Kaparot: chicken-swinging for the soul

A tall, bearded, bespectacled man wraps his gloved hand firmly around the neck of a hen. Bird in tow, he approaches his cherubic 7-year-old daughter and raises the chicken high above his daughter’s head. The young child flinches and shrieks in the face of the frantic, wing-flapping fowl. The man circles the elevated hen around his daughter’s head three times while reciting an ancient chant in Yiddish—a chant echoed by his offspring. The hen is then handed over to a burly butcher in a green jumpsuit wielding a shimmering razor, his shaggy beard and scalp obscured by plastic hairnets. In a swift horizontal motion, the hen’s throat is slashed, and blood slowly drips down its twitching shanks.

An Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken over his daughter's head during the kaparot ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

An Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken over his daughter's head during the kaparot ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

This is the ritual of kaparot – sometimes spelled kapparos or kapparot – whereby Orthodox Jews take live chickens, swing them over their heads as a means of transferring their sins onto the chickens, and then have them slaughtered on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. This year, Yom Kippur falls on September 28. The idea behind this practice is that the animal dies in the person’s stead, and when its throat is slit, the soul slowly departs into the night sky. The ritual is a family affair, and evidence that the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community continues to cling to their beliefs, however contrary to the zeitgeist.

“The point of kaparot is an exchange,” said Rabbi Chayim B. Alevsky of the West Side Chabad, while cradling a child in his office. “If something sinful was meant to happen to us in the coming year, God should save us, and it should be atoned for through the death of this chicken. We will then be elevated spiritually, because the chicken is later donated to feed the poor.”

Today, kaparot is performed in only Haredi – or Ultra-Orthodox – Jewish communities. In New York City, the largest kaparot ceremony occurs along Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The kaparot slaughtering stand pre-ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

The kaparot slaughtering stand pre-ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

At 9:30 p.m. Saturday – the eve of Yom Kippur – a large truck housing about 2,000 chickens, packed four to a crate, arrived at the site on Kingston Ave. Bright spotlights shone down on the gated-off city street, as a gaggle of puzzled policemen looked on. A long line of Jews in Hasidic garb has formed. The men have beards, yarmulkes and dark jackets/trousers, while the women don headscarves (tichels), long, conservative skirts, and sleeves past the elbow. They have lined up to purchase chicken tickets for $10 apiece. These tickets are then taken to the trucks, where the crateboys hand you your rooster (for a man) or hen (for a woman).

It’s a family affair said Pini Althaus, a 35-year-old father of two. Pini claims that kaparot is a very enlightening ritual for his young daughters, Loni, 7, and Basi, 10. “They know they could’ve done certain things throughout the year that could’ve warranted better behavior,” said Pini. “They understand that they’ve got to behave throughout the rest of the year.”

But is Pini’s youngest daughter excited about the chicken-swinging ceremony? “No,” said Loni, a cute girl with curly brown hair and a cherubic face. She then turned to her mother Chaya Althaus, absorbed her disapproving glare, and exclaimed, “Yeah, yeah I am. Because it’s fun!”

Orthodox Jewish children are taught about the history of kaparot in Hebrew School from a very young age. “They came home with fake chickens they made in arts and crafts,” said Pessi Schochet, a 35-year-old mother of two from Crown Heights. “Our youngest boy is only two, and he came home with one and he knew about it.” She then points to her drooling toddler fast asleep in a stroller. “It’s upsetting that he passed out!”

A gaggle of Orthodox Jews wait to redeem their tickets for chickens at the kaparot ceremony in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

A gaggle of Orthodox Jews wait to redeem their tickets for chickens at the kaparot ceremony in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

Despite the family-friendly nature of the Crown Heights ritual, the tradition of kaparot has come under heavy fire from animal rights groups. In 2005, a number of caged chickens were abandoned in rainy weather following a kaparot ceremony in Brooklyn. Jacob Kalish, an Orthodox Jewish man from Williamsburg, was charged with animal cruelty for the drowning deaths of 35 of these kaparot chickens.

“We oppose how the birds are treated before, during, and after the ceremony, including holding the birds in crates, without sustenance or shelter or any show of care or compassion, for days leading up to the ritual,” said Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns, whose aim is to promote the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. “We object to the callous way practitioners hold the chickens with their wings pulled back, which puts the chicken at risk of ligament and tendon injury, and possible bone fracture.”

It’s not just animal rights activists who oppose the practice of kaparot. The ritual has even been denounced by fellow, non-Haredi Jewry, who prefer the use of money instead of chickens on the grounds of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (unnecessary pain to animals). “Normative Jewry, we don’t do that now,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin of Lincoln Square Synagogue in his spacious office. “We just take charity. And because I am giving to charity, may that charity be to my merit.”

The Torah teaches Jews that all of God’s lesser creatures are here to serve humanity. And the kosher slaughter of the chicken is painless, according to onlooker Benad Evenchen, a 22-year-old visitor from Israel. “The neck has a place where you cut it, and when the knife is very, very sharp, it doesn’t hurt and doesn’t harm the soul of the chicken,” said Evenchen. “We have to understand that what we see here is the Will of God.”

A kosher butcher slaughters a chicken with a razor during the kaparot ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

A kosher butcher slaughters a chicken with a razor during the kaparot ritual in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Marlow Stern

With hundreds of Jews packed into a site a quarter of the size of a city block, it’s a particularly odd ceremony for Orthodox Jewish women. “Usually men and women are separated, but tonight, I feel like I’ve been bumped by so many men,” said Yocheved Amrami, a 28-year-old Jewish woman hugging a rail far from the action. Amrami feels the actual act of swinging can be overwhelming for young children. “It’s little kids who don’t know how to treat animals well, and it’s nerve-wracking,” said Amrami. She also objects on fecal grounds, adding, “And they could poop on you, cause they’re so nervous, they freak out!”

For a ceremony that has such solemn connotations, the act of swinging a chicken seems more than a little bizarre. “Kaparot is absolutely the funniest custom we have, hands down,” said Rabbi Alevsky. “There’s plenty of giggling and laughing going around, and there’s a lot of shrieking, ‘I don’t want to touch it!’ ‘Get it away from me!’” He pauses, before adding, “And the chicken often poops on people. It chooses its targets very carefully.”

New York Film Festival Review: Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”

“One must make oneself superior to humanity, in power, in loftiness of soul, — in contempt.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist”

In the wake of a notorious Cannes press screening for Lars von Trier’s psychosexual religio-horror film “Antichrist,” an indignant British journalist – as is their wont – demanded that the director “explain and justify why you made this movie.” Von Trier pursed his lips, and in a smug deadpan replied, “It’s the hand of God. And I am the best film director in the world. I’m not sure if God is the best God in the world.”

Made in the throes of a deep depression two years ago, “Antichrist” opens in stunning fashion. Set to the sublime Handel aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” a couple makes passionate love as snowflakes fall outside. This intimate act is captured in slow-motion, lush, black-and-white widescreen imaging. A toddler opens his safety gate, and wanders into the parents’ bedroom – unbeknownst to the parents, who are consumed by carnality. The child ascends a table, and falls to his death. In typical von Trier fashion, he manages to insert a hardcore penetration shot amid this poetic sequence. However, this seemingly extraneous shot will foreshadow the brutality that’s yet to come.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

The action switches to color, and the story is divided into four parts like a bleak Bosch tetraptych: “Grief,” “Pain,” “Despair” and “The Three Beggars.” This is no date movie. The grieving mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, credited as “She”) is removed after a one-month hospitalization at the behest of her husband (Willem Dafoe, credited as “He”), an all-knowing therapist. He makes her quit her meds cold turkey, and instead prescribes the “Yellow Wallpaper” treatment: forced rest coupled with a series of probing questions and breathing exercises. She is cruelly infantilized by He, who quickly morphs into her psychological caretaker. “Never screw your therapist,” he half-jokingly says, before ignoring his own advice.

