My friend Ian Jack is a brilliant writer who performs in the Guardian newspaper every Saturday. A fortnight ago he announced his New Year’s intention to help save the planet by going vegetarian. Cows were a disaster — too hungry, he said, and too gassy; environmentally pigs were far more righteous. I pointed out that this was not good for the Jews.
Admittedly, he spoke kindly about the chicken, our national bird, without even knowing that a Jewish cook gets at least as much out of a fowl as Jesus ever managed with his loaves and fishes.
If I were an argumentative type I might have added that vegetarianism, far from saving the human race, caused a ton of trouble from the start. The Garden of Eden was a vegan paradise but Eve got so bored with the grub on offer that she ate the wrong kind of fruit and everything went pear-shaped. We can all agree that had there been a juicy salt beef sandwich to hand she would have seen off the serpent and we would all have lived happily ever after.
But no. Adam and Eve were evicted. They remained vegetarians and everyone lived for donkey’s years. Methuselah was nearly 1,000 when he died. I suppose that might have been the low-cholesterol, fat-free diet. But it was hardly the good life. If you are what you eat there must have been some pretty evil vegetables.
To give you the real dope on how those proto-veggies behaved I refer you to Genesis Chapter Six — it’s enough to put you right off your nut cutlets: “and God saw that the wickedness of man was great ……and the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.”
He meant it, or almost. What followed, if reports are to be believed, was the greatest climatic catastrophe in the history of mankind. Thank heavens there was one decent bloke to be found — Noah, the first sailor, the first animal rescue guy, the first zookeeper. “Enough already,” said the Almighty, “let them eat steak,” and Noah became the first carnivore.
How to account for it? Some rabbis and sages maintained that by establishing a new relationship with animals — eating them — mankind understood its place in the hierarchy and its responsibilities to the divine. Others probably saw there was business to be done in the shechita trade.
Vegetarianism can field a gallery of moral and spiritual men from Buddha to Tolstoy via Leonardo; Einstein and Pythagoras get a mention but one notable seems always strangely absent, a moustachioed little Austrian with the initials AH, who murdered millions but “could not stand seeing animals slaughtered”.
The traditional Ashkenazi diet is absolutely laden with meat — the only greens are cucumbers. Cutting back on meat may do something for our health and for the planet, but will it give us a happier, more optimistic frame of mind? Franz Kafka became a vegetarian around 1911. Three years later he wrote The Trial.