April 2, 2020

At a Jewish food conference, dead lambs and pot lox help reach a new generation

The night before the slaughter, the goat appeared in my dreams, crying. I awoke, startled, at 3 a.m., then tried to go back to sleep. But when I closed my eyes, I saw the damn goat. This time it was curled up, asleep in its barn, unaware that in just a few hours, a rabbi would slit its throat.  

I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night — the thought of dinner was giving me nightmares. 

Meanwhile, my wife, Naomi, slept soundly beside me. We were at a Jewish food conference called the Harvest Gathering. The invitation to attend had been too good to pass up. I often write and teach about food, and Naomi — Rabbi Naomi Levy — deals in the realm of the soul. In a Venn diagram of our interests, a Jewish food conference is smack center.

My problem was that along with tastings of cannabis-infused matzah balls, marijuana-cured lox and a dinner in a sukkah, the day’s activities would include a demonstration of kosher slaughter, or shechitah.

Rabbi Moshe Fayzakov explains kosher inspection of the freshly killed and skinned lamb to participants. Photo by Rob Eshman

We had talked about the goat slaughter just before going to bed. I was resolved to watch, even though for seven years, until not long ago, we kept two pygmy goats as pets in our backyard. Goldie Horn and Ollie now live in Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where the campers renamed them Shlomo and Yaffa. The goat in my nightmare looked a lot like Shlomo.

Naomi told me she had no intention of watching. But, I said, the whole point of the experience was to connect us to the reality of the food we eat.  We both eat meat, yet, like most people, neither of us had witnessed the process of turning a living, breathing mammal into food.

“You eat it,” I’d said to Naomi that night. “You should see how it’s done.”

“I’ve had surgery too,” Naomi shot back, “but I don’t need to see an operation.”

This is what happens when you challenge someone trained in talmudic disputation. You tend to lose.

Naomi was right.  We are at the end of the line of so many unpleasant processes we don’t feel compelled to see.   How awful is a gold mine in Africa, or an underwear factory in China? Even the most vegan of rabbis still reads a Torah written on the skin of goats — who presumably didn’t volunteer for the honor.  It is good to see the world as it is and fix its broken parts.  But we choose what veils to peel back, and which to leave, well, veiled. Must we watch our food die?

But confronting dilemmas such as these is what we had traveled to Colorado to do. We had been invited to Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a high-end resort nestled among pine-crusted mountains north of Denver, along with 70 mostly young food professionals — chefs, entrepreneurs, writers and activists — all foodies who also happened to be Jewish, but with varying degrees of connection to their heritage. The late September conference — which was organized by Hazon, the Jewish food renewal movement, and funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation — had as its goal, in the words of organizer Sarah Kornhauser, “to combine food identity with Jewish identity.” 

“It’s all about translating values to the plate and out into the world.” — Denver chef Daniel Asher

It was a simple, brilliant approach to two very different problems. The first is the weakening of Jewish identity among 20- and 30-somethings who are fully assimilated into the larger culture, a particular focus of the Schusterman Family Foundation. The second problem is our nation’s industrial food system, which serves up massive quantities of cheap food at the expense of our environment and our health. Hazon has long sought to rally the Jewish community to create, in founder Nigel Savage’s words, “a healthy and more sustainable world.” 

Food is a particularly good way to reach younger Jews, because Jews, it turns out, are just like other people. What rock ’n’  roll was to the boomers, food is to GenXers and the tweens. It’s their cultural touchstone, their way in to the world.

Last spring I taught a course at USC Annenberg School of Journalism called “Food, Media and Culture.” It struck me how much time and money my young students spent eating out (and posting their meals on Instagram).  Then I realized: For a generation that spends more and more of its time virtually, food is tangible, immediate and gratifying. Young people may not have to pay for music or TV, but you can’t pirate food. Entertainment, even sex, comes to this generation via a screen, but no tech guru has been able to figure out a way to digitize dinner.  In an increasingly virtual world, food is their last real, authentic experience. 

By exposing young food professionals who happen to be Jewish to the ethical and ritual traditions of food in Judaism, you strengthen their connection to their tradition. At the same time, you spread the best Jewish ethical values about food to the larger world of consumers and suppliers. 

“This is the vanguard of Jewish leaders who have the power to shape the world,” the Schusterman Family Foundation’s Lisa Eisen said at the conference. “The world needs the intentionality and the compassion that our tradition literally brings to the table.”