His psychological “funny games” only get worse, as he forces her to confess the place she’s most afraid of – their property, called “Eden,” deep in the Washington forest, where she spent the previous summer alone with her son working on her thesis. In truly unforgiving fashion, he forces her to confront her fears head-on, and takes her to the woodsy hideaway. This isn’t the locus amoenus (safe place) that is the biblical Eden, but rather, that of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – an ominous, violent terrain.

In this chapter, called “Pain,” the woman seems to respond well to her husband’s unorthodox techniques – that is, until a disemboweled fox turns to the husband to announce, “Chaos Reigns.” This is the film’s tipping point, or in other words, where the film, and by extension its maker, go completely insane.

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

She starts experiencing visions of her dead son in the third chapter, “Despair,” and he makes a shocking revelation about the toddler, leading him to insinuate that she is culpable in the child’s fall. Here, the movie transforms into Miike’s “Audition,” as she spirals into madness, manifested in a brutal torture sequence she performs on He involving a wooden log, masturbation, and a grindstone. But these bloody machinations are nothing compared to She’s act of self-flagellation – courtesy of a pair of rusty scissors – in the film’s final chapter, “The Three Beggars.”

Von Trier’s film is, first and foremost, a provocation. The violent scenes – both physical and sexual – detract from the film’s pacing and overall vision by temporarily stunning its viewer into perplexity. Moreover, its nihilistic view of religion – conveyed through a series of overt, Garden of Eden metaphors – is facile at best.

That being said, the lensing by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is hypnotic, as he shifts from the gorgeous, black-and-white widescreen introductory sequence, to a variety of handheld shots in the green, smoky forest. The shots, expressionistic in nature, give the feeling of a Bosch painting brought to life. This, combined with a pair of truly fearless performances – most notably from Ms. Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her revealing turn as the tormented mother – allows Lars von Trier’s film to transcend its grandiose, torture-porn reputation. You will never want to see this film again, but you won’t soon forget it.

The couple's getaway "Eden" in the film "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

The couple's getaway "Eden" in the film "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

ANTICHRIST opens on October 23rd in limited release.

The Coens Get Personal

Larry Gopnik stands tall atop his roof. Wearing slacks hiked up around the waist, a tucked in beige plaid shirt and thick glasses, he surveys his Minnesota suburb like a nebbish gargoyle – the endless lines of lopsided lawns and fences encircling cookie-cutter houses. To his right, he observes his belligerent, xenophobic neighbors unloading a dead deer from their station wagon, and to his left lays a voluptuous housewife sunbathing in the nude.

Gopnik is the middling protagonist of the Coen brothers’ 14th feature film, “A Serious Man.” The film, opening on Oct. 2 just days after Yom Kippur, travels back to the brothers’ hometown milieu of 1967 suburban Minnesota. It’s a Job-like parable that was inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen’s memories of their childhood in St. Louis Park, a heavily Jewish enclave that borders southern Minneapolis.

“The community itself was one that was bred fairly cohesively,” said Joel. “You felt like the Jewish community was part of what was bounding your experience.”

At the heart of the story is the aforementioned Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish academic undergoing a spiritual and existential crisis. His Orthodox Jewish wife, Judith, is leaving him for a colleague; his brother, Arthur, lives on his couch; his son, Danny, steals money to smoke marijuana in the bathroom stalls of Hebrew school; and his daughter, Sarah, desperately wants a nose job. Out of desperation, Gopnik, a largely unobservant Jew, seeks spiritual guidance from three rabbis to become a person of substance – a serious man.

Larry Gopnik Stands Tall Atop His Roof in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

Larry Gopnik Stands Tall Atop His Roof in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

Following the critical and commercial disappointment of 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” the Coen brothers took some time off to think. Out of this brainstorming session came the concepts for future films: “No Country For Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” and “A Serious Man.”

“We were thinking about short films years ago, and there was a particular rabbi in our town who used to meet the bar mitzvah kids after the bar mitzvah,” says Joel Cohen. “He was a sort of Sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz-type character, and we thought, ‘Well that might make an interesting short movie.’ And somehow, that idea found it’s way into this story.”

