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Carly Sugar and one of the chickens she raises in her Detroit backyard.
Carly Sugar and one of the chickens she raises in her Detroit backyard.

Firsthand Food

Kosher slaughtering in her own backyard brings Jewish values home.

Carly Sugar Special to the Jewish News

On one side, a factory-farmed chicken breathed laboriously, relieved to have her weight off her scrawny legs and resting in his grip. On the other side, occasionally wriggling to free herself from Yadidya’s arm, was a heritage-breed hen raised at Adamah Farm, the on-site organic farm that provides Jewish food and environmental education for the retreat center. In the winter of 2014, I witnessed my first kosher chicken slaughter. Standing in the snow at Hazon’s Jewish Food Conference at Isabella Freedman Retreatment Center in Connecticut, I listened to Yadidya Greenberg, formerly of the Jewish Initiative for Animals. The shochet (a kosher slaughterer) held two hens under his arms.

The difference in health was obvious, and I imagined my Jewish ancestors arguing well into the night while crafting the kosher law around animal raising, processing and eating. What would they say about our modern industrialized food system?

As Yadidya butchered the hens, we continued to observe striking differences. The breasts of the factory bird were more than double the size of the heritage bird. Factory birds are bred for this market quality. This build, however, is unnatural for chickens, and they often cannot support the extra weight.

Chickens at Adamah Farm live in the compost yard, with year-round open access to retreat center food scraps, insects, grasses and other edibles. Factory-farmed chickens, even the “free-range” ones, live in ethically questionable conditions with access to little more than corn and soy-based feed.

Later that evening, we enjoyed the Adamah chickens as Shabbat dinner soup, and I experienced the difference in flavor, which is superior. Because they are older and more muscular, their meat is most often enjoyed in soups and stews, cooked over a low flame most of the day. Complete with farm vegetables and herbs, it was the best chicken soup I had ever had; except, of course, for my mother’s.

 Jackson Koeppel, Noah Link, Hannah Regalado Schottenfels and Justin Wedes listen to Blair Nosan explain the rituals.Newsroom | Detroit Jewish News

Jackson Koeppel, Noah Link, Hannah Regalado Schottenfels and Justin Wedes listen to Blair Nosan explain the rituals.

Chickens at Home

I have had my own backyard chickens for six years now. Their eggs are more colorful and nutrient-dense, and I know precisely where they come from. Through several flocks, I have coordinated kosher slaughters with friends as an educational opportunity to face with the hidden reality of being a meat-eater.

Shechita, or kosher slaughter, involves laws that ensure a respectful and trained hand, a relatively healthy chicken and as painless a process as our ancestors deemed possible. The first event was held around the time of Passover and brought together 20 people, Jewish and non-Jewish, to learn about kosher slaughter with an Oak Park-based shochet.

For this year’s shechita, again in my backyard in Rosedale Park, Detroit, an opportunity arose for a shechita by Blair Nosan, a Detroit-based food advocate and rabbinical student who had recently studied shechita with a rabbi in Jerusalem.

“I have been primarily a vegetarian for quite some time because I think the meat industry is dangerous for the planet and for my own health. I was never opposed to humans consuming animals, I just didn’t think we should be doing it on such an industrial scale,” Blair says. “That said, as I became more observant and committed to keeping kosher, finding food that fit my environmental, animal husbandry and kosher ethics became harder to imagine.”

Blair was ready to take on her first shechita without the guidance of the rabbi who trained her. She arrived early to set up and ensure her knife was perfectly sharp, free of a single knick that might cause the chicken more pain than necessary and render the slaughter not kosher.

As I watched her run her knife against the wet stone, I realized I had never witnessed a shechita performed by a woman.

“I did have a particular interest in taking this on as a woman,” Blair says. “I think our current industrial food system has shaped our kosher oversight into an industry-based system as well. This has removed large areas of kashrut from the home and kitchen where it used to be overseen largely by women.”

An intimate group was gathered to learn from Blair and assisted in processing four birds raised with care by Noah Link of Food Field.

Time to Schecht

The nervous energy in the yard was palpable. Some would be witnessing the death of an animal for the first time, and we all felt the full weight of what it means to be a meat-eater.

This backyard shechita was our way to reclaim this part of our food system — to unveil the invisible parts as much as possible and meet them face-to-face, despite our reservations. Blair shared with us ancestral rituals to help us through our discomfort.

Before the confident and final movement of her knife, an act so rarely seen and foreign-feeling, Blair’s prayer of gratitude felt so familiar: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu al hashechita. These words of prayer transported me to another time. They reminded me of the countless Jewish ancestors who have said these words before. In that moment, I felt connected to them all.

I felt immense gratitude during each part of the shechita process. Gratitude for food leaders in our community, for the success of the shechita, for the lives of the animals and for the privilege to witness the process. I thought of the number of invisible food workers involved in similar processes.

The idea of bringing shechita from industrial, far-away and hidden places into your backyard is almost unthinkable for most modern Jews. For us, it was an ideal way of interacting with our food, our heritage and our community.

Carly Sugar of Detroit examines the intersection of Judaism and food systems. She is director of Yad Ezra’s Giving Gardens.

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