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“Is it quick?”
“Yes,” I said, but I didn’t know. I didn’t even know if we would be able to perform kaparos there. Maybe you needed to reserve your chicken in advance.
“No, it’s okay,” the young Hasid in charge said.
The price was reasonable: only the cost of the bird. And afterward a needy family would eat it. I would be fulfilling all three parts of penitence process — prayer, repentance and charity — in one short ceremony.
The Hasid pulled out a plump white hen. All the chickens were white as a symbol of purity. The hen looked reasonably content — perhaps not as blissfully happy as its free-range brothers, but not abused in any way that was apparent to me.
Would I have to swing it? How could I do this without getting scratched or defecated on?
A miracle happened. The Hasid never gave me the chicken. He held it, swinging it lightly over our heads. All my daughter and I had to do was say the words.
For years, I’ve struggled with formal prayers; the holy words fuzz up, and my mind meanders. But now I felt rooted in the text.
“Sons of man… sitting in darkness… bound in affliction and chains of iron.”
I imagined my two grandmothers cremated in Hitler’s furnaces.
“… they are fools… their iniquities cause their own afflictions….”
I thought of all the times I yelled at the kids, gossiped, got angry.
And finally the refrain.
“Zoys kapurasi… This is my exchange, Zoys temirasi… this is my substitute, Zoys kapurasi… this is my atonement…this hen shall go it its death and I shall proceed to a good long life and peace.”
We recited the words together, the Hasid swirling the chicken in large, slow rotations above us.
Then it was over.
On the taxi ride home, I felt the same rush of spiritual cleanliness I sometimes experience after Yom Kippur.
“Was it like that for you, too? “ I asked my daughter.
But when I turned to her, she was fast asleep.
Carol Ungar is a Jerusalem-based writer who blogs about traditional Jewish food at kosherhomecooking.com