As much as the Jews have kept chickens, chickens have kept the Jews.
—some Jewish mystic, probably
There’s something beautifully paradoxical about chickens. On the one hand, they’re incredibly common. They lend themselves easily to our domestication and large-scale farming. And, unlike the comparatively majestic (and fatty) duck or goose, they don’t really fly. (Chickens can fly, they’re just not very good at it.)
On the other hand, the chicken, perhaps by its very ubiquity, has become an intimate, indispensable part of Jewish life. Beef would have been prohibitively expensive to eat very often in Eastern Europe. Goose was extremely popular with Central and Eastern European Jews, especially its abundant fat. But goose was relatively expensive, making it more of a luxury for most. The humble chicken, however, was a mainstay of everyday and shabes cooking, elevating the family table in the form of soup, chopped liver, schmaltz, or a delicious roast.
The brilliant versatility of chicken even inspired a song, written by Rubin Doctor. The song makes some good points: Everyone likes chicken, it’s a great party food, and it won’t give you heartburn.
Beyond the family table, chickens long ago scratched their way into Jewish theology. The practice of shlogn kapores (a pre-Yom Kippur ritual involving the transfer of sins from oneself to a chicken) goes back to ancient times and is discussed in rabbinic literature. But why chickens, and not goats or bulls or any other animal mentioned in biblical descriptions of animal sacrifice? The Geonim of Babylonia thought it might be on account of their ubiquity and low cost, relative to larger animals. But they also put forth another explanation. As the chicken (or really, rooster, here) is used as a substitution for the man doing the ritual, and the Hebrew word gever is the same for both rooster and man, that would lend weight to the tradition of substituting one for the other.
In Sholem Aleichem’s short story “Kaporos,” the chickens and roosters are shown to be endowed with many of the same qualities as humans, including the right to collective bargaining and a strong sense of self-preservation. Right before Yom Kippur, the town’s poultry take off. Why? Shlogn kapores isn’t just about a metaphorical transfer of sins from Jew to chicken. The chicken is lifted and swung over the head while reciting a formula: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.”
Kapores is naturally terrifying to the birds, who are then slaughtered and donated to the poor. The chickens in Sholem Aleichem’s story are eager to avoid their sacrificial fate. When the townspeople come to negotiate with the birds, one of the roosters first pleads with the other birds not to delegate to a “big-shot” goose or “greedy” duck. As he says in Benjamin Efron’s translation in Yiddish Stories for Young People, “Remember, it is not they who are used as scapegoats.” The chickens and roosters must reject solidarity with the other birds. Indeed, as one of the townspeople says, “Geese we kill for Chanukah, and their fat we prepare for Passover. Turkeys we raise for holidays, but you we need for Kaporos.” But there is still strength in their chickeney numbers, as the birds peck and scratch the townspeople, rejecting their conditions. The story ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. The striking fowl manage to end their customary use in kapores. Nonetheless, “they are slaughtered as before.” Ancient customs may come to an end, but the need for a shabes chicken is eternal.
Here in the United States, chickens, and their eggs, played a surprising role in the resettlement of displaced persons (DPs), European Jews who had survived the war and immigrated to the United States. Journalist Seth Stern tells this story in his fascinating new book, Speaking Yiddish to Chickens: Holocaust Survivors on South Jersey Poultry Farms. The story is personal for Stern, whose mother, Ruth, grew up on an egg farm in southern New Jersey with her survivor parents.
Stern’s starting point is his grandparents Nuchim and Bronia Green, who were among the first “Eastern European refugee families to settle on a Vineland-area poultry farm” at the end of 1947. Poultry farms required less capital and training than other kinds of agriculture, as well as less land. Before the war, the Jewish Agricultural Society “embraced poultry farms as the perfect place to settle Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany in the late 1930s with little money.” Southern New Jersey, and Vineland in particular, had been the site of previous waves of Jewish agricultural settlement. Refugee poultry farmers often found preexisting Jewish communities and Jewish infrastructure. But, as Stern describes, old differences between groups carried over, so that German and Polish Jews, for example, often kept to their own communities.
Speaking Yiddish to Chickens is much more than one man’s story about his grandparents. Stern’s journalistic expertise allows him to broaden his scope, deftly layering different perspectives and narratives throughout the book. Speaking Yiddish to Chickens touches on the history of American agriculture and labor, the egg industry, Americanization, and the antisemitic and racist history of America’s immigration laws. At its heart are the survivor-farmers who arrived in south Jersey after the war, among them former concentration camp inmates and partisan forest fighters. The book follows them as they learn a new agricultural way of life, healing from the traumatic events of the war and becoming American.
The fate of the survivor-farmers was tied up with the health of their chickens and the price of their eggs, something for which the optimistic new farmers could not be adequately prepared. In 1949, wartime price controls on eggs ended, pushing egg prices to a four-year low. The following year, the Korean War once again drove egg prices up. Nonetheless, for most of Vineland’s Jewish poultry farmers, their existence was precarious, and small poultry farms would ultimately be crushed by the rise of industrial farm operations in the South.
Fluctuating prices weren’t the only enemies of the poultry farmers. Their chicken flocks were highly vulnerable to illness. Readers in 2023 may be even more sympathetic to the survivor-farmers, as we ourselves have witnessed 58 million birds dying in the current avian flu outbreak, driving the price of eggs sky high. Other dangers came from extremes of cold and heat, wild dogs, and malfunctioning equipment. It was a tough life, for both Jew and bird.
