I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Animal derived foods were central to our rituals and celebrations which, for Orthodox Jews, is at least a weekly event. In my family, the focus on meat was even more significant because my mother is the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of kosher butchers. Growing up in such an environment never allowed me to consider animals as individuals. Not surprisingly, when I decided pursue a career in the health sciences, I had no problem taking a summer job that involved animal experimentation and vivisection. In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I worked as a laboratory assistant at Georgetown University and personally performed vivisection and subsequently killed more animals than I care to recall. So you can see why the story of how I became vegetarian, and then vegan, in my late thirties is one of the more improbable ones I know.
From an early age, I was a very inquisitive and empathetic child. I had a strong inherent sense of right and wrong. Injustices, regardless of size, seemed to disproportionately upset me. Throughout my adolescence, I slowly began to privately challenge and deconstruct the religious teachings of my Orthodox Jewish upbringing. My recognition, at a young age, that I was gay helped facilitate this. At the time, I had no language or cultural reference for what it meant to be gay because my family and community of origin kept me exceptionally insulated. In spite of my sheltered environment, I quickly realized that my sexuality was something I couldn’t pray or wish away. Being gay was as integrally instinctive and unthinkingly a part of me as my left-handedness or the color of my eyes. I eventually realized that being gay was not something I wanted to wish away. Accepting my homosexuality opened the door to deconstructing other myths and rejecting dogma. Once I knew that something was wrong with one of the teachings of our faith, then all of the teachings came into question. I wouldn’t allow myself to believe in a sadistic God who would allow people to be born gay if homosexuality was indeed a sin. I started to question all of the teachings of my Rabbis and the Bible; a book that promoted slavery, gender discrimination and permitted us to eat some animals but not others. This ultimately empowered me to disbelieve its divine origin. Thus, I abandoned my instilled belief in Orthodox Judaism and stopped practicing it because it was important for me to live my life in accordance with what I knew (and believed) to be true about the world.
After abandoning Orthodox observance of Judaism, I started to eat animals that had previously been prohibited. The experience of going from the restrictive kosher diet to being able to eat whatever, wherever, whenever was intoxicating and felt freeing and I found myself steadily gaining weight through my twenties. These unrestricted eating habits worsened over the course of my medical school and surgical residency training. Consequently, by May 2009, my health was a mess. A careless diet, in spite of exercising daily, took its toll on me. After years of unsuccessfully trying to reduce my dangerously high cholesterol with Niacin, fish oils and all sorts of dietary modifications, I had to start taking Lipitor. At that time, our fourteen year-old dog, Chandler, was very sick with rapidly spreading metastatic malignant melanoma. My husband Michael and I were committed to doing everything we could to help him survive it. He had 2 surgeries to remove tumors from his bladder, neck, lymph nodes, and he was still not well. We were feeling desperate because we knew the end was coming faster than we anticipated. Michael, reached out to a canine holistic veterinarian who was also a certified naturopath. He instructed us to get the processed foods out of Chandler’s diet and feed him a diet of only organic foods along with fresh, raw, grass-fed beef. One day, I went to Whole Foods to get the meat and some fresh organic vegetables and Michael then spent over an hour preparing this organic meal for Chandler who ate it up. After Chandler ate, we were too tired to keep cooking so we ended up taking out burgers and fries from Five-Guys. About half way through my burger, I started to feel uncomfortably full and sick. That’s when it hit me: we were spending all of this time and money on Chandler, buying (what we believed to be) “premium grass-fed beef” and organic foods, but we weren’t doing the same for ourselves. Michael and I discussed this and decided that we were going to make the investment in ourselves to be as healthy as we could be and buy organic foods as much as was possible. This was a huge switch for us.
I wanted to learn more about the new organic food lifestyle that we had just undertaken so I started to read up on organic versus genetically modified foods. I was horrified to learn about the current state of food production in the U.S. and the misleading information on food labeling the government allows. I first learned the horrors of factory farming when I read The Face on Your Plate; The Truth about Food, by Jeffrey Masson. His book really opened my eyes, and immediately after reading it, I decided to become a vegetarian. I didn’t want to eat foods that came from sick animals who were fed abnormal diets filled with antibiotics and hormones. I also decided that it was time to do something about my weight. I stood five feet and eleven inches tall and my weight had skyrocketed up to whopping 212 pounds. A few of my friends were starting Weight Watchers together and, though I knew nothing about the program, I decided to join them. I quickly realized that a lot of the vegetarian food options like milk, cheese and eggs are “high point” food options on Weight Watchers, so I started to avoid them and instead filled up on organic fruits and vegetables. Doing this, I felt satiated and stayed within my daily point allowance. But for the egg whites I still ate and the bit of skim milk in my coffee, my diet had suddenly and unintentionally, become nearly vegan. By the end of four months, I lost 45 pounds and felt physically better than I ever had in my adult life.
During those four months I kept reading about food production. Like many new vegans, I started online at PETA. Crying my way through their undercover videos solidified my commitment to vegetarianism. Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer not only broke my heart, but it also blew my mind. I finally made the connection: there is as much (if not more) suffering in a glass of milk as there is in a burger or a steak. I was shocked to learn that Foer was a vegetarian, but not vegan. I couldn’t comprehend how could someone who so clearly states the reasons to not participate in animal oppression chose to still use animals. I didn’t understand how someone could know the truth and still not change their behavior. And then I had my “aha” moment; now that I knew the truth about the animals whose products and secretions I was eating, would I be like Foer? Would I continue to prioritize my own pleasure and convenience over the rights of sentient, feeling, tortured nonhuman animals? The answer was a resounding no. As with everything in my life, my actions had to be in alignment with my morals.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2009, I became a vegan. That afternoon, we went up to my Michael’s family for the annual Thanksgiving gathering. At the meal, I picked at the few vegan options available, forgoing anything containing animal products. Nobody really commented on what I wasn’t eating because they knew I was on weight watchers and just assumed I was still dieting. Then we came home and enjoyed a fully vegan Thanksgiving meal that I had prepared in advance, complete with a Tofurky Vegetarian Feast. It was delicious and I was shocked how easy it was to make. I realized that following a vegan diet required little more than just putting some thought and planning into what you’re eating, and I had been doing that already for many months. The next morning, I went out, got a half-gallon of low fat soymilk and put it in my coffee that morning and thought- this doesn’t taste the same at all but I’ll get used to it. And, sure enough, I did.
Ethan J. Ciment is passionate about social justice and is a vocal advocate of equality for all, regardless of species. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, and coming from a long family line of kosher butchers, Ethan woke up in his late thirties to the realities of animal exploitation when caring for his ailing dog, Chandler. When not lending his voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, Ethan is a podiatric surgeon in private practice in at Chelsea Foot and Ankle in New York City. Ethan is proud to serve on the Board of Directors of Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. Both Michael and Ethan are proud Barnyard Benefactors for Our Hen House and Guardian Circle members of The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Ethan lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his husband Michael and their vegan dogs, Riley and Charlie.