Like the Danny, Joel, 54, and Ethan, 52, attended Hebrew School from second to seventh grade, five days a week. But they were anything but serious men. “When you’re a kid, all that religious instruction and language instruction is just a chore,” said Ethan. “You don’t want to go to Hebrew School. You don’t want to go to shul on the weekends. It’s all more schooling.”

The film’s most uproarious scene concerns Danny’s bar mitzvah – experienced through Danny’s stoned eyes. While the Coens maintain they weren’t high during their own bar mitzvahs, it was nonetheless a memorable occasion.

“We read one or two Torah portions,” said Ethan. “As in the movie, we each got a kiddush cup for a bar mitzvah gift. Joel still has his. I don’t know where mine is.”

Joel chimes in, “The rabbi’s rap at the end was actually verbatim from our bar mitzvah. It was the same thing. Every Saturday, Rabbi Arnie Goodman would end with, ‘Till that wonderful day when you stand under your chuppah!’”

Danny Gopnik Experiences His Bar Mitzvah Under the Influence in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

Danny Gopnik Experiences His Bar Mitzvah Under the Influence in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

Nowadays, the brothers have distanced themselves from their Orthodox Jewish upbringing. “I don’t know if, as a religion per se, it’s that much of a live issue for either of us,” said Ethan.

And it hasn’t been for quite some time. In his senior thesis at Princeton University, Ethan called belief in the Almighty “the height of stupidity,” according to Cathleen Falsani’s tome “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.” And Joel is married to the actress Frances McDormand, the daughter of a Disciples of Christ Minister, and even jokes, “We’ve raised our son, Pedro, as a Pagan.”

Still, depictions of Jews have long permeated the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and these subjects are often prone to caricature – from the title character, a neurotic Jewish writer, in 1991’s “Barton Fink,” to the loud-mouthed, Shabbos-obsessed converted Jew Walter Sobchak in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.” This has led some to accuse the Coens of perpetuating longstanding ethnic stereotypes. “Occasionally people would ask, ‘You’re not making fun of the Jews, are you?’” said Ethan. “We are not, but some will take anything that isn’t flattering as an indication that we think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed.”

The only deities, it seems, in the world of “A Serious Man,” are the Coen brothers, who torment their feeble protagonist with a never-ending string of calamities – a theory alluded to by the film’s star, Michael Stuhlbarg: “It’s not quite certain if it’s God or the Coen’s hand that is responsible for what happens.”

(L-R) Joel and Ethan Coen on the Set of "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

(L-R) Joel and Ethan Coen on the Set of "A Serious Man." Image Courtesy of: Focus Features.

In one nightmare scenario, Larry Gopnik stands in front of a gigantic blackboard, filled from top to bottom with an illustration of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. He stares blankly at his students in the grand lecture hall. Moments later, his head is repeatedly smashed into that very blackboard by his wife’s illicit lover. The Coen brothers’ films, like life itself, offer many puzzling questions with very little didacticism.

“We have this character who’s beset by all these problems and he goes to his rabbis for relief,” said Ethan. “No doubt there are people who would tell a story about a guy who goes to his religious leaders for relief and gets enlightened. And that’s fine. But God, we would never make that movie!”

“Geez!” exclaimed Joel. “We were never interested in provoking them intellectually!”

Crown Heights, Brooklyn: Another World, Another Planet

Just a 45-minute subway ride from Midtown Manhattan lies an ancient community steeped in tradition. Hirsute men stalk about in long black coats, women don headscarfs (or tichels) and sleeves past the elbow, and children sport uncut, curly sideburns called payot. The neighborhood is Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and it’s a far cry from the sidewalks-as-runways ethos of Gotham.

On the evening of Wednesday, September 23rd, armed with a Zoom audio recorder and a Canon EOS 20D DSLR camera, Sujay Kumar and I went down the rabbit hole into this mystical Jewish ghetto to report on the High Holidays ritual of kaparot. It’s a heavily disputed ancient Orthodox Jewish ritual where, once a year, in order to save oneself, one must transfer one’s sins onto another object (often chickens), grasp the object and move it around your head three times, and then have it slaughtered and given to the poor.

(Refer to my earlier blog posting here for a more detailed explanation: http://nycfaith.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/the-poultry-licious-jewish-ritual-of-kapparos-or-kapparot/).

The service is performed on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, September 27th. However, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, at the intersection of President St. and Kingston Ave., several pre-ritual kaparot ceremonies are held during the daylight hours – in the days preceding the actual, late night ceremony – for families with younger children.

Since kaparot is viewed as a highly frowned-upon practice outside of the Hasidic community – and has come under fire recently from PETA and other animal rights groups – it’s a very clandestine operation, with the only advertising coming courtesy of a series of flyers posted on trees and lampposts throughout the neighborhood. My esteemed colleague Mr. Kumar and I were misdirected by both a pair of Rabbis and by the Jewish Community Council of Crown Heights, and missed the pre-ritual ceremony.

Still, walking around the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for the first time was an eye-opening experience. We expected a certain degree of hostility since we were reporters doing a story on this controversial ritual, but the majority of the Hasidic Jews we met and conversed with were very affable. During our midnight stroll, we did come across one middle-aged Jewish man and his son who, dressed in smocks, were disposing of a slew of dead chickens (post-ceremony), and, when we attempted to photograph them, were met with harsh words and finger-pointing.

But the one thing that struck Sujay and me was the number of young children skipping about the city streets in the twilight hours, with no parents in sight. We had come expecting hostile Hasids swinging chickens, and instead stumbled upon a tight-knit community that’s safe enough for packs of pre-teen kids to amble about at midnight. Not in Manhattan.

Check out some pictures from our journey below, and stay tuned for a feature story on the big Crown Heights kaparot ceremony…

Post-Kaparot: Kingston Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Post-Kaparot: Kingston Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Twilight Streets: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Twilight Streets: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Dreidel Sculpture: Kingston Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Dreidel Sculpture: Kingston Ave., Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Young Hasids Loiter Outside a Jewish Supermarket: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Young Hasids Loiter Outside a Jewish Supermarket: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Kaparot Sign Tagged to a Lamppost: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Kaparot Sign Tagged to a Lamppost: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Kaparot Cleanup at Empire Shtibel: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Kaparot Cleanup at Empire Shtibel: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

‘Inglourious Basterds’ Hands Jews the Smoking Gun (Or Bloody Louisville Slugger)

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stands in front of a packed house. He is about to introduce a screening of his latest production, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – a bloody revenge-fantasy depicting a squad of Nazi-scalping Jews in WWII German-occupied France – to his audience. But this isn’t just any audience. The venue is the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City – the Jewish nexus of the western world – and the crowd is comprised mostly of prominent Jews, including Rabbis, Holocaust survivors, and their offspring. Weinstein, known for his violent temper and braggadocio, is sweating bullets.

“Please everyone—“ he pauses briefly to swallow, and resumes, “Please keep in mind that it’s just a fable.”

It’s a bold move of Weinstein to pre-screen this brutal epic at a museum that bills itself as “a living memorial to those who perished during the Holocaust.” Inglourious Basterds is a slice of revisionist history in which the Jews have the last laugh, exacting revenge on the Nazi high command via scene-after-scene of mind-numbing, almost cartoonish violence (a staple of Tarantino’s oeuvre). The squad, known as The Basterds, is so bloodthirsty that at times the Nazi victims, begging for their lives, earn our sympathy. But how are influential NYC Jewry – rabbis, film critics, Jewish historians and viewers – reacting to a film described by influential Jewish publication Tablet Magazine as, “a failure of Jewish morality?”

(L-R) Eli Roth and Brad Pitt play two Nazi-scalping Basterds

(L-R) Eli Roth and Brad Pitt play two Nazi-scalping Basterds. Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Inglourious Basterds is a fable of cultural wish-fulfillment; an example of the unfulfilled anger about what happened to the Jewish community,” said Huffington Post film critic and Jerusalemblueprint.com scribe Brad Balfour, a Jew himself. “On the other hand, it in some ways trivializes the Jewish experience.” Yet, Balfour feels that today, “Everything deserves criticism or even satire.”

