Sandra McDonagh
Vegan / writer / blogger

Dreaming of a Land of Almond Milk and Agave Syrup

Dora Schwarz holding a photo of her mentor Dr Bircher- Benner (Image courtesy of author)

I clearly remember seeing a post on one of the many social media platforms recently asking the very poignant if not pertinent question ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’. My very Jewish paranoia immediately set in, was this a loaded question I asked myself?

After the waves of persecution complex washed over me, I sat and seriously thought about the answer. I’m not here though to talk about that but instead I’d like to share with you what it means to me to be vegan and how one family member in particular gave me a real sense of connection from beyond the grave.

I am honoured to be the great granddaughter of the trailblazer and pioneer Dora Schwarz, my paternal great grandmother (1894-1982) who was also once given the handle of the ‘Priestess of Health. This title was earned through being one of the few people championing a vegan, vegetarian and raw food lifestyle in Israel at the time almost a century ago. Naturally my great grandmother was not the only one pioneering this way of living and others were doing so before the First World War (and before this too) but Dora’s way of living and eating was still considered alternative.

My great grandmother left a beautiful legacy behind her in the form of a cookbook, a book that she wrote to help those interested in eating a particular way. She also ran a fruitful (see what I did there?) health spa/sanatorium from the 1930s until the late 1960s in Zichron Yaakov.

Dora Schwarz was originally born in Innsbruck Austria to a Jewish family and in her teens went on to marry my great grandfather, Walter Schwarz, a department store (Kaufhaus Schwarz) and gallery owner who showcased the works of emerging artists of the time including Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. In 1917 towards the end of the First World War Dora decided to travel to Zurich to pursue her dream of becoming a health professional and study at the famous Dr Bircher-Benner Spa. The Swiss doctor pioneered raw food nutrition and vegetarianism and Dora was extremely interested in this particular diet as a means of healing the body. Today Dr Bircher-Benner is probably best known for his muesli, which has become a staple for many in their morning routine. 

After achieving her qualifications Dora returned to Austria but when the stirrings of antisemitism began to rise she decided to leave for Palestine in July 1933. Walter stayed behind to continue running the family business. Sadly he was later arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna and taken to the SS headquarters in Munich where he was murdered. Fortunately Dora managed to bring her three children with her, one of them being my grandfather Hugo.

Once in Palestine Dora set about trying to find premises to open her own health spa and in 1935 she realized her dream and opened the doors to her vegetarian health centre. Dora herself was a strict vegetarian, which in those days is what we today would term as vegan, but the word ‘vegan’ was not actually coined until 1944. 

It didn’t take long for the sanatorium to become a place where people travelled far and wide to visit and convalesce, and was frequented by many famous people of the time including former president of Israel Zalman Shazar, philosopher Hugo Bergmann, as well as other artists, writers and actors.

Dora Schwarz was promoting the current self care movement well ahead of her time, she was anti smoking, pro exercise and believed that breath work or breathing gymnastics as she called it in her spa brochure, were all key components to a healthy body and mind. Her cookbook very much centres around the consumption of raw fruits and vegetables for optimum health and for healing chronic diseases, as well as including many vegetarian recipes too.

She had a very strong business acumen for a woman of her time and this was evident in the popularity of the sanatorium; it was always fully booked and Dora was always a present figure, giving her undivided attention to her guests in a bid to help them become healthier versions of themselves.

In 2012 I had a lightbulb moment and decided to quit smoking. I had been a vegetarian for many years but decided to pursue a vegan diet instead. It was whilst I was doing some research on a plant-based lifestyle and had embarked on a rather in depth internet sleuthing session that I stumbled across Dora’s cookbook and I was completely in awe. A short while later my husband gifted me an original copy of the book in English (it was also written in German and Hebrew) that he had tracked down in a little antique bookshop in Jerusalem and surprised me with it on my birthday. An overwhelming feeling of admiration for my great grandmother arose when I was holding the copy of her book, and as I started to flick through the pages it dawned on me just what a trailblazer she really was – a truly progressive woman! In the book I discovered a recipe for avocado smash, and one for almond milk – things that I thought were ultra modern and hipster inventions were staring me in the face in a printed work written nearly 100 years ago!

My great grandmother’s cookbook has completely inspired me. It is a book filled to the brim with a wealth of recipes, even incorporating seasonal and weekly menu plans – plus a menu specifically designed to help reverse chronic disease and illnesses common to man through the aid of vegan, vegetarian and raw foods.

I myself have been a raw food vegan and even a fruitarian over the years (I will be blogging about that experience). I have spent a lot of time researching plant based and raw food diets originally for the health benefits they had to offer. When I was eating a 100% raw food diet my energy levels went through the roof. Nowadays, I have gravitated to a more varied vegan diet incorporating cooked foods as well as eating an abundance of raw fruits and vegetables. Veganism to me is a lifestyle and I eat this way for the health benefits for sure, but also for my love of animals. 

Being vegan to me, means being compassionate to all living entities and sentient beings, tending to  the planet by saving water, slashing greenhouse gasses and emissions, safeguarding the rainforests from deforestation, reducing energy consumption and giving the sea a chance to replenish its fish due to our overfished oceans. 

Veganism assists our environment considerably as the production of plant-based foods requires far less land and resources. 

I can honestly say I have enjoyed eating this way for well over a decade now.

It has been a truly wonderful journey discovering and uncovering the story of my great grandmother and receiving the chance to connect with her via the pages of her book. So much so, it inspired me to write my own book, which explores her pioneering life and historic recipes, as well as including vegan recipes of my own and a family memoir celebrating a wonderfully vibrant but highly dysfunctional Jewish family heritage, all cenetred around a shared passion for food.

Instagram @vegangreatgrandma 

About the Author
Hi, I'm Sandra McDonagh (nee Schwarz), and i am a writer. Originally from London, I am now living in Brighton by the sea. Married with three children and vegan for the last twelve years. I have just written my debut book all about my great-grandmother Dora Schwarz, a pioneer and trailblazer of the vegan, vegetarian and raw food diet. Dora Schwarz ran a very successful health sanatorium in Zichron Yaakov, Israel in the 1930s through to the 1960s.
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