The conference program aimed to present both Jewish food traditions and ethics, and to examine how those translate into the real world. So, for instance, on the first day, Woody Tasch, the leader of a social movement called Slow Money, spoke about how local investment can create a sustainable, healthier food supply. Then author Joan Nathan, who was treating Jewish food seriously a generation before the rest of the world caught on, called upon the chefs and professionals to become Jewish home cooks.

“Jewish food goes through the lifecycle of the year,” Nathan said. “Memories are made from traditions. The importance of home cooking is that it is what our kids remember.”

The meal that first night, like a Passover seder, symbolized everything we had been talking about during the day. The theme was, “a whole boat dinner.” A company called Whole Boat Harvest in Denver, which specializes in selling species the industry ignores or throws away, provided a different sustainable kosher fish for each course.

“It’s all about translating values to the plate and out into the world,” said Denver chef Daniel Asher, who oversaw a team of five participant-chefs, each one responsible for one course.

Asher is Denver’s own “rock star chef,” a burly young man with a ponytail and a wide-open face. He described each course the way a boomer might have described a new Stones song: from a first course of halibut with harissa butter, lightly pickled celery, fresh radish and salsify from chef Lior Hillel of Los Angeles’ Bacaro L.A. restaurant, to a dessert made by L.A. chef Deborah Benaim — panna cotta topped with sustainable caviar. 

As a survivor of innumerable Jewish banquets featuring factory-raised chicken or endangered Chilean sea bass served with indifferent vegetables, I couldn’t help but notice how serving great food, thoughtfully sourced, infused our evening with what Asher called “sacredness.” 

The next day, chef Ann Cooper led a workshop on improving school lunches, something her Chef Ann Foundation, based in Boulder, Colo., is doing in districts throughout the country. Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., spoke to the group about the importance of extending the ethic of good food to all aspects of one’s business.

“Here’s a big problem in the restaurant world,” the gangly, bearded Weinzweig said. “Everybody wants sustainability, but they treat employees like sh–.” 

If the night before was about embracing what Asher called “the sacredness of joining around the table,” this day was about the Jewish value of repairing the world, and the many ways food enables us to do that.

This was when I realized I was at a Jewish conference in fall 2015 with no panels on continuity or intermarriage, no hand-wringing over Iranian nukes or Palestinian knives. Too many Jewish conferences dwell on what’s wrong with the Jewish world. This one brought together a room full of people who are doing their best daily, meal by meal, to make things right. It made me wonder whether the Jews with the most radical agenda and greatest opportunity to fix the world are the ones working in the food industry. 

Then came evening. Naomi and I had hashed over whether to watch or not to watch the slaughter, and now the moment had arrived.

At dusk, a bus dropped us on the shores of Lake Granby. A large white tent, the conference version of a sukkah, was set with long tables for the feast. Outside the tent, a whole lamb was splayed above a pile of burning embers. It had been roasting for hours; its gums shriveled to reveal its massive white teeth. This would be our dinner, as there would not be enough time to prepare and cook the goat we were about to slaughter.

And where was it?

Kornhauser pointed us to the other side of a tent, where a large dog crate sat on a wide, blue tarp. 

“We were going to do a goat,” she said, “but the goat fell through.”

I looked inside the crate, and a lamb stared back at me. It was creamy white, the size of our spaniel. 

At least I wouldn’t have to watch a goat die. Phew. But a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals” popped into my head. To eat meat, he wrote, is to suppress “a gnawing dread that we are participating in something deeply wrong.” 

Two rabbis asked us to circle around the tarp. A long explanation of the laws of kosher slaughter followed. 

The process does not permit any pain to be inflicted on the animals, the rabbi said. Kornhauser asked us to keep quiet,  but there was nervous chatter.  A man stood up and asked people to honor the request for silence. It was funeral solemn.

The rabbis had to tip the crate to urge out the lamb, which they quickly put onto its back. It didn’t bleat or protest in any way. The older rabbi, Moshe Fayzakov, ran his fingernail 12 times over a razor-sharp blade to make sure it was smooth. A chef beside me winced.

The younger rabbi, Yisroel Engel, quickly bound together three of the animal’s legs with a string that looked disconcertingly like the fringes of a prayer shawl. Rabbi Fayzakov recited a blessing, then Rabbi Engel dipped his hand into a bucket of water and washed the lamb’s lengthened neck to make sure no pebbles or dirt would nick the blade.

