Book Review: Revolution with a Human Face

East Central Europe just published my review of James Krapfl’s 2013 book, Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989-1992.

For those interested in the region, the period, or revolutions, I highly recommend the book.

For those interested in my opinions, I highly recommend the review.

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Gratitude – Thanks!

Thank you to all who submitted abstracts to the collected volume of essays on Jewish veganism that I am co-editing with Shmuly Yanklowitz. There’s the thank you note.


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Jewish Veganism on the Radio

On 8 December 2015, Melissa Lesniak hosted me on “That Vegan Show” on UMSLRadio. We spoke for an hour about Jewish Veganism and about the collection of scholarly articles and professional essays on that topic that I intend to publish with Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz of Shamayim V’Aretz. For more information on submitting proposals, click here.

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Call for Papers: Jewish Veganism

On the heels of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute‘s recent publication, “The Jewish Vegan,” I am proud to announce this call for papers, together with Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, for an edited volume of scholarly and profession essays on Jewish Veganism.

As more and more Jews adopt a vegan lifestyle, we can ask if Jewish veganism (and also vegetarianism) has become a distinct phenomenon. This collection of essays, submitted by scholars, rabbis, theologians, activists, and community leaders from around the world will explore new and compelling ideas about Jewish foodways and ethics, and also how various communities and individuals have put them into practice. We will discuss what might distinguish Jewish veganism as Jewish and whether or not we may now consider it, either in thought or in practice, a coherent and self-conscious movement unto itself. We will ask how Judaism, broadly defined, inspires or compels some Jews to veganism and how that lifestyle, in turn, enriches or defines their experiences and identities as Jews. We seek also to test the boundaries of Jewish veganism and to understand more about it by considering it alongside other Jewish cultures of food and food production, such as vegetarianism, the cultivation and preservation of Jewish ethnic cuisines, and the efforts to produce kosher food in a more ethical manner, including but not limited to practices associated with slaughtering animals. Jewish veganism may be situated as well within movements to safeguard animal welfare/rights or the environment. Finally, we hope to put Jewish veganism into conversation with veganism and vegetarianism in other faith and ethnic traditions. Distinctions between the cultures of different Jewish communities and traditions are welcome.

Jewish Veganism will be a unique collection, as it will feature works of scholarship alongside what may be considered valuable primary sources, such as reflections by activists and normative statements of values, theology, and politics. It is meant to reflect the breadth of contemporary discussions about Jewish veganism and also to serve as a resource for developing them further, with an eye to interdisciplinary and cross-professional collaboration. Please note that we are seeking papers which delve into the philosophy, history, and experience of Jewish veganism, as well as its contemporary communal manifestations. Personal reflections are welcome only insofar as they help address these larger themes.

Rather than a work of advocacy (although some authors may advocate), Jewish Veganism will reflect a studied intuition that Jewish veganism may have come of age. It seeks to explore its contours and scope. We anticipate that the volume will attract a wide readership. It will speak to scholars, clergy, and laypeople interested in religious, Jewish, and food studies, animal rights and welfare, the environment, social action, and identity politics. The book’s transnational scope will also help it contribute, as well, to a growing literature on Judaism and Jewishness in a globalizing world.

With pleasure, we are soliciting proposals in either English or Hebrew of no more than 250 words by 20 December 2015. Please send your abstracts in PDF format to

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Book Announcement – “The Jewish Vegan,” ed. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

It gives me great pleasure to announce the publication of The Jewish Vegan, a collection of essays edited by dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz. The book made it to #1 on Amazon’s list of new releases in religious philosophy on its first day. Mazal Tov.

