Part I: Jeffrey Cohan is the Executive Director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), an international organization which encourages and helps Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health, and care for the environment. He is also the author of The Beet-Eating Heeb, the leading blog on the theology of veganism. Prior to joining JVNA, Jeffrey worked in print and broadcast journalism in four states and three Latin American countries. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley and his master’s in public management from Carnegie Mellon.
Update: This organization is now called Jewish Veg.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food here on a hot July 8, 2014. How are you today? Let’s see, we’ve got a really big show for you today, I just felt like saying it like that. We have a great show and let’s bring on the first guest, Jeffrey Cohan. He’s the executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, an international organization which encourages and helps Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health and care for the environment. He’s also the author of The Beet-Eating Heeb, the leading blog on the theology of veganism. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Jeffrey.
Jeff Cohan: Great to be with you. Not quite as good as being with you and Gary in New York as we were a couple months ago but this is the next best thing.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I’m so glad we got to meet at one of my favorite vegan restaurants, Simple Veggie Cuisine, in my neighborhood in Queens which just really opened in February. I’m glad we were able to meet there and I want them to survive and thrive.
Jeff Cohan: Me too and it’s great to see the growing number of vegan restaurants and vegan food products in our stores. I would say the future looks bright for that restaurant and vegan restaurants all around the country.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, the future. We have to say it looks bright because it feels good and we’ll just see what happens.
Jeff Cohan: Well I’m not just saying that. I know this isn’t the topic of our conversation today but in real economic statistics, the number of vegan establishments and vegan products available in the marketplace today is growing exponentially. It’s really remarkable.
Caryn Hartglass: Now let’s talk about the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA). Now you are the new executive director
Jeff Cohan: Right, also the first executive director.
Caryn Hartglass: New and the first, ground breaking. Okay so how come all these changes took place and what can we expect?
Jeff Cohan: Well the organization has been around for about forty years but up until a couple of years ago, it was strictly a volunteer-run organization. They actually did some amazing things considering they didn’t have any professional staff or any serious fundraising going on. But about two years ago, I was working with the Jewish Federation which is a big Jewish organization and was gaining a Master in Public Management in grad school. When I found out about JVNA between the tools I was getting in grad school and the knowledge that was gained about the Jewish landscape, it occurred to me that the time was right for JVNA to become much more than it was and to have much greater capacity to get the message out.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay.
Jeff Cohan: So that in a nutshell is the story.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a good one. Well the time is right and I’m hearing that all over the place with a lot of different organizations. We have to thank a lot of people that have come before us who have been working so hard as activists for so long without the internet, trying to be heard. Richard Schwartz, of course, is one of them who I’ve had on the program a number of times and he’s part of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.
Jeff Cohan: Yes he is. When you’re talking about Richard Schwartz, you should probably mention in the same breathe Alex Hershaft.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, Alex Hershaft. Okay.
Jeff Cohan: Who is also on our board of directors and is actually the first person to organize an organization devoted to farm animal advocacy.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, now look at that. I didn’t know that.
Jeff Cohan: Yes, he’s a real pioneer and he’s going very strong, thank God, as is Richard.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, well his organization, the Farm Animal Reform Movement, has been spearheading the two animal rights conferences on both coasts, the east coast in Washington D.C. and Las Angeles.
Jeff Cohan: Right and in fact I’m leaving for Las Angeles tomorrow to speak at that conference.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh great! Okay, so I’m always looking for any group that finds reasons to stop killing animals. From a religious perspective and I always like to say I’m not a religious person although I was raised in a Jewish background. I respect anybody who wants to promote plant foods. You know we had Stephen Kaufman on recently talking about the Christian Vegetarian Association. I know, from talking a little bit with Richard Schwartz about Jewish Vegetarians of North America, some things about why, from a Jewish value, plant-based diets are important. So, maybe you can touch on that a little bit.
Jeff Cohan: Actually Caryn, if your rabbi or Sunday school teacher had taught you what the Torah actually says about these issues, you might be a religious person today. I actually mean that quite sincerely because a large number of Jewish vegans and vegetarians feel a bit disaffected because they don’t feel the religion really embraces them. This is really crazy because the Torah, which is what we call the bible, not only explicitly directs us to adopt a plant-based diet, at virtually every turn where the subject comes up, it casts meat-eating in a very negative light. So we’re on a very solid theological footing.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve heard people say that the bible or the Torah commands them to eat meat and that they’re supposed to eat meat.
