Jake Levin // Great Barrington, MA
Jake Levin is an artist and nose-to-tail butcher. He grew up in the hills of Western Massachusetts, where he lives now. Soon he hopes to be raising his own pigs. Keep up with his butchery on the blog The Butcher and The Baker and his art on his own website, Jakelevinstudios.com. And check out A Lard Shabbos Candle for the Time to Come, his latest creation. You can find “The Search for a Messianic Ham” and four other memoirs on “Pork and Identity” in the ‘Meat Up’ section of issue 17 of Meatpaper.
I grew up in a family with a strong Jewish identity. This meant that we shared socialist leanings, actively worked for social justice, put education and family first, and were comfortable being different from our neighbors. As far as Jewish traditions were concerned, we always had our own spin on things. When my brother turned 13 for instance, rather than having a bar mitzvah, my mom asked a family friend to come and perform a ceremony in our field that involved a mask, a bonfire, and a few drums for banging. For Passover every year we read from a Haggadah that quotes Karl Marx and we sing songs by Pete Seeger. To me, this is what being Jewish has always been about.
Food has also played a significant role in my family. We never held to any dietary restrictions, but we did share strong values concerning where our food came from and how it got onto our plates. As I grew older and these values became even more important to me, I decided to become a nose-to-tail butcher. At Fleisher’s Meats, where I trained, I joked about whether or not the pork they sold was kosher — after all, what could be more fit to eat than local pasture-raised pork?
What began as a joke turned into a serious art project. How could I produce a kosher ham, and what would that mean? My first step was to learn about the meaning of a kosher diet, and the more I learned about kashrut, the more I began to value it. At its heart, it is a really beautiful concept, about eating with purpose and mindfulness. The further I researched, I learned about the mystical Jewish notion that in the end of days, when the Messiah returns, the pig will “return” to being kosher.
I am still in the process of making a kosher ham, but now, more than ever, I believe that creating it is a distinct possibility. In fact, I think that once it is created, it just may be the most Jewish food of all.