Swinging the Chicken for the First Time

Newbie Hopes Fowl Doesn't Do Anything, Well, Foul

Swing Low: An ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem performs the pre-Yom Kippur rite of swinging a chicken.
getty images
Swing Low: An ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem performs the pre-Yom Kippur rite of swinging a chicken.

By Carol Ungar

Published September 24, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When I was growing up in the 1960s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “awe” was a word to be memorized for spelling tests. My High Holy Day memories were of new patent leather shoes, Lichtman’s round raisin challah dipped in honey and a synagogue service that was more “night at the opera” than a meeting between man and his Maker.

My parents were Hungarians, survivors. In those pre-Spielberg/March of the Living years, they didn’t talk about their prewar or wartime lives. In those years, nobody talked. Back then, the goal was to forget the past and start a new life as a good, happy American. One of the few memories that seeped through from their previous lives was of shlugging kaparos, engaging in the pre-Yom Kippur penitential ceremony performed by swinging a live chicken over one’s head.

Decades later, both my parents still remembered all the words of prayer that accompanied the great chicken swing.

Zoys Kapurasi, zoys temirasi, zoys chalifasi….”

Not that they ever brought a live chicken home for me to swing. Perhaps somewhere in the wilds of Brooklyn people were still performing this ritual, but as far as I was concerned, kaparos were as extinct as Temple sacrifices.

Then I moved to Israel and became religiously devout. While many parts of the Holy Land look more like Los Angeles or Miami, certain Jerusalem neighborhoods seem to have been lifted out of prewar Europe. During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these places boast street-side stands stocked with live chickens — for kaparos.

Though I actively sought out all things Jewish, my animal phobia kept me away from kaparos. If a stray cat brushing up against my legs makes me quiver in fear, how could I consider grabbing hold of a live chicken? Besides, there was a perfectly acceptable way out — kaparos with money, swinging a bag of coins over ones head. One animal rights inclined rabbi has even ruled that this method is preferable because he feels that the swing is unkind to the birds.

Then, one year, I was in Geula, Orthodox Jerusalem’s main commercial district, with my then 6-year-old daughter. In between visits to the bakery, the pickle store and the little girls dress boutique, we stumbled upon an open-air kaparos station.

Six-year-olds are generally fascinated by live animals; it’s an age when children love a visit to the zoo. But my daughter wasn’t interested, she was tired and wanted to go home.

I was the one who felt drawn in, pulled by a metaphysical magnet even stronger than my fear. Under the starry sky, surrounded by my daughter and dozens of orange plastic crates full of live chickens, I felt transported to the Hungarian villages of my parents’ youth.

“Could we?” I asked my daughter.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.