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Me and My Chicken

By Hannah Levine
Our Turn, a biweekly column of The Jewish Advocate, features young adult voices.
July 30, 2010

This is the story of a chicken dinner, but not your ordinary chicken dinner. It doesn't start at a supermarket, where poultry miraculously appears on a shelf wrapped in Styrofoam and shrink-wrapped plastic. Instead, this story begins on a farm in Central Massachusetts, where I attended a shechita (a Jewish ritual slaughter) through LoKo, a volunteer organization that helps Bostonians obtain humanely raised kosher chicken and meat.

The day was hot, the smell of the barn at first overwhelming. It was a modest setup: a place for the shechita; tables for plucking; a room for evisceration and inspection; and buckets for rinsing and salting. I was part of the second shift of workers, and the volunteers welcomed us warmly when we arrived.

For a year I have been thinking about how to get closer to the source of my food. What I learned about factory farming -- the way most meat in America is produced -- left me disgusted. It wasn't just the conditions under which the animals are confined, but also the treatment of the workers. In contrast to the industrial food system, the LoKo experience was fully transparent: from the farmer to the shochet (ritual slaughterer) to the consumer. The openness and accessibility allowed me to know the types of relationships I was supporting: ones based on socially just business practices, environmental responsibility and proper treatment of animals.

Before each kill the shochet, Naftali Hanau, stood inspecting his knife, testing its sharpness. The farmer, Dave Petrovick of Caledonia Farm, cradled each animal in front of Hanau. The shechita was quick. I did not have time to cringe.

I am not alone in my quest. The week before the shechita, the Moishe/Kavod House hosted a session with Natan Margalit and Marion Menzin, the founders of LoKo, to study related texts and learn about the organization. Topics included reciting a blessing with Kavanah (intention); the relationship of humans and the earth as set forth in Genesis; and the development of kosher certification. A small number of companies now sell kosher meat from pastured animals, including one that Hanau and his wife have recently started in New York City named Grow and Behold Foods.

We plucked and plucked feathers. After some time my fingers hurt. Hanau, the shochet, prodded the group to go faster, so that we could all leave on time. Each bird was plucked until few feathers remained. Still, toward many a bird Hanau would say, "I wouldn't bring it to my mother," setting a high standard for the group. Exhaustion settled over the participants. The chickens were bagged and weighed, then checks for the purchase were written. Feathers were swept up and the tables disassembled. Hanau finished the day saying a blessing as commanded in the Torah and then covered the blood in sawdust.

After the shechita I felt accomplished. I had fulfilled a challenge to myself and was more deeply aware of food, the earth and history. Thoughts raced through my head: ~~~ 100 years ago this was a common experience. ~~~ It felt quite normal. ~~~ We are so disconnected. ~~~ Would it have been harder if we knew the animals?

LoKo gave me hope for the future manner in which humans raise and consume meat, one with opportunity for informed decision making and participation. LoKo process made Kashrut real to me; it was no longer an abstract concept represented by labels slapped on packages.

The Moishe/Kavod House ended its LoKo series with its first ever chicken dinner. I again met my chicken as I cut it up into parts, reminding me of the being that it once was. I ate this meal with friends, satisfied by both its flavor and its path to the table.

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