By Rachel Grossman
I’m the Heebavore – a Jewish/vegan food blogger, a born and raised secular Jew who, just under one year ago, converted to Judaism and became an aspiring vegan.
My Jewish journey really began just a few years ago as I attended classes, met with rabbis, went to services with no frame of reference, repeatedly lost in Hebrew gibberish that made me long for something solid and sweet, guttural. To be one voice among many, to be of something greater, larger. And, of course, part of this was trying to make Jewish foods to internalize it all. At the time, it wasn’t clear to me that foods held any particularly special place in the journey.
It wasn’t until my studies came to an end last year that I found myself confirmed, as a Jew with only a tiny fraction of my questions answered that I realized I could cook my way through my ongoing studies – across the world and through my own foreign emotions. I felt more Jewish with challah on the table and over the Shabbat candles, dinner warmed and ready.
My first challah was a great success — it rose, it browned, it smelled of honey and pride. I bragged about it on social media, in real life, on the telephone. But then, on Yom Kippur, my Jerusalem Kugel burned and stuck to the pan. Nearly black, it didn’t resemble kugel at all. I wanted to throw it away, but my guests, all Jewish with longer personal Jewish narratives, ate it, and further, seemed to enjoy it. Strangely, the deviation didn’t strike them as apostasy. You could actually hear the crunching from across the table – like we were eating chips to break the fast. And, basically, we were. Eventually I came to the realization that my kugel failure was not only okay, but desirable. Those kugel chips were absolutely still Jewish and were also totally mine.
It would be a lie to say that my failures and my successes in the kitchen have not impacted my feelings of Jewishness, as I trek through the wilderness of what it means to be a Jewish woman. Jewish cooking has the power to make me feel more, or less, authentic as a Jew.
Through 2012, I cooked my way from the Middle East, to Africa, to Spain, across Europe, through Russia, into China. The base pulled together from scratch. I wondered through each recipe how these vastly different foods are all also so distinctly Jewish. Along the base of my identity now I think about the foods I consume on a regular basis. I think of these foods, having been molded, minced, and marinated by the hands of displaced Jews, my ancestors, our ancestors. Our ancestors, wherever they were, put these foods through the sifter of kashrut. Halakha and Jewish values helped to literally shape these foods. Challah rose with love, in anticipation of the world to come; kugel baked in recollection of miracles; and matzo ball soup bubbles popped for redemption. Through this project of veganizing foods, I have been able to travel the world, uncovering the richness of my ancestry, and actively form the future. Something upon which I can stand.
As I began my Jewish journey, I had struggled with kashrut. Partly, I decided to become vegetarian to simplify the process. I began cooking a lot of fresh foods. As with all things deeply important to your most central self, you can’t tear away your habits. So bit by bit, I cut meat from my home and my diet. Over time, vegetables became rich and delicious in a way that they never were before. Once I realized that it is a fairly easy to live this way, there was no other way at all. I had become an aspiring vegan Jew.
I began to think of my diet more seriously, study it, even. Now the whole idea actually consumes me. In the beginning, I fumbled over how to exist more peacefully and Jewishly in a society that has streamlined food processes to the determent of our society and our health. Through 2012, I planned and re-planned recipes, wandered up and down grocery store aisles, questioned every label, endlessly researched egg substitutes, often incorrectly converted measurements, exhausted. I looked wide-eyed at bright food packages, determined to make the “right” choices each and every day. I thought ad nauseam about the laws of kashrut, full of questions and overwhelmed.
I was adamant that the rules lead us to justify desires, and not to a live more humanely or sustainably. I endured a large number of recipe failures that never made it to the blog, consuming a little bit of my own broken pride each time, and even some meat dishes while traveling abroad. The ideal seemed too out of reach, too constantly difficult. But that is not to say that over the course of the last year I changed my mind. I did not. Several months passed before I accepted that kashrut is above all an ongoing, mindful process –an invitation, not a restriction.
The difference now is recognizing that this is a lifestyle, not a war. I’m taking the first days of the new year to remember how foods have helped me to notice myself in a new way when I stop to learn about what I prepare and consume, though perhaps not perfectly. When I began this project I had a strong hunch that these foods, in my searching and my preparing, would help me to build a home. The beautiful thing is – they actually have. Slow stirrings. Just as we move forward in our thoughts on mindful eating, we also move backward. The foods of our history bring and hold us together; they are quite literally our fodder, our sustenance as people.
Now, quickly approaching my year mark as a vegetarian, and as an official Jew, I can say that my courage has only grown. 2013 holds a lot of personal promises, held up by habit, and this year I am not making resolutions. I am continuing what I have begun. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my successes, and my failures, and I hope to inspire others along the way to try new recipes with open hearts and minds.