Praise be for the chicken-free celebration of cheesecake

By Jennifer Lipman, May 24, 2012

Jews, eh. We like to think that we're a tolerant bunch, but when it comes to behaviour that is deemed to veer from the norm, we can be surprisingly judgmental.

In the nearly seven years since I voluntarily gave up meat, I have been subjected to more than my fair share of teasing, interrogating and even bullying. It is a rare fellow community member who does not respond to my self-imposed abstinence from chicken, turkey or beef with a look of bewilderment or a patronising glance of sympathy.

On a near-weekly basis, I endure lengthy lectures from messianic meat lovers, listen to the same anodyne remarks about not knowing what I'm missing, and shrug off the inevitable "Well, you know Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian" (So are Matisyahu, Alicia Silverstone and Natalie Portman, but what have any of them got to do with it?).

Few seem able to accept that I like my lifestyle; that I have a taste for Tival, that I prefer a sweetcorn schnitzel to a steak, and that I find Friday-night dinner enhanced, not diminished, by a meat-free plate.

They gape at the idea that a person can opt for challah with egg or hummus rather than want bread smothered in chopped liver. "But what about chicken soup," they cry, as if I have personally insulted them. "How can you turn down a good, salt-beef sandwich?"

'You know Hitler was a vegetarian,' they say

Quite easily, in fact, and not just because it means I can follow my meal with milky coffee rather than lemon tea, and cleanse my palate with Cadburys rather than Bendicks. I ate meat for 18 - ever so long and painful - years, and found every mouthful torturous to chew and repulsive to taste. The texture, the smell, the aftermath - ugh.

It's not about how the meat is cooked - "you must not have tried a really well-cooked leg of lamb," people screech at me with regularity, as if, as an adolescent, I endured some kind of Dickensian existence involving little exposure to culinary variety.

Nor is it about the welfare of the animals (even as a former goldfish owner, I still eat fish quite happily). I am no hippy; I wear leather shoes and, on balance, think medical testing on mice and other animals is a necessary evil. Neither am I swayed by arguments about sustainability; it's more about the inclinations of my stomach. And contrary to expectation, I don't find my meat-free diet dull, repetitive or unbalanced - I still eat plenty of protein, appear to be suffering from no deficit in vitamins or nutrients, and am not malnourished in any way.

Yet my explanations always fall short, with my interrogators declaring: "One day, you'll see the light". Our community encourages conformity; you can almost hear the hostess sigh when you tick the "vegetarian" box on a wedding reply card, while waiters rarely attempt to hide their abject disapproval when someone orders falafel in a kosher meaty restaurant.

When I choose a cream-cheese bagel or a slice of pizza over an oozing schwarma as my late-night Golders Green treat, incredulity abounds. You can't be a real member of the tribe, they tut. Not if you don't eat beef. A Shabbat meal is seen as somehow lacking without a roast chicken as the centrepiece; no matter that, without meat, the dessert-tray is your oyster.

For the long-suffering, persecuted vegetarian Jew (there are more of us than you might think), the two days of Shavuot are a moment in the sun, a brief window in a calendar that celebrates chomping on our split-hooved and cud-chewing four legged friends.

Leave aside the spiritual reflection, the all-night learning and the singing of Hallel; as every Jew knows, religious observance is all about what we're feasting on.

For a delicious period, yom tov chatter does not rest on whether "a wing or a leg" is preferable, or which butcher offers the best price on tongue.

No one serves Swedish Glace! On Shavuot, Jews can enjoy the fruits of those delightful chaps Ben and Jerry. And in the roster of festival desserts, cheesecake, rather than the inferior honey cake or doughnut, surely takes gold at the pudding Olympics.

To misquote George Orwell, I know that 363 days of the year, two legs good, but four legs are desirable. But not on Shavuot. On Shavuot, my religion rules the world.

Last updated: 10:06am, May 25 2012