Jeff Cohan: No. Actually, I’m going to say just the opposite. It is true that the bible, unfortunately, does permit meat eating but in the places where it does permit meat eating, it makes it very clear. This is not God’s preference or God’s will. This is God making the concession to human lust. So by no means is meat-eating ever presented as an ethical act or as an ideal in the Torah which is why, Caryn, that so many leading rabbis, both in the United States, Europe and Israel, that’s actually one more than “both” – all of these places endorse vegetarianism or veganism as a Jewish ideal.
Caryn Hartglass: But it’s not the majority, it’s just a handful of them.
Jeff Cohan: Well no, I would say look, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who just resigned, just retired actually as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and Rabbi David Rosen who was a Chief Rabbi of Ireland. Tomorrow in fact I’m meeting with Rabbi David Wolpe in Las Angeles who is on our Rabbinate Council, who was named by Newsweek to be the most influential rabbi in America. I’m talking about people like Rabbi Abraham Kook who was the Chief Rabbi of Pre-State Israel in the early 20th century along with all of his disciples. So this is not some marginal fringe idea in Judaism, this is an idea endorsed by many top rabbis.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Now are all these guys that you mentioned, are they vegetarian? Or do they just endorse it?
Jeff Cohan: So all the guys that I mentioned are either vegetarian or vegan.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Well not in the circles that I’ve been in. Meat has always been a tradition. Pastrami, corn beef, briskets; how could you be Jewish and not eat those foods?
Jeff Cohan: Well, I would say two things about that. If you go to our website, www.jewishveg.com, you will see meat-free versions of most of those foods, if not all of them. I know you have a great recipe for vegan gelfilte fish.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Jeff Cohan: I never liked it, even when I was a meat eater, real gelfilte fish. I saw your recipe in the San Diego Jewish Journal, right next to an article, beautiful spread on our organization in the San Diego Jewish Journal.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I was excited that they found out about both of us.
Jeff Cohan: And do you know what’s so cool, Caryn? If you were to go to the website of the San Diego Jewish Journal, I confess I haven’t checked today but it’s probably still the case because this is the most recent issue, the top item on the homepage where your eye immediately goes to is the article about us that says should Jews be vegetarians? So the word is getting out.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Well like I said before, any angle and group, it’s important. Did you know Rynn Berry?
Jeff Cohan: I didn’t know him personally. I was just at Vegetarian Summerfest and there was a beautiful memorial service for him there.
Caryn Hartglass: Well yes, he wrote quite a bit about religions and how he believed from what he had researched that they all started out with a vegetation premise.
Jeff Cohan: There is no rabbi today or ever who would dispute that. The first thing God says to human beings is that you will eat a plant-based diet, Genesis 1:29. So there is no dispute among rabbis that the original plan was to be – well if the word existed back then, they would have said vegan.
Caryn Hartglass: But we’re imperfect and we got off the path.
Jeff Cohan: Right. Here is the issue. There are a number of causes for that and of course it’s something in my job that I had to think about very deeply but the number one reason is this, Caryn. Let’s face it; everybody in our society is bombarded every day, almost 360 degrees, by pro-meat messages. It’s in the media, it’s in our institutions, it’s in our schools, workplaces and even our homes, often. So rabbis, believe it or not, are people too and they are susceptible to the same bombardment of messaging.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Jeff Cohan: But fortunately, many leading rabbis have overcome that and stuck to what the Torah actually instructs us to do.
Caryn Hartglass: Alright, let’s just talk for a minute about The Beet-Eating Heeb and how I mentioned in one of our lasts emails, I didn’t realize that you were the beet-eating heeb.
Jeff Cohan: My alter ego.
Caryn Hartglass: Who is The Beet-Eating Heeb?
