Man of Steel: How a Kosher Slaughterer Turned Knife-Making Into an Art
Rabbi Moshe Yurman is one of just three men in America making ritual knives for shochtim. You can guess what’s in his basement.
Yurman laughs deeply. By this point I know what that laugh means: I’m not getting anywhere near that basement.
Being a knife-maker gives Yurman a community beyond shochtim. He attends knife shows, populated by hunters, skinners, and collectors, to make new contacts and meet old friends.
“Everybody, every kind of person is there,” he says. “Some are into martial arts, some are into decorative knives. Are they interested in shechitah? Some more, some less. Some don’t want to talk to you, some aren’t interested in killing animals, some think it’s cruel, some would rather shoot them—they think that’s not cruel—but certain people have their theories, and we discuss theories. I have one friend, and I say to him, ‘Daniel, we have 200 people in the room now, do you think five of them in the room understand what we’re talking about?’ And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ We discuss where the soft and the hard should meet in the knife, the balance. There is a theory to everything—I have a whole discussion with various shochtim, which side of the animal should we be standing on when you slaughter.”
At one of these knife shows he was introduced to a doctor who was experimenting with how the material of the knife affected healing rates in human surgeries, comparing grades of steel and obsidian. He asked Yurman to sharpen his scalpels, and together they worked in the hospital, documenting the effect of knives on human skin. “That was exciting,” Yurman tells me. Another time, he made a connection with Temple Grandin, the famed designer of slaughterhouses, and together they created a knife with a disposable blade for Muslim slaughterers, who are often untrained in knife sharpening. Like all teachers of kosher slaughter, Yurman trains his students in the Muslim-owned poultry shops that dot Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. Once the domain of kosher slaughterhouses (the United Nations is built over a defunct kosher slaughterhouse), New York now has a slaughter industry that is dominated by the Muslim community, which quietly and to little fanfare works out arrangements with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish slaughterers who need space for their students.
I ask Yurman how he got into slaughtering. “The steel is what really got me into it,” he says. But when I ask what got him into steel, Yurman becomes guarded again: He throws his hands up, raises his shoulder, and shakes his head. Four times he tries to answer but can’t. I wait for 30 seconds.
“Forget about that,” he says. “That, that, that’s, that’s, that’s … we’re not gonna get into that area.”
His voice has gotten smaller and he refuses to look at me.
But not everybody makes knives, I prod. “That’s true. Most people who make knives use one steel; I have a whole fan of different steels,” he says with some pride in his voice. Then shakes his head. “Because that’s just how I do it.”
I ask one more question before I leave: “Why do you make knives?”
This time, he is silent for close to a minute. “Same reason ladies go buy clothing,” he says. “There is always something, next year’s season, next year’s color, next year’s steel. I can’t put it in any other terms.” I leave the knife-maker with his knives.
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