Jewish Vegan Book

The Jewish Vegan includes a foreword from Emmy-nominated Mayim Biyalik. It includes articles from academics like Princeton Professor Peter Singer, Professor Aaron Gross and Dr. Jacob Labendz (that’s me!), and from animal welfare activists like Humane Society of the U.S. VP Paul Shapiro & Jewish Vegetarians of North America’s Dr. Richard Schwartz and Jeffrey Cohen. There are articles from MDs Dr. Joel Kahn, Dr. Roy Artal, and Dr. Heather Shenkman. It includes Rabbinic commentary from Breslov Research Institute R’ Dovid Sears, R’ Adam Frank, R’ Dr. David Seidenberg, R’ Yonassan Gershom, & R’ Robyn Fryer Bodzin. And the book includes intellectual and poetic flair from Matthue Roth, Yossi Quint, Aharon Varady and Sarah Chandler. Rabbi Shmuly expressed thanks on Facebook to all who contributed and to AJ Frost for his work as managing editor. (Text adapted from FB post by Rabbi Shmuly.)

Get your copy here:

All proceeds will go to support The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute!

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New Traditions for a Vegan Passover


What is different about this night? At all other Seders we begin the meal with boiled eggs. Tonight, with edible flowers.

What is different about this night? At all other Seders we place a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate. Tonight, only a cardboard cutout upon which we have written an ethical pledge of sacrifice for the new year.

What is different about this night? At all other Seders we place a roasted egg on the Seder plate. Tonight, only a charred wooden egg which hides secrets within.

What is different about this night? At many other Seders vegan and vegetarian Jews make do by avoiding meat-based traditions or by using meat alternatives. Tonight, only thoughtful and lasting re-inventions of older rituals and deep discussions.


Vegan and vegetarian Jews can feel a certain sadness and loss due to their decisions to opt out of Jewish traditions that involve the use of animal products. Instead of seeking “alternatives” which look, taste, and feel like the “real thing,” I suggest that we get to work inventing new traditions which reflect our ethical commitments. We need a whole new Jewish cuisine! We need vegan dishes that our entire communities will associate with specific holidays and milestone and to which we will look forward all year round.

We also need to do better at replacing the animal products that appear in Jewish rituals. I understand that traditionally observant Jews may see no option when it comes to items like Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and t’filin. Fortunately, Passover offers us the opportunity to begin inventing new and lasting traditions without violating Jewish law.

The changes that I suggest accomplish three goals. They symbolically refer to the very rituals they seek to supersede. This allows us to honor and teach about our past, while also calling attention to our modern ethical commitments. The new traditions also carry the same meaning and will provoke the same sorts of conversations which have been central to the Seder for generations. Finally, they each have a special quality, which will make them feel like old traditions in no time. I anticipate looking forward to them in the coming years. Passover won’t feel the same without them. We just need to get started!

The rituals of the Passover Seder serve didactic and emotional purposes. They lead us to pose and grapple with questions, not only about the holiday itself but also about who we are, what we believe, and what we must do. Four questions, often read by children, inaugurate the retelling of the Exodus, which is the heart of the Passover ritual. The questions begin with observations that the evening’s customs depart from normative practices of communal eating. Those rituals and the objects they involve, therefore, both facilitate and limit the stories we tell and the terms of the discussions we can have.

Three Passover rituals traditionally call for the use of animal products: we place a shank bone and egg on the Seder plate and eat hardboiled eggs with salt water to start our meal. This presents a problem for vegans, vegetarians, and even for meat-eaters who want to accommodate their guests’ ethical commitments. To be clear, none of the food items just mentioned must make an appearance at Passover according to Jewish law, which allows for non-meat substitutions.

Yet, as I explained, vegans and vegetarians can nonetheless experience a feeling of loss when they abandon these iconic traditions. We may feel strange if in organizing a Seder for others, we remove from their experience the tastes, smells, and sites which for them – and even for us – constitutes and signifies Passover. Here are a few ideas for how we can solve this problem. As for the gefilte fish, you’re on your own for now.

Boiled Eggs in Salt Water

Many Jewish families also begin the Passover meal by eating a hardboiled egg dipped in salt water. The egg symbolizes the lifecycle and the salt water our tears of pain. The treat reminds us that the world is constantly renewed and gives us hope. It also recalls older, pagan rituals that mark the birth spring and fertility.

Replace the boiled eggs with fragrant and colorful edible flowers. They too recall spring and renewal, while also reminding us, in their ephemerality, that life belongs to a cycle that includes death and mourning.

I like this new tradition because edible flowers have a wonderful and meaning-making quality of uniqueness and difference. Inaugurating the holiday feast with edible flowers, rather than with the boiled eggs to which we are accustomed, will prompt questions – yet more Passover questions – from adults and children alike. This, in turn, offers another opportunity to embellish the Seder with discussion. We can even teach about the almost magical disappearance of the boiled egg.

I like this new tradition most because it has the greatest potential to be assimilated into the expected and longed for sights and flavors of Passover. I can imagine that in just one generation, Jews around the world will look forward to their annual Seder flowers. Homemakers will compete to find the most exotic specimens. And vegan Jews will find total inclusion and comfort in our rituals.

The Shank Bone

The roasted shank bone on the Seder plate reminds us of the paschal lamb described in the book of Exodus. As the ancient Israelites prepared to flee Egyptian bondage, they sacrificed a young lamb and used its blood to mark their doors. This act of faithful co-identification protected their houses from the last of the ten plagues, the death of the first born. The Israelites subsequently offered an annual paschal sacrifice, which created a symbolic link between ritual and history and through which God’s presence and plan transcended human experience.

The shank bone on our table has various meanings for different communities today. It reminds some Jews of our covenant with god. Others consider the shank bone a symbol our lost Temple and invest it with their hope for messianic redemption. Still others consider it an historical relic which respectfully celebrates the supersession of sacrificial Judaism.

Prepare paper or cardboard cut-outs in the shape of a bone. Ask participants to write or draw upon them what they might consider sacrificing this year and for what Passover-related cause. For example, someone might promise to avoid buying clothing produced in sweatshops because Passover teaches us about the horrors of slavery. Observant Jews can prepare their shank bones in advance of the Seder in order to avoid writing on the holiday, which is prohibited by traditional interpretations of Jewish law.

I like this new tradition because it fulfills the obligation to recall the Passover sacrifice, while overtly demonstrating that we now consider it wrong to use animal products in our rituals. If we were to replace the shank bone with a vegetable, traditionally a beat, we would miss the opportunity to make manifest our new ethical commitments while also honoring and teaching about the traditions of old.

I also like this new tradition because it reminds us that sacrifice, however interpreted, remains central to the Jewish tradition. It offers us an opportunity to foster deeper and meaningful Seder conversations, which can help to make Passover feel more relevant to our lives. We each will leave the Seder with a new ethical commitment.

The Roasted Egg

The roasted egg on the Seder plate, the beitzah, represents the festival sacrifice offered in ancient Jerusalem on Passover. According to Jewish tradition, eggs symbolize both mourning and renewal.

Purchase (or prepare) wooden eggs. Char them in the oven or with a blow torch and place them on the Seder plate. I suggest purchasing hollow eggs. (Choose wood over plastic, please!) These can be filled with symbols of the things that we will mourn in the coming year; things of which we will try to let go. To this we may add a symbol of something new to which we are looking forward.

I leave it to you to decide if you want to discuss the contents of your eggs at the Seder. Doing so may foster a more intimate bond between participants. You will also learn how to care better for each other in the coming year. On the other hand, there is also value in secrecy. A silent (or sealed) egg ritual will allow those of us with personal struggles to incorporate them into the Passover ritual without having to reveal too much. The yolk is the chicken’s secret.

I like this ritual because it maintains a reference to tradition by preserving the form of the egg. At the same time, however, it also directs our attention to our ethical commitments and reminds us of our obligation to renew our rituals. I like this new tradition because it transforms the Seder egg into our own egg. The universal meets the personal. Finally, I like this ritual because the knowledge that something secret lies at the center of our egg will lend a feeling of mystery to the Seder. Also by committing to reuse the same egg annually, we gain a ritual item. This is the very stuff of new and lasting traditions!

I wish you all a happy, meaningful, and vegan/animal-friendly Passover. If you adopt one of these new rituals, please let me know how it goes. I would also love to hear about other new traditions that you’ve invented. Find me on Twitter: @jacob_labendz.

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And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

This is a thought-piece that I wrote for the Wexner Foundation. I consider the meaning of the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall for contemporary (American) Jewry.

See the original here. Full text below:

Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Erected in 1961, it stood less than a kilometer from where I sit now. The end of the Cold War destabilized Jewish identities and politics around the world. I still recall marching on Washington in 1987 to “free” Soviet Jewry.  In a matter of moments, that sacred mission, which had been a cornerstone of American Jewish life, no longer demanded our attention. Berlin also reminds us of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The legacies of genocide still mark the city’s topography and its culture.

During the last Gaza War, the media reported pervasive public expressions of antisemitism in Berlin; not anti-Zionism or Israel criticism, antisemitism. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a public debate about contemporary antisemitism in Germany, organized by the Center for Research on Antisemitism, where I am currently a post-doctoral fellow. How should we – and Germans – think about the relatively unexpected re-emergence of public antisemitism here? Are we witnessing something new or simply the unwelcomed return of the repressed? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism?

Regrettably, I cannot recount here all of the night’s arguments. I would like, instead, to meditate on the implications of a single line of inquiry. The Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm suggested, based on years of observation, that the single core component of contemporary, secular Jewish culture in America is a relationship with Israel. This, he contends, has had the unhealthy effect of transforming any criticism of that state into a perceived anti-Semitic attack – an offense to the basic stuff of American Jewishness. If Boehm is correct – and I believe that he is – secular American Jewry is facing a crisis of meaning and it is having a disastrous effect upon our capacity for political nuance.

In a discussion after the debate, a noted professor of Jewish history rejected Boehm’s premise. She pointed to the richness of secular Jewish life in America. I do not deny this, but would instead direct you to James Loeffler’s piece in Mosaic Magazine, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” An efflorescence of cultural production alone cannot replace the transcendent meaning that religion and nationalism once provided to our community. Is it any wonder that so many committed nonreligious and non-Zionist Jews express their identities primarily by subverting religious and Zionist narratives – the old cultural cores? What if we could grab hold of something else – something constructive?

For that, I return to Berlin. Had American Jews remained engaged with Jewish life in this city we might have experienced, rather than merely witnessed, the emergence of a playful and porous post-Soviet/Russian-Ukrainian/German/Jewish cultural sphere. The postmodern avant-garde was ours for the taking, provided, of course, that we allowed the word “ours” to change its meaning in the process. Instead, we basked in self-confident, post-Cold-War triumphalism. Fears of demographic collapse followed shortly thereafter, with the release of the first Jewish Population Survey. Our institutions sought to combat this, in large part, with Israel experiences.

Perhaps we can celebrate Berlin’s anniversary by tearing down the walls of twentieth-century identity politics which continue to constrain our communities’ creativity. A people so invested in history, in the commandment to remember, must also understand that it is subject to history. In Berlin, the absence of a wall does not testify alone to the transformative inevitability of globalization. So too do the city’s many Israeli residents who cross daily the former boundary between East and West. Labeling them traitors or cheapskates is to miss the point entirely.

The historian Charles Maier has noted that moral and structural narratives of history rarely map neatly onto one another. Globalization, a structural phenomenon, has taken its toll upon our community and yet I still find myself yearning for the aesthetics of moral and cultural certitude which characterized the previous two centuries. I wish that I could restore our community’s lost transcendent center, but I cannot. I invite you instead to join me in playfully acknowledging our shared nostalgia for the foreclosed future that it once promised, but can no longer deliver (see Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia). What a privileged and terrifying position it is to sit on a wall that no longer stands and to look into the future! Let us open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformation for our new world, twenty-five years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

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