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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Witness

Air Date: Week of April 6, 2001

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Transcript

CURWOOD: The foot and mouth and mad cow disease outbreaks in Europe have prompted a reevaluation of the livestock industry there. And the discussion has broadened beyond the safety of meat products, to the whole system of raising animals for slaughter. Linda Tatelbaum has butchered animals on her homestead in Maine. Lately, she's been thinking about what it means to know where our food comes from.

TATELBAUM: A morning of killing rabbits in your own yard requires complete privacy. I never do it when we have visitors, unless I don't want them to come again. It's a ritual that takes focused preparation, a priestly affair. Lay newspaper on a table under the oak tree. Draw several buckets of water. Tie the rope to a branch. Sharpen the knives. Tune the radio to classical music. I follow the established pattern with devotion. Saturdays are the best, when my husband is home. Cal doesn't look, or, maybe just a little as he walks by on his way to the garden to dig a hole for the guts. He looks just enough to give me support, but not so much that I'll see myself in his gaze. There's a difference between being a witness and being a voyeur.

One Saturday I had just peeled the skin down to the front paws and was cutting it off. I made a slit and reached inside the cavity to grasp the warm guts, in what has to be the ultimate invasion of another being's space, when out of nowhere, like some kind of mirage, a young boy in a black suit and tie appeared at the top of the driveway, trailed by a big black American sedan with all the windows rolled up. The Jehovah's Witnesses are here again. Years ago, we told them we are Jewish, thinking the visits would end. But they want to help us go to heaven. They do their work as religiously as we do ours.

We've accepted by now that we aren't going to their heaven, and that they will keep trying to get us there no matter what we're busy doing when they pull their car up their driveway. Today, I am standing here in bloody jeans and an old Army shirt, with my hands full of another creature's guts. The boy, heading for the front door, suddenly notices me. He stops. I stop, a loop of intestine escaping from my fingers. He stares. I stare. I see me, as if through the windshield of the Witness's car, the feared and foreign Jew performing a sacrifice to smear blood on her door.

Get the boy out of here right away. They open the car door. He runs to it. They absorb him and quickly back the car down the driveway. I confess: I feel a sudden glee. In fact, I feel saved. I've come clean. If you pull up the driveway into the middle of my life, you get to see who I really am. A Jewish woman sanctifying the passage of life to death to life, through food.

After all, the role of the butcher in traditional Jewish life is an honored one. He knows the ritual of sacrifice and celebration. He knows how to kill with a blessing on his lips, with mercy in his hands. Clean and quick and holy. He'd instruct me that rabbit is not kosher. It has no hooves or cud. He would disapprove of my working on the Sabbath. But I hope he'd still say I am a worthy butcher.

(Music up and under: Klezmatics, "Violin Doyna")

CURWOOD: Commentator Linda Tatelbaum homesteads in midcoast Maine, and is author of "Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible."

(Music up and under: Klezmatics, "Mizmor Shir Lehanef")

CURWOOD: Coming up: How to feed a finicky eater. The adorable and disappearing koala bear. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

 

 

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