His Shabbat table used to host an impressive array of roast beef, pastrami, turkey, breaded chicken and cholent, the traditional Jewish stew, teeming with meat.
Today, nearly two years after swearing off meat and Jewish soul food, that same table features freshly tossed green salads (adorned with cubes of non-dairy feta cheese), multigrain water challah and vegetarian lasagna, artfully layered with imitation meat and vegetables.
While there is still cholent, the concoction, now featuring chickpeas, tempeh and vegetarian sausages, is as radically transformed as the man standing behind the counter of his health-food café.
Michael Klein, a 35-year-old chef from Connecticut, is a former deli owner and meat lover turned vegan. He’s lost over 150 pounds since his lifestyle revolution, going from 350 pounds to less than 200. The decision to become a strict vegan closely followed his decision to close the kosher deli he had operated for several years in Waterbury.
Today, Klein operates a vegetarian eatery in the New Haven JCC, Mike’s Center Café, which offers a health-conscious menu featuring salads, soups, smoothies, and more, in addition to a full-service vegan bakery (eggs in select challahs his only exception). “I don’t want people to say I’m eating this because it’s vegan,” said Klein, who opened the café a year ago. “I want people to say I’m eating this because it’s good, and it just happens to be vegan,” said Klein.
Coming from a “very right-wing” background, and resident of a community centered around a men’s yeshiva and kollel (a house of study where married men dedicate themselves full time to the study of Talmud), Klein is an anomaly.
“Among my community, my decision to become a vegan has been met with considerable suspicion,” said Klein. “Tradition is viewed as sacred, and food is a central part of that tradition. Anything seen as a threat to the way we’ve lived, and the way we’ve eaten, is met with discomfort. What we have to realize, and what it took me years and living dangerously overweight to realize, is that the way we’ve been eating for the past thousand years is not the best way.”
A longtime vegetarian activist who ties his passion to Jewish values, Richard Schwartz hails Klein’s decision.
“To preserve our health is arguably Judaism’s most important mitzvah [commandment],” said Schwartz, professor emeritus of mathematics, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), co-founder and coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) and author of several books on the topic of Jews and vegetarianism. “It is essential that Jews switch to plant-based diets to be more consistent with basic Jewish teachings, and to help end the current epidemic of diseases that are afflicting Jews and others. … Such a shift can help revitalize Judaism by stressing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teaching to current critical issues.”
Not everyone, of course, buys into the “no meat equals better health” argument.
“Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t necessitate cutting out certain foods altogether,” said Jo Schaalman, 35, a nutrition expert and co-creator of The Conscious Cleanse, a two-week program geared towards raising health consciousness. “Rather, it’s about becoming aware of your internal needs. It’s about balance, not extremes.
We don’t say cut out the chicken — we say, have your veggies with a side of chicken, rather than the other way around,” said Schaalman, who is co-author of “The Conscious Cleanse: Lose Weight, Heal Your Body, and Transform Your Life in 14 Days” (ALPHA), which is due out in December.
Klein’s decision to become a vegan began with concern for his health, but quickly became “an ethical, ideological decision.” “While I was eating meat, I didn’t want to know too much about how it got there,” he said. “But once I made the decision to stop, cold turkey — pun intended — I started wanting to know more. What I discovered was quite horrifying.
People know it, but either ignore the knowledge or just don’t care — animals are being treated terribly. And, conditions are not better in kosher slaughterhouses, as many I’ve spoken to defensively assume.
“Interestingly,” Klein continued, “it is this awareness of animal rights that creates the most discomfort when I speak about my decision to become a vegan. ‘You’re not doing this for animal rights reasons, are you?’ I’ve been asked. My response: caring for the welfare of animals is a Jewish concern as well.”
But, if a concern for the treatment of animals became the heart of the decision, why a vegan diet instead of vegetarian diet?
“Animal products are animal products. Once I was in for change, I was going all the way,” said Klein.
The significant weight loss that accompanied his transition “made people a lot more curious about what I was doing,” said Klein. His secret? “The vegan diet has been primarily responsible for my weight loss, but I’ve also started exercising routinely,” said Klein. “I’ve been told I look like a different person — I feel like a different person.”
But the change didn’t come without sacrifice. “Cheese — that’s what I miss the most, no question” said Klein. “I waited until after Shavuot (the Jewish holiday accompanied by a traditionally dairy cuisine) to start the new regime. Had to say goodbye to cheesecake in proper fashion.
“But, you know,” continued Klein, standing at the cutting board in his home, slicing a cucumber for the salad he was preparing, “Once you’ve made the separation, it’s becomes easier. You start wanting what you once craved less and less.” He paused to sample the salad, deciding the dressing could use a bit more vinegar. “Food’s a habit, like anything else. A lifetime to build, a battle to break.” Bringing the salad to the table, he concluded: “But not impossible, definitely not impossible.”