A little over five years ago I dedicated myself to a plant-based lifestyle. My Instagram shows photos of delicious vegan meals; I am one of those people who talks about being vegan all the time. Leather shoes and handbags are a thing of the past; I even stopped wearing my Uggs. Mayim Bialik, Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Nava Atlas are my current cookbook gurus. But I’ve also been harboring a secret that might damage my vegan reputation: There is a fur coat, with my name in it, hanging in my front closet.
But before you start calling me a fake and a phoney, or a “lettuce and Oreo” vegan, I’d like to explain:
My Zayda Max (grandfather in Yiddish) made that coat. He was a furrier, and some of my clearest childhood memories include going to my grandfather’s downtown Toronto shop, to sort buttons that he would use on coats, and to play with soft fur pellets. He gave me some small pieces of fur that he couldn’t use, so there were small pieces of mink, sable, fox and rabbit fur in my toy collection that my dolls would use as beds.
Born in Poland, Zayda Max made his way to Toronto, thankfully before the Holocaust. Zayda Max was the biggest hero in my life. He led Passover Seders and Rosh Hashanah meals and made certain that every member of his family felt loved and cherished. Even though this man has been gone for more than twenty years, I can’t get rid of the coat. In the last ten years I have worn it once, when I was 41 weeks pregnant and it was 3 degrees outside in February.
There are a few rationales I tell myself that keep me from tossing or donating the coat. The biggest reason is that it is MY coat; my name, Robyn Shira, is embroidered in gold with a beautiful script on the left side of the lining. I keep this coat because my grandfather of blessed memory made it for me – to keep me warm and protected from the elements, to help me feel loved. Some days I try to convince myself that, since neither my Zayda nor I even knew what veganism was when he was alive, this is a good enough reason to keep the coat, and let it take up precious space in my New York City front closet. Other days when I look at the coat while taking something out , I remind myself that the pelts of the animals used to make the coat only died once: I do not keep trapping and killing them every time I look at the coat.
But I am a committed vegan. Even around carnivores, I easily stick to my vegan principles. Although people do comment, asking “where is your protein?” and “what do you eat all day?” I have learned to make it work. I eat side dishes at Thanksgiving and traditional Shabbat dinners. If necessary, I pre-eat and prepare. So why can’t I get rid of this coat?
Being vegan is part of my identity. I wear it on my sleeve just like I do my devotion and connection to Judaism and being a rabbi. My loyalty to veganism and Judaism led me to The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish animal welfare organization that advocates for a kosher, plant-based lifestyle as a more ethical, spiritual, and healthy way of living. It is the perfect intersection of two meaningful parts of my life.
A few months ago, an email from the Shamayim V’Aretz listserve was shared, asking to sign a petition calling on Israel to ban the sale of animal fur in the country. And I could not bring myself to sign it.
Will I ever buy a fur coat in Israel? No. Do I believe that there is an enormous amount of animal cruelty in the production of fur which can be seen as a violation of the biblical principle of tza’ar baalei chaim which forbids causing unnecessary pain to animals? Absolutely. But, at the same time, I am the granddaughter of a furrier, and a fur coat that I don’t wear takes up space in my front closet.
Never will I admit that my grandfather was flawed and I don’t think he did anything wrong by being a furrier. During his career, which ended in the late 1980s, most people did not think twice about donning a fur coat on a cold snowy day. In the same vein, most of us who now eat plant-based diets were not raised that way. Thankfully, people evolve and perspectives can be altered.
Changing my perspective about my relationship with animals and food was transformative. But, I did not have a legacy of butchers and milkmen to respect and love in my family history. I just had my Zayda who made fur coats for a living, and who I remember whenever I look at the anomaly of a fur coat in my vegan closet.
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY and a member of the Rabbis Without Borders network.