Jeff Cohan: The Beet-Eating Heeb is a blog persona I created and it all started with my own vegetarian journey, if I could describe that in a minute. My wife and I actually became vegetarians because we were sitting in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah seven years ago and they were reading the creation story, the first chapter of Genesis. When they got to verse 29, it said you will eat a plant-based diet, in so many words, we looked at each other and said I guess we’re supposed to be vegetarians. Just like that, we did it. Then I started wondering well, why aren’t all Jews vegetarians if this is what it says? So I started looking into the rest of the Torah, this merged story and the rest of the Torah, it is kind of a story, and what I found is yes, that actually is the consistent thrust of the Torahs at the goal message. We’re supposed to have a plant-based diet and meat eating, we can do it, but God would really prefer we don’t. So I started a blog to disseminate what I was finding in my own reading of the Torah and my own study of what other rabbinic scholars were saying. And The Beet-Eating Heeb is going strong today.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m reading your last post where someone asks you if there’s a blessing for kale?
Jeff Cohan: Yes and that’s the amazing thing. There’s blessings for vegetables, there’s blessings for fruit, there’s blessings for wine and there’s blessings for bread. But where is the blessing for meat? There is no blessing for meat.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s an odd thing. Even the Indians had some sort of grace that they would say, thanking the God for the animal that they had hunted and they were going to use every part of it.
Jeff Cohan: Well I will say this. The ritual slaughterer in Orthodox Judaism is sort of the Jewish version of the Native American hunter and of course, in theory, they do. There is some ritual and prayer associated with what they do but the reality is, because meat consumption has increased so much, ritual slaughter in Judaism has been industrialized like the rest of animal agriculture. So the slaughter is occurring at speeds and the quantities that make it impossible to bring the original intention to the act.
Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about kosher for a moment.
Jeff Cohan: Sure.
Caryn Hartglass: So just tell us briefly what it is and how perhaps it isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
Jeff Cohan: Thank you Caryn for that important topic. The Laws of Kashrut, as they’re called, actually imply very strongly that there are some moral problems with meat eating, right?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Jeff Cohan: Because in Jewish law, you can eat any fruit, you can eat any vegetable, you can eat any grain but when it comes to meat, there are sever restrictions, placed on not only the animals that you can eat, but mixing meat and dairy products. Right there, there is a very vivid distinction between meats in the rest of the food that we’re actually supposed to eat.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember as I child, learning that we weren’t supposed to mix in the same meal, the milk from the mother with the flesh of the child or something poetic like that. But when you think about it, it’s like “gulp”.
Jeff Cohan: The Laws of Kashrut – one or both what I am about to say are true. There’s no doubt that the Las of Kashrut make it difficult, as we say in Judaism, a pain in the tuchas, to eat meat, right? You have to have separate dishes and in often cases, separate sinks and kitchen appliances. You can only get your meat at a certain store. You have to time carefully so you’re not eating meat to close to when you are eating dairy. It’s actually a pain. People adapt to it but it’s a pain and it was meant to be a pain. It’s also understood by many rabbis, including some of the ones I named a few minutes ago, that the Laws of Kashrut were designed to wean Jews of meat altogether and to get back to the ideal of Genesis 1:29.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Jeff Cohan: And in case you doubt that, when God was in control of what the Jews were eating, which was the case when they were in the dessert after leaving Egypt and before getting to Israel, when God was in control, they were on a vegan diet.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, manna from heaven. What was it?
Jeff Cohan: It’s described in the Torah as like coriander seed.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Jeff Cohan: So there’s no dispute it was a plant food.
Caryn Hartglass: They ate that for forty years and nothing else?
Jeff Cohan: Except for one story which I think I might have shared with you when we had dinner a couple months ago. I really commend your listeners to read Numbers chapter 11 in the bible which is a very dramatic story in the bible that rabbis and ministers and Sunday school teachers tend to gloss over because it makes them very uncomfortable if they are a meat eater. But in Numbers 11, when a group of the Israelites in the dessert complained about the manna and demanded meat, God gave them meat alright and then killed them in a plague. If that message wasn’t clear enough, the Torah said they were buried in the graves of lust.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. History repeats itself.
Jeff Cohan: Yes, it was certainly a pre-cursor of the heath issues that the standard American diet is producing today.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, we have these facilities today that are growing and then slaughtering animals that supposedly meet the kosher laws which are not supposed to cause any pain or suffering, to my understanding. They seem to cause it.
Jeff Cohan: As an organization, we do not support efforts to ban kosher slaughter which has been attempted and actually done in a few European countries because kosher slaughter these days may be no better but it’s no worse than conventional factory farming slaughter techniques.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, but it’s a factory.
