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Big Bird

The rise of the kosher chicken business in America

Jenna Weissman Joselit
September 23, 2020
Berenice Abbott/Getty Images
A Jewish chicken market, New York City, 1937Berenice Abbott/Getty Images
Berenice Abbott/Getty Images
A Jewish chicken market, New York City, 1937Berenice Abbott/Getty Images

Thinking about adding a new ritual to your High Holidays repertoire? How about shlogen kapores, the age-old, pre-Yom Kippur penitential practice of transferring your sins onto a chicken by swinging the creature around your head until it gives up the ghost while you ask the Almighty for forgiveness? This year of all years, when we’re most in need of divine intervention, the ritual might come in handy. As an added bonus—or incentive—when you and your local shochet (ritual slaughterer) have had your way with the bird, it does double duty as dinner.

A folk tradition if ever there was one, kapores increasingly fell out of favor. For those Jews eager to lay claim to the mantle of modernity, the practice smacked too much of superstition. Animal rights activists, in turn, decried it as injurious to the chicken and still do, giving rise these days to a group known as the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. Either way, the ritual gives modern-day Jews a bad name.

Kapores hasn’t disappeared entirely—clearly, some Hasidic communities in the U.S. and Israel actively continue the practice—but in most Jewish circles, it registers more as a quaint and innocent symbol of a vanished way of life than as an expression of lived religion.

High Holiday greeting cards, whose emergence in the early 20th century materially attested to the consequences of change, featured photographs of women carefully inspecting and then selecting a chicken for their devotions. More imaginative versions bore an illustration of a well-fed little boy, clad in his yontef best, sitting astride a brightly colored rooster, encouraging it to go faster, faster so that he might greet the new year.

Contemplating the past from a safe perch, modern-day Jews also had the opportunity to poke fun at the benighted practices of yesteryear by making their way through and chuckling at Sholem Aleichem’s 1903 short story, “No More Kapores, Or the Sacrificial Chicken Revolt.” Intended for children, it told of a clutch of chickens that decides to “stand up once and for all” for itself. “Do whatever you want with us—but we will not be sacrifices for you! No more kapores!” their ringleader egged them on. “‘Cluck-cluck-cluck,’ all the fowl joined in. No more kapores.’”

The prospect of ushering in Yom Kippur without being able to participate in this domestic ceremony unnerved the local townsfolk, giving rise to a “great din, a hullabaloo, a commotion. The world was shaken to its foundation.” Unable to countenance such a rupture, the town elders resolved to negotiate with the rebellious chickens, appealing to their love of tradition.

That strategy went nowhere. “Where is it written?” the barnyard fowl wanted to know, to which the community’s leaders hotly, and unhelpfully, responded: “Where is it written? What’s the difference? What business is it of yours where it is written? It’s an old custom of ours from way back.”

The chickens stood their ground. Increasingly desperate, the elders then offered a number of “concessions”—using one chicken per two or three families; promising to twirl each bird gently overhead—but this ploy succeeded only in angering the would-be sacrificial offerings who took to attacking the powers that be, prompting them to run all the way home. That year, and in those that followed, kapores was not performed, leading the story’s narrator to conclude: “Does anything in this world last forever? Everything has its time, everything has its own time!”

And so it does. In a lovely twist of fate, Sholem Aleichem’s tale was subsequently staged in the late 1990s at Camp Kinderland where, befitting its longstanding commitment to social justice, the focus was on resistance, not ritual. Campers, dressed in makeshift chicken costumes fashioned out of cardboard and egg cartons and holding protest signs, chirped and clucked as the rest of the camp cheered them on.

By then, it was not easy to find a real live kosher chicken; all the more today, when even going to the supermarket has become an iffy proposition. But once upon a time, and much to the consternation of sanitary reformers and other civic officials, Jewish immigrants were apt to keep a couple of chickens on their meager property or on their tenement’s fire escape (giving new meaning to “free range”). Live poultry or “wet” markets in the heart of the Lower East Side and other Jewish immigrant enclaves were also quite numerous. In some contemporary ethnic neighborhoods they still are, though recently calls to shut them down have grown more and more insistent.

