Eating Their Way into Heaven, Part II
The New Jewish Food Movement
On a cold, foggy morning in September 2007, two dozen young Jews gathered in a Connecticut ﬁeld to witness nine goats be shechted, or slaughtered according to Jewish law.
These young people, most in their early twenties, are spending three months studying the connections between Jewish values and sustainable agriculture as part of the Adamah program, an environmental leadership-training course at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Adamah is one of a handful of Jewish farming projects that have sprung up this past decade, training a cadre of young Jews to grow and harvest their own food.
At nine a truck pulls up, and thirty-one-year-old Aitan Mizrahi, who raises goats for meat and dairy at the center, gently coaxes nine young male animals from the back of the vehicle into a waiting pen. Goats, like cattle, have gender-driven destinies: The females are kept for milking, while the males, except for those lucky few chosen as breeders, are slaughtered for meat.
Four of these goats have been purchased by food activists Naf Hanau and Ian Hertzmark, and two of them by Andy Kastner, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. The three drove up from New York to prepare the kosher forequarters, about twenty pounds per animal. They will give the hindquarters, traditionally not sold as kosher because of forbidden fats and sinews, to non-Jewish friends. The other three goats will go to the Adamah fellows, who will cook them as an educational exercise. Never mind that few of these students actually eat meat—they’re committed to the do-it-yourself ethic the project represents.
“I’ve been a vegetarian for seven years, but I’m not against people eating meat,” says Ashley Greenspoon, twenty-four, of Toronto, as she casts nervous, sidelong glances at the goats happily munching on grass in their holding pen. “It’s a part of our reality, and I think it’s very important for us to face it. So long as there is going to be meat eating in the world, we need to take responsibility and do it in a respectful way that honors life.”
The shochet, thirty-two-year-old Rabbi Shalom Kantor, is standing off to the side, removing his prayer shawl and phylacteries. He has ﬁnished his morning devotions and is quietly sharpening his halaf, the knife used for Jewish slaughter. Kantor works as the Hillel rabbi at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and is the country’s only Conservative shochet. Although he trained under an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, his Conservative ordination means the animals he slaughters cannot be certiﬁed as kosher by any supervising agencies. He does this work freelance, he says, because he wants to help Jews take responsibility for the meat they eat.
“There’s a piece of me that thinks a Jew who can’t participate at least to some degree in the processing of an animal shouldn’t necessarily eat that animal,” says Kantor, who grew up hunting and ﬁshing in Sun Valley, Idaho. Buying meat already cut up and neatly wrapped in cellophane can lead people to forget that meat was once an animal whose treatment, in life and death, is carefully outlined by Jewish law. “Maybe God and our tradition call upon us to be more involved in our food. When you have to transform an animal from fur and feathers to a piece of meat on your plate, you tend to have much greater respect for what you’re eating.”
A rough wooden bench has been placed about thirty feet in front of the waiting group. One student sprinkles hay and straw under the bench to soak up the blood as the animals are killed. When everything is ready, Mizrahi gathers the students in a circle. They stand quietly, holding hands, while he talks about how the goats were birthed, nursed by their mothers, and then raised by him. “These animals are giving us their breath and their meat,” he reminds the group. “This is a link in the chain between what our ancestors have done, what we do now, and what our children will do after us.”
The circle breaks apart, and Mizrahi and Hanau lead the ﬁrst blackand-white goat to the bench and ﬂip it on its back. Mizrahi leans forward, pressing into the goat’s ﬂank, talking quietly into its ear to keep it calm while Hanau bends its head backward over the end of the bench, stretching the neck gently but ﬁrmly. A third young man holds its back legs. Kantor steps in quickly, says the bracha in Hebrew—Blessed are you, O God, Lord of the Universe, Who has commanded us regarding the mitzvah of ritual slaughter—and makes a quick back-and-forth cut across the goat’s neck. Bright red blood spurts out, drenching Hertzmark’s shirt and pants. The animal jerks for about ten seconds, and several of the Adamah fellows gasp and hug their neighbors. A few cry softly.
