Having grown up as the daughter of an Army Rabbi, my childhood was spent in three different countries, often in places where orthodox Jewish communities where small or absent and where kosher food was scarce. During our time in Germany, my family switched to being vegetarian out of sheer neccessity. My mother, who has always been an advocate for healthy eating as well as buying ‘ethical food’ was careful to provide our household with free range eggs and organic fruits and vegetables, as well as fair trade products. During my father’s last assignment in Leeds, U.K. she surprised us with a dozen chickens which became our sole source of eggs and we began planting our own produce as much as the weather in England would allow. I discovered later that my parents had discussed the matter of getting chickens for months, having doubts regarding the work it involved as well as how the neighbors would respond. It turned out to be the easiest thing in the world, and we’ve never looked back. It has been almost half a year since we have bought eggs from a store. When we moved to Columbia, South Carolina last summer we decided, as a family, that we would try to be self sustaining as much as our small garden in American suburbia would allow. We began exploring where the food that we bought was actually coming from.
Unfortunately, kashrut is only determined by how an animal dies, not how it lives. Particularly chickens are often kept in horrendous contiditions, raised in battery farms to minimize cost and maximize profit. They are fed high protein nourishment, containing antibiotics to avoid the spread of disease and live overcrouded enclosements. All battery farms have light timers, allowing the chickens only three to four hours of rest. Their lives are stressful and short.
As previously mentioned, due to the nature of my father’s job, my education was largely secular and it was not uncommon for my classmates to tell me that I was the first Jewish person they had ever met. Most were interested and naturally, the issue of kashrut came up. I realized that there is a strong stigma attatched with slaughtering and the idea of cutting the throat of the animal and then letting it ‘bleed out’. The most common question was, “Doesn’t the animal suffer?” Naturally I defended kashrut, but with no real personal experience from which to relate.
This Passover, my grandparents joined us from Germany and since we had recently made the choice to stop buying chicken completely, my parents asked my grandfather to bring his knives for slaughtering. My mother contacted a free range farm and she and my grandfather drove out to bring home two turkeys for our Passover meal. Having never witnessed the act of slaughtering, I decided to go along and see for myself what it involves.
I can only describe the experience as peaceful and truly spiritual. The birds carried from their large outdoor enclosement to the sink. The wings were then folded over each other to ensure that the turkey remained completely still during the ritual slaughtering. My grandfather held back the neck and with a few slick movements the throat was slit. It was neither grusome nor barbaric but rather calm and natural.
There are many laws surrounding kashrut to ensure the least amount of sufferring possible for the animal, one of them being that the knife must be razor sharp. Any nicks in the knife would render the animal unkosher. Furthermore, it is forbidden to slaughter one animal in front of another.
I not only saw how the animal died, but also how it lived. The benefits of eating free range poultry are undeniable. Eggs of free range chickens show up to fifty percent less cholesterol than battery farm chickens. Because their food is not supplemented with antibiotics and growth hormones, there is no risk of building up antibiotic resistance which is a growing problem in the Western World. Scientists are simply running out of viable antibacterial and antiviral drugs because our food is so overloaded with them. Most importantly, free range chickens essentially live happy lives.
Unfortunately in our modern day consumerist society, we have lost touch with where our food actually comes from. Witnessing the turkey from the time that it lived in its pen to the time it was served as Shnitzel on our dinner table made me appreciate what I was eating more than anything I had ever eaten before.
I feel enriched by my experience of witnessing the act of kosher slaughtering and strengthened in my position to defend it as the most humane method of obtaining meat. Having seen how easy it is to keep chickens as well as the possibility of simply driving out to a farm and having chickens slaughtered, I would never again eat any other type of meat.