A lot at steak one distressing day on the kibbutz

It’s with a bit of schadenfreude that I’ve been following the saga of Agriprocessors’ Iowa plant woes, including last week’s arrest of the former CEO, Sholom Rubashkin. You see, I’ve been a vegetarian for about 15 years now. Hearing about problems in a meatpacking plant is kind of like my Christmas — if I celebrated Christmas, that is.

But there’s another reason I’m just a little more interested in this story than I might normally be. That’s because when I was 17, I worked in a meatpacking plant — for one unforgettable day.

It was my last day on Tirat Tzvi, a kibbutz in the north of Israel, near the Kinneret. While the kibbutz’s Web site touts its fish farm and travel agency, there’s no denying that Tirat Tzvi’s Tiv meatpacking plant is its bread and butter (er, margarine) — Tiv brand meat is eaten all over Israel.

On the kibbutz, meat was everywhere. I could even smell it in my dreams. I was unhappy. After two weeks, I asked for a transfer. Even though I hadn’t actually had to work in the Tiv plant like many of the other volunteers, I just couldn’t take the meat culture. I had to go.

My transfer was approved, and I packed up my bags and prepared to leave for a nearby kibbutz, where the big industry was bee pollination (that I could handle). All I had to do was get through one final day of work, and I could leave that afternoon.

The night before my last day, I was approached by my group leader. He dropped the bombshell: The next day, I would be working in the meat plant.

I immediately went on the offensive. The meat plant was the main reason I was leaving the kibbutz. It wasn’t right to put me there. As a vegetarian, this was tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. Please, wasn’t there anything else I could do?

He shook his head. “You have to put in your day. Everyone’s been working in the plant. Just one day, and you’re gone.”

Early the next morning, I trudged into the plant to don my white lab coat and hairnet. I must have looked so doleful that the person giving out assignments took pity on me, because I was assigned to what was apparently the least “meaty” job in the place: putting stickers on packaged cuts of meat.

And so I stood for eight hours, peeling stickers off a roll and placing them on piles of dead flesh.

After a while I started to philosophize on my situation. My grandfather, a rabbi, had spoken to me a few times about the concept of “marat ayin” — when you do something sinful and other people see it, then they think it’s OK to do that thing. How, then, did it look for me to be working in a meatpacking plant? Was I betraying my own cause by allowing other people to see me working there, to think that I condoned animal cruelty?

I was alone in a huge warehouse room. Sabotage? I didn’t want to hurt the kibbutz, but my brain began to fill with fantasies of subtle insurrection. All I had at my disposal were stickers. Could I put the wrong sticker on the package? What if I put on two stickers instead of three? What if I licked the sticker, then put it on the package? What if …

But before I could do anything, I was free to go.

The end of the day could not have come sooner. The second I was allowed to leave, I hustled on out of there like the devil was after me. I’ve never been so glad to leave work in my entire life.

That afternoon, I left for my new kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, where I spent the first week doing the second strangest job I have ever had — catching butterflies in an alfalfa field to be released at a wedding the following weekend.

When the box of butterflies was opened, nothing came out. Two hundred butterflies lay at the bottom, either dead or too stunned to fly away.

We can’t always be saints. I’ve killed butterflies and worked, for a single day, in the meatpacking industry. But every day, when I choose the food that goes onto my plate, I make another choice. And that is one I can always live with.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected]