Silk Purse From A Sow's Ear
06/04/99
Associate Editor
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Memorial Dayís gone and summer is icumen in. The fair season kicked off with the Westchester County Fair, at Yonkers Raceway (through June 13). Vendors, carnies and barkers will be on the road from one fair to another, from this weekís heat through the cool of October harvest.Grangers and 4-Híers in the Catskills and Hudson Valley are prepping their cows, geese and swine for blue ribbons in Orange, Ulster, Dutchess and Delaware counties, culminating in late summerís fortnight at the New York State Fair (Aug. 24-Sept. 7). Last year, that fair averaged 80,000 visitors daily ó and more livestock than the population of many towns. If you donít think this is a Jewish story, visit the Orange County Fair (July 21-Aug. 1) and count every yarmulke, snood and stroller in the barns.Civilization is closing in. There was not a single farm represented at the Westchester fair. A sow and five sucklings were imported to sit in a pen alongside stables where brown, bay and chestnut pacers and trotters were getting hitched up to sulkies. Nevertheless, all around the fair were pigs in one form or another: Not five minutes from the sow and her piglets a vendorís sign ominously promised, ìAll sausage served here is made here. We use fresh pork only.î For an extra $1, near a freak show, one could witness ìthe worldís largest pig Ö and still growing!î Just yards away, in a cloud of smoke, a whole pig, with snout, teeth and the saddest of eyes, was roasting on a grill. There were Jews there, too, women in baseball caps, just looking.Jews who keep kosher are mostly serene with the idea that pigs are inedible. Observant Jews rarely share the hilarity about pigs, particularly the uneasy hilarity, that happens when someone gets the notion that observant Jews must become uncomfortable at the very idea of a hog. Fact is, as the ancient sage Eleazer ben-Azariah taught: ìOne should not say, ëI have no desire to eat [from a pig], but rather Ö my Father in Heaven has decreed against it.î All God said was you canít eat it. God didnít say you canít appreciate ìCharlotteís Web,î or Wilburís next of kin. If anything, spiders and pigs are Godís creations, worthy of awe, applause, astonishment.As Charlotte spun in her web: ìSome pig,î ìterrific.îAs Philip Roth wrote of God, ìmaking fish and animals, thatís pretty good.înIf the chasidim say that there is a heavenly plan for every blade of grass, for every leaf that spirals down from the tree to the forest floor; what then of any mammal suckling her young? Maybe God loves the pig, and feels protective of His homely creation.ìA pig isnít any less kosher than some fish or a cheeseburger,î says Richard Horwitz, a Jew who knows something about swine. Horwitz, 50, a professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa, has a job on the side: working on an Iowa farm.ìI like working outdoors,î Horwitz told us by phone from Iowa City. ìI grew up around farm people. ... Thereís something about male culture, getting dirty and sweaty, that I always liked. Itís a good education, good for the spirit. If I want to exercise, I might as well do something useful.He started off driving a tractor, doing fieldwork, plowing, chiseling, catching corn off the combine, filling silos, ìthen I started working with livestock. The farm I worked on actually has a lot of cattle, as well as hogs. Iíd inoculate, feed, sort, just about everything a hired hand does. It changes with the seasons.îA professorís life is as precarious as a pigís if the professor doesnít publish, so last winter Horwitz wrote ìHog Ties: Pigs, Manure and Mortality in American Culture.î Aside from examining the myriad of pig diseases, and the large conglomerates that are taking over family farms, he muses that for all that we laugh at the pig, the pig is laughing at us:ìPart of what makes a pig unmistakably a pig,î he writes, ìis its conspicuous difference from [the] trappings of civilization. ... Even when cast only as a walk-on ó without lines, through its mere presence ó a sow instantly ridicules the affected urbanity, wit, beauty or wisdom of its co-star,î such as the pig and Eva Gabor in ìGreen Acres.î In a culture that sets ìmind against matter, and soul against body, [swine] are so purely body that the perception of human resemblance or other soul-to-soul connection seems unimaginable, ridiculous, if not blasphemous.î Dogs and horses lend themselves better to anthropomorphic fantasy, if youíre imagination is somewhat short of E.B. Whiteís.ìPigs are really vulnerable to horrific diseases,î says Horwitz. The Talmud adds ìTen measures of diseases descended to the world, of which the swine took nine.î During one plague infecting pigs, Rabbi Yehuda declared a fast day, and not because the Jews were eating the pigs. ìPart of what I take away from working with hogs,î says Horwitz, ìis the power and glory of God in both the wonder and the scary parts. These are Godís creatures. It doesnít all have to be sweet and wonderful. Thatís whatís so Jewish. I find it real comforting, sometimes, to see God and meaning in the lower forms of life.ìI was raised a Reform Jew, but the idea of kosher appeals to me. Itís what I like about farming: where does this all come from, how do we connect, how do life and death intersect when we eat a meal? There should be plenty to think about when you ingest what you farm and grow. Eating is a daunting moment and ought to be. Farm work taught me to enjoy the difficulty of that experience.îHorwitz says that in Godís big old world, be you in the muddy barns or in the towns, the thing to do is touch, listen, remember. ìPart of living in rural areas is county fairs,î says farmhand Horwitz. ìIt has do with families and kids. Itís wholesome.îWatch the speed of pig races. Watch the big hogs that stand pretty square, he advises, ìthe ones that look content, walk easy, that move pretty good.îItís the season of blue ribbons.

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03/06/2012 - 22:37

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