When the animal stops struggling, Hanau and Hertzmark pick it up and lay it down gently in the hay beside the bench. When it is completely still, they carry it to a nearby lean-to, tie ropes around its hind legs, and hang it from hooks they’ve driven into the wooden beams along the roof. Kantor trades in his halaf for a kitchen knife to demonstrate evisceration. He makes a small horizontal cut above the goat’s urethra, then a vertical slice down the middle of the belly all the way to its throat. He cuts very carefully to avoid puncturing any internal organs. When the vertical slice is completed, he reaches inside the carcass and pulls out the ﬁrst kidney, encased in a milky white membrane. He pulls the membrane off with a small knife, cuts away the chelev, or forbidden fat, and passes the kidney to one of the students, who puts it in a plastic bucket labeled “kosher.” Another bucket will hold the non-kosher innards: the four-chambered stomach, the intestines, the spleen. Kantor pulls out the lungs and puts his mouth to the windpipe leading to each one, blowing softly to inﬂate them and make sure there are no holes. His hands are scarred with dozens of tiny cuts from constantly testing his knife for sharpness.
Kantor became more observant in college, abandoning his original plan of going into game conservation for a career in the rabbinate. That’s when he learned that the hunting he’d done as a boy was against Jewish law, as animals can be eaten only if they are slaughtered by a shochet. “That was difﬁcult for me to take in,” he says. “Hunting was how I related to my dad and my brothers; it’s what we did together as a family.” When he started to keep kosher, he decided to learn to shecht, so he could preserve the connection to his meat that he knew from hunting. Finding a teacher was a problem—no Orthodox shochet would train a Conservative rabbinical student. The only teacher he could ﬁnd was an elderly Yemenite shochet in Israel, whom he studied with for a year while he was in Jerusalem as part of his rabbinical training. “He took me to all kinds of wild and crazy places, parking lots, the top of mountains,” Kantor recalls.
In spring 2005, Kantor received his certiﬁcation as a shochet. Reform and Conservative rabbinical students contact him periodically to ask for mentoring, but so far, none has followed through. It’s a frustrating business, as no one in the Orthodox community will eat his meat. “I’ve come to accept it,” he says. “That’s the reality.”
It takes about six hours to kill, skin, eviscerate, and butcher all nine goats. Kantor teaches the students how to do the skinning, but he, Hanau, and Kastner do the evisceration. Kastner is also a shochet, although he is certiﬁed only for poultry, and Hanau is learning the same skill. Kastner has never skinned an animal before, and he is working slowly on a small white goat with one of the female students. She is attacking the job with more enthusiasm than he displays, chattering about how she is learning to tan leather and plans to make a wall hanging from this skin. Kastner labors in silence, smiling quietly when asked how he felt holding down a goat as it was slaughtered.
“I was just focused on the moment, to make sure that all members of the team had the same intentionality,” he says. “It felt clean, healthy, and peaceful.”
Kastner decided to learn shechting after reading “This Steer’s Life,” a 2002 New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan that described the life and economics of cattle raised on industrial feedlots. “I thought, what a great way to combine my love for food and my passion for Jewish learning,” says Kastner, who was already considering rabbinical school.
He got his ﬁrst hands-on experience in Israel, tagging along with Shalom Kantor for some of his shechting lessons. In 2008, in his third year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he organized a summer-long shechita course. There were six students, including Kastner. For more than a month, they studied Jewish texts about shechita, acquired and sharpened their halaﬁm, and practiced making quick, straight slices across index cards.
Finally the teacher said they were ready. He brought in three chickens and asked Kastner to go ﬁrst. Kastner, who had set this whole thing in motion, didn’t know whether he could actually kill a living creature. But he steeled himself and took up one bird, cradling it ﬁrmly under his left arm as he reached in and made a deep incision across its throat.
