"Follow me, " he directed. We walked past the sanctuary, where a wooden paneled screen separated the area for men and women, through a large kitchen and out into a parking lot.
I had heard stories of the "chicken swinging" or kaporot, throughout my childhood. My grandfather, who I never knew, had performed this ritual during the Jewish High Holy days. My father had often told me of his stern father standing at the head of the gleaming custom-made mahogany table in their house in Colon, Panama, his tailored black suit dusted with chicken down. According to custom, the chicken absorbed the family's sins and later, it fed the poor.
At age thirteen, my grandfather had run away from his home in Russia to escape becoming a rabbi. He worked in England doing construction, then fought as a mercenary in the Boer War. He moved to Panama to work on the Canal. Later, he arranged for a marriage and moved his bride and her brothers with him to Colon, where he opened a furniture business.
According to my father, my grandfather was an intense, competitive man, driven to achievement and excess. He was a man who liked to be first and who liked control. I often wondered what had caused him to hang on to this ancient High Holy Day ritual. What did he think when he closed his eyes, recited the familiar Hebrew words of his childhood and moved that chicken around his head? For years, this image and these questions had intrigued me.
To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to try out this ritual myself. This decision shocked some of my friends. I was a long-time vegetarian and interested in animal rights.
"I can't believe you're going to be responsible for the death of a chicken!" one friend shrieked.
"You are going to touch a chicken?" another friend worried. "Do you know how many mites, fleas and germs they have?"
"This is an archaic ritual," another friend said.
I understood their misgivings. To an outsider, the ritual does seem strange and archaic. But there was something primal and deep in my desire to be part of this rite--it was about connecting with a man I had never met, a man who shaped my father, and therefore, shaped me. I wanted to go back to the sweat, dirt and struggle of my Russian peasant ancestors, people who looked to their religion and their God to lift them above the daily toil and persecution. I would not be simply moving a chicken; I would be weaving myself more deeply into family, roots and tradition.
Normally the ritual was held at night in the synagogue. But because the ritual slaughterer had been delayed, the ceremony at the synagogue I had chosen was put off until the middle of the week, the middle of the day, the last day possible before Yom Kippur. People dropped by throughout the day for atonement in a parking lot. A folding table held the prayer books, and two massive cardboard boxes housed the chickens and roosters.
"So here's the prayer book," my young guide told me, pointing to a book opened to one English and one Hebrew page "Here are the roosters for the men and the hens for the women. This your first time?"
"Yes, " I said, clenching my hands together. This ritual was not a regular part of my own practice of Reform Judaism. "Will you show me what to do?" "Sure," he said. He picked up a hen and held her by the top of her wings. She squirmed a little as he handed her over to me.
"You mean, I just hold her like that? What if I drop her?"
He laughed. "You pick her back up. Don't worry. It's easy."
I took a breath and gingerly held the chicken's wings. The moment I brought her close to me, she quieted. Her feathers felt wonderfully soft and she exuded a calming presence. Her weight was warm and comforting and I felt a sense of peace and well-being.
"Now, you read this prayer three times and swing the chicken each time."
"How do you swing?" I asked. The chicken was much larger and more solid than I had imagined it would be. She felt like a soft chunk of earth, or like a small implacable feather Buddha. I watched her eyes. She was alert and unafraid.
"You can just raise her up, anyway that's comfortable," he told me.
I read the prayer that said this chicken was a symbol of my atonement. The chicken would die and I would enter into a good, long, peaceful life. I gently raised the chicken, keeping my hold on her wings. I recited the prayer three times and awkwardly raised and swung the chicken. When my prayers were done, and the chicken was filled with my sins, I continued holding her. Though I knew there was far more to atonement than the mere swinging of a foul, I felt this bird was connecting me to a lost part of myself that didn't worry and rush, a wiser part that understood the pure pleasure of connection. I lowered my cheek onto the silk of her head feathers.