by Mordecai Martin
Mordecai Martin has lived in Jerusalem, New York, and Mexico City. He currently resides in Philadelphia in a small but beautiful house with a small but beautiful cat. He writes about his fellow Jews, cities, and miracles. His work has appeared in a variety of fine literary magazines. He tweets @mordecaipmartin and blogs at mordecaimartin.net.
Norse myth offers us a primeval cow. Her name, Audhumbla, appears only once in medieval literature, in Snori Sturluson’s Prose Edda, but she is nonetheless believed to be an authentic part of ancient Norse belief. Her milk nursed to health Ymir, the first giant, whose bones built the world, and as she licked the salty ice of Ginnungagap, her rough tongue scraped out Buri, the first hero and ancestor to the gods.
I became a farm hand under odd circumstances. Some people grow up farmers. Others discover it from an excess of idealism, and there was some of that in my time on farms. But largely I became a farmer out of despair. One day, I found I couldn’t get out of bed. My sister was the family member living closest to me, and she came over to see why I had gone the week without getting out of bed. I told her that since I had started keeping Kosher at 18, I had been slowly increasingly tormented by the finality of the decision of whether to eat meat or dairy. I could no longer commit, without anguish, to the three hours I had to wait after eating meat to eat dairy. But also, I did not want dairy for lunch, I wanted meat. But meat was expensive. But the store with the good cheeses was far away. And so, combined with the unbearable building pressure of school assignments, I hadn’t left my bed for a week or gone to classes, barely eating in order to delay the decision. My sister called my parents. Later that month, I dropped out of college and moved in with my parents again. My mother’s comforting bossiness moved me from meal to meal, but I was still unhappy. When I unsuccessfully and half-heartedly tried to take my own life, it was decided that I needed to enter an in-patient therapy program.
I actually enjoyed the process of visiting in-patient facilities. The clinically shy young men and women tasked with showing me around were charming in their awkward way, the facilities and philosophies of healing diverse and challenging to my conception of in-patient care. I chose one on a farm in North Carolina, with a belief in giving patients tasks on the farm to gauge their strength. As I felt healthier, I began working with the small amount of livestock on the farm, mostly a flock of sheep, but also a few goats. I admired these latter creatures, as skittish and nervous as I was miserable and anxious, but still bold, still exploring, still play-fighting each other. When I left in-patient care, I was determined to spend more time with goats, believing it the only way I would stay healthy, and began working on dairy goat operations in the Northeast, for periods of weeks. I was happy, for a time.
Eventually I wound up on a farm in Connecticut that ran an agriculture education program for Jews in their 20s, an enduring leftover of 1970s and 80s Jewish back-to-the-landers. I stayed there for six months. There, in November, I brought 12 goats to a kosher slaughter. One of them I held myself as the knife slid across its throat. To know why that was necessary, why I helped kill 12 goats, I need to tell you about the 13th goat. The 13th goat taught me about blood and milk, about the cruelty that flows through life, and about my God.
Goats are contrary, and the men and women who tend to them have become contrary in turn. In November, when the gardener and farmer begin to rest their land, pulling the last of the potatoes or the cabbage from his or her field, goats and their owners are sowing their seeds. In five months, a double crop will appear: a lurid fullness of udder, and gamboling, clumsy goat kids. We were a farm in companionship with a retreat center. People paid to come to see the goats, to admire the spark of playful life in them. It is one way to live off of goat kids, but only when they are in their first months, when the fickle heart of humanity loves all that is young. It did not last.
So we took the children, shortly after they were born. But that was still March. No one thought of meat. We took them so that they wouldn’t drink their birthright, our desire: Milk. The milk was flowing, and raged like a river through the body of our does, a warm, pure white wave. This is when I arrived on the farm, at the end of May. I had herded sheep and spun their wool. I had tasted the joy of knowing an animal and using it, making something from it. I had hand milked and machine milked goats, but only for a week at most. I wanted more experience, and so while there was a great deal of work with the farm’s sizable vegetable plot, I spent as much time as possible with the herd, mixed heritage goats of different ages, lineages, and temperaments. Fussy, shy, bossy, affectionate, playful, quiet. They were our dams, our dames, our queens, our mothers, and our daughters. We would nourish them with soy and corn-based grain, addictively delicious to their palates, and replenishing the nutrients they needed for their milk, which was, for the summer, the thing and the whole of the thing. We made chevre, a cheese so fresh from goats it is simply called “goat”; feta; yogurt; we drank their milk in our coffee, by itself, warm and raw, cooled and fresh.
