My Grandfather’s Knives

My grandfather, Ben Lefkowitz זצ”ל, passed away in 2001. I still miss him very much, though I do get visit his kever from time to time. I never knew him as a working butcher, but I stay connected to him through his knives.

Some time ago, I received several butcher knives that were my grandfather’s. They take an edge incredibly well, and give me great pleasure to use when I’m working in the kitchen. They make cameos in pictures from time to time.

I was just given my grandfather’s knives that he used for shechting, ritual slaughter. I don’t know if I will ever have a chance to use them, but they have definitely strengthened my connection to him.

Well before I was born, my grandfather worked in his father’s butcher shop, and subsequently his own, in Boro Park. Back then, live animals were delivered to the shops to be slaughtered on premises. Once slaughtered, chickens were taken to a flicker who defeathered the birds. There was not a single trace of shrink-wrap or cryovac to be seen, way before mass produced meat was introduced for our convenience.

Back then, there was no va’ad kashruth to oversee the local butcher shops. It was my grandfather’s integrity and reputation that mattered to his customers, and assured them of his reliability and commitment to religion and kashruth. This is why when people ask, I like to say that I use my grandfather’s hashgacha.

When I used to think of my grandfather as a shochet, it was very hard to reconcile everything in my head. His hands were a butcher’s hands; large and powerful, as was his stocky build, but I simply couldn’t picture him with his smile and gentle demeanor drawing a blade across a living creature’s throat. When I held his shechting knives, though, I was finally able put it all in perspective.

The knife used for ritual slaughter of kosher animals is not like a common kitchen knife. It does not come to a point, because piercing the throat would render the animal unfit. The blade edge is razor sharp, and may not have even the slightest nick in it, because tearing would likewise render the animal unfit. These are not butcher’s knives, either. My grandfather’s butcher knives are heavy, powerful objects, which thick rosewood handles and curved blades.

The three shechting knives are almost delicate things. The different sizes corresponding to the different sizes of animals he was required to shecht, everything ranging from chickens to sheep. The blades are highly polished. The handles are no broader than a finger, and no thicker than a pencil. There is an almost gentle quality to them that belies their intention. When I hold them I sense how my grandfather held them, delicately balanced in his fingers until the moment he completed the cut. And it is precisely because of his gentle demeanor that I can picture him using these knives. He didn’t take life as much as what he gave to families so they could have meat for Shabbat and holidays.

I regret that I didn’t spend more time talking with him about his butcher shop, and that he will never taste any of the sausages that I make. I miss you, Grandpa. I hope I’ve made you proud.

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