“I felt this animal, this life leaving in my hands, and I broke down in tears, because I was holding this animal as it dies,” he recalls. “The weight of the experience really shook me. For the ﬁrst time, I was responsible for procuring meat and for taking a life out of this world to sustain mine. And the rabbi said, ‘You’re the type of person who should be a shochet, because you have such a reverence for life.’ ”
Kastner took the chicken home and kashered it, and he and his wife cooked it for their Shabbat meal with fresh vegetables from their Community Supported Agriculture farm. “We were not so eager to eat this bird,” he admits. “For the ﬁrst time, the veil of anonymity was lifted. I had a relationship with this bird. But the meal felt so whole, a complete experience.”
Now a certiﬁed Orthodox shochet, Kastner could work in any slaughterhouse. But he says he will never work in the industrial system. He would like to provide enough meat for his own family, teach what he’s learned to the wider Jewish community, and perhaps work for a small-scale, grass-fed, pastured kosher meat business. “I believe that food is a means to help us cultivate a consciousness of the moment,” he says. “As a rabbi and a shochet, I’d like to bring people closer to what they eat.”
Mizrahi stands off to the side for much of the day, watching the others skin and butcher his goats. A former Adamah fellow, Mizrahi has taught in Jewish schools and lived in Israel as a teenager with observant relatives. Like most of his friends in the new Jewish food movement, he is intrigued by traditional Jewish rituals but observes only those he ﬁnds personally meaningful. He wears a full beard and payot, or side curls, both of which are mentioned in the Torah, but not a kippah, the head covering dictated by later rabbis.
“I very much identify as a biblical Jew,” he says. “The beard is symbolic of my Judaism; it reminds me of who my ancestors were and how they would walk the hills of Judea with their goats and their sheep. They had a deeper relationship to the land, and how that land connected them to the holy spirit of God. I very much feel that my work connects me to HaShem. I know how I want to raise my animals, and I believe that how the animal is raised transfers to its meat and milk. If the animal is nervous or stressed, her milk will taste poorly. But when my goats are out in a pasture and are getting good hay and clean water, you can taste that the milk is a lot fresher, a lot cleaner. And I think that translates to the meat as well, on a spiritual level.”
By 4:30, Kantor, Hanau, Hertzmark, and Kastner have brought all the goat meat back to Mizrahi’s yard and have begun the tedious work of kashering. Kantor is busy cutting the forbidden fats off the skirt steaks, which are usually not koshered in this country because it takes so long to prepare them. The other young men have plunged the forequarters of the nine goats into buckets of water to soak for half an hour, and are butchering and wrapping up the non-kosher hindquarters to take back to their friends in New York.
As he works, Kantor praises his wife for putting up with his passion for shechting, which sometimes has him rushing into the house on Friday evening in bloodied clothes minutes before Shabbat begins. “She just points at the shower and doesn’t say anything,” he says. “But I am concerned about not permanently scarring my daughter. She’s sixteen months old and carries around a soft, furry blanket with a lamb’s head sewn on top. At some point she’s going to ﬁnd out her daddy kills lambs.”
When he was learning how to shecht in Israel, he was his teacher’s only American student. The other young men in the group were always testing him to see if he was tough enough for the job. One of the requirements of a shochet, according to Jewish tradition, is that he not be prone to fainting. The ﬁrst day Kantor met his teacher, the man took him to the back of a shop where the store owner had a live lamb, and told Kantor to hold the lamb’s head. Without warning, the Yemenite took out a knife and slit the animal’s throat to see what Kantor’s reaction would be.
“Because of my background in hunting, I didn’t ﬂinch,” Kantor says. “But with hunting you’re far away, not looking into the animal’s eyes when you slaughter it. So when I got home, I was a little shaken. My wife said, ‘Let’s go out for barbecue,’ and I said, ‘Honey, can we not do this today?’ She looked straight at me and said, ‘Either you get over this, or you quit shechting.’ That was my trial by ﬁre.”
