JOLENE, THE RABBI, AND THE KOSHER CHICKEN

When I was nine years old, I considered myself an authority on what it meant to be Jewish. The family next door was Jewish, inaccessible from sundown Friday through the Sabbath.  And they kept kosher, what I then considered the whole nine yards of Jewishness.  Mrs. Blevis, probably about the same age as my grandmother, treated my brother, sister, and I like her own grandchildren.  Her granddaughter, Jackie, was about a year older than I and probably my first real crush.  Grandson, Bobby, was my age and the perfect partner for nine-year-old adventures.  In the  picture above, my brother Richard, six, and sister Jolene, four, are in front with Jackie and I standing behind them. Watch the short imp in the white dress because she’s the main character here.

One of the perks of living next door to Mrs. Blevis was the opportunity to taste unique foods in her kitchen.  Nothing else tasted like the treats from her oven.  Every so often, about this time of year, I still get a yearning for the taste of unleavened bread.  Don’t tell me “That stuff has no taste!”  It’s an acquired taste.  Chicken was big too, and that’s where the rabbi came in.  I know you don’t have to be a rabbi to butcher kosher chickens, but in our experience that was the way it was done.  In 1950 I knew nothing about a shochet (you can look it up).  If a man wearing a  black suit showed up at our house, he was the priest.  Next door, that would be the rabbi.

Chicken butchering took place in the back yard near the barn.  It was very important that the chicken not suffer, so tradition dictated a fixed procedure be used every time.  The rabbi used a large, solid stump as a chopping block. Two nails had been placed at the perfect distance so the chicken’s neck just fit between the nails with its head on the right side and the body held by the rabbi’s left hand.  With his right hand, he picked up a heavy knife used just for this purpose. With a practiced motion, he tugged gently on the chicken’s body, stretching its neck momentarily, swiftly swung  the knife down in an arc, and off came the head.  Quick and painless.

For a child, a major attraction of the experience was the knowledge that the headless, senseless, dead chicken would then take off running, mostly in circles.  Fascinating.

In my memory, the four of us were standing off at a respectful distance.  I remember hearing the rabbi recite his prayer in Hebrew, and it occurred to me that my friend Bill, who was Muslim, would enjoy this too and maybe know some Hebrew.  I know that makes no sense.  I was a nine-year-old Catholic.  I knew a little Latin.  Doesn’t everybody pray in a foreign language?

Anyway, I looked toward the front yard for only a second, thinking Bill might be around, and the next thing I knew my mother was screaming “JOLENE” from our back porch.   While I looked away, Jolene had escaped our little group and dashed forward for a better view.  Mrs. Blevis stepped forward to intercept her, but Jolene bobbed to the other side and popped  up under the rabbi’s left elbow.  The rabbi tugged on the chicken, the knife came down, and the chicken’s head came off.  The chicken took flight for several feet, landed, and continued to run in highly entertaining circles.  In what must have been well under a minute, the chicken  collapsed, and Mrs. Blevis plunged it into a tub of water.  The show was over.

The way I remember it, the rabbi was no more offended than Mrs. Blevis, but my mother was sure Jolene had ruined the whole ritual and rendered the chicken nonkosher.  Before the chicken stopped running,  Mom had snatched her daughter from danger and was warming up to remind me of my duties as an older brother.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind not to attempt a defense.  Humbly accepting the blame was totally uncharacteristic of me, but the combination of circumstances: a)Jolene getting out of there without a drop of blood on her dress, b)the rabbi being at least somewhat entertained by her assistance, and  c)the diversion of an overactive chicken giving a better than average performance made it all worthwhile.

Besides, there were still two more chickens to be dispatched.

The events related here occurred 66 years ago, and my memory may not be perfect.  My siblings may hold to alternative facts, points of view that could make me seem less the long suffering older brother.  I will only point to my First Amendment Right to Freedom of Speech.  My story, my version of reality.

One thought on “JOLENE, THE RABBI, AND THE KOSHER CHICKEN”

  1. Great story, Bill. I have not read The Rabbi series but your story reminded me of my literary introduction to Jewish culture via two books by Chaim Potok: The Chosen and The Promise. I don’t recall many details about the books—I read them decades ago—but I do recall that they had compelling plots and that I was intrigued with the mysteries of Hassidic life…and NYC, too.

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