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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

When Jewish Vegans Don’t Give A Fig For Honey!

Jewish.Honey.CakeIt’s not easy being a traditional, religiously observant Ashkenazi Jew.

Some may argue it’s even harder being a strict veggie-vegan.

How in tarnation do you sync the two?

It’s said that one of Manchester, U.K.’s strictest Orthodox rabbis follows a vegetarian regime midweek and dines on poultry only to honour the Sabbath and festivals.

If this be true, real vegetarians, no matter their faith, wouldn’t wear it. So cue one of my new pals here in Karmiel, Galilee, who joined us to break the fast after Yom Kippur. He is very religious but as a strict vegan, he wouldn’t touch the challah (traditional holiday loaf) we had provided to start the meal as I had forgotten that challah usually contains egg. I should have instead bought a wholemeal, eggless version available from a local health-food shop!

As a lacto-vegetarian with 25 years’ cooking experience I consider making the occasional vegan meal an interesting challenge. But I could never 'convert’ to full veganism. I’d find the diet too limiting; the long preparation-times onerous  – and the thought of taking daily vitamin supplements to give my system an extra kick, more than a mite artificial. After all, I argue, the very concept of vegetarianism is about natural health.

Then, as I remarked earlier, it makes observing a traditional  Jewish  lifestyle more difficult. For people like my friend and me, who both hail from Ashkenazi European (westernised) backgrounds, the puzzle is how best to substitute or bypass certain ritual foods before we discuss those popular dishes which make Sabbath and holiday meals go with a swing.

At Passover, items on the ritual ‘seder plate’ in vegetarian homes may include representations  of the customary shank bone and egg. I opt for baked or roast vegetables instead as they look prettier on the table!

Next comes Shavuot which recalls The Revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of The Ten Commandments. This festival is generally celebrated by eating dairy foods symbolising The Torah as the nourishing mother’s-milk of Jewish life.

But now comes a real problem: How do kosher vegans fulfil the mitzvah (religious duty) of dipping apple in honey at Rosh Hashana – Jewish New Year – to represent the hope for a perfectly round, sweet 12 months ahead?

I recently discovered  they substitute bees’ honey with date or  fig nectar. Talmudic scholars commonly believed that this was what was meant by the biblical verse referring to the land of Israel as flowing “with milk and honey” (Deut. 31:20).

But there are so many other Rosh Hashana Ashkenazi favourites that require egg, I go dizzy trying to work out what is appropriate to offer a vegan guest. I can’t make kneidlach (matza meal dumplings) or lokshen kugel (sweet vermicelli pudding) as these items all contain what is forbidden!

Nor may I provide classic vegetarian alternatives like nut loaf or quiche as most recipes also include eggs and I am supposed to make dishes which reflect the ‘sweetness’ of the season.

The easiest way is to make a variation of the classic Shabbat cholent (casserole) but to substitute English-style dumplings for the kneidlach and to pack the stew itself with sweet-tasting, seasonal vegetables.

And something to toast the New Year? Well, yes! But this is a religious and rather solemn festival when Jews reflect upon the preceding 12 months and prepare for Yom Kippur ten days hence. So the meal starts by sanctifying the day with blessings over sacramental wine and challah.  The remainder is easy as all kosher wines are also vegan. So – unless a vegan is also tee-total – it’s open season on the wine-rack!

Now, back to mere grassroots vegetarianism: There are probably as many versions of traditional ‘Jewish’ bees’ honey cake as there are families, so I’ve chosen a simple one at random from (

Wishing everyone reading this a good, sweet year!  L’chayim!

‘Jewish Honey Cake’


(The measures are U.S.)

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 fresh lemon rind, grated
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 cup warm strong black coffee
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
Place the eggs, lemon juice, lemon rind, oil, honey and coffee in a bowl of an electric mixer.
Mix on low speed until well blended.
In                                                                                                           a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cream of tartar, sugar and cinnamon with a fork until mixed.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the eggs mixture, mixing for about 5 minutes or until well blended.
Fold in the slivered almonds.
Pour the batter into the tube pan.
Bake in the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Mark.UlyseasThis article has just been published in the October edition of the online international magazine, Live Encounters (

There is a super-abundance of Israel-centric items in this issue, including a look at (sadly)institutionalised racism in our wonderful land and a glorious photo-portrait of Tzfat. All in all, a definite ‘must read’. Editor, Mark Ulyseas is an Indian travel writer who supports Israel and all matters Jewish. It continues to be a delightful privilege to work with him.


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