By six, all the meat is ﬁnished soaking and is now laid out on plastic grates, covered in kosher salt to draw out the blood. While this is going on behind Mizrahi’s house, the Adamah fellows are sitting in a circle in front of the house processing their reaction to the day. Many speak about being “grateful” or feeling “humbled” by the experience of watching an animal be killed for their food. Most of them grew up in nonobservant homes; this three-month study program is their ﬁrst real encounter with Jewish dietary practice. Witnessing shechita gave them, they say, an appreciation for kashrut they could not have gotten from books.
“When the rabbi said the bracha right before killing the animal, that raised it to a higher level, the same way that you say a blessing before you eat to acknowledge that the source of this life is not you but something greater, and you are just a part of this great cycle,” says twentyﬁve-year-old Josh Lucknus of Boston. “I gained a deeper appreciation for kashrut. I appreciate the way it tries to sanctify this process, which is part of the cycle of life and death.”
Twenty-year-old Abby Weiss of New Rochelle, New York, is one of the few in the group who has kept kosher her entire life. As a committed Orthodox Jew and a meat eater, she thinks it’s important for her to witness a shechting. “It brings a mindfulness to the act of eating meat,” she says. To illustrate what she means, Weiss tells a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of hassidism. The Baal Shem Tov once worked as a shochet in a village. When he moved on, another man took his place. As the new slaughterer was sharpening his knife for the kill, an elderly Jewish woman watching him shook her head in disapproval. “You’re not doing it right,” she said. Annoyed, the man asked why, and she replied, “Our last shochet, the Baal Shem Tov, used to sharpen the knife with his tears.”
Another young woman in the group talked about holding one of the goats as it was being slaughtered. “All of a sudden, I felt this shift as the life went out of it. I thought about the distinction Judaism makes between the blood, the life of the animal, and the ﬂesh, the meat. As the blood was ﬂowing out of this animal, it went limp suddenly. And I thought, of course. The blood is its life. It was as if all the animal’s weight, all its liveliness was contained in the blood, and when the blood ﬂowed out of it, it became something else. It was a very powerful experience.”
The goat shechting in this Connecticut ﬁeld is part of the small but fast-growing new Jewish food movement. The movement harks back to eco-kosher initiatives of the 1970s, combining back-to-the-land ideas of sustainable agriculture, organics, and local, seasonal farming with Jewish teachings about mindful consumption. Its leaders and activists look to baal tashchit, the commandment to avoid wastefulness, expressed in verses such as Deuteronomy 20:19, which commanded the Israelites not to cut down fruit-bearing trees even if they were needed for military purposes. The Talmud extended the principle to prohibit other wasteful activities, such as killing animals for convenience (Chullin 7b), wasting fuel (Shabbat 67b), and engaging in wantonly destructive activities such as breaking vessels, tearing down a building, or clogging a well (Kiddushin 32a). Eco-kashrut applies these examples to the modern world, teaching that drinking from a non-recyclable Styrofoam cup or eating food packaged in layers of plastic might be considered non-kosher, as they involve wasting the earth’s resources.
Similarly, shmirat haguf, the Jewish commandment to preserve one’s body, might suggest avoiding agricultural pesticides and keeping growth hormones out of animal feed, so those poisons do not end up in one’s own body. Baal tashchit and shmirat haguf have always been Jewish values, along with treating workers and domestic animals with justice and kindness; what is new is attaching these values to the laws of kashrut to create a particularly Jewish ethos of food production and consumption.
“We are recognizing the fact that we have a tradition thousands of years old of thinking about what it means to eat in a ‘ﬁt and proper’ way,” says food writer Leah Koenig, who created The Jew and the Carrot, the new Jewish food movement’s foremost blog. “We don’t want Jews to abandon kashrut; we want them to reframe the question of what it means to keep kosher in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Is it kosher to eat food sprayed with chemicals? Is it kosher to eat eggs from chickens crammed into tiny cages?”
