Training for Slaughter

March 8, 2012 at 11:35 am | Posted in food, hens, sustainability | Leave a comment

Jacob Siegel, Summer 2010

My first visit to ADAMAH was in the winter of 2009, when I came up to Connecticut to do my interview for the summer fellowship. I arrived on a particularly juicy day. In the early winter morning, Shamu and I walked out to meet Naf and Anna Hanau, alumni of the program, who came up to shecht and process the old hens getting picked off by a hawk. That morning, I helped the staff pluck and clean the birds, the bloodiest job interview I’ve done to date.

During my time at ADAMAH, Naf came up from New York to do a demonstration for the group. He performed several shechitot and taught us about the categories of invalid shechita under Jewish law. His presentation and his work starting a sustainable kosher meat company inspired me on a deep level, and I began to dream about one day training as a shochet myself.

At the time I had been a vegetarian for nearly five years, mostly for convenience and economic reasons. I remembered a particularly challenging class at ADAMAH with Aitan, goat manager, who argued that meat and milk (and eggs) are inextricably connected in our food system. Was it possible that eating eggs but not chicken was, in fact, unsustainable? After that class, I longed to produce my own sustainable kosher meat.

After ADAMAH, I worked with a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. A local rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, and I studied the laws of shechita once a week. The laws of shechita are first outlined in Hullin, a tractate of the Talmud (the traditional compilation of Jewish thought and law from the 2nd-5th centuries CE). They are consolidated in the Shulchan Aruch, written in the 16th century, and then again in a work called the Simla Hadasha, published in the 1730’s. Nowadays, every shochet studies the Simla Hadasha and is expected to know all of its laws by heart before becoming certified. Rabbi Herzfeld and I worked our way through the Simla Hadasha over the course of the year, and as my learning continued, the dream of certifying as a shochet became more and more vivid.

I moved to Jerusalem this fall to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. My goals in coming to Jerusalem included finding a rabbi who could teach me practical shechita skills. I got connected with a rabbi living near Mea Shearim, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood in Jerusalem. The first time I visited him, in his uniformed white shirt, black pants, and black kippah, he saw my brilliantly purple shirt and commented on my neck-long hair. “It would really be better for you if you cut it – to win community respect. You’re reflecting on me too, you know, as my student.” I had been growing it out for two years – how much was I willing to sacrifice to learn shechita? I asked my roommates to help me chop it off.

I started learning with the rabbi and a hevruta (study partner) every night for two hours. He told me where I could buy a shechita knife, and we practiced sharpening it to a perfectly smooth, perfectly sharp edge. Some nights the rabbi would unexpectedly cancel, for a bar mitzvah or a bris. Sometimes his teaching was gruff, and he said nothing except “wrong – fix it.” It felt like a scene from the Karate Kid, the wizened and demanding master watching over the fumbling students.

We shechted for the first time at an agricultural moshav an hour west of Jerusalem. We rented a car for the day, put on dirty overcoats, and brought our knives. I slaughtered five birds in a kosher slaughter and got to take them home to cook myself. I was aware, during the slaughter, of the gravity of our act – taking the life of an animal in a traditional, divinely inspired process, in order to feed myself and my community. I keenly felt divine eyes throughout the process looking on and assessing: are your intentions pure? Are your movements competent?

Two weeks ago, I received my official, signed certification from my rabbi of my status as a shochet of fowl. I feel proud to be a part of the ADAMAH community – to have learned and been inspired by the teaching of Naf and Aitan, and many others. Now I get to bring my skill and contribution back to the community. And together we get to make our food, and our Judaism, sustainable.

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