I am not a vegetarian, although people often think I am.
“You don’t eat meat, so you’re a vegetarian!” is what I commonly hear from family and friends. To a vegetarian, however, I am definitely not a member of the brotherhood because I do eat fish. While an ovo-lacto-vegetarian (one who eats eggs and dairy products) might bear grudging acceptance into the family even by vegans, I don’t expect to garner much sympathy when I explain that I am a… pesco-vegetarian.
I have flirted with vegetarianism since the age of 17, and my enthusiasm for that way of life has waxed and waned along the way. After decades, I still consider myself a work-in-progress.
I was raised in a Jewish, kosher home as a dedicated carnivore. We ate hamburgers all the time, as well as chicken, hot dogs, turkey, lamb chops and (yuck!) liver. For a very special occasion, my mother might prepare a roast beef in the oven or a potful of flanken in tomato sauce. For years, my favorite was beef tongue, which I’d get once in a while as a treat when my mother would cook the whole tongue in sweet and sour sauce with cabbage and raisins. Delicious!
Of course, we lived in the suburbs of New York City, a three-minute drive from two kosher butcher shops (a little farther into town there were a couple more).
I don’t think I ever heard of vegetarians until I went away to college. I certainly had never met one. My freshman year of college was a rather eye-opening experience in that regard.
Two things happened early in my first semester. First, I began eating at the dining hall with other guys from my dorm. Not being Orthodox, this didn’t bother me any. I just skipped the meat and subsisted happily on the salad bar, hot veggies, potatoes and lots of chocolate milk. And tuna sandwiches for lunch.
I soon became aware that there was a small steam table set up in the corner of the dining hall to accommodate the vegetarians on campus. I began trying out their food and I liked it! Well, mostly. You can only eat rice in tomato sauce for so long before you get sick of it. The commercial food service people who ran the joint were singularly uninspired when it came to vegetarian fare. But that was cool; I knew there’d be cake and ice cream for dessert.
I think some of the vegetarians looked askance at me, taking food from both lines like some kind of hybrid, neither fish nor fowl.
I soon noticed that there was also real kosher food available! As in… meat! In the lobby of the dining hall, some Chassidim (in retrospect, they were probably from Chabad) set up a little kitchen with hot steam tables full of flanken, cholent, potato kugel, etc. I took a look one day, then said “no, thanks” and left. I wanted to go upstairs and eat with my friends. Besides, I wanted my ice cream! I quickly discovered that one of the joys of never being fleishig was always being able to have ice cream for dessert.
Sadly, the little kosher kitchen soon went away for lack of interest. I still feel guilty for contributing to that back in 1976.
The second thing that happened is that I ran into a group of hippies who were starting a food co-op. They were very accepting of students of all faiths and attitudes toward vegetarianism, and I soon began to run with that crowd.
Almost everyone in the co-op was vegetarian, each for their own reasons. One had religious reasons (I believe he was a Sikh, although I had never heard that word at the time) and some had health concerns, but most just wanted to save the world. Not only did they have ethical qualms about killing and eating animals, but they believed that the vegetarian lifestyle is the only ecologically sustainable one. Also, they saw nuclear power as a threat to mankind and some of them demonstrated at nuke plants and got arrested, but that is another story.
My new friends were open to all varieties of vegetarianism, and they introduced me to many new foods. For one thing, I had never eaten an avocado before! (Unthinkable in California, but more common that you may imagine in New York.) I also tried hummus and tabouli for the first time and learned strange words like “tahini,” “tamari” and “miso.”
The following year, I transferred to a different college where thousands of students were Jewish, some of them even Orthodox, and there was a regular kosher kitchen open for dinner seven nights a week. It cost a little extra, but I felt it was worth it. I ate meat every day.
Still, the pull of fish and vegetables was strong. The college had a little satellite campus downtown; I often took the bus down there after classes on Friday to eat with the graduate students. No kosher kitchen there, but I knew Friday was fried fish night, and I was all about that.
After college, I moved back home, got a job and continued on my kosher meat-eating ways. After working a year at minimum wage, I switched to a much better-paying job at another company, working the 7 am to 3:30 pm shift. When I got off work in the afternoon, most days I’d head straight for the kosher deli located about a half-mile from our house. Living at home, I was flush with money and had few expenses, so I treated the kosher deli as if it was my corner bar, parking myself on a stool at the counter for a couple of hours and befriending all the employees. I don’t even want to think about how much money I left in that place.
Not long after, some of the deli employees bought out another kosher deli in the next town and I began to hang out over there. I simply could not get enough matzo ball soup and tongue sandwiches.
After 6½ years in the workforce, I saw my job as about to be phased out due to budget exigencies and advances in technology, so I bolted for New England to attend graduate school full-time. I roomed, along with several other students, at the home of a pair of empty-nesters who had a huge house full of unused bedrooms.
For a while, I would periodically transport kosher meat from New York, but then I discovered that our college town did have one small kosher butcher shop. I didn’t cook much, but I did go over there to buy kosher cold cuts when I had some extra money.
When I completed graduate school, I sat myself down to ask some hard questions such as “what do I really want to do with my life, anyway?” That led to the further question of “is this who I really want to be, and if not, what changes can I make to head in that direction?” One of my decisions was that I could no longer in good conscience be a party to the murder of animals for the sake of human enjoyment.
