Goslings enjoy a moment in the sun.
On a bright, sunny, freezing morning this past December, I was covered in goose down.
The parents of a friend of mine from Philadelphia own a small piece of land an hour west of the city, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Every year, they used to hire a local shochet (kosher butcher) to slaughter geese for them for Hanukkah. The old shochet moved away years ago, and I volunteered.
So there I was, in rural Pennsylvania, on a brilliantly cold day, with a gaggle of majestic geese.
They invited ten other families in their social circle to purchase a goose for slaughter. The one caveat: Each family would need to join us that morning to pluck their goose. This would be a community effort: I would ensure the kosher status of the birds, but everyone needed to get their hands dirty.
The geese themselves were “happy geese,” sustainably and locally raised. They came from a small farm, run by an Amish family, that is ensconced in a remote corner of beautiful, rural Pennsylvania.
I slaughtered, and we spent the morning butchering and plucking the geese. Someone thought to put some of the goose down in a plastic bag to take home and clean. A good bit of goose down ended up on my clothes, and there is still some in our car five months later.
Slaughter should always happen this way: as a rare and special occurrence, using humanely raised birds slaughtered with care and intention. This is kosher meat prepared in community.
As a certified shochet, I find it deeply meaningful to make this mitzvah, this core Jewish practice, accessible to Jewish people far and wide. On the one hand, Jewish law doesn’t require every Jew to slaughter animals, just as it doesn’t require every Jew to knead dough for bread, or to harvest vegetables from the ground in order to eat them.
On the other hand, every kosher chicken has been slaughtered by a Jew who learned a deep and intricate set of rules of slaughter — and these laws are some of the most significant and powerful that the Torah has to teach. They touch on questions like: How do we define what we eat and what we don’t? When we slaughter animals and participate in taking life from living creatures, how do we need to act? What are the boundaries between life and death?
Many Jews today, even those of us who live a life motivated by Torah, even those of us who keep strictly kosher, have lost touch with this integral part of Torah. Slaughter, for most of us, is something that happens behind distant closed doors — what some observers of the meat industry have dubbed the “cellophane veil.”
The commercial meat industry in general has taken the process of raising meat and hidden it behind nearly insurmountable barriers. The secrecy is immense. In recent years, journalists have been able to penetrate that , and they have presented us with horrifying stories of the treatment of animals packed together in so-called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs.
The farmers and slaughterhouses are caught in a bind, responding to the financial demands of company owners, who often seem not to care about the treatment of the animals they slaughter. CAFOs might also be more prone to diseases like avian flu, which in its most recent outbreak has largely struck huge poultry farms in the Midwest. To make matters worse, kosher slaughterhouses are subject to even more financial pressure than non-kosher ones.
The growing distance between our lives as Jews and the meat we eat is disturbing. We must rebuild that connection.
As part of my payment, I took home a goose. I had never cooked goose before, but I found a delicious recipe for roast goose with apple slices and garlic from Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Food.” To share the goose with me, I invited friends whom I knew would appreciate the story of this goose and the effort that went into it.
Let’s work together, as a community, to tear down that cellophane veil. Our connection to Torah depends on it — our connection to the earth depends on it too.
Jacob Siegel is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open and modern Orthodox rabbinical school. He is also a certified shochet (kosher slaughterer), and offers demonstrations and workshops across the country on kosher sustainable meat.