Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What happens when Jews forget they aren't farmers

2/8/2010 11:30:00 AM
An udderly implausible tale: The strange saga of Kemp Mill's go-to goat guy
by Adam Kredo
Staff Writer
Washington Jewish Week

It was 11:30 p.m. when a police officer rolled up on a frantic man clutching a screaming goat.

That man was Silver Spring resident Joe Orlow, and he was attempting -- unsuccessfully -- to milk his newly purchased pet goat.

"I'm holding this goat, milking it [and] the goat is screaming its head off," recalled Orlow, who, with a friend, Leah Shmist, purchased two goats last year, aspiring to collect fresh milk.

Small problem: Neither Orlow nor Shmist had ever milked a goat.
As Orlow, 50, stood on his Kemp Mill street, vainly tugging at the goat's udders, a police officer approached, shining his spotlight and wondering, "What are you doing here?" recalled Orlow.

"We're milking a goat," Shmist told the cop, who simply responded," 'OK,' and drove away," as Orlow recalls it.

Late-night milking sessions, a shredded porch and renegade goats are just a few of the travails Orlow has weathered while developing the Maryland Organic Backyard Initiative, a loosely connected network of suburban farmers who have dedicated their backyards to producing organic products such as, in Orlow's case, goat milk.

Several new additions were recently welcomed to Orlow's backyard, as his two goats, Fabianna and Zot, birthed a total of five babies late last month.

Orlow, an Orthodox Jew who attends Silver Spring Jewish Center, said he initially purchased the goats -- an animal steeped in Jewish tradition -- so that he and Shmist could enjoy a perpetual source of fresh, kosher organic goat milk, which is expensive and somewhat difficult to procure.

"No one believed we would actually do it because it's unusual, but I thought it was a good idea," explained Shmist, 35, who was raised in the Ukraine, where goat milk is a common beverage.

The approximately $1,000 initial investment in two Nigerian Dwarf goats -- which are tiny (just 19 to 21 inches tall) and easy to raise in cramped urban environments -- seemed like a no-brainer, said Shmist, who relocated from Kemp Mill to New York City in August.

The amateur dairy operation, however, quickly became an ordeal, as Orlow and Shmist fumbled at each turn.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Shmist said with a laugh, noting that early on, Orlow purchased literally "a ton of hay."

"For future farmers, don't do this," she noted, recalling that Orlow comically proceeded to line his fences and porch with the hay because "he thought it would make [the goats] happy."

A bit too happy, perhaps, as the two animals had soon torn down the hay, littering much of Orlow's 30-by-50-foot yard with chewed straw.

And it also wasn't long before the amateur farmers were dealing with uniquely Jewish goat-related quandaries.

"Generally," explained Orlow, "a person is not allowed to milk a goat on the Sabbath," according to Halacha, Jewish law. Goats, however, experience pain and discomfort if left unmilked for prolonged periods of time.

To find a solution, Orlow consulted Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn, a Torah scholar based in New York who is particularly knowledgeable about Jewish law regarding animals.

Orlow learned that milking his goat on the Sabbath is permissible only when done "to relieve the pain of the animal."

With that question resolved, Orlow went on to explore other aspects of Jewish rituals concerning goats, such as the Passover sacrifice and how to neuter a male goat.

Judaism was "part of the way I was justifying what I was doing," Orlow explained. "This was my way of getting familiar with the goats."

Farming felt uniquely Jewish to both Orlow and Shmist. After all, Jews have been farmers for millennia, noted Orlow, citing, among other biblical figures, Moses and Jacob.

"Look in the Torah," Shmist said. "That's all we do. It's a very Jewish thing to do."

Hoping to promote these tenets throughout Kemp Mill -- and eventually farther -- Orlow urged friends and neighbors to join him in transforming their backyards into makeshift farms.

"If I could get all my friends involved and have their backyards ... we could all grow our own food and share it with each other," Orlow explained.

To that end, he organized a series of seminars earlier this year on backyard organic farming, hoping to promote his initiative and lure others into the mix.

Eventually, Orlow aspires to lead a network of suburban agronomists who can produce cheese, milk and other products for both profit and personal consumption.

Fabianna and Zot, Orlow's first two goats, also have become minor community celebrities, as documented by The Washington Post in September 2009: "A police officer on patrol captured two goats that were roaming in the road and asked for animal services to take them to the shelter. Animal services picked up the two goats, an adult female and a juvenile. Their owner was located and said they had gotten out through a hole in the fence that had since been repaired."

"The goats wanted a taste of freedom -- and got busted for it," Orlow joked, adding that the $200 in fines he incurred for their short spree was no joking matter.

Orlow, a Jewish tutor, has used his pets as educational tools during his sessions.

"Animals are a natural, traditional part of being Jewish, yet not many people are comfortable with animals," Orlow said, explaining that modern Jews often are uncomfortable with their agrarian roots.

Esther Paull's 7-year-old twins, however, are quite smitten with the goats, and have learned about complex Jewish concepts, such as birthing rules and animal sacrifice, via Orlow and his pets.

"If they could, they'd adopt one or two" of the new baby goats, said Paull, 51, a White Oak resident. "But that won't happen."

Asked if it seemed odd that someone would house several goats in the backyard, Paull said, these days, "I don't see it as that unusual."

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