A vegan seder plate. (photo by Gene Blalok)
Veganism is about much more than dietary choice. It is an ethical philosophy based on the belief that other animals are not ours to use. Like humans, animals are sentient: they experience pain and pleasure, they suffer and they form deep emotional bonds with others in their families and communities. Vegans do not use animals for food, clothing, entertainment or animal experimentation regardless of taste, pleasure or tradition. Being a vegan is also much more commonplace today, as is following a vegan diet for health reasons. This means it might not be unusual to find a vegan at your table on Passover.
For the fourth year in a row, my wife and I will be hosting an all-vegan Passover seder, or “veder,” as we call it. We started this tradition after a group of Jewish vegan friends expressed how alienating it can be to celebrate the holiday in the traditional way. As ethical vegans, it is difficult to sit at a table laden with the body parts of the nonhuman animals that we are working to protect and rescue. Many had stopped attending their family dinners, and one friend was no longer invited simply because others felt uncomfortable when she passed up most of the food on the table. But our hunger for the Jewish tradition of Passover remained.
The Passover seder commemorates our liberation from Pharaoh and the larger issue of the immorality of slavery. As Jews, we have a long history of suffering, oppression and slavery and, as animal activists, this has informed our choices to work to help others end their own oppression – including animals. It’s no wonder Jews have played key roles in other movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and animal rights. The liberation of animals is another social justice movement for which the Jewish community should naturally feel empathy. Jews and vegans share common values such as justice, fairness, equality and compassion.
How we as animal activists celebrate the meaning of the Passover seder is to remember the evils of the past and to expand our circles of compassion and justice so that no group, human or nonhuman, need experience the suffering and exploitation of being different or unequal. Passover is a great opportunity to reflect on how we can create less suffering for all those who are oppressed through our personal behaviors and choices.
Simply adding vegan foods and vegan versions of traditional dishes to the table is a way of making a statement that we include the most vulnerable and innocent among us when we celebrate this holiday. These days, it’s as simple as Googling “vegan [whatever dish] recipe,” vegan or “vegan Passover recipes,” and thousands of animal-free options will magically appear. At our veder, we serve all of the traditional dishes we grew up eating – matzah brie, brisket, gefilte fish, potato latkes, matzah ball soup, kugel, macaroons – in veganized versions without meat, dairy or eggs.
With a little effort and creativity, your entire seder dinner can be made vegan. We even have an animal-friendly seder plate. Instead of a lamb shank bone, we use a dog cookie-cutter to make a playful bone-shaped piece of tofu. Instead of an egg, we use a small dab of commercial “egg replacer” used in vegan baking. I encourage all Jews to embrace the meaning and tradition of the holiday while also incorporating new traditions that reflect values of justice, ethics and compassion. When we can celebrate the holiday without doing any harm to others, why wouldn’t we?
VEGAN CHOPPED LIVER
Adapted from The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook by Roberta Kalechofsky and Roda Rasiel (Micah Publications, 1997).
1/2 lb brown lentils
1 large onion, diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup walnuts
salt and pepper to taste
1. Put lentils in a two- or three-quart pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, partially cover and simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure water has not boiled off, and add water as needed.
2. Sauté onions in olive oil until golden and tender. Allow to cool slightly.
3. Drain lentils and blend, along with the walnuts and onions, in a food processor until homogenized, but leave some of the texture intact.
4. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill about two hours.
Gary Smith, co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world, blogs at thethinkingvegan.com and has written for many publications. He and his wife are ethical vegans and live in Los Angeles with their cat Chloe and two beagles rescued from an animal testing laboratory, Frederick and Douglass.
(Editor’s note: Some vegan recipes will contain ingredients that are not strictly kosher for Passover. For those who are less strict, the options abound. For more strict kosher diets, incorporate dishes that are heavier on fruits and vegetables, and avoid using legumes, like lentils, or products that contain wheat or gluten. Also, only certain egg substitutes are kosher for Passover, and many Ashkenazi Jews abstain from eating kitniyot on Passover; tofu is made from soybeans, and is considered to be kitniyot.)