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.
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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.
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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.


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