Go Back to Breath

A rabbi’s journey through food justice and faith

Maximillian Tortoriello

“We like the scenic route,” Andy Kastner (B.A. ’02, Religious Studies, Jewish Studies) tells me. The rabbi and Renaissance man is referring to his professional and geographic journey, which has taken him and his family all over the country.

Andy is currently the director of community impact at the East Bay Jewish Federation in Berkeley, Calif., but previously he’s been a university chaplain, a philanthropic program officer, the founder of a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and even a kosher slaughterer. These endeavors may be wide-ranging, but they all fall along intersections of Jewish teachings, community development, and food justice.

We meet for lunch at Gather, an airy, bustling restaurant in the “greenest” building in the East Bay, around the corner from the Jewish Federation’s open-layout offices. Andy, 38, has lively brown eyes and a slim athletic build like the long-distance runner he is. The all-organic menu showcases “head to tail, root to shoot” meals that “reflect the bounty of Northern California,” and though I want to discuss Andy’s work as a kosher slaughterer, we both order vegetarian options.

“It’s so much easier [in California] to live with the seasons,” Andy says. “It’s so integrated with the way we shop. In December at the market, I want my kids to see the citrus, and to anchor that sensory memory. When my kids ask if we can have blueberries in December, that’s a teachable moment.”

When I press him to clarify, asking if he and his kids eat blueberries out of season, Andy just smiles.

“We don’t, but it’s not to deprive them,” he says. “Part of my offering as a parent is to share with my kids what gives richness to life, what enhances my consciousness and compassion.” He laughs, shaking his curly hair. “Of course, when they’re on their own, they can do what they want.”

The day before, Andy, a Cleveland native, had sent his daughter to school wearing a Cavaliers hat — a bold move in the Bay Area when the Cavs are facing local heroes the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals.

“She’s six. We’re just trying to toughen her up,” Andy says. “She only has a couple more years before she’s like, ‘Hell no, I’m not your billboard.’ I’m not a huge sports fan, but I like the energy, and Cleveland is a city that constantly gets the bad rap.”

Kastner currently works as director of community impact at the East Bay Jewish Federation, where he plays matchmaker between philanthropists and needs in local communities.

Though his pursuits have led him from rabbinical school in New York to St. Louis, southern California, Jerusalem and beyond, Andy appreciates his Midwestern roots. After all, Indiana is where he fell in love and set the zigzagging course of his life.

“I ended up at IU for love,” he says.

As a junior counselor at Goldman Union summer camp in Zionsville, Ind., Andy met “this amazing woman” and thought, I should really pay attention to this, and followed her to Indiana University. That amazing woman, Leslie Cohen Kastner, is a trained social worker who now serves as director of admissions for a Montessori school, and Andy’s wife.

In Bloomington, Andy found even more than happily-ever-after. He still admires the town’s “juxtaposition of the rich educational environment on the edge of this natural gem. I’m an adventurer,” he says, “so I spent a ton of time in the woods, in the quarries. I never had so much freedom before, and that’s the big learning: How do you harness that freedom?”

After IU, Andy entered rabbinical school in New York, but after several years, his journey began to veer from the narrow career path. He got involved in nascent local-food movements, where he observed the overlap between ethical food practices and Judaism.

“If I were to simplify the enterprise of the Hebrew Bible, it is the pursuit of establishing and maintaining a society built on justice and equity, and part of that is the distribution of resources,” Andy says. “The way we engage with the natural world, the way we nourish ourselves and heal ourselves, support the vulnerable and celebrate abundance — that’s all in there. I was like, ‘How do I make this alive and conversant with contemporary life?’”

Andy began by shopping at farmers’ markets, examining local food economies, reading Michael Pollan, and researching how the Jewish world was responding to contemporary ethical food practices. Soon enough, he committed himself to urban homesteading and living with the seasons, and he started a CSA. Then Andy sought out training as a kosher slaughterer.

Kosher dietary laws, observed by some religious Jews, prohibit eating certain animals and require particular methods for killing and slaughtering. While it’s still standard in other parts of the world for rabbis to be trained in kosher slaughter, the practice has long been privatized and industrialized in the U.S.