And what I was going to do about fish? It was my mother’s question when I announced my decision. I had to admit that I hadn’t figured that out yet. I knew in my heart that it would be difficult indeed to give up my beloved salmon, tuna and halibut.
Initially, I experienced several episodes of what can only be called backsliding. I had moved back to New England, but to an area where there were no kosher butchers locally. So I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find that I could not seem to break free of Hebrew National salami — about the only type of kosher meat I could get. I would go along nicely with my fish and veggies for several weeks or even a month before that old salami craving would return and I would succumb to temptation. It took a couple of years for me to realize that what I was really craving was not those greasy bullets that I would cut up in chunks, but the garlic that they contained. Now I add garlic to just about everything and I have been meat-free for more than twenty years.
About five years ago, however, I began questioning my fish-eating ways. I think this whole thing started when I viewed a pretty graphic PETA video online about how fish are caught and what is done to their bodies after they are removed from the water. When I mentioned this, several of my acquaintances made comments along the lines of “You’re not supposed to think about it so much. Just eat it.” Um, excuse me? That’s when my light bulb went off: People would not be able to eat meat if they thought for a minute about what happened to the poor animal. But they enjoy the taste of meat and they are used to eating it, so they accommodate by simply not thinking about it. I think this is a little like allowing homelessness to continue by averting our gaze when we encounter raggedy beggars in desperate need. But, friends, ignoring these things do not make them go away! On the contrary, “not thinking about it” perpetuates misery, both human and animal.
To make matters worse, it turned out that my rabbi and I had philosophical differences regarding the eating of meat. Aside from my ethical qualms, I believe that the Torah shows that while meat-eating is permissible, it is definitely not the preferred way to go. As far back as Genesis, the Lord gave Adam every green plant as food. The animals he named, but it was the plants that he ate. That is, until “the fall.” It seems that, in a perfect world without sin, we would be plant-eaters, while sin gave rise to the killing of animals and the consumption of their flesh. Then there is the little matter of the Jews wandering in the desert for forty years after being freed from generations of slavery in Egypt. The Lord fed us with manna that fell with the dew, another plant reference. But that wasn’t good enough for the Children of Israel. They wanted meat. The Book of Exodus tells us that flocks of birds filled the skies to satisfy the ungrateful. Large quantities of birds were killed for food, but those who ate them died while the food was still in their mouths.
None of this persuaded my rabbi. Yes, I know that even the kohanim, the holy priests, ate of the bovine, ovine and avian sacrifices during the time of the Holy Temple. Yes, I know that not eating meat prevents one from fully following the laws of kashruth that require separation of meat from dairy. As much as I believe that a Jew is obligated to follow his rabbi’s direction, I could not bring myself to do so and had to chalk it up to an “agree to disagree” situation.
No, I was definitely not going back to eating meat. But the fish thing still bothered me.
Then some notable things happened in my family. My divorced sister-in-law had met another man and eventually married him. He had eight children. My sister-in-law had three of her own. The second youngest of my new nieces and nephews was only two years old when I met her. At the height of my doubts about my pescatarian ways, little Clarissa, who was by then seven or eight years old, starting questioning me about why I didn’t eat meat. When I explained in simple terms that I didn’t believe in the killing of animals, she asked me why, then, did I still eat fish. I had a hard time explaining this one. So, of course, she asked me again every time I saw her.
My little niece had called my bluff.
And then came Yom Kippur. While attempting to examine my ways and motives as a ba’al teshuva (penitent) should, I realized that I was being a horrible hypocrite. There would be no more fish for me.
My wife objected, knowing how much I loved to eat fish. I don’t think she was too unhappy, however, as the smell of fish has always nauseated her. We gave away what was left of our stock of canned tuna and sardines.
I became a genuine ovo-lacto-vegetarian and even took a peek over the horizon at the possibility of becoming vegan. This lasted all of three months.
After a month or so, I realized that I didn’t feel well — ever. Every day I felt like I was getting sick. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t getting much protein. I am not a huge tofu eater or bean eater, although I do eat those things once or twice per month. I am not a big milk drinker, and melting cheese on my veggies only took me so far. I tried different kinds of veggie burgers. My wife and I went out to eat a lot, which meant salad, potatoes and bread for me, or else pizza or pasta.
It should have come as no surprise to me that, as a Type 2 diabetic, my blood sugar went through the roof. My doctor was not pleased at all and changed my medication more than once. No wonder I was always feeling sick.
So I gave up and went back to eating fish. Knowing I could get my protein fix by simply opening a can of tuna made all the difference. My blood sugar level decreased to where it had been previously.
These days, although I am a happy fish eater, I still think about the ugly treatment suffered by that poor fish before it made its way into my freezer. Perhaps someday I will try a fish-free lifestyle again by learning to cook, trying new combinations of vegetable protein and planning meals instead of just eating whatever is on hand. But, honestly, I don’t think this is going to happen for a while.
My journey toward vegetarianism is likely to shift my eating patterns yet again in the future, with compromises reached and then renegotiated.
For now, however, I am at peace, me and my tuna.