Lactose Intolerants Make Shavuot Ritual Easier to Stomach

Rachel Klein is a white woman wearing a chef's coat hodling a block of tofu above a cutting board.
Vegan chef Rachel Klein uses tofu and cashews to make matzo balls that are floaters, not sinkers, despite their plant-based ingredients. | Courtesy of Rachel Klein

It doesn’t take a Torah scholar to know that God promised the Israelites a land overflowing with milk and honey, not a land overflowing with oat milk, or soy milk, or cashew, rice, hemp or pea milk.

But as Jews celebrate Shavuot — commemorating Moses and the Israelites receiving the Torah — by eating cheesecake, cheese blintzes and cheese kugel, many experience a gastrointestinal wrath that may feel like punishment from God.

With an estimation of 60-80% of Ashkenazi Jews with lactose intolerance, according to a American Family Physician study, 

Jews began the tradition of indulging in dairy as a nod to the promise of a land of milk and honey, but it also serves a practical purpose, Ko Kosher Service Rabbi Amiel Novoseller said. In order to fulfill the Shavuot ritual of studying Torah through the night, Jews should prepare with a dairy meal, a lighter alternative to its meat counterpart.

“God forbid we should be sleepy when we’re going to receive the Torah!” Novoseller said. “[Rabbis] figure, you still gotta eat. Eat something dairy, eat vegetable protein. This way we’ll stay alert for the acceptance of the Torah.”

Cookbook author and food writer Jeffrey Yoskowitz suggests the consumption of dairy is a matter of anthropology just as much as tradition.

“When it comes to food and food traditions, to me, it always comes down to seasonal abundance,” Yoskowitz said. All of these ritual agricultural festivals fall for very specific reasons or at certain times.”

Shavuot falls 49 days after Passover, a time in the spring when goats are birthing their kids, mirrored on the Passover seder plate with the lamb shank representing the sacrifice of the animal. Nearly two months later, goats are starting to wean their kids off their milk, leaving a surplus of dairy to the farmers.

The abundance of milk consumption in Jewish antiquity, on the surface, contradicts Jewish aversion to lactose today. But Einstein Healthcare Network gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Goldberg qualifies this idea.

Lactose intolerance is caused by the body’s buildup of lactose, the sugar in milk, in the colon, he said. Jews, among most other demographics, have a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that breaks down this sugar, and over time, the excess lactose can cause digestive unpleasantries.

All humans stop producing lactase at a young age, but genetics still play a large role in how much is produced among different demographics.

“Populations that were staying rooted in one place long enough to cultivate and raise livestock, they more easily developed dairy tolerance because they were using the dairy all the time,” Goldberg said. “The more nomadic cultures relied on other methods, and they were relying more on more fermented dairy products, and they did not develop their daily tolerance.”

The stereotype of the wandering Jew may hold weight to the reason so many are lactose intolerant, Goldberg said. Jews have relied on fermented dairy products for centuries, Yoskowitz added, as seen in the Ashkenazi proclivity towards sour cream in borscht, for example.

Over generations, the genetic reactions to these environments were passed down, a l’dor v’dor many Jews perhaps wish could be undone. For Jews who relied on fermented dairy to make milk products more digestible, American assimilation, which “stamped out” many cooking traditions, provided fewer opportunities for Jewish cooks to make the food from their home countries that best suited their sensitive digestion, Yoskowitz said.

But looking to the past could also offer solutions on how to navigate a lactose-heavy holiday celebration.

Fran Costigan is a white woman with red hair wearing a black chef's apron and holding a whisk and bowl filled with melted chocolate.
Pastry chef Fran Costigan has been using plant-based alternatives in baking for over 25 years. | Courtesy of Fran Costigan

These days, it’s easy for people to make their own dairy products, Yoskowitz argued. One can make creme fraiche or sour cream by inoculating cream with cultured buttermilk or yogurt. Farmer’s cheese or ricotta are also easy do-it-yourself projects that rely on probiotics and lactic acid to help break down lactose naturally, making it easier to digest.

“It’s a really good opportunity for people to learn how to make some of these things from scratch,” Yoskowitz said.

But in true Jewish fashion, some cooks are looking towards modern food technologies, relying on the ample plant-based dairy alternatives to recreate nostalgic dishes.

Alternative nut or soy milks are an easy replacement for dairy milk, vegan pastry chef Fran Costigan said. Soaked and blitzed up raw cashews make for a compelling cream replacement. As a Jew growing up on Long Island, being able to have a classic baked New York cheesecake after 25 years of plant-based living was important to Costigan.

Costigan created her own vegan chocolate syrup to add in a vegan egg cream, reminiscent of the ones she had as a child.

“The days of old where you had to reinvent the wheel —which is what I had to do going back over 25 years ago — you don’t have to do that anymore,” Costigan said.

Rachel Klein, creator and chef of Philadelphia’s Miss Rachel’s Pantry, uses cashews and tofu to make fluffy matzo balls that, when she first fed them to her grandmother, made her tear up.

Recreating a family dish for a Jewish holiday is more than just about comfort. For Klein, the vegan dishes she creates retain the labor-intensive techniques, the extra bit of love put in each dish, that gives it additional intrinsic value. 

For Jews eager to find meaning in Shavuot, they can look towards the inevitable changing of food traditions to feed their soul as well as their sensitive stomach.

“It makes me happy that I can continue a tradition for my family,” Klein said.

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