I was sitting three feet away and watching as Rabbi Fayzakov bent down and made a quick slice across the lamb’s throat. My eyes closed involuntarily. When I opened them, blood was everywhere. 

Quickly, the older rabbi pulled the blue tarp completely over the animal. Someone asked if that is part of the ritual. 

“No,” Rabbi Fayzakov said, “but it’s not pleasant to see what comes next.”

“Unfold it,” several of us said. 

He did, and we sat in silence, staring at this once-beautiful animal, its head at an unnatural angle from its neck, bright red blood pumping onto the sky blue tarp.

And then the lamb kicked. I grabbed the leg of the man sitting next to me. 

The rabbi explained that while he cuts the jugular, he leaves the spine intact in order to keep the blood moving. Jewish law prohibits the eating of blood, and the process drains as much of it as possible. The unbound leg serves as a kind of pump. “The nerves kick in,” said the rabbi, “but the animal is dead.” 

A whole roasting lamb prepared by “Top Chef” winner Hosea Rosenberg at the Harvest Gathering, sponsored by Hazon and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Photo by Chelsea Beck

The worst was over. I moved in close for a photo — and failed to notice that a thin stream of blood was running onto my pants and shoes. 

I knew what we had witnessed was kosher done right, in the best of circumstances, with an animal that had had a short but happy life. The preparation, the prayers, the sheer intentionality of the moment did as much as may be possible to ennoble what is an undeniably gruesome act. If the organizers had been searching for the best way to dramatize what Jewish food ethics bring to the table, they’d found it.

The cannabis tasting that followed right after? I’m still trying to figure out what was so Jewish about that — but no one seemed to complain.

We moved to a table laid out with cured salmon filets and rows of matzah balls on sheet pans. 

As Colorado’s legalized marijuana industry booms, trained chefs are now looking for ways to expand the offering of what are called “edibles.” Josh Rosenberg, the young owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen in Denver, turned, of course, to his tradition.

“Food and cannabis are two things very dear to my heart,” Rosenberg explained.

He’d cured the lox in alcohol infused with cannabis. He made the matzah balls by sautéing marijuana in chicken fat and incorporating that into the dumplings.  

“Pot shmaltz?” chef Asher called out. “Josh, you are a visionary.”

No one got wasted. But I can say a little lox took the edge off the kosher slaughter.

After a while, we gathered and talked about the rituals of Sukkot, the harvest festival, then filtered into the sukkah for a dinner. Naomi, the resident rabbi — who, by the way, stayed edible-free — was asked to offer a brief teaching.  She stood up. After the lox and matzah balls, she joked, would anyone remember anything she said?

I did. She spoke about time — as Ecclesiastes does on Sukkot — about time spinning out of control and the need to slow it down. She talked about how Sukkot, during which we are asked to dwell in huts outside our homes, forces us to think “outside the box.” If we are to thrive, she said, we need to do the same — rethink the structures that no longer serve us well, whether in Jewish community or in the food industry. Blessing our food, she concluded, teaches us to be open to all the blessings in our life. 

Maybe it was the beer, the matzah balls, the PTSD of the lamb slaughter — but I looked around and saw quite a few tears around the table. The lamb had entered our bodies, and words of Torah our souls.

“The road to the sacred,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “leads through the secular.”

The whole conference had been a keen reminder of that: how the everyday act of getting and making food presents us with constant moral and ethical choices that either can elevate us and our society or drag us down. Over 3,000 years, Judaism has had a lot to say about those choices. 

“Synagogue is not a place I connect with being Jewish,” food entrepreneur Tal Nimrodi said at a closing circle, “but this is the kind of place I can connect. I am surprised how many of my food values are Jewish values.”

Food entrepreneur Tal Nimrodi displays a piece of cannabis-infused lox. Photo by Chelsea Beck

The conference organizers understood this and saw food as one of the best ways — maybe the best way — to bring Jewish learning to a new generation.

For so many of us, and especially the chefs, that was the revelation at Devil’s Thumb Ranch: that Jewish teaching and practice can inform and enrich their professional lives. Great food and Jewish life and learning are not separate. They are, like me and the rabbi, married.

To see photos and video of the conference (including the slaughter), follow Rob on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and go to jewishjournal.com/foodaism.