THE FOOD ISSUE – Kosher Wars


Published: October 9, 2008

ONE SUNNY DAY in late August, Andy Kastner made the short drive from his apartment in Riverdale, in the Bronx, to Yonkers First Live Poultry Market, a narrow cinder-block shop that sells live chickens, pigeons, quail and rabbits stacked in ancient-looking metal cages. At Yonkers First, workers usually slaughter and butcher the animals for customers, but Kastner was there because he wanted to kill his own chickens.

Jeff Riedel for The New York Times

A BIRD IN THE HAND: Andy Kastner thinks outside the industrial-food model

Kastner, who is 28 and has curly hair, big brown eyes, stick-straight posture and a calm, thoughtful demeanor, had recently returned from his summer job leading a community-service trip for Jewish teenagers to a Navajo reservation, and he was about to begin his third year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a small, Orthodox rabbinical school. He parked his green Subaru by an auto-body shop across from the poultry market, and from the backseat he grabbed a tote bag holding his slaughtering knife, his butcher’s jacket and a red leather book in Hebrew.

Kastner spent the previous year studying how to slaughter animals according to Jewish law. Kosher dietary laws, which religious Jews observe, prohibit eating certain animals, and the ones that are permitted must be killed and butchered in very specific ways. There was a time when learning the practice of slaughter, or shechita, was part of standard training for rabbis, but in an era when most animals are killed and butchered on assembly lines, it has disappeared from the curriculum of most rabbinical schools.

Kastner’s yeshiva didn’t teach shechita, so he asked the head of the school for help finding a teacher. Then he cold-called shochtim, or ritual slaughterers, in the New York area looking for information on where to get the special knife required for kosher slaughter. (“It turned out they were made in some guy’s basement in Brooklyn,” Kastner told me.) Now that Kastner has completed his training, he occasionally comes by Yonkers First to practice. Shechita requires one quick, smooth cut to the throat, which must sever the trachea and esophagus but not hit the spinal cord. The amount of force needed for the cut depends on the breed of animal, and the only way to learn is to practice. Kastner and his wife serve the chickens that he cuts correctly for Shabbat dinner, and he gives the occasional mistake to his doorman.

Ten years ago, learning how to slit animals’ throats by hand was simply not a compelling choice for young rabbis of the clean-shaven, earnest sort like Kastner. But the politicization of food issues and the popularization of epicurean and artisanal eating has made learning Jewish food traditions relevant for a new generation. Kastner grew up in the Reform movement, which 120 years ago formally disavowed kashrut, the kosher dietary laws, as an anachronistic impediment to “modern spiritual elevation” — though Reform leaders later softened their position, decreeing that kashrut was a matter of personal choice. But for Kastner, Jewish ritual slaughter actually seems a bit revolutionary. He says he thinks that contemporary disconnection from our food sources is the cause of numerous environmental and social ills, like the national obesity epidemic. He wanted to be a shochet to help people make more healthful food choices and reconnect to the source of their food, and to encourage investment in local agriculture. He says the rules around kosher food — like the requirement that meat be slaughtered by a pious person with a certain intention and the requirement to say a blessing over every food acknowledging its source (land, tree, grain, other) — encourage mindful eating and discourage overconsumption of resources.

Kastner is part of a nascent Jewish food movement that draws upon the vast body of Jewish traditions related to agriculture and farming; Judaism, for all its scholarly abstraction, is a land-based religion. The movement emphasizes the natural intersections between the sustainable-food movement and kashrut: a shared concern for purity and an awareness of the process food goes through before it reaches the table. “The core of kashrut is the idea of limiting oneself, that not everything that we can consume should be consumed,” Kastner said. “I wouldn’t buy a ham sandwich, and I would also refrain from buying an exotic mangosteen imported from China, which wastes fossil fuels and is grown with pesticides.” He told me he studied shechita because he wants to “create food systems outside the industrial model.” He has been trying to set up a grass-fed-kosher-meat co-op in his neighborhood; he says he hopes to travel to a local farm and shecht the animals himself.

The proprietor of Yonkers First, Vincent Siani, was happy to see Kastner. Siani has a modified pompadour with a white streak and was wearing two gold chains with cross pendants, a pinkie ring and a diamond-stud earring. Siani’s father ran the store before he took it over, and Siani told me he remembered when a rabbi hung out at the shop a few days a week to serve the neighborhood’s Jewish customers. These days, his customers are mostly from the surrounding Hispanic neighborhood, although Muslims sometimes ask to slaughter their own animals for holidays, or they have Siani do it. “They ask me to say, ‘Bismillah,’ and, ‘Allah hu Akbar,’ when I make the cut,” Siani said. He shrugged. “It don’t cost me nothing.”

Kastner went to the back of the store and peered inside a cage full of white chickens. He opened the door a bit, tentatively reached around inside and then closed it. “This is the hard part,” Kastner sighed. “They know what’s up. You can feel their feathers plump when you reach in. They all hide in the corner.” Siani came back to chat about the chickens available that day, which breeds were better for soup, which would be more tender. Siani opened a cage of small birds that he pronounced superior, unceremoniously pulled two out and handed them, squawking, to Kastner.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2008, on page MM50 of the New York edition.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: