Sunday, August 12, 2007

Giraffe 1: Carnivores 0

Alternative title: Don't learn this one from the animals.

I saw this entry on the Maggid of Bergenfield and I had to post it here. What a fantastic story!

Re'eh: Just Like Chicken

The Society for Exotic Kosher Cuisine met once a year at a local restaurant in Teaneck, usually a steak emporium. Its goal was obvious: the members ate the kosher but unusual. If the Torah allowed it, they wanted to taste it. Many in the community found their objective abhorrent, or at least decadent, but at one thousand dollars a plate, and a large membership, the SEKC raised a lot of money for local charities (appropriately, most of the proceeds went to feed the hungry).

In past years, bison, gazelle, and venison (a polite word for deer, or as my son once exclaimed, "Hey! They're eating Bambi!") were popular, if noncontroversial choices. Last year, the theme of their annual banquet was game birds. The SEKC dined on pheasant, goose, partridge, and quail, all considered kosher according to Jewish law. The shechita, the ritual slaughtering, was performed with the strictest rabbinical supervision and with rigorous standards, and everyone dined on their favorite fowl friends. The only proviso from Dan Schechter, the chairman of the society, was that no one was allowed to say,"Gee, this tastes just like chicken."

Two years ago, a locust dessert (chocolate dipped) was planned, but a rabbinical controversy arose over whether the little crunchy orthoptera were certifiably kosher, and so it was nixed. Instead, a society member from a Yemenite background, where the tradition of eating grasshoppers was more readily accepted, spoke on his experiences with edible insects (they apparently taste like marshmallow Rice Krispy treats), and instead tiramisu, with a secret ingredient, was served as the final course (people were too scared to ask what the secret ingredient was).

This year, something particularly unusual was planned for the menu, which was attracting a lot of attention. Though not entirely without controversy, the SEKC was planning to serve an African, even-toed, ungulate mammal. It had a split hoof, it chewed its cud (ergo the term ungulate), and it was reported to be the "tallest of all land-living animal species."* Yes, for this year's feast, the SEKC was going to serve Giraffa Camelopardalis, a giraffe.

The kashrut of giraffes is problematic. Traditionally, the animal referred to as the zemer in Devarim 14:5 is thought to be a giraffe, but it is not universally accepted. Others debate where on the neck to do shechita-- and clearly there's a lot of neck to choose from-- but most authorities state this is not an issue.

Despite the potential controversy, the SEKC was going ahead with its plan, what many in the society considered their greatest culinary achievement to date. They had secured a rabbi who was an expert in obscure shechita practices. He guaranteed it wouldn't be a problem and agreed to do the slaughtering himself. In fact, he was licking his lips at the opportunity. The most prohibitive aspect of the endeavor, however, was its cost. Acquiring a giraffe would be very expensive, with estimates that the meat would cost the equivalent of more than a thousand dollars a pound. But Ronny Atkins, a trustee of the SEKC who had made a killing underwriting mortgages the last five years, had found a giraffe bull at a game farm in the Catskills that was closing due to bankruptcy.The owners of the farm were in such difficult financial straits, they were practically giving the giraffe away. Ronny volunteered to personally bankroll the project.

They transported Jimmy-- that was his name when the children used to feed him leaves and twigs at the farm-- to New Jersey in a large horse trailer with an open top. It looked like something you might see when the circus came to town. Jimmy seemed docile enough; he was more than twenty-years-old, quite aged for a giraffe and didn't look like he was going to cause any trouble. Jimmy was easily led into the slaughterhouse on the docks in Elizabeth, and all the preparations were made.

Rabbi Aaron Zershinsky came in a clean white jacket and carried a set of tools that looked like they had last been used for something unspeakable during the Spanish Inquisition. Aaron Zershinsky was clearly excited about performing the shechita. He brought along Rabbi Baruch Handler from the Hudson County Kashrut Board as an independent observer, to ensure everything was done properly. Baruch Handler was not as excited about the SEKC's plan, but he was not going to interfere.

"Where is he?" Aaron asked, when he saw Ronny Atkins and Dan Schechter walk in, but he didn't have to wait long for his answer. The peaceful old giraffe wandered into the room behind them at a slow amble, looking around at the inside of the large slaughterhouse with intense curiosity.

"He's magnificent," Aaron said. Baruch Handler looked away, not sharing his friend's enthusiasm for his project.

They brought the giraffe into the room that they had reserved for the shechita and led him to a large steel table they had specially modified for oversized animals.

Jimmy took one look at the table and at the long, sharp blade that Aaron Zershinsky had taken out of his satchel, and he knew exactly what they were planning. He would have no part of it.

According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, "The giraffe defends itself against threats by kicking with great force. a single, well placed kick of an adult giraffe can shatter a lion's skull, or break its back." Using his hind legs, Jimmy kicked the shechita table clear across the room, missing Aaron Zershinsky's head by inches. It made such a noise when it struck the wall that Ronny Atkins and Dan Schechter ducked for cover when it made its loud impact. Baruch Handler chuckled to himself from a safe distance.

"The pace of the giraffe is an amble, but when pursued, it can run extremely fast."* Jimmy took off across the room and darted across the slaughterhouse, to the amazement of the workers, into a storage room on the far side of the cavernous building.

Aaron, Ronny, and Dan took off in pursuit, with Baruch following behind at a slower pace. They found Jimmy in the corner of the storage room hiding behind a huge crate of corrugated boxes marked 100% Glatt, though it's hard to hide when you're sixteen feet tall.

They say giraffes are mute,* but Jimmy was letting out a series of grunts and snorts that clearly indicated he meant business. Aaron Zerchinsky, Dan Schechter, and Ronny Atkins stood a few feet away, staring at Jimmy and uncertain what to do, with Baruch Handler standing further at a distance.

"You know," Baruch said, "eating animals is in no way a religious requirement."

"Is that so?" Aaron said, still clutching one of his shechting implements.

"Yes, very much so. In fact, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook regarded the permission from G-d to eat meat as a dispensation from Hashem to satisfy man's animal appetites. It started at the time of Noah's descendants, when man's more violent and animalistic tendencies had gotten the better of him. but G-d put restrictions on what we could eat to teach us to control our passions."

"You are a font of interesting information," Ronny said, shifting his gaze back and forth between Baruch and Jimmy.

"Thank you. According to Rav Kook, in yemot hamashiach, we will learn true kindness to animals and to all of G-d's creations, and most likely we'll all be vegetarians."

"Is there some point to your speech about peace on earth and brotherhood of all animals?" Aaron asked.

"Yes, Baruch said. "At this point it's become quite obvious that you're never going to shecht this giraffe. Might I politely suggest that someone calls animal control and we grant Jimmy a pardon?"

And so they did. Jimmy was tranquilized by a rather puzzled animal control officer. The giraffe was donated to the Turtleback Zoo in West Orange where he spent the rest of his days in relative ease.

Aaron never got to schecht a giraffe. But on a bright note, the SEKC had a wonderful meal of braized veal at their banquet that year. It wasn't exactly exotic, but if you closed your eyes and chewed slowly, it tasted just like ibex.


*Wikipedia, giraffe

This story was influenced by a wonderful story by T.C. Boyle called Big Game. pg. 245 of T.C. Boyle Stories, Viking Publishers, 1998

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