Left in Andover: Vegetarians in meat-filled world

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

As a hyper-sensitive vegetarian child in the 1950s I avoided close-up contact with the chickens my family kept for eggs. Obscured underneath their pretty feathers, my X-ray vision detected dead poultry as displayed at the supermarket.

My little brother, on the other hand, enjoyed picking them up and stroking them while I watched in horror from afar. We never killed them, of course, since we didn’t eat meat. Periodically our parents gifted them away, so we kids never witnessed their fates.

Ad for the Bennington butcher shop owned by Susan’s grandparents, around 1910.

Our father liked to tell how, as a boy in Bennington, he had a small flock of his own. Dad loved these pet chickens. But his heart was broken over and over again when his mother would select one to serve for Friday dinner.

Around the time Dad turned school age, his mother became an invalid. He refused to start school unless he was allowed to bring one of his beloved birds along with him. A compromise was reached: He would skip first grade and tag along with his sister Eva, who was one year older. And yes, he got to bring along a chicken to school the first few days.

Although my paternal grandfather Isaac Leader was both a rabbi and an official kosher butcher, my grandmother, equally handy with a knife, was under no such constraints. Their eldest child, my aunt Pauline, conjured up her traumatic childhood living above the family butcher shop in her memoir And No Birds Sing, published in 1931.

“I think of the many times when I have stared at a clot of blood on the newly sown sawdust. Nothing could possibly be as bright red as new blood. They have just brought in a freshly killed cow, or perhaps it is a pig … hung to await disemboweling at the hands of my mother. The trail of blood is hidden now, but not from me. I know just where it is under the sawdust.”

Herb in his youth.

“Oh God, Why couldn’t I live like other girls? Why couldn’t I get away from the market-smell that pursued me everywhere. The market smell that stuck to my clothes, that I took with me into the classroom. A smell of cold meat, of cold pork, a peculiar raw smell … It ostracized me.”

Despite transgressing in her commercial life dealing in pork, my grandmother kept a kosher kitchen for her family. This entailed serving milk (milchig) and meat (fleishig)) separately, and keeping all dishes and cutlery separate as well, according to traditional Jewish protocol.

Nevertheless, the sights and smells of her Cut Price Meat Market had an overwhelming impact on her children. Two out of five of them became strict vegetarians as adults.

By eliminating all meat, my father was able to remain kosher even when he left home – without all the fuss and bother of separate dishes. In addition, after reading The Jungle by the muckraker Upton Sinclair, he eschewed all complicity with the meat packing industry.

Grandfather Isaac’s butchering tools.

His sister Sadie, an animal lover, took the same approach. While attending City College in New York, both siblings crashed at Pauline’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where she was raising two sons as a bohemian single mother.

No matter how much my father denied it, Pauline remained convinced forever that her little brother was responsible for a missing chicken she had roasted for her two boys and left on the fire escape to cool. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

My mother met my father when they were both ag students at SUNY Farmingdale in 1945. As the only vegetarians, they were assigned a table together in the main cafeteria. They raised me and my siblings as strict vegetarians, though my sister did not always adhere to the straight party line.

Once, when we were visiting Dad’s sister Eva in Bennington, Dad became so angry at Eva for sneaking my sister chicken he grabbed the tablecloth, sweeping everything to the floor with a giant crash.

In my early 20s, I became a militant vegetarian, living on a commune in rural Kentucky where no meat eaters were allowed to set foot on the land. I felt that if I walked the right path with others who shared my ideas, I would find the true meaning of life. It took me a few years to realize how much I was giving up restricting myself to people who shared my exact same beliefs.

Portrait of Pauline as a young woman.

But what we eat, and especially what meat we eat — how it is raised and slaughtered — is a powerful signifier, religious and otherwise. It is fair to say that my father, the son of not-so-kosher butchers, held to his vegetarianism with religious zeal. For this reason, he was able to find amusement, rather than outrage, in the following story, which he told to me in May 1988, a few months before his death:

“When I was homesteading in Tunbridge, Vermont, back in 1942, I became well acquainted with an ‘R.F.D. Man’ who, in the course of our daily visits, learned that I was a Jew. Eventually he made the following confession to me:

‘An orthodox family had been living in Tunbridge and were, of course, in need of having their chickens killed in accordance with the sacred laws. My friend the postman had agreed to transport, from time to time, a live chicken to the rabbi (Avraham Popack) in Barre, who was also a shochet. But the rabbi would often as not prove hard to find and the R.F.D. Man was, of course, on a very tight schedule.

‘On one occasion he was unable to find the rabbi at all, and so on his return trip late that day had brought the chicken back still alive. The housewife was utterly disappointed, having planned to serve chicken soup for her Friday meal.

Author’s dad Herb with his sister Pauline in the 1980s.

‘Now, my R.F.D. Man was a sympathetic type and got to thinking how he could prevent this from happening again. He had observed the shochet in action often enough, and knew well at what door to deliver the mortal blow.

‘And so upon the next occasion, for his own convenience as well as to avoid the woman’s profound discontent, he had performed this office himself, and continued to do so for several years.’ ”

My father was not, of course, able to absolve the postman, whose long-term deception weighed on his conscience. But Dad’s attitude was realistic, tempered by his own life experience. He knew that to survive as a Jew in rural Vermont necessitated any number of accommodations to local circumstance.

Eternal light in front of photograph of Aunt Eva and Herb Leader.

There is the family story that Dad’s Uncle Max, a by-the-books rabbi and shochet who settled in New York City, mailed my grandfather a pig’s head in the early years after the pair immigrated to the United States from Poland.

That he would have actually done so seems improbable. But the message of this apocryphal warning was clear. His younger brother, my grandfather Isaac, was compromising the family honor in his loose interpretation of tradition out in the Vermont hinterlands.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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