To learn shechita, Andy undertook a yearlong apprenticeship, which began by studying Jewish laws and texts. He learned how to check for blemishes by dragging his fingernail along the special knife required, how to not disrupt the flow of the blade, and how to hold the animal in a calming manner.

“It’s a kind of neurosis of Jewish law,” Andy tells me, “the idea that you are so focused and in flow, but so pure-hearted in the pursuit to nourish yourself without causing unnecessary or undue pain.”

“The big fear is to lose that softness, that ability to feel.”
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Kosher slaughter can be physically demanding and dangerous, Andy says, noting that he’s cut himself a few times in the process. Once, he traveled to a farm in the Catskills to slaughter several turkeys for Thanksgiving. He was on his feet for many hours, handling twenty-pound birds, concentrating on not disrupting the swift flow of the blade between trachea and esophagus with his own finger. By the end he was physically exhausted, but what Andy remembers most is learning how to process the emotional impact of “what it does to you to take a life out of this world of your own power.”

“The first time [I performed shechita], I immediately broke down in tears in a way that took me by surprise,” he says. “As I became more experienced and comfortable, I managed that emotional response. But I wanted to manage it while never losing it. The big fear is to lose that softness, that ability to feel.”

Though Andy still performs the kosher slaughter on a freelance basis, the current rhythms of his life don’t allow for much of that anymore. He’s busy enough in his current role with the Jewish Federation, in which he plays matchmaker between philanthropists and grants and opportunities and needs in East Bay communities. Still, he devotes a lot of his free time to another kind of spiritual practice, a “moving meditation” that began at IU: trail-running.

“Running is one of the greatest disciplines and gifts that my dad gave me,” he says. “At the heart, it’s manifesting a deep sense of gratitude and enhancing a sense of consciousness. I run without music, and you try to stay with the breath and stay connected to the landscape. It’s given me more useful lessons about myself, balancing freedom and fear. I’ve been lost in the woods, in the snow, and you have to figure it out.”

"At the end of what you learn, you have to have the fortitude to say, ‘This is my analysis, and I’m open to course-correcting, but this is the next best step.’”

This comfort in not-knowing precisely where the path will lead is at the heart of his family’s ongoing journey. Andy may have an aptitude for connecting dots, and a natural curiosity about the world, but he’s also gleaned many teachings from the Talmud, lessons both large and small, clear and abstruse.

“There are a lot of pages of Talmud, and it’s a lot of fun for the right nerd, which I happen to be,” Andy says. Though the Talmud offers different opinions on a problem or course of action, “it doesn’t say, ‘And now you do this.’ This can be really unsettling for a contemporary human. The real practice of studying Talmud — and to an extent, doing community development work — requires us to be strong investigators and listeners, to be supreme dot-connectors. At the end of what you learn, you have to have the fortitude to say, ‘This is my analysis, and I’m open to course-correcting, but this is the next best step.’”

So how does Andy cultivate this simultaneous patience and openness? I asked whether he had any tricks for changing one’s head-space, whether in making a career change or going for a run.

“It’s so simple and so tough, just to go back to the breath,” he says. “Allow that focus to take its shape.”

Then he describes a recent moment with his six-year-old daughter, when the family was hiking a coastline trail, and they encountered a tough hill.

“We put our kids in some character-building situations,” he says, laughing. “We’re schlepping along, and I invite our daughter to walk with me. We start talking, and when we get to the top of the hill, she looks around and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how far we got! I got so focused on talking, it didn’t even feel like we were hiking.’ And I was like, that’s the practice, the power you can harness.” He thinks for a few seconds, chewing that over, shaking his head. “It’s really good to be humbled and to suffer a little bit,” he says.

I tell him that his kids are really in for it, and he agrees.

Eat your greens!” he jokes. “And no blueberries!”

Katie Moulton

Katie Moulton is a writer, editor, and music critic. Her writing has appeared in Sewanee Review, Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, No Depression, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by fellowships and awards from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Tin House, and Indiana University, where she earned her M.F.A. and was the editor of Indiana Review. Her audio memoir, Dead Dad Club, is forthcoming from Audible. Originally from St. Louis, she makes her home in Baltimore.