Green is the new red for a new generation of kosher butchers.
Kosher butchering isn’t what it used to be, and the butchers are looking a lot different these days, too.
When Zac Johnson, a young, Orthodox Jewish educator in Berkeley, Calif., wants to eat kosher meat, he doesn’t look in a butcher shop. He’ll drive to a nearby farm, pick the live free-range hen he likes best, and schecht it in his backyard. Or, if he wants beef, he’ll order it online.
That means Johnson has been trained in shechita, or kosher slaughter, which stipulates that a trained individual kill and carve mammals and fowl in a prescribed fashion, in addition to making certain the body has no prohibited defects.
Johnson is not alone. In recent years younger, non-Orthodox Jews, motivated by ecological and nutritional concerns, are pushing their way into the kosher butcher business, often perceived as off-limits to Jews who are not chasidic or ultra-orthodox.
Suzanne Wasserman, an American historian and documentarian whose 2012 film, “Meat Hooked!” explores the “rise, fall and rise again” of the butcher business, said that there’s a new “green collar” line of work that has contributed to the rise of younger butchers with environmental and animal consciousness.
“It’s like a new kind of butcher that’s emerging, one who cares about where the meat comes from and how it’s processed, and communicating that to the consumer,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman’s documentary shows how in recent years, more and more educated people in their 20s and early 30s are choosing to leave their cubicles and white-collar jobs to become butchers. On the secular side of the business, many are drawn to the trendy, even sexy reputation of latter-day butchery: The New York Times has even called young, tattooed, muscular butchers “rock stars.”
That scene contains no shortage of secular Jews, such as Josh Applestone, the, yes, tattooed grandson of a shochet. He opened Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Park Slope in 2005. Men’s Journal calls him “America’s Hottest Butcher.”
OK, so today’s kosher butchers don’t look like rock stars, and boast no tattoos, but they’re undergoing an image transformation of their own, pioneered by the likes of Naftali Hanau, the CEO and founder of Grow and Behold Foods, a kosher meat and poultry retailer that ships its pasture-raised organic meat nationwide.
“I don’t just wear black-and-white suits. I wear work pants and colored shirts. I don’t have a large beard, I have a smaller beard,” said Hanau, who identifies as Orthodox. “It was not easy to find somebody to teach me. I don’t exactly fit the mold.”
Hanau doesn’t butcher the animals he sells to customers, but he is a licensed shochet.
These butchers are consciously rooted in shechita, but have expanded their concerns to include animal welfare and environmental sustainability, issues that are also central in today’s cutting-edge, artisanal butcher business. “I started to learn about some of the problems that come with force-feeding animals a grain-heavy diet and growth-enhancing antibiotics, and how dangerous that is both for human health and for the animal,” Hanau said. “I thought I may as well learn to be a shochet and slaughter the animal myself,” in order to ensure it was humanely and sustainably raised.
Performing kosher slaughter with a green outlook feels deeply meaningful to these young butchers, but the process of apprenticeship and developing viable business models have come with challenges as a result of their less-traditional perspective. And as a result, they do business differently, too. As a niche business, Grow and Behold Foods needs to reach more people than are in the vicinity of a store, so Hanau, for example, operates online.
When he was just getting started, Hanau had a tough time finding someone to teach him kosher slaughter. Only after several months of relentless phone calls and pleas did an ultra-Orthodox rabbi agree to take him on as a student.
Finding an opening in the closed-off world of shechita was also a struggle for Rabbi Shalom Kantor, a Conservative Jew who wanted to create a connection to the meat he ate. So he found an underground shochet training course.
“When you buy a chicken breast covered in clear cellophane at the supermarket, there was no clear connection to what it was,” Kantor said. “The only way to really get back at that in any way, shape or form was to engage in schechita and to learn to be a shochet. I set out to do that.”
At 27, Kantor took a year off from rabbinical school at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and moved to Israel, where his Conservative identity could be more easily concealed.
A haredi Yemenite rabbi and master shochet taught Kantor shechita, but in order for an untrained butcher’s apprentice to get a hands-on experience slaughtering animals, his training took place in what Kantor dubbed, the “world of black-market shechita.”
Kantor practiced on goats, sheep, cows and birds when individuals and the occasional kibbutznik called his teacher up requesting someone to shecht their animals.
“We did it in people’s garages, in fenced-in yards in cities, in the middle of industrial parks. It was all over the place,” Kantor recalled. “Somebody would drag their [live] lamb out from the back of their car.”
Kantor, who no longer has time to dedicate to shechita, said that in the past four years he has heard of a handful of other Conservative rabbinical school graduates who have become licensed shochets.
Hanau and Kantor agree that while they’ve found entrance into the kosher butcher business, they want it to remain a traditional profession.
Independent, old-fashioned butcher shops may be a thing of the past, Johnson said, but the older generation of shochets still has much to teach the younger.
“When you watch ‘Top Chef’ and shows where they say to ‘respect the product’ and keep it ‘flavor forward,’ those are buzzwords for things that Jewish butchers have always known,” Johnson said. “There’s wisdom in these people.”
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