Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Jewish Butchers


A butcher according to the dictionary:
- A person who slaughters certain animals, or who dresses the flesh of animals, fish, or poultry, for food or market.
- A person guilty of brutal or indiscriminate slaughter or murder.
It is self-understood that the second definition comes from the first one, as both definitions are associated with the spill of blood. But there is something more about it, I believe: in all languages in which I communicate, butcher is synonymous with a rough, uncultured, almost primitive individual. Perhaps because that’s the type of man butchers are usually recruited from? Well… as I remember from my youth, most of the butchers working in the meat plant were convicts. I don’t say all and I don’t say everywhere, but that was the situation back then.

In my traveling I meet all kinds of people, but I always look especially for fellow Jews. I have spent Shabbosim in many towns, cities and types of communities. Most of what I see and experience teaches me humility, as I see Jewish children struggle for their Yiddishkeit in a way unknown to most of us Monsey-ers or Boro-Parkers.
Not that long ago, I got halfway between big cities with organized Jewish communities and had to spend Shabbos with Shochtim – in Hebrew, people occupied with slaughter of certain animals, who also dress the flesh of animals for food.
I got the phone number from my office, and on Friday I called to ask for directions and when it would be good to come. I also asked if there was a minyan and a sefer Torah. The answer for the last questions was negative, but nevertheless I was happy to see at the end of the week some yidishe punim – my fellow Jews.
The yid on the other side of the line told me in a characteristically “hasidishe” way how to get to him:
- You get out of the highway and after a mile or so you will see the gas station on the left, and soon after on your right there is a company of such-and-such a name. You will make a right and I will wait for you at the back of the building.
Regrettably I couldn’t put anything in my GPS, so I began to follow his directions, which I had already put on a piece of paper.
Soon I encountered the yid, with a white helmet and galoshes all the way to his knees. A bloodstained white apron complemented the picture. But, like mine, the big smile expressing his happiness from seeing another Jew in this remote place was one of the warmest I have seen for a long time.
He told me how to get to his apartment, which was not so far away, and that he had left it open for me and I could use it as my own, as he still had to finish some work in the plant.
In fact, there were five yidden working in the plant, and soon after Shabbos began I met them all: two Hasidim, two Litvaks and one modern.
After davening we came to hear kiddush from the eldest, who happened to be not only a shochet, but also a rabbi ( not a convert himself) who wrote commentaries on , well…Targum Onkelos in few volumes.
Surprisingly the flat challah baked by one of the men was tasty and soft. We enjoyed the rest of the food as well, which was all prepared by my hosts with meat from their own shechita. It was fantastic to find well-prepared and nicer dishes in a place where I hadn’t expected anything sophisticated.
But soon after the fish they began to discuss what yidden are made for – the Torah. It started with Chumash, but soon they were discussing mishnayos with some early commentaries, and not that much later it was the Zohar itself which was used to explain certain higher ideas from the parsha. I could only listen and try to follow, as the discussion was way above my level of knowledge or understanding.
It was fascinating to see those butchers engage in discussions which you can maybe hear somewhere in Lakewood, but not here in the plains. Soon I found that indeed Lakewood was the place where their Torah had originated, at least for some of them. On the other side of the table, however, we had Chassidim, and the least I can say is that they were not am-ha'aretzim at all. The discussion went high, and the dialectics of the discussed Gemaras was on the level which Hegel may have only dreamed about (dialectics not Gemara of course :) ).
Here, in a cheap neighborhood, by a PVC table covered with a white plastic sheet, a few butchers were bringing the heavenly realm down to earth, while taking the physical realm of fish, fleish and shnapps to the heavenly realm.
Soon the Chasidim had had a few too many shnapps, and the Litvishe Rav declared that at that moment we could discuss everything but halachic issues, the matters of the Jewish law. That’s how the rest of the evening went.
Later I heard them talking about some fascinating details of their profession and how they were making sure that their Kabbalah – the tradition which they learned from their teachers regarding shechita – was being kept to the last detail. After Shabbos  they showed me some of the chalafim, the huge knives, some of them hundreds of years old and valued at thousands of dollars. Even the sharpening stones can have a value of half a thousand or so if they are made from a unique stone. Language, law, philosophy, spirituality and psychology were discussed by those butchers, occupied all week long with making sure that rest of klal Yisroel, the Jewish people, have on their tables kosher meat from animals slaughtered according to 3300-year-old regulations and traditions.
If we have butchers like this, what should the rest of us be like?
Matys Weiser

1 comment:

Sarah said...

In kosher there are schochtim and there are butchers. Of course, both can be elevated, gentle, scholars, but I would expect the schochet to be so. Not so much the butcher.