By 1953, approximately 1,000 survivors had settled on south Jersey farms. I recently saw an interview with Star Trek actor Armin Shimerman, the son of an immigrant father and first-generation mother. Shimerman (born 1949) described spending the first few years of his life on a New Jersey chicken farm. His family was extremely poor, and he recalls wearing a cardboard belt and worn-out shoes. By the mid-1950s, his family moved off the farm and into a nearby town, not unsurprising given the mounting difficulties faced by Jewish farmers.
Even as the fortunes of the chicken farmers were precarious, their growing numbers allowed their cultural life to flourish. One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was seeing how the survivor families turned a far-flung rural enclave into an important node in postwar American Yiddish life, a destination for even the best-known, cosmopolitan Yiddish artists on tour. By the early 1950s, the Jewish Poultry Farmers Association was sponsoring modern dance performances, Yiddish folk music, and lectures on Yiddish literature.
At the center of the JPFA’s cultural activity was Miriam or “Musia” Daiches, an artist who had survived the Vilne Ghetto. Daiches was the sister of Liza Daiches, a puppeteer and artist who recently received a Stolperstein in Vilnius. Musia had been a child star, a dancer who had been discovered by none other than the grande dame of Yiddish theater, Ester-Rokhl Kaminska. Now resettled in Vineland, Musia choreographed children’s dance recitals, organized Purim shows, and took part in the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Ultimately, the story of the survivor-farmers in south Jersey was one of transition. Many families went from rural farmer to urban Ivy League in the space of one generation. As author Seth Stern writes, these poultry farm settlements were more “way station” than permanent destination. That it was relatively ephemeral makes it no less compelling as a piece of Jewish history.
There’s a lovely story in Honey on the Page, Miriam Udel’s recent anthology of translated Yiddish children’s literature, called “The Chickens Who Wanted to Learn Yiddish,” by Moyshe Shifris, a teacher in the communist-aligned Ordn-shuln. The setting is a Yiddish-speaking school in a community very much like Vineland. One day, a student named Pinchas came to school with a rooster hidden in his jacket. Why? “The chickens want to learn Yiddish,” Pinchas said.
Pinchas and his sister Sarah had been spending their free time with the family’s chickens, becoming great friends. But when afternoon Yiddish school started, they no longer had time for the chickens, who turned resentful and withdrawn. Some even stopped laying eggs. Not knowing what had happened, Pinchas and Sarah went to see the chickens. It turned out that the chickens themselves had sent a rooster to follow Pinchas and Sarah, to see where their good friends had gone to!
As Pinchas and Sarah looked on, the rooster addressed the flock. “They are Jewish children, so they need to know Yiddish, isn’t that right?” The rooster implored the flock to understand their situation and not hold a grudge against the children. This prompted one of the other birds to speak up: “We were born here, we grew up here, and we live here, right? So, we are Jewish chickens, are we not?” The solution, he says, is that they, too, should learn Yiddish. The head rooster will go to school with Pinchas and come back and teach them all. It’s a much sweeter, gentler story of Jewish-chicken coexistence than “Kaporos,” perhaps partly due to the author being a regular contributor to the Yiddish vegetarian magazine, Vegetarishe velt. The ultimate reason for the chicken farm’s existence is delicately obscured by Shifris. Nonetheless, there’s something powerful in his tale. The chicken is a vulnerable, slightly absurd animal, a bird that can barely fly yet demonstrates a ferocious will to live, and to be in community. Their eggs symbolize the renewal of life at Pesakh, while comforting us when we eat them, as is traditional, during mourning. Why shouldn’t they want to learn Yiddish? Maybe they’re already more like us than we know. Yes, you are what you eat, but perhaps the reverse is true, too, you eat what you are.
WATCH: American Jewish Historical Society will host a book talk with Seth Stern, author of Speaking Yiddish to Chickens, moderated by historian Avinoam Patt. April 25 at 6:30 p.m. More information here.
ALSO: I will be giving a talk for the Wake Forest University Jewish Studies Program called “Marriage, Murder, and Musar: How Glikl Haml’s Memoir Helped Invent Modern Jewish Autobiography.” The talk is free and open to the public. March 15 at 2 p.m. Use this link to tune in … Friend of the column Anthony Russell (vocalist and composer) will give the Pearl and Jack Mandel Lecture in Jewish Studies for the University of Toronto, “Stranger in a Strange Land: Developing a Black Jewish Aesthetic.” March 27 at 4 p.m. More information here … Attention, people of the Pacific Northwest! Seattle Yiddish Fest will return with “three days of jams, concerts, and workshops in Yiddish song, dance and klezmer music.” The festival will feature some of my very favorite klez-world musicians, including Sasha Lurje, Craig Judelman, and Michael Alpert. More information here … “In the Women’s Synagogue/In di vayber shul” is a new piece of vocal music composed by Jeremiah Lockwood, inspired by the legacy of Ashkenazi women’s sacred practices. The piece will have its New York City premiere on April 2 at 7:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, 58 7th Ave., Brooklyn. Get tickets here … Montreal’s multitalented dynamo Josh “Socalled” Dolgin has written everything from Yiddish hip-hop to chamber music to a new musical inspired by the work of Isaac Babel. Dolgin will join Shane Baker for another edition of YIVO’s “Yiddish Club” on April 16 (in English). More information here … Finally, my friend Joe Baur has quickly established himself as an important voice in food and travel writing with an informed Jewish perspective. Baur now has a podcast called Yiddishland, where he takes “people into the creative kitchens of Jews all across Yiddishland.” Episodes so far have included visits to a Jewish African deli in Virginia, a Mexican Jewish bakery in Chicago, and more. Find it here or wherever you get your podcasts.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.