Jeff Cohan: One thing I want to stress to your listeners because this is a common misconception about the kosher slaughter laws. Those laws only apply to the last seconds of an animal’s life. Anything that has happened before the animal’s whole life in a combined animal feeding operation or a warehouse crammed with fifty thousand chickens, none of those are governed by the Laws of Kashrut. The Kashrut only applies to the slaughter of those last couple of seconds. So for the people who think that this kosher meat is more ethical, try telling that to the animal.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay well that really is an important point. They lead a pretty horrific life and then the last few minutes they are killed one way or another.
Jeff Cohan: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Which brings us to delicious plant foods. Now do you know what’s been going on in Israel with respect to vegetarianism?
Jeff Cohan: Yes, it’s really amazing and we use the example of Israel to tell Jews in the United States, this is the example we should be following. The vegan movement, specifically the vegan movement in Israel, is exploding. It’s really an amazing thing to see. Even the Prime Minister who we would think of a Republican, they call it the Likud party in Israel, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed meatless Monday and at home he’s mostly vegetarian. So can you imagine President Obama doing that?
Caryn Hartglass: No, if only.
Jeff Cohan: Unfortunately, no.
Caryn Hartglass: I always wondered about some of the presidents and what they were eating because I know his trainer for awhile was a vegan and you just wonder. It’s just impossible for leaders to really, even if they wanted to be vegan or wanted to promote a certain message that was not mainstream, it would be impossible.
Jeff Cohan: And frankly the same thing applies to Pope Francis. I know a lot of people in the animal rights movement were very excited when Pope Francis became Pope because Francis was the patron saint of the animals but he’s also facing similar constraints. There’s an awful lot of Catholics who are heavily invested in animal agriculture and factory farming. So you’re never going to see Pope Francis endorse plant-based feeding or seriously criticize what’s happening in factory farming.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I brought up Israel before because I think it’s one place it’s easier than most to go vegetarian or vegan. I think I told you this, but I was working for an Israeli company back in 1988 and I decided that when I was spending my three months in Israel on business, I would go vegan. It was easy there because number one, back then, and I’m sure it’s still the same, everyone knew what was in the food. Here in the United States, people don’t know how to prepare food and they don’t know what’s in their food, they just eat it. They knew you could go to a dairy restaurant or you could go to a meat restaurant. So if I went to a meat restaurant and asked for something vegetarian, I knew there wasn’t going to be dairy in it. Now there wasn’t a guarantee that an egg wouldn’t be in it but I was narrowing down the very ability to go wrong and people were very respectful of my requests. It was always easy. You could live forever on hummus on ful and Israeli salad and the Lebanese lentil salad. There were just so many different combinations of beans, grains and vegetables. It was fabulous.
Jeff Cohan: And don’t forget the falafel which is a vegetable food made from chickpeas.
Caryn Hartglass: The falafel! That’s right, the original veggie burger.
Jeff Cohan: Right and you know this actually hearken back to the Torah, Caryn, because the seven sacred foods associated with Israel were all vegan. And it was repeated in multiple places in the bible.
Caryn Hartglass: What are the seven sacred foods?
Jeff Cohan: I was afraid you were going to ask that. Let’s see, I’m going to go off of memory here. Olives, dates, pomegranates, honey, wheat, barley and… what am I forgetting? Six out of seven is not bad. That’s a B+.
Caryn Hartglass: Well first of all, I love olives, especially good olives like the ones from Israel or even Turkey where they know how to marinate the olives. I don’t like the smooth black olives you get in a can here in the United States. And then dates. There are all different kinds of dates but dates are a delicious food and it’s nature’s candy. Sweetening your dessert recipes with date sugar for example which is just evaporated dates ground up, of all the sugars, is the most nutritious sugar.
Jeff Cohan: In fact, back home, that’s what we use as a sweetener in tea and anything else. That’s exactly what you’re talking about. Date paste, it’s simple to make and it’s a sweetener that’s amazingly actually good for you.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, when people talk about sugar and they say what’s the best sugar, I usually say all the sugars are the same. Cane sugar or corn syrup or honey, they don’t come with a lot of nutrition and they just come with a lot of sugar like maple syrup, they’re all pretty much the same. But date sugar, when it’s actually from the dates, it comes with a lot of bang with its sweetness. That’s really at the top of the list there and I can see why that’s one of the seven. Now wheat and barley, I like them both. But for people who have celiac disease, that’s problematic in today’s society.
