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Sue Fishkoff

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The New Jewish Food Movement: Jews Who Meet What They Eat

Posted: 10/20/10 09:09 PM ET

The following is an excerpt from Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority.

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 20s, 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 31-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, 24, 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, 32-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 30 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 every thing 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 black-and-white goat to the bench and flip it on its back. Mizrahi leans for ward, 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 10 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."