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: https://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…