the last 28 years, says, “Eating meat is not an ecologically efficient way to feed ourselves or the world.”
More recently, John Robbins had similar success with his book, “Diet for a New America,” an anti-factory farming manifesto for today’s vegetarians. And Eric Schlosser’s exposé, “Fast Food Nation,” helped many turn their backs on the burger industry.
Others cite the ample health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, an argument made more convincing in light of America’s heart disease and obesity epidemics, not to mention periodic outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and mad cow disease.
Now, at least for Jews, there’s yet another reason to go veggie: God says so.
Jewish vegetarians, particularly religious ones, are increasingly relying on scriptural and halachic support for their dietary choices.
Cohon goes back to Genesis, in which God tells Adam exactly what’s on the menu: “… every seed-bearing plant … and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.”
According to Abraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, God reluctantly allowed people to eat animals on a temporary basis until a “brighter era” when people would return to a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarians like Cohon not only condemn general meat-eating, but kosher meat as well. They say shechita is particularly heinous because animals are fully conscious when the blade is brought to their throat, whereas conventional slaughterhouses stun the animals first.
However, local kosher butchers don’t buy the argument. Israeli-born Simone Bouadana of Oakland Kosher market, scoffs at the notion proffered by some vegetarians that meat eating is wrong or that kosher meat is founded in cruelty.
“Shechita is more humane than anyone can think,” he says. “For people to talk like that, their knowledge is below the Red Sea. If you really know Jewish law, then you know it doesn’t take more then three seconds to return the soul back to God. The blade must be sharper than a circumcision knife.”
Adds Rabbi Levy Zirkind of Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, a statewide kosher certification agency, “We are here to elevate this animal for the sacred purpose of serving God. By putting this meat on a table for Shabbat, that is the ultimate elevation of the soul of this animal.”
That’s not how Jewish vegetarians see it, not even those who keep kosher.
“I’ve heard the line, ‘Ain simcha b’li b’yayin v’basar‘ (‘There is no joy without wine and meat’),” says Oakland-based physician Dan Kliman, an Orthodox kosher-observant vegetarian and member of VeggieJews. “But this makes no sense.”
Richard Schwartz couldn’t agree more. The Staten Island, N.Y.-based math professor-turned-vegetarian activist literally wrote the book on the subject with “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” first published in 1977 and since revised.
His Web site is truly encyclopedic, featuring scores of articles covering every conceivable topic related to his twin passions.
Schwartz’s basic premise: Eating meat supports animal cruelty, human food shortages and a catastrophic ravaging of natural resources. In a phrase, it’s un-Jewish.
“I’m a committed Jew,” he says, “and I believe Judaism has a powerful message for the world. With so many environmental threats, I feel the fate of humanity depends on [vegetarianism]. But there’s lot of apathy and ignorance about this. It’s easier to change a person’s religion than to change his diet.”
Today, Schwartz, 70, is president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and a tireless advocate for a plant-centered diet. He is also a hero to people like Cohon and Jason Moses of Oakland.
Moses, 29, is active with Bay Area Jewish Vegetarians, a group that often collaborates and commingles with VeggieJews. Brought up in a kosher household, he became a vegetarian in college, where, surprisingly, his adherence to kashrut slipped the more he changed his diet.
“A lot of spirituality in Judaism comes from separation,” he says. “On Shabbat, we separate from rest of week. Eating kosher was another one of the differences. I actually had to give up some of the spirituality, some of the distinction, that made eating special. Sometimes I do miss my mom’s brisket.”
But not enough to eat it again. Moses is unwavering about his meatless diet, and he, along with other local Jewish vegetarians are beginning to make their presence felt in and around the Bay Area.
Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley has noticed their impact.
“Half of my community is vegetarian,” he says. “I make a veggie cholent each week. I used to think of it as a compromise, but over the years, I managed to spice it up.”
Potash respects those who refuse to eat animals, but believes the official Jewish verdict on vegetarianism is mixed.
“Being vegetarian is in line with Jewish law but not so much with Jewish philosophy,” he says. “Eating meat coincides with a responsibility to elevate that meat, to use it for serving God.”
Even he himself contemplated making the switch. “Every so often, the thought has crossed my mind,” says Potash, “but I feel I have greater things to strive for. Not that it’s unimportant.”
Talk to Jewish vegetarians and they’ll say nothing is more important.
“One of the reasons for kashrut,” says Jennifer Marshall of San Francisco, “is being kind to animals, and that’s why I became a vegetarian. My own reason for being a veggie may be the same as God’s law.”
Meatless for the last 14 years, Marshall enjoys the monthly outings with VeggieJews. It’s a great way to meet other vegetarians, she says, though sometimes she feels it’s hard to be veggie and Jewish, especially around Pesach.
“I keep kosher for Passover,” she says, “which means matzah lasagna. That’s the time when I crave a burger!”
Not Cohon. He was cured of any cravings for animal flesh years ago while touring an Israeli kibbutz that boasted a state-of-the-art poultry plant. Inside the football-field-sized enclosure, Cohon looked aghast on the thousands of tiny cages, each overstuffed with traumatized chickens living out their brief lives, he says, in unimaginable horror.
That took him off the gravy train permanently. And, in many ways, he embodies the passion and conviction of every veggie Jew out there on the tofu-burger circuit.
Says Cohon: “Being a vegetarian allows me to live an ethical life by rejecting unnecessary cruelty to animals. It allows me to help protect the environment by rejecting animal agriculture, which is the second-largest cause of environmental degradation after fossil fuels. It allows me to protect my health.
“But perhaps most importantly, it allows me to be a better Jew by following God’s original plan for a cruelty-free world.”