Jeff Cohan: No, it was gluten free.
Caryn Hartglass: It was not a gluten free seven best foods! But no meat there.
Jeff Cohan: No meat or animal products of any kinds.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now is the Jewish Vegetarian – are you planning any events?
Jeff Cohan: Yes, we actually have Victoria Moran, I don’t know if you’ve ever had her on your show.
Caryn Hartglass: I have and I’m going to be on her show, I think next week.
Jeff Cohan: Oh great, I’ll definitely be listening to that. She actually gave us a great plug at Vegetarian Summerfest which just wrapped up over the weekend in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She called this event historic and it truly is historic. There’s never been an event like this in American history or possibly anywhere. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, along with JVNA and the largest congregation, are co=sponsoring a program where Alex Hershaft, when mentioned earlier, is going to talk about how is personal experience in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust led to him to becoming an advocate for farm animals.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Jeff Cohan: So it’s a very exciting event because an organization, we really don’t invoke analogies to the Holocaust because it creates a huge distraction when you do that.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s what I was just going to ask you because people don’t like it when we say that the factory farming of animals today is like…
Jeff Cohan: Right, and actually, when you really think about it, it’s an imperfect analogy to begin with because the Nazis were trying to wipe Jews out where as farmers are perpetuating farm animals. They’re not trying to wipe farm animals out. So it’s an imperfect analogy but beside that, the bigger problem is when you – I really encourage veggie advocates not to make analogies to the Holocaust because it creates a distraction and distracts the listener from the point you’re trying to make. So many people, especially Jews but not just Jews, really react viscerally to that. However, Alex Hershaft is a Holocaust survivor and nobody can deny him his lived experience and how it affected him.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Jeff Cohan: So that’s why we are so excited about it. We have found a legitimate and authentic way to invoke the Holocaust for the sake of farm animals.
Caryn Hartglass: And when is this event going to be happening?
Jeff Cohan: It’s going to be Monday, August 25th, Monday night in Pittsburg at Rodef Shalom. So anybody who is within – this would be worth driving several hours to attend. It’s really going to be a historic event.
Caryn Hartglass: And is it on your website?
Jeff Cohan: It will be soon. We just chose a name for the event today.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay.
Jeff Cohan: Victoria heard me talk about it at another event and we weren’t intending to start marketing it just yet but since Victoria gave it a nice plug, we’re not going to wait any longer.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good. Okay. Well I’ll look forward to that and the website that we’re going to be looking for that information is www.jewishveg.com.
Jeff Cohan: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: There is a lot of other information as well.
Jeff Cohan: Right, because really, in the time we have today Caryn, we are just really scratching the service of what the Torah has to say about these issues but on the website, there is lots more information.
Caryn Hartglass: Great. Well, Jeffrey Cohan, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food and I look forward to breaking bread with you again sometime soon.
Jeff Cohan: I hope so Caryn. Thank you so much for having me on, I really enjoyed it.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, me too. Thank you Jeffrey.
Jeff Cohan: Okay, you too.
Caryn Hartglass: We have two minutes left before we take a quick break. You know what I’m going to do. I’m going to remind you about a few things. Number one, at responsibleeatingandliving.com, we are airing our seventy minute documentary, Preaching to the Fire. I’ve heard comments from all around the world. It’s been really inspiring but I need you to watch it and I need you to let me know what you think. My email is email@example.com. It’s seventy minutes, it’s free and I think it’s pretty inspiring. So I hope you do get a chance to watch it. Let me know about it, let me know you watched it and let me know what you think about it.
And the other thing I wanted to mention – I talk about distilled water from time to time. I’m a big proponent of the AquaNui water distiller. I don’t have an official date yet but I’m working with the AquaNui people to have a water webinar. We will be getting all our questions answered about water and distilled water, and I know I have a lot. So if you’re interested in that, I’ll be talking about it at some point here on the show, but you can also send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will put you on the list for that.
Okay, what else can I tell you about? My next guest who will be coming up on the second part of the show is Steve Wise. This is going to be a really important moment. He’s doing incredible work with the Nonhuman Rights Project. He’s got some cases here in New York, trying to get rights for chimpanzees and I’m really excited about it and really looking forward to speaking with him. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back.
Transcribed 1/6/2015 by Stefan Pavlović