Judaism has a curious relationship with goats. They have a strong presence in our literature and liturgy. On the one hand we have a warm relationship with them. For example, the Paschal Lamb could be (and more often was) a kid rather than a lamb; the Seder closes noisily with a song about the kid that father bought for two zuzim; goats make regular appearances in Chagall paintings.
On the other hand, their dark side. While sheep exclusively were used for the daily sacrifice in the Temple, goats exclusively were used for sin-offerings. The Torah deploys the theme of “a goat and a coat” in relation to two acts of deception: first when Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac; later when Jacob’s sons conceal the sale of their brother Joseph into slavery. In another “goat and coat” iteration, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest despatches the scapegoat to be thrown from the edge of a cliff, to atone for all our sins. Goats were so destructive of agriculture and the environment that, in Talmudic times, they were not allowed to be bred, or kept, within the borders of Israel.
We acquired our first two goats in 1976 when we were living in Devon. They were two British Saanen nannies, we called them Prudence and Patience (wishful thinking – these are two excellent characteristics which continue to elude me). A neighbour taught us how to manage and milk them. I cared for them deeply (I was born on the cusp of Capricorn) but when we moved back to London we had to sell them.
3 years ago, I was thrilled to acquire another pair of nanny kids. They are Golden Guernseys. I had been looking for a pedigree pair for a year or two. Golden Guernseys are few in number; like Jews they are the remnant of a remnant. As their name implies, the breed originated on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. In the 1920s Miss Miriam Milbourne began breeding from the island’s diminishing number of scrub goats, selecting only the golden-coloured specimens. When the Nazis occupied Guernsey in WWII they rounded up all the domestic goats, slaughtered them and ate them. There were just a few feral survivors. Miss Milbourne started again. Today, although Golden Guernsey numbers have recovered, you have to go some distance to buy a good pedigree pair. We did.
It took the entirety of a cold November day to drive to North Lincolnshire in our 30-year-old Land Rover Defender, collect Willow and Wisp, and return home. As the result of an incestuous encounter with her father the night before her departure, Willow turned out to be in kid. She produced ‘mamzer’ twins, whom we named Harry and Meghan. Harry went to a Moslem couple in the West Midlands – they had a harem of 17 females and were looking for a male. They re-named him Haroun. We kept Meghan.
Wisp, like our matriarchs, has had trouble conceiving. Three attempts failed last winter, we will try again this year. Willow did conceive again, she kidded on the first day of Shavuot to the delight of the 20+ guests who were staying with us. Obviously, we called them Ruth and Boaz. Boaz left us on Sunday to join his brother’s West Midlands herd. Ruth, as her name dictates, stayed with her mother.
We milk Willow every morning, she gives us a litre and a half each day. We use very little milk ourselves but it goes into the tea and coffee we serve our guests. Sometimes it goes to feed an orphan lamb, sometimes G makes cottage cheese or haloumi. Last week it was topping up an orphan Dexter calf belonging to a neighbour.
I would like to tell you there is nothing better than nuzzling into the flank of a goat, as dawn breaks on a freezing cold winter morning, squeezing rich, fresh milk from her udder into a pail. It wouldn’t be true. It doesn’t beat lying in a warm bed with a cup of tea and reading the news on an iPad. But when it comes to goats, we all have to make sacrifices.