Having grown up on the east-side of Cleveland, Ohio, I am more than casually familiar with the traditions of Orthodox Judaism – at least by Tennessee standards. There is a sizable population in Cleveland Heights and neighboring communities. Families walking to Friday evening services were a common site, as were Jewish-owned bakeries, butcher-shops, tailors, and the like. To this day there is no food I miss more from back home than a Bialey’s bagel. It is significantly easier to find a good, authentic southern biscuit in the North than it is to find a decent bagel in the South*.
While how to properly make a bagel might be dictated by cultural tradition, Jewish dietary rules on meat in particular come as a religious imperative. Everything from what may be eaten to how it must be prepared is clearly spelled out in the Torah. Of particular importance is the method of slaughter, which must be carried out in prescribed and humane way. The knife, known as a chalif must be inpeccably sharp and true of edge. Fewer than a dozen makers worldwide make these specially-sanctioned blades, one of whom – Rabbi Moshe Yurman of Brooklyn, New York is a master of both crafting and using these specialized knives.
Rabbi Moshe Yurman, 65, hasn’t screwed up a kosher chicken in decades. He slaughtered his first animal at 18 and has since butchered innumerable goats, cows, chickens, sheep, peafowl, pigeons, bulls, American bison, and buffalo: If it’s kosher, he has probably killed it.
Yurman got into animal slaughter for the knives. In addition to being a shochet, or slaughterer, he is one of only three ritual knife-makers in the United States. There are fewer than 10 worldwide.
The knife, known as the chalif, is the most important tool of the shochet. The chalif must be handmade and kept exquisitely sharp. In industrial kosher plants, a bell rings every three minutes reminding shochtim to check their knives. If a nick the size of a hairsbreadth is discovered, all animals killed since the last inspection are deemed not kosher. There are different knives for different animals. For chickens, the blade is about five inches long. A lamb, eight to 12. A full-sized cow would need at least an 18-inch blade. The same goes for a bull. A buffalo could exceed 19 inches. The ideal shechitah knife is roughly two-thirds the size of the animal’s neck.
Fewer than 300 men kill all the kosher meat sold in America, and they typically move every few months, working at plants in Iowa and Colorado, or outside the country in Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay. Owning and maintaining a set of knives is a matter of pride for a shochet, and each one—like a high-end chef—brings his own knife to work, no matter how large or professional the plant. The typical shochet can maintain his blade, but if he needs a new knife he comes to Yurman’s home in the Midwood area of Brooklyn. Choosing a knife is intimate business.
There is so much more that I wish I could share here, but it would exceed my comfort level for Fair Use. I highly recommend you read the whole thing. It is a wonderful example of the intersection of knives and culture.
* The closest I have found to a “real” bagel in Knoxville is Einstein Brothers, but these barely qualify as “bagel Methadone”. They are close enough to stop the twitching, but I drool like Pavlov’s dog at the thought of the crispy crust and chewy goodness of a Bialey’s bagel. Ess-a Bagels in NYC would work, as would Bodo’s in Charlottesville, VA. Those two round out my Top 3, but there is nothing like the one from my hometown.
I will take some Mr. Brisket corned beef while you are at it.