Then, as now, the modern city had no truck with chickens running around unsupervised, much less the messy business of slaughtering them on private premises, and roundly condemned both practices as a “nuisance” and “perilous to the public health.” Determined, though, not to ruffle too many feathers, urban authorities in New York consulted with a number of Jewish leaders as early as 1884 to ascertain whether the keeping and slaughtering of chickens at home was mandated by Jewish law—and, if it wasn’t, whether their co-religionists would be amenable to purchasing their chickens in a sanitary municipal market. When told in quick succession first “no” and then “yes,” the city not only breathed a sigh of relief but set in motion plans to build and maintain a number of public markets where live kosher chickens could be had.

By the early years of the 20th century, most poultry passed through the West Washington Market, a “picturesque” red brick facility built on a pier over the Hudson River, which came to be known as Chicken Village. By 1919, an estimated 400,000 live chickens were sold weekly in New York City alone, of which 95% were consumed by what one newspaper called the “Jewish Public.” The latter’s appetite for chicken, suggests historian Roger Horowitz, who is at work on what promises to be the definitive account of the poultry industry in the United States, not only made Friday night dinner possible, but also transformed the American diet at large—let’s hear it for chicken nuggets—giving meat a run for its money.

Getting to that point was nothing short of “circuitous, beset with difficulties and enfolding thousands of people in its torturous course,” observed Sarah Schack, writing in the high-toned Menorah Journal of 1930 about the kosher poultry business. Before a single chicken landed in a kosher kitchen, it had been touched by many hands: those that raised it; caged, fed and transported it over miles of railroad track; pulled the bird from the confines of its railroad car; weighed and sold it to middlemen who, in turn, sold the commodity to retailers who would then pass it onto consumers, but not before the shochet played his part in the supply chain.

With so many interventions along the way, opportunities to turn a profit steadily dwindled, giving rise to a catalog of abuses. Some took the form of relatively minor infractions of the public trust in which retail butchers put their finger on the scale or, when charging by the pound, failed to account for the weight of the chicken’s feathers—yes, they came with their plumage intact.

Other violations—acts of thuggery, strong-arming, and violence—were more damning and damaging by far. While the chicken might be kosher, the methods by which it made the rounds were anything but. Price fixing; bomb explosions; physical assaults on rival poultry dealers, butchers and market men; putting emery in the engines of the competition’s trucks so they wouldn’t be able to operate; and employing known gangsters to do its dirty work were among the vices to which the industry fell prey.

For those in the know, these dastardly goings-on were a lamentable but open secret, prompting Miss Shack to note with considerable restraint that the “Jews of New York had small nachess from their kosher chicken business.” When, in the fall of 1929, these behaviors were widely exposed in a major court case—United States of America v. The Greater New York Live Poultry Chamber of Commerce—encompassing 125 witnesses, 2,500 pages of testimony, and 88 defendants, all of them Jewish and some of them sporting beards and covered heads, “small nachess” metastasized into a shande, a public scandal.

Closely followed by the Yiddish and English-language Jewish press as well as by the city’s major metropolitan papers, the trial accused the leading figures in the industry of having conspired to “prevent, hinder and restrain all market men, [retail] butchers and poultry dealers from obtaining live poultry from any source whatever, except under conditions dictated, fixed and agreed upon by the conspirators,” and of creating a “reign of terror” in the poultry market. Those monitoring the proceedings were treated to both an inside look into racketeering and a crash course in the laws of kashrut, the odd juxtaposition of which made for quite the spectacle.

In the end, all of the defendants were convicted, but most were given a proverbial slap on the wrist: a fine and a light prison sentence of two to eight weeks. In the wake of the verdict, U.S. Attorney Charles Tuttle predicted that things would markedly improve for those “members of the public whose religious beliefs require the observance of certain dietetic laws.” His optimism was unfounded. The “poultry trust” continued doing business as usual.

For its sins, and ours, maybe it’s high time to consider some form of kapores.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.