Holidays like Passover are a difficult time for Jewish vegans and animal activists, a time of mixed emotions. As much as we love and find relevance in the meaning of the holiday, it’s difficult to be confronted by a table full of the body parts of animals that we love and fight for daily. Some vegans forgo Passover entirely, and some who celebrate with their families feel pressured to defend their ethical choices, or pressured to eat things that conflict with their values. Some are no longer invited to their family’s tables at all.
Last year, my wife and I decided to start a new Passover tradition for our friends: a “veder,” or vegan seder. All of the traditional dishes were served — matzah brie, brisket, gefilte fish, potato latkes, matzah ball soup, kugel and macaroons — in veganized versions without meat, dairy or eggs. Though not all the dishes are appropriate for Passover, the meaning of the holiday and the traditional foods serve to reconnect us to our Jewish roots.
This year was different. One of our guests, 5-year-old Felix, has been vegan her entire life. She did a great job reading the Four Questions. Yes, not exactly traditional, but the tradition that we are creating is our own.
Not only did we add some interesting new dishes like veganized deviled eggs, cashew-based artisan cheese and a couple of vanilla cakes, my wife and I added two new family members to our tribe: two beagles who were liberated from an animal testing lab in Spain. Frederick and Douglass, named after the former slave and abolitionist leader, were rescued last Thanksgiving by Beagle Freedom Project (beaglefreedomproject.org). The nonprofit organization works to find homes for former laboratory animals.
Like our ancestors whose story we retell every year about their liberation from Egypt, Frederick and Douglass were liberated from enslavement, too. Hundreds of millions of nonhuman animals suffer in private and university laboratories all over the world as test subjects whose rights and dignity are taken away from them.
Douglass finding the afikomen
Freddie and Douglass’ story is an important story to tell at our veder, because theirs is unique. Most animals in vivisection labs never make it out alive. Most are killed during testing. The ones that survive experiments are killed because they are no longer useful to labs and have no monetary value.
Our veder is really not much different than most others except that as vegans and animal rights activists, we see animals as fellow innocent victims. We decide to include and remember the 10 billion animals who are killed for food each year in the United States, the hundreds of millions in vivisection laboratories, the animals enslaved in zoos, circuses, racetracks and water parks for human entertainment, and the millions killed for fur, leather, wool and silk.
Although being vegan is still outside the mainstream, it is in no way a rejection of the values we grew up with. In fact, the very teachings of Judaism encourage us to question authority, protect those who are most vulnerable, and take action against oppression and injustice — qualities that are common, if not necessary, to vegans and animal activists.
After retelling the Passover story, much food was eaten, and much wine was drunk. As the night was winding down, we noticed Douglass running through the dining room. He found the afikomen before our friend’s daughter! Yet another new tradition at our veder is born.