"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.
When my arms grew weary, I sadly took her to the third pen, the pen for the chickens that would be slaughtered.
"I'm sorry," I told her. I briefly thought about paying for her and taking her home. But I realized that part of the ritual was the letting go, the giving in to the inevitability of life and death. I let her down and she rushed off to join a group nesting in a pile of leaves.
Meanwhile the Rebbe, the ritual slaughterer and the slaughterer's wife arrived in a worn-out-looking station wagon. His wife told me that they had moved to the states from Israel, where he had been an engineer before he got interested in becoming a slaughterer.
"He loves this work," she told me. "He thinks of this as his holy mission."
I imagined what it would be like, killing for a living. Each death was in accordance with laws that went back for hundreds of years, laws designed to protect people and animals and to keep people connected to nature, God and to themselves.
I wondered who had killed my grandfather's chickens.
My grandfather had run away from his religion, yet he kept the Sabbath day, or at least part of it. Every Saturday morning, he accompanied his family to synagogue. While he sat in prayer, an employee at his furniture store had instructions to distribute alms. Any man who lined up outside Ben Barnett's store received a nickel.
For many years, I too ran away from my religion. But now, my heritage was haunting me. My grandfather had been a man of extremes, capable of sudden violence and amazing generosity. I often felt those parts of me stirring. I embraced my generous spirit and pushed down the occasional stabs of violent thought. I had never watched a man kill an animal. Perhaps it was time.
The Rebbe selected a rooster and expertly chanted the prayers and swung the rooster around. I hugged my arms across my chest as he handed the bird to the slaughterer, who cradled the animal, soothing it while holding its neck upturned.
The rooster lay as though mesmerized, while the slaughterer plucked out a few neck feathers and then quickly sliced the neck back and forth. It took me a moment to understand that the rooster was cut. The death had been so quiet, so discrete. I was both relieved and disappointed.
He put the rooster into the box and the children, who had been playing tag, raced over to see what was going on. Then they resumed their game. The game of death was evidently not as interesting as the game of tag.
The Rebbe sprinkled sand to cover up the blood.
"That is the way of honoring, of showing the rooster is as important as a person," he told me.
I stood and watched as one of the boys picked up a hen. My hen? Suddenly, I was ready to leave.
I looked around the parking lot and imagined I was in my grandfather's dining room, sitting at his table. Perhaps he had killed men in the war: perhaps he had been in fights and hurt others. But on the sacred holidays, the days of his father and grandfathers, he was a man of God and of peace.
As I got into my car, I felt a sense of weightlessness and warmth. By connecting to an ancient part of my history, I had unearthed a deep part of myself.