I always say: there are three Jewish practices I will never speak of in the company of a non-insider. One, metzitzha b’peh, which is when a mohel uses his mouth to draw blood after performing a bris on an infant. Two, the practice of bringing a bedikah cloth or stained underwear to a rabbi to determine whether or not a woman is niddah, or ritually impure. And three, kapparot with a chicken. Kapparot (or Kapores) is the pre-Yom Kippur practice of waving a live chicken over one’s head, a symbolic ritual accompanied by a prayer (these days, coins are more commonly used). Afterwards, the chicken is slaughtered, kashered, and donated to the poor for their pre-fast meal.
The common thread linking these three practices is immediately apparent. Blood of a newborn, blood of a woman, and blood of an animal. Birth, reproduction, death—life in its most essential forms, gritty, primitive, and visceral. But back to kapparot. I’m 29 and have done kapparot with a chicken every year of my life. And before the Yom Kippur I spent in my mother’s womb, suspended in amniotic fluid, my mother did kapparot with three chickens; one for herself, and two for me—both a male and a female, because my gender was unknown.
I’ve done kapparot in gardens, slaughterhouses, city streets, and shul parking lots. I’ve done it with my family, with other peoples’ families, with friends, and alone. I’ve done it during the day, before sunrise, and in the middle of the night. I’ve followed the ritual with vows to never eat chicken again, and I’ve also followed the ritual with a meal of chicken. But the thing is, I hate kapparot. It’s a jarring and nauseating experience—extremely unpleasant, to say the least.
And since I was about 18, I cry every single year. I cry when I’m handed my small, dirty, white chicken. I cry while I try to keep the creature calm, as I work my way through the prayer, my Hebrew clunky and unpracticed. I cry when I gently raise my bird, barely over my head. And I cry when I hand my little surrogate to the shochet, and when I see life leave its body, and when I throw a handful of sand, dirt, or sawdust over the blood, and when I say the bracha which accompanies that action. I’m a mess. And yet, as I get older, and admittedly less religious, I’m still compelled to return to the parking lots and factories and backyards, every erev Yom Kippur.
Despite my background (which, for lack of a better term, put in the Alterna-Chabad box), the Jewish circles I run in are pretty liberal. Few people, diehards and Hassidim aside, do kapparot with chickens, and every year, the same few people write Facebook posts reminding people that kapparot with chickens is cruel to animals, and therefore against halacha, or Jewish Law. Use money instead, they say. I don’t comment. I don’t ‘Like.’ Of course, I understand. Their attitude makes perfect sense.
But kapparot with a chicken isn’t cruel. Everything that happens before kapparot though, is cruel. Kapparot was my portal into the world of factory-farmed poultry. Seeing those chickens, their feathers matted and feces-encrusted, crammed into crates, never having seen the light of day—this was a window to what might actually be cruelty. I have never held a chicken that didn’t make me cry, and I was always as gentle as I could be. I’ve hushed and petted and sang to these chickens. The process breaks my heart, and the sense of life, followed closely by the sense of death, is blinding. My great-grandfather did kapparot with a chicken, and not because he was a crude, uncivilized, and dirty shtetl-dweller somewhere in the Ukraine. My Zaida was kind, gentle, pious, and educated. And yet.
A lot of people, in an effort to create a religious practice that was not at odds with the modern world, left a number of things by the wayside. Weird, spooky, grimy stuff. Stuff you don’t want to have to explain to non-Jews, like the fact that animal sacrifice is alive and well in Brooklyn. But also beautiful things that afford one glimpses of the truly infinite. It’s the Unknown.
Yom Kippur begins tomorrow. Maybe this is the year I’ll do kapparot the way most people do, with money, for the first time. Or maybe tonight I’ll walk down to Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, and decide to participate, yet again, in this strange, unpleasant, bloodbath of a ritual. I will be blinded by the flash of a life going out. I will cry. I won’t really know why I’m doing it, but I’ll suspect it might be for my Zaida, and for the love of What I Don’t Understand.
Esther C. Werdiger, Tablet’s art director, is a writer and artist from Melbourne. Her essays, comics and illustrations have appeared at The Awl, The Hairpin, Saveur, the Forward and in Lilith. She lives in Brooklyn.