“The problem had begun for him when he was about four and he had asked Ima where the chicken on his plate came from.”
Ima, the young boy’s mother, said that it came from the chickens living in the barn. Her reply marks the beginning of a deep personal resistance movement for nine-year-old Ari, who lives in the Negev Highlands, in Israel, with his parents.
Ari’s parents are active conservationists who farm organically and work to protect the environment and wildlife, while showing no concern for the animals they eat. Ari wonders why they attend protest demonstrations to save the earth, yet never protest the cruel chicken house or the treatment of geese to make pate de foie gras. “His parents, he noticed, thought about many things, but not about these things.”
For Ari, it is dreadful to eat something that was once a living, “frightened creature.” His morality is rooted in his perception of the difference between “the birds who were free and the birds who were not free.”
He noticed that the birds who were free were always beautiful, their feathers were soft and silky and brilliant with color, their wings opened like fans as they mounted the air with confidence and song. He loved to watch the birds in the air. Their migration patterns were like paintings in the sky, moving pictures against the blue air as the birds jockied for their different places and lined up behind their leader, predetermined by the forces of sun and wind and light to make this journey. The journey was part of their being. A cage was a terrible thing.
Unlike these birds, the chickens kept for meat and eggs smell bad, cannot move in their cages, make “low moaning sounds,” and stare with “gloomy eyes.” And then there is Ari’s beloved hen, Tk Tk, named for her quiet clucking. Tk Tk is clean, soft, independent, and loving. She often sits on the porch step with Ari making sweet sounds that come “from deep inside her breast, deep under her feathers, deep inside a well of animal happiness.”
Ari asks his mother, were there different kinds of chickens? “Ima said there were. ‘A chicken that you eat and a chicken that’s a pet are two different kinds of animals.’ “‘Does the cage make them different?’ Ari asked. “The question disturbed Ima. ‘Not exactly,’ she
Ari ponders the difference in his parents’ attitude towards Tk Tk, the chickens in the cages, and the millions of migratory birds – storks, pelicans, eagles, kestrels – whose ancient route across the Negev is threatened by the government’s plan to build a radio station in the Arad Valley. These are the “birds in the air that people admired and wanted to protect.” Ari wonders “why his parents felt so strongly about the birds of the air, and did not seem to care at all about the chickens in the cages.”
Their answers are evasive, and Ari suffers a “secret misery” that keeps him from being happy, His pain becomes a family matter when he starts washing his meat with water at the table before eating. He scarcely understands his compulsion, but persists in doing it, even when his visiting Grandma Ellie from New York taunts him about his “disgusting habit” and does everything she can to make him feel even worse than he already does about hurting his parents and becoming a weakling if he does not eat meat.
Although Ari’s parents have always encouraged their son’s quest for moral independence, they never dreamed where their teachings might lead. Ari finds unexpected support from them, however, and even from his “henpecked” grandfather; but the most astonishing revelation is that his teacher, Ms. Greenblatt, is a vegetarian and that her brother Yossi, the famous soccer player, is a vegetarian, too. Ms. Greenblatt washes away Ari’s fears so that he no longer has to wash the blood out of his food or be defensive when baited by his classmate, Yonatan, who thinks that being big and being strong are the same.
When Ari tells Ms. Greenblatt that he informed his mother he did not want to eat meat, she praises him. “Good. So now you own your own stomach.” This idea becomes Ari’s “personal truth.”
Kalechofsky dedicated A Boy, A Chicken and the Lion of Judah to her son, Hal, “whose parents did not understand,” and “to other parents who might also miss the clues.” Ari’s practice of washing his meat is based on Hal’s childhood habit. Only years later did Kalechofsky learn that her son always hated meat. Now a vegetarian herself, she sees washing the meat as a purification ritual designed to wash away every sign of blood from the flesh so as not to feel there was ever any life in it.
A Boy, A Chicken and The Lion of Judah is an intelligent, adventurous, and beautifully written book. Although it is specially intended for young people seven to fourteen years old, it really is a book for all ages.