Nissa Weiss wears many hats at JFN. Not only is she a mother of four, our Central-area connector is our go-to person for all questions Israel, all questions trilingual, and now all questions vegan. Before the birth of her daughter Leilani, Nissa and her family adopted a vegan diet, which uses no food coming from animal or dairy products. Learn about her lifelong interest in healthy eating and how she incorporates vegan cooking into her busy family schedule. Nissa and her husband, Ken, live in Framingham with their four children, Annais (11), Kiyan (8), Kyla (5), and Leilani (1).

You were a vegetarian before you became vegan. What led you to make this decision? How has it changed your family's daily meals and the way you cook?

I have been vegetarian since I was 9, after I saw a truck full of calves being taken to a slaughterhouse. I asked my father, "Where are they taking the cute cows?," and he told me the truth. I decided on that day to become a vegetarian, but only after fighting with my parents for quite a while did I get my wish. Because I had made such an important decision regarding my diet at such a young age, my parents took me to a dietitian to teach me what I needed to eat as a growing child. I learned that you didn't really need meat, but the iron that's in it.

The same guidelines still inform our diet as a vegan family. We grow many of our own vegetables in our garden, and we buy other high-quality produce and cook from scratch. It requires planning ahead, but it's worthwhile. We now have our own menu that includes vegan shepherd's pie, spaghetti Bolognese, pizza, sloppy joes, and all the rest of the "junk" food kids love. You can also make vegan tacos or vegan chili by replacing the meat and cheese with vegan substitutes. I prefer the ground "meat" made by Boca, and Daiya "cheese."

My favorite cookbook is Forks over Knives, which inspires me daily.

Leilani was the only one of your children born after you became vegan. Have you had to supplement her diet with any nutrients that a vegan diet might not provide?

Absolutely not! She is being breast-fed, as were all my kids. The food that babies need in the beginning is vegan anyway, so I just kept that diet for her. Thank goodness our pediatrician feels the same way.

Is being a vegan a political statement as much as a lifestyle choice? 

It's not so much a political point of view as an ecological one. I will give you an example: People think that transportation is to blame for the carbon emissions behind the devastating climate change our planet is experiencing, but the truth is that the meat and dairy industries are more to blame. Their carbon emissions are the largest on the planet, as is their use of water.

It is also an ethical issue for me. No longer is a cow being raised on a family farm, free to eat fresh grass and give milk to us as well as to her calf. A chicken no longer strolls freely in the yard and lays eggs according to her own biological code. Today, cows and chickens are being raised in factory farms, as far away from nature as can be imagined.

Dietary choices have always been a concern of the Jews. This goes back to the Bible. In Eden the only things God gave Adam and Eve to eat were fruits and greens. It was only after the flood and Noah that humans were allowed to eat meat, and the Bible put restrictions on which meat and how it could be cooked.

I heard that vegan cooking is popular among Israelis. 

Vegan cooking is becoming very popular in Israel. The vegan movement in Israel is very loud, like every other aspect of Israeli life. The fact that vegan cooking is completely kosher is a big plus for the Jewish kitchen. The Israeli kitchen is a Middle Eastern kitchen, which is vegetarian-based to begin with. There is very little meat and dairy in the history of that region, so most of the popular dishes are vegetarian or vegan — like hummus, felafel, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), baba ghanoush, stuffed peppers, pita bread, tahini, and all the best salads you can think of.

Did you have a vegan seder at Passover?

Yes, we did! And not only that, we had a gluten-free-option seder as well, because Kiyan and Kayla have Celiac disease. People are still raving about my matzah balls.

(You'll have to have a personal conversation with Nissa to find out how to make matzah balls without eggs!)

Have a story you'd like to share? Please contact Julie Wolf, and she will interview you! jwolf@jfsmw.org

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