Of Sheep and Men

Vegetarians and the faint-hearted beware…

A coworker of mine had a real yen for lamb chops. So what does one usually do when he wants lamb chops? Head down to the local butcher or grocery and pick up a few packages of lamb chops, right? Not my friend Ori! Trained in Jewish ritual slaughter, but with little opportunity to practice, my buddy decided he wanted his lamb chops as fresh as they could possibly be. Of course, he does not live on a farm, own any sheep, or work at a butcher shop. But these minor facts did not deter Ori! And we do live in Israel…and the Middle East.

One of the common sights in our area of Gush Etzion is Arab shepherds herding their sheep and goats. As such, the little Arab villages in our area are a great source for live sheep. That is, if you happen to want one, andif you happen to feel like entering one of the little Arab villages. Ori wanted a sheep, so Ori made a plan to go with another coworker, Steve, to an Arab village. Oh, and by the way- it just happened to be Eid al Fitr, the Muslim holiday.

Ori’s plan was actually pretty clever in theory. He would buy a sheep that was valued at about 650 NIS (about $150), but he would only keep half of it, giving the other half back to the owner, after jointly preparing it with a few Arab helpers. This would keep his costs down to about half. As long as he could find a seller willing to go with this plan, he was set. Well, almost. He also needed to make the trip to a not-so-friendly-to-Jews Arab village.

Ori brought Steve along for moral support. This left just me and Sam in the office. Sam and I were waiting with bated breath for the outcome of this escapade. Suddenly, the phone rang. Sam grabbed it, and I listened to every word on Sam’s end, trying to imagine the conversation on the other side.

“You’re in an Arab village… There’s a candy store? … You’re in an Arab village in a candy store? This may not be the smartest thing…Ori in an Arab candy store. … Well good luck with that Steve- any last messages for your family?”

I was going nuts. What was he doing in a candy store? Then more:

“Does it look threatening at all?…Oh there’s fireworks?…Oh right- its Eid al Fitr- well wish them a happy Eid al Fitr from us…This might be a good time for you to get the hell out of there…Exactly which village exactly are you in?…You’re going to a place with lots of sheep?…What’s that? A sheepyard?”

Finally Sam got off the phone and explained that as soon as Steve and Ori arrived at the village, the word spread that two Jews had shown up and it seemed that the whole village came out for the occasion. Figuring that something thoughtful was in order, Ori ran into the local candy shop and bought candies for all the villagers. Then, amazingly enough, they succeeded in getting a sheep! Oh, and two Arabs were coming too.

Of course they had no truck, or proper sheep transportation. (Wouldn’t that be a shepherd?) So one of the Arabs put the sheep into the trunk of the car! Poor little guy. Then Ori, Steve, the two Arabs and the sheep all drove out to an empty lot next to a vacant building with outdoor running water. The plan was for Ori to shecht (ritually slaughter) the sheep, and then he and the two Arabs would skin it, etc., then Ori would take the top half and the Arabs would take the bottom half. Nice and simple (for them, not for me; or for the sheep, for that matter…).

Sam went over to the sheep and petted him. The whole experience was bizarre. I mean, I eat meat. It’s not like I can pretend I don’t know how it gets to my plate. Anyone leaning toward vegetarianism could certainly go over the edge from this experience. But if you are a meat eater, this is simply the behind-the-scenes part of the process. In previous generations it would have been part of the meat experience, but now, we can blissfully select a prepackaged lamb chop and completely separate ourselves from the fact that he was once Mary’s little lamb.

I remember going to see the movie “Chicken Run” with my son Ezra who was about four at the time. When the evil farmers decided to turn their egg-laying chickens into chicken pot pies, Ezra innocently asked me if people really kill chickens. I gently said, “Ezra, honey, um – we eat chicken.”

To which Ezra corrected me saying, “Mom, that’s chicken, not chickens.” Right, Ezra. He was happy in his blissful ignorance. I knew reality would find him sooner or later. Why hurry the process?

After Ori did the deed, he and the two Arabs put the sheep on a pole to skin it and do other gross things. One thing Ori had to do was to check the animal for any imperfections that would render it not kosher. Actually, though Moslems don’t have to check for all the little details like Jews do, they do have to eat ritually slaughtered meat as well, making this little arrangement all the better. Well, almost.

Unfortunately Ori discovered an imperfection in the lungs, rendering the whole sheep not kosher for Jews. Ori’s dream of lamb chops for dinner went down the drain in an instant. Those lucky Arabs would get the whole sheep in the bargain. But wait- suddenly the Arabs were a bit reluctant to take the sheep. After all, if it wasn’t good enough for us…

Ori explained to them that our laws are very strict, but that the sheep is fine for them, really. They didn’t go for it. Then it got worse. Since Ori had only paid for his half of the sheep, and the Arabs didn’t want their half of it, now they were demanding that Ori pay for the whole sheep.

So here we were, two Arab guys, three Jewish guys, one Jewish woman, a dead sheep, a couple of very sharp knives, in an empty lot, with a disagreement over a few hundred shekels. Ori tried arguing with the guys, and reasoning with them, to convince them that they should take the whole sheep. Why not? It was already prepared. They could bring it home and serve it at their Eid al Fitr dinner. Wouldn’t that be great?

Unfortunately they refused, after all, how could they prove to their families that it was Halal (kosher for Moslems) meat? This made me kind of wonder what difference it would have made whether we had taken our half or not in their convincing their families that it was Halal. Was this their plan all along, to get Ori to pay the whole amount?  In any event, the arguing was going nowhere, and before it went somewhere we didn’t want to go, Ori scrounged together enough cash and paid them. Now he was stuck with a whole sheep that he couldn’t even eat. Then he remembered an Arab man that he owed 300 NIS to. After dropping off the two Arab guys in their respective Arab villages, he drove to yet another Arab village to use his 650 NIS sheep to pay back the 300 shekels he owed. Imagine paying back a loan with fresh meat! What is this, the Middle East or something? Actually, yes, it is. And, you know what? The man was thrilled!

About the Author

Laura Ben-David is the author of numerous articles and the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has done public speaking about Israel and Aliyah all over the United States and Israel. Contact her at laura@aliyahbook.com or follow her tweets at http://www.twitter.com/laurabendavd