The eco-kosher movement of the 1970s was heavily vegetarian, but that generation’s children are now applying the same values to meat, demanding that the animals they eat be raised and slaughtered hu manely. “Mixing milk and meat doesn’t mean anything to me,” says food activist Alix Wall. “Especially after Agriprocessors, kosher meat no longer means clean meat. I only allow organic, humanely treated, grass-fed meat into my home. That to me is the new kashrut.”
It’s not that hard to remain committed to sustainable agriculture when talking about fruit and vegetables—all one needs is a farmers market or a backyard garden. But obtaining kosher meat outside the industrialized slaughterhouse system is much more difﬁcult. Few American Jews are willing to raise and kill their own animals.
In the last three or four years, however, a handful of young Jewish food activists have been doing just that. Inspired by similar initiatives in the non-kosher world, they have begun organizing their own kosher meat and poultry businesses using ethically raised, humanely killed animals, preselling the meat by phone and e-mail. It feels right, they say, from the perspective of both food ethics and Jewish values. Like the Adamah fellows in that Connecticut ﬁeld, none of the young people running these new kosher meat operations has a background as a butcher, farmer, or shochet. They are white-collar professionals living in New York, Berkeley, and the suburbs of D.C., and they are learning the business from the ground up.
In June 2006, Brooklyn resident Simon Feil, a professional actor, organized Kosher Conscience, an organic kosher turkey co-op. “The catalyst was the Rubashkin mess,” he says, referring to the ﬁrst Forward article. “I kept kosher, and it was surprising to read that this kosher meat was not humanely produced. If I’m going to eat meat, I have to do everything possible to make sure the process is as humane as possible. Even more so with kosher meat, because of the religious aspect.”
Feil put all the pieces together himself, from ﬁnding a shochet willing to work with him to locating a farm to sell him turkeys and lining up buyers for the birds. The organic aspect wasn’t as important to him as making sure the birds were free-range, transported a minimal distance to the place of slaughter, and killed by a shochet who respected the sanctity of the act. The young Lubavitch shochet he found to help him is a vegetarian but eats poultry on Shabbat (as did Rabbi Abraham Kook, the ﬁrst Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel), and was very interested in what Feil was trying to do.
For Thanksgiving 2007, Feil slaughtered twenty-four pasture-raised turkeys at a farm in upstate New York and drove them back to Manhattan for pickup at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side. Feil’s turkeys were twice as expensive as kosher turkeys from the supermarket, but that didn’t stop New York chef and nutritionist Linda Lantos from buying two. “In the last few years, it’s become important to me to ﬁnd organic food that is also kosher,” says Lantos, who has kept kosher since childhood. “My grandfather was a butcher, so I was always comfortable with where meat comes from. But I’ve been uncomfortable not knowing how the animals were treated, so I’ve been eating less meat lately.”
Feil repeated the project in 2008. That November, he and his shochet labored for twenty-two straight hours after their feather-plucking machine malfunctioned and they had to pluck sixty-ﬁve birds by hand. In August 2009, he added grass-fed, free-range beef to his offerings. Feil makes no money from this work; it’s a mitzvah, one that he, as an observant Jew, cannot ignore. Once he found out how birds and animals are treated in industrial slaughterhouses, how could he not do everything in his power to make sure the meat he eats fulﬁlls all the laws concerning humane treatment of workers and animals, not just the ritual minutiae of kosher slaughter?
“Rather than asking whether it is required by the halacha of kashrut, what on earth is our excuse not to do it?” he asks.
Excerpted from Kosher Nation by Sue Fishkoff. Copyright © 2010 by Sue Fishkoff. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Sue Fishkoff is the author of The Rebbe’s Army and Kosher Nation. She is a national correspondent for the JTA news agency and lives in Oakland, California.