October 22, 2019

Honey isn’t vegan: Cruelty-free Rosh Hashanah

When Madeline Karpel was growing up in Westwood in the 1950s, her Russian immigrant grandmother spent days preparing the family’s erev Rosh Hashanah dinner: chopped liver, matzah ball soup, brisket and, of course, apples to be dipped in honey. 

“It was always served in the dining room with her best china,” said Karpel, 62, a Mommy and Me teacher at Valley Beth Shalom who lives in Northridge. “I inherited her dining room set, so now when we do the holidays, we eat at the same table that I ate at as a child, with the same china and the same crystal.”

But not the same food.

Ten years ago, Karpel went vegan — eschewing all animal products — after one of her daughters showed her videos of animals on the way to the slaughter. So her Rosh Hashanah table now excludes meat and dairy as well as a traditional staple that might be surprising to some nonvegan Jews: honey, which for centuries has been symbolic of the Jewish wish for a sweet new year.   

The reason, she said, is that the industrial harvesting of honey is not so sweet for the humble insect. For Karpel, it’s a matter of caring for creatures both great and small.

“I had been part of inflicting suffering on other beings in my Jewish celebrations,” said the vegan, who now uses maple syrup to sweeten her High Holy Day apples. “But it’s joyous to celebrate Rosh Hashanah or to break my fast with food that doesn’t involve any pain or suffering.” 

For hard-line vegans, honey — along with beeswax and bee pollen — has been off limits since Donald Watson founded the first Vegan Society in 1944. Some activists call honey production cruel and harmful to the environment.

In most large-scale commercial enterprises, bees are crammed into hives that resemble file cabinets, said Jodi Minion, a wildlife biologist who works with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Honeybees are “manipulated with smoke and prevented from choosing by instinct flowers and plants to pollinate,” Minion wrote in an email. “Beekeepers seek unreasonable control over their hives … by killing queen bees, which not only is cruel but causes immense distress to worker bees.”

All of these stressful conditions make bees subject to “blood-sucking mites, intestinal parasites and disease (e.g. foulbrood disease, which attacks and kills larvae) [and] causes slow, horrible deaths to the bees and can spread to other colonies and native species,” Minion added. “Infected animals are killed, typically via gassing or fumigation, and their hives and bodies are burned.” 

Colony Collapse Disorder is another phenomenon associated with farming bees, in which colonies die off or worker bees abandon the hive, Minion said. This problem facing honeybees — which are also used to pollinate some 100 crops around the nation, from broccoli to alfalfa — has threatened the food supply in recent years, according to Rowan Jacobsen, the author of “Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.” 

Representatives of the California State Beekeepers Association, however, said things are not as bad as Minion would make them seem. Patti Johnson, a board member from Hughson, Calif., said beekeepers’ hives provide adequate space for their residents — otherwise, the bees would swarm or simply not return. And while smoke is used to sedate the bees, it prevents them from stinging, which kills the insects. 

The bottom line, according to the association’s secretary-treasurer, Carlen Jupe of Salida, Calif., is that beekeepers have a vested interest in keeping their charges happy, in order to stay in business.

Even so, local Jewish vegans interviewed by the Journal suggested a variety of agreeable honey substitutes to use on Rosh Hashanah. Tani Demain, a business consultant who lives in Chatsworth, has dipped her apples in agave nectar and other options; Karpel is considering sweetening her desserts this year with a product made from apples, lemon and beet juice, and Heather Shenkman, a cardiologist in Burbank as well as a member of the advisory council of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), skips any kind of sweetener and eats her apples plain. Jeffrey Cohan, JVNA executive director, makes his own date syrup at his Pittsburgh home by pureeing the fruit with water in a blender. 

It was on Rosh Hashanah eight years ago that Cohan and his wife became vegetarians after listening to the Torah reader chant Genesis 1:29, in which God tells Adam and Eve: “I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” 

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Guess we’re meant to be vegetarians,’ ” Cohan recalled.

His choice to serve date syrup on Rosh Hashanah also comes from the Bible, specifically Deuteronomy chapter 8, in which God lists the seven sacred foods associated with the land of Israel. One of them is dvash, or dibs, which traditionally has been translated as “honey” but in many modern commentaries is thought to mean date juice, he said.

Although Cohan views avoiding honey as one of the last steps on the road to veganism, “The general principal is that whenever any kind of animal is treated as an economic commodity, the vast majority of the time it turns out very badly for the animal,” he said. “And bees are no exception.”

So, if bees are used for so many crops in the agricultural industry, why can vegans in good conscience eat those plants? 

“The reality is, we can’t completely eliminate animal suffering in our lifestyle,” Cohan said. “So the best you can do is the best you can do.”

That means not forgetting to be an advocate of the little guy. 

“Part of vegan philosophy is that nothing is ‘just’ an animal or a bee; that’s a completely arbitrary distinction,” said Mayim Bialik, an actress who appears on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and who is also the author of a vegan cookbook and a founding member of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, which fosters animal welfare practices among Jews. “You could make the same argument about a lot of kashrut.

“There’s a Jewish notion and history of caring for animals and minimizing their suffering that’s important to me as a Jewish vegan in particular,” she added.

For Rosh Hashanah, Bialik uses agave to sweeten her carrots, squash soup and water challah with cinnamon and raisins. It makes the new year just as sweet, she said.

“I’ve taught my sons some of the holiday songs I learned as a kid, and the most common one was ‘Apples Dipped in Honey,’ ” Bialik
said.  “So, now we sing it as ‘Apples Dipped in Agave.’ ”