June and July passed, and my hands became thick with the muscles necessary for milking. But oddly enough, I began to treasure the interactions with the goats who we didn’t milk. Yada, a childless yearling, bursting her way into the milking parlor in a clatter of hooves, splaying herself on the ground when refused grain. Poor sick Raita, her eyes dull, ignoring her food, until her milk production dropped to nothing, even after she recovered. And Ladi, hugely pregnant, waddling around the barnyard, the result of a late tryst with our new buck, Solomon. It seemed she would pop any moment, but we waited the whole summer. We waited until August.
In August, I saw the miracle of birth for the first time, with Ladi calmly picking her spot and butting away everyone who came close. I called her boy Bupkiss, Yiddish for “goat shit” or “nothing,” because he had diarrhea his first two weeks. His sister I called Nada. He was the only boy in the yard at this point. The rest had been weaned, and one day, as they cried—and the word “tragedy” means the Cry or Scream of the Goat—we packed them into the back of a pickup and drove them up to where Solomon, three times their size, with coarse black hair and calloused from years of asserting his dominance, lived with a neighbor’s elderly ram. These pastures would become their home, which we called Boystown, and I would become one of their keepers there.
One day, as I brought food and was swarmed by the boys, pushing and shoving for their grain, I noticed one missing. As the rest fed, I followed some bleating to an indent in the grass, where I found him. The 13th goat. I held some grain in front of him. He strained towards it, but did not get up. His legs had stopped working. I called my boss, the manager of the farm’s goats. We conferred and agreed to bring him back to the barn, near his mother, although not in with her and the rest of the girls, lest his legs start working, and he inconveniently impregnate someone.
He spent a week as my special charge. I shoveled his shit from underneath him, I fed him in a small dish, I moved him into the sun or out of the rain as weather permitted. I gave him no name. Even then, I was not so sentimental that I would name a dying goat. For that’s what he was. He had no hope of recovery. The paralysis, from who knows what parasite, spread to his lungs. Perhaps a visit to the vet, an expensive visit, could have saved him. But for what? For the Slaughterer’s knife? One day, in the September rain, I found him, stiff and still. It was over.
For some reason, more than any of my experiences of death on a farm before, this convinced me. We place ourselves like gods to these animals. The limits of their environment are our limits. If there is no money to treat an illness, then it is a fatal illness. If there is no human reason to keep an animal alive, then it is a dead animal. All at a level of reasoning, a cost-benefit analysis that they have no grip on, and that we can never express to them.
Two months after the death of the 13th goat, the slaughterer came. As a community of apprentice and novice farmers, we checked in as a group, and people expressed anger and shock. What had we shown such love for, why had we cared for these creatures, if this was their ultimate fate? As I listened, I thought about the milk we had enjoyed, the cheese. The miraculous feeling I had as the grotesque bodies of the dead goats had been broken down into edible chunks of meat. These goats had a purpose, there was always a goal in sight for their lives, whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted that purpose or not. I told my friends, “When I was 18, I prayed Shacharis everyday. In the traditional Jewish morning prayers, we recite the Akeidah, the story of Isaac, whose father raises him, binds him, and nearly sacrifices him to God. My father loves me. My God loves me. But every day, I know who raised me and I know they have a purpose for me, as surely as we had a purpose for these goats. I know who holds the knife above my throat.” People continued to share about what the slaughter had meant to them, why it had convinced them of the rightness of vegetarianism or veganism or meat eating, but I had reminded myself of my worst days, and I kept silent.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of my time on farms. It was not so much that I stopped believing in the importance and power of Food Justice. Rather, I was feeling conflicted about the role of my Judaism in my life and that struggle. What does the power of the land say to a Diasporic people? At the same time, my depression flared up, and it was clear that a farm is no place for anyone who can’t get out of bed. And as such, I was confronted with questions of ableism and stigma of mental illness in the farming community. Also, as is too common in non-profits, I was never paid for my work, and whenever that bothered me, I was told that I wasn’t sufficiently dedicated to the Cause. Perhaps I wasn’t.
But I will always remember the gamboling of goats, and the flow of milk and blood underneath my hands. And the feeling that we do not get to decide why we are on this earth, nor do we get to decide why we leave it. And I will remember the story of Audhumbla, the dairy animal who shaped the world, instead of being shaped by it. How rare she is. How sweet her milk and rough her tongue, that scraped out of ice Buri, the first hero, and ancestor to the gods.