Sustenance Through Shechita
By: Sam Plotkin
Six metal chains were set against the abyss of the barn, dangling from the rafters in the faint evening light. It was cold and damp, and mist loomed overhead in the shadow of the Berkshires. The air was stale, thick with the scent of autumn. A green garbage bin sat under each chain. We would drain the blood and pitch unwanted offal and fat into these containers tomorrow.
. . . . . .
It is early morning, and dew shimmers on the grass around the barn. I see Yaakov walking around the chains, tugging each one to ensure they’re secure. An older man of medium build, he wears a black yarmulke and has a thick, coal-colored beard. Dotted with patches of grey, it flows down to his collarbone. He is our shochet, an individual trained in shechita, slaughtering in according to kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Yaakov emerges from the barn with the chalaf, checking it for unevenness and imperfections, the sort only a practiced eye can see. As the traditional blade used in kosher slaughter, the chalaf is an impressive, ominous, tool. The blade is perhaps twelve inches long and squared off at one end. At the other end is an inconspicuous black handle. With the knife set across his open palms, Yaakov recites in Hebrew, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.” Poised and at ease, he confidently approaches the first goat. It's time to begin.
. . . . . .
Walking the grounds of shechita, where we would slaughter the goats in a hallowed ritual beyond my comprehension, I ruminated on how far I felt, living and working here at Adamah,
from the roots of my faith in suburban Detroit. I thought back to my time in religious school at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue of my youth. Judaism’s Reform Movement considers itself progressive, and looks to mold Jewish practice to meet the needs of a dynamic world. Unlike more traditional, or conservative movements, Reformed Judaism doesn’t require you convert to be a part of synagogue’s community. Mixed-marriages, between Jews and non-Jews are accepted. Kashrut, at least in my limited experience, isn’t emphasized, and few keep the Sabbath. The movement has its benefits and shortcomings.
Captivating my parents along with a vast swath of Jews in my community, the Reform magic was lost on me. I saw value in its progressive underpinnings, but my Jewish education was bereft of spirituality, the vitality of any faith. My heart was never captured by ethical imperatives and my soul never enchanted by the ancient, haunting traditions. In religious school at Temple Emanu-El, which I attended twice a week, the teachers were disciplinarians more than they were educators. The school felt more like punishment than an opportunity for connection to the divine. Temple Emanu-El was the bane of my existence. The synagogue’s sanctuary smelled of stale books, the pews distinctly of mildew, and the halls of the religious school like baby powder and Mr. Clean. A certain combination of these scents still brings me a feeling of discomfort and unwelcome nostalgia.
Becoming bar-mitzvah is the seminal event of a young Jew's life, an event that marks coming of age and the turning point when one becomes a member of the Jewish community and responsible for upholding tradition and law. At age thirteen I became bar mitzvah and celebrated my release from Jewish obligation.
Yet, eight years later I found myself at Adamah, a Jewish agricultural community. I was looking for spiritual foundation, for sacred ground filled with an inspiration that could pull me through the narrow straits of confusion and lack of vision in my late teens and early twenties. I had met other disillusioned Jews who reconciled their relationship with faith through food and agriculture—palpable facets of our daily sustenance and the nexus around which innumerable Jewish traditions revolved—and I sought similar enlightenment.
. . . . . .
Daniel, the Dairy Manager, is holding Ladi's Boy, who sits still, upright, and with his eyes fixed on Yaakov. This is the first of six cuts Yaakov is going to make today, and each cut has to be perfect. Jewish law, halakha, mandates that an incision be made in an uninterrupted, continuous motion. The schochet’s cut must also sever both the esophagus and trachea. Yaakov is not permitted to press the chalaf against the neck of the goat, and he must also be careful not to tear any tissue with a snag on the knife during his cut, or go too deep and damage the vertebrae or the larynx. He must rely on the perfection of the chalaf itself, as well as his touch, skill, and muscle memory. A single mistake and the animal is no longer kosher.
All of our eyes are on Yaakov, perhaps with the exception of Daniel, who stares down intently at the goat. Tall, with broad shoulders, a thick head of black curly hair and a bushy beard to match, Daniel is the father of the dairy, and looks the role of shepherd. Mild-manned and with a slight lisp, he grew the dairy from just a couple of goats and a lean-to shelter for milking, to fifteen milking goats and a well-respected yogurt and cheese-making business seven years later.