Katey Rich, Film Editor of Cinemablend.com believes that the statute of limitations can, in this case, be lifted. “As a non-Jew, I think we’re far enough away from the Holocaust, and enough aware of its horrors as a culture, that using it as a point of satire is OK. It will be a long time before we see a movie with the same tone as Inglourious Basterds tackling, say, 9/11. You need that historical distance.”

Jim Carrey famously remarked, “My focus is to forget the pain of life. Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh.” Carrey, who grew up homeless, subscribes to the commonly-held belief that humor stems from a place of pain—a belief that, according to Columbia University Professor of Jewish History Elisheva Carlebach, may justify Inglourious Basterds’ appeal. “Of course it trivializes an event to make it part of a punchline – think ‘soup Nazi’ – but it also keeps it alive in the broader culture. Jews themselves have always used humor to approach evil and pain.”

Rabbi Beth Kalisch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side felt the film could harm the legacy of such a tragic event. “I think it’s important to make sure the Holocaust doesn’t become watered down, and people are so oversaturated with it that it loses it’s meaning.” This past awards season, a glut of Holocaust-themed films, most notably Oscar winner The Reader, competed for viewers’ attention. “There is the potential of trivializing it, and of abusing the role of humor,” said Rabbi Kalisch. “When it becomes a cheap way of someone getting a laugh or getting attention, it can become problematic.”

As the lights went up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the conclusion of the film was met with strident applause. Many gave standing ovations, while a few others silently filed out of the theater.

“How did you feel when you watched the film?” Mr. Tarantino asked the crowd during a post-screening Q&A. “I feel so proud of The Basterds and their revenge against the Nazis,” said a beaming Vivian Reisman, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “How great would it have been? Maybe my grandparents would still be here.”

Director and writer Quentin Tarantino and actress Melanie Laurent attend an "Inglourious Basterds" Q&A at Museum of Jewish Heritage on August 13, 2009 in New York City. (August 12, 2009 - Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images North America)

Director and writer Quentin Tarantino and actress Melanie Laurent attend an "Inglourious Basterds" Q&A at Museum of Jewish Heritage on August 13, 2009 in New York City. (August 12, 2009 - Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images North America)

Inglourious Basterds is playing in theaters nationwide.

Chickening Out: The Jewish Ritual of Kapparos

When was the last time you swung a bloated chicken? If you’re a practitioner of the Jewish ceremony of Kapparos, the answer is… annually!


Kapparos (or Kapparot in Hebrew), which means “atonements,” is a ceremony preceding Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. This year, Kapparot falls on September 27th.


Many Orthodox Jews, especially in the Hasidic world, swing chickens – held by the legs or by pulling the bird’s wings backward – around their heads, while reciting a chant about transferring their sins symbolically onto the bird: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement, this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”


When a Jew swings a chicken, he or she considers that the slaughter inflicted on the bird would happen to him or her if God’s strict justice were applied, instead of mercy. The chicken is then supposed to be slaughtered and given to the poor.

Two Orthodox Jews swing a chicken during Kapparot. Photo: Michael Francis McElroy

An Orthodox Jew swings a chicken during Kapparot. Photo: Michael Francis McElroy

White female broiler chickens about six weeks old are mainly used in Kapparot ceremonies (see photo above). These kinds of chickens have been bred to grow many times faster and larger than normal chickens – about 4-5 pounds in weight, compared to an average of 3.3 pounds.


Kapparot ceremonies take place throughout the city, most notably in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn along Empire Blvd, between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on the morning of Yom Kippur (9/27). Flyers are posted throughout the hosting neighborhoods, so keep your eyes peeled! I’ve included a map below to guide you on your journey.


I’m going to be reporting on the ritual this year, and detailing all the happenings in a story for the NYC SENTINEL (nyc-sentinel.com). Look for it the day after the ritual, September 28th. Shabbath Shalom!

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Assalaamu Alaikum!