Ladi was one of Daniel's first goats, and her boy is the first to be slaughtered. Ladi's Boy is white, stocky, and noticeably smaller than the rest of the young bucks in the herd. He can’t weigh more than 20 pounds. While he was born healthy, Ladi experienced a smattering of ailments during gestation. From worms in her gut, to mastitis, she had been sickly this year, and passed just a few days before shechita. It was with this loss in mind that Daniel takes particular care with her kid.
Now, bending over, Yaakov feels the neck of Ladi's Boy with his hand, locating the appropriate site for the cut.
. . . . . .
I walked to my truck looking for a flashlight and found my mind brooding over the image of blood dripping from a severed neck. The Torah and our sages teach that life—the soul—exists in blood. Blood is not kosher, according to kashrut.
Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh;
for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof;
whosoever eateth shall be cutoff. [Vayikra 17: 13-14]
Common practice sees meat removed from the slaughtered animal soaked in water for some time, salted, and then washed, to ensure all blood is removed. What is it about blood?
Other kosher laws? Beyond a certain vertebrae, the back half of kosher mammals – those that have split hooves and chew their cud – are not kosher. The chelev, a fat that surrounds certain vital organs including the liver, is also not kosher. I recalled a mentor suggesting that the treif, non-kosher meat, distinction is connected to the story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Jacob’s hip was injured in the fight, the sciatic nerve specifically, which runs from the waist and touches a various muscles in the back half of animals. This reasoning wasn’t clear. There must be a deeper connection here, or perhaps one that’s more obvious.
Regardless, the laws felt beyond my grasp, far from tangible.
. . . . . .
Yaakov brushes back the thick coat of white hair from the goat’s neck with one hand. A moment of pause, and suddenly with the deft precision of a master surgeon, he runs the chalaf back and forth across the neck of Ladi's Boy, one, two times, and a sea of red bursts forth.
Steam wafts into the light blue sky from the blood on Daniel's white fleece and beard as he releases Ladi's Boy and the goat falls to the ground. Yaakov gently tosses a blue sheet over the goat as it seizes and thrashes, blood pumping from its neck, pooling in the dirt. “It's not customary to watch the animal as it's dying,” he says to those of us crowded around, looking on anxiously. With the goat flailing violently beneath it, the sheet comes alive. The dull thump, thump, thump of the goat's limbs hitting the ground is audible and unsettling. After a minute or so, the last drops of blood drain into the soil and the sheet stops moving abruptly.
. . . . . .
The sky was clear and the moon was high the night I arrived, illuminating the pasture and barn, enough so that I didn't need my flashlight, which I pocketed as I walked up a slight hill to take in the bucolic landscape. I heard coyotes howl and owls hoot. I saw a deer bound across the field below. These were sights and sounds many before me had seen and heard. Farmers and ranchers for millennia, ancient Jews in the Middle East and European settlers in this corner of the Berkshires, had prepared late into the evening for a slaughter the following day. I saw that this ritual connected me to something broader, bigger, and beyond myself—to Jewish ancestors and previous tenants on this land.
Perhaps entering into a relationship with faith wasn’t about understanding, but it was about opening a door and making myself available to a potential for connection to ancestors, to a community of people of faith, and to something beyond us all.
Engaging in this storied ritual, the process of taking life to create sustenance—giving life through food—was a palpable, though difficult first step.
. . . . . .
We hang the first goat from the chains in the barn, and Yaakov's students demonstrate how to dress the animal. Arriving at the lungs, the students remove them and hand them to Yaakov. They are bubblegum pink and the texture of a dense waxy rubber, with the long, red-ridged esophagus still attached. Yaakov puts the esophagus to his lips. Exhaling, blowing into the lungs with a great breath, they expand to an amazing size, engulfing his hands. Pinching the opening to the esophagus closed, keeping the air inside, he turns the lungs over on one side and then on the other, intently inspecting them for imperfections, signs of trauma or disease. Finding none, he announces, “Yes, they're glatt kosher.” Glatt, meaning smooth, is a more stringent level of kashrut concerned with the condition of the lungs among other facets of the animal.
They finish dressing the goat and the front half is brought to me. I’m waiting at a plastic card table that couldn’t be more out of place as part of this ancient practice. I go to work with a butcher's saw. It’s my job to break the meat down into consumable portions. I grip the warm, spongy muscle in one hand and my saw in the other. Pieces of flesh and bone flake and chip away, peppering my white apron as I carve the ribs in half. Almost through, I put down my saw and push, then pull. The bones crack and pop, splintering as the cage separates.