Confronting The Last Chicken In Brooklyn

0.

It was the last chicken in Brooklyn.

Well, the last one that was still clucking.

 

1.

Stands were set up on street corners; as far north as Lee Avenue, Avenue S to the south, and even 13th Avenue in the west. Chickens, in cages, as far as the eye could see. A flurry of feathers and feed, right in the middle of a Hasidic New York neighborhood like it was still the 1890’s. The stories your grandmother used to tell.

Off to the side was an industrial dumpster, filled not with trash, but with shochets- Jewish ritual slaughterers. Men in white coats who, knife in hand, would precisely and quickly slice the throat of your chicken and stuff the still moving creature upside down into a holding rack where their blood would drain onto a pile of sawdust. All for the sake of your soul.

In the 24 hours before Yom Kippur, thousands of Jews across Brooklyn were participating in this ancient ritual of the Kapparos sacrifice. They face the fleeting concept of mortality and transfer their sins to a proxy chicken, who would die in their place.

The flurry of people rushing with the commitment that one would give to their own mortal soul becomes a hurricane of feathers and blood and dirt and prayer. Chaos looms large, but somehow the participants find order in it, just like this mortal world.

It goes all night. Until it doesn’t.

Dawn was approaching, and I had just worked all night at my job as an Emergency Medical Technician for the City of New York. It’s okay work. I help a lot of people, but mostly I’m forced to deal with the saddest stories the city has to offer. The morbidly obese man who can’t get out of bed, the elderly woman who fainted unexpectedly, the child who suddenly has trouble breathing.

It leaves me emotionally drained, and the hours are a pain. But I get to drive through red lights, so I guess that’s a plus. It puts money in my pocket that I can save up for a ring for Hadassah, my shidduch who I’m going to marry after the holidays.

I had seen enough blood that night, from a suicide attempt that was a sixteen year old’s cry for help. But if I don’t break my neck to go do kapparos right now, I’ll have to use give tzedakah money as a ritual, which is not my tradition.

So, tired and hungry, I headed to the corner.

Trash and feather debris were everywhere. The smell was overwhelming. But the shochets had already packed up, and all the chickens were already dead. Large bags of pieces sat near additional dumpsters. Whatever hadn’t been packed up to be sent to food shelters and other centers where the dead chickens were donated.

Disappointed, I stood unable to process the sight before me, like witnessing the aftermath of a fowl war.

I found my way over to a bench and sat. Thoughts filled my head as I imagined the possibility of entering Yom Kippur with no Kapparah.

I began to cry.

“Excuse me…” A voice interrupted.

Out of the corner of my wet eye, a single Jew approached me.

His big hat covered his head and he spoke out of the side of his mouth. In the early morning sun, it was hard to see his face.

“Looking for Kapparos?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I know a Yid who still has a chicken. Come with me.”

I stood up, and wiped the moisture from my face.

I began to follow the man, though I didn’t want to walk too far from my car, which was parked illegally.

Each time I tried to catch up to him, he always seemed to move faster. So I studied his back. The long dark coat was shiny, but hard to make out as the street lamps went out and the sun wasn’t bright enough yet. And my eyes were weak from the tears and lack of sleep.

We moved in silence for some time. There was no way to catch up to him, and I resigned myself to following his lead.

But three blocks later, I was beginning to lose confidence in this stranger.

“Excuse me Rebbe, are we almost there?”

The man sped up again and I lunged into a jog to keep up this time.

He turned a corner to an alley, and then he was gone.

And there, in front on me, was a chicken.

 

2.

The chicken was also flustered, as if it had been chasing something into this exact spot.

Then it just stood there. Not clucking, not pecking. Just looking at me.

I stared back.

“Nu?” I said.

The chicken “bawked” at me.

We continued to stare at each other for a moment, and then I got self-conscious and blinked.

I walked toward the chicken, and it didn’t run.

I slowly creeped as I got closer, tip-toeing so as to not scare it away.

I was within a few feet of it and slowly bent at the waist to reach down to grab it.

My fingers almost touched the feathers when the chicken flew into hysterics, like a whirling wedding dance.

It was making a ruckus, with limbs and feathers moving in every direction simultaneously.

I got spooked and jumped back, then lunged forward again to grab the chicken more forcefully.

My body twisted around and around as I chased the limited flight of this crazy bird.

It would jump up, and I would be there too late. It would crouch down, and I would swipe past it.

I threw myself into the chase and ended up connecting with the body of the chicken. My fingers clasped around its little body, and I brought my other hand around to secure my grip.

The wings flapped wildly and it slapped me in the face. I fell backward.

I wanted to reach out and catch myself but that would mean letting go of the chicken.

So I hit the ground hard. My hat flew off and my head hit the gravel.

 

3.

I woke up flat on my back in a Brooklyn alley. The sun had risen completely, almost blinding me now. It was quiet, and I reached back to make sure my yarmulke was still in place on my head.

I tried to sit up, but a pain shot through my back and it was easier to stay where I lay.

I closed my eyes, wincing in pain, and just felt around to find my hat, my arms flailing in any direction they could.

No luck.

I counted to three and willed myself to partially sit up, on my elbows.

Proud of myself, I was rewarded with my hat hitting me in the face, knocking me back down.

Regaining my senses, I moved the hat away and there on my stomach was the chicken standing tall.

I paused, like a lion in waiting, and then suddenly burst forth and grabbed the chicken. It hadn’t moved.

It just stood there, in my hands. It tilted its head, looking straight into me.

Carefully, I got up off the ground. The chicken, so docile in my hands, spoke to me.

Well, it didn’t speak to me exactly.

But it gave me a look as if to say, “I won’t run away this time.”

So I tested it.

First releasing one hand off the chicken to steady myself, it just leaned into my other one to steady itself.

Then, when I felt secure, I just put the chicken down and stood up properly.

The chicken just stayed where I placed it, watching me.

I reached down and my back stung a little but the chicken just continued to bobble its head, never breaking my gaze.

I took the chicken in my arms, and walked out of the alley.

Immediately I was struck with the goings-on of Jews all up and down the street. Men rushing to shul, towels draped over their shoulders; women hand in hand with children to run errands.

No one seemed to notice I had a chicken tucked into my arms.

I made my way towards the area where the shochets had been before, hoping to catch one willing to do an additional mitzvah before the holiday.

Dazed and weary, I moved slow.

I came to the curb just across the street from the area where I could see one last shochet taking care of his final duties.

I tried to wait for the light, but he was just about packed up, and every second mattered.

When I was sure the coast was clear, I stepped off the curb in a hurry and a silver Dodge minivan came out of nowhere and hit me. I was dragged under the front of the car, tearing my coat as it scraped against the pavement.

My legs broke. Probably in several places. And the chicken squealed its last breath as it was crushed below me, beneath this silvery behemoth that comfortably seats seven.

I passed out again.

 

4.

I woke up flat on my back in a Brooklyn alley. The sun had risen completely, almost blinding me now. It was quiet, and I reached back to make sure my yarmulke was still in place on my head.

I tried to sit up, but a pain shot through my back and it was easier to stay where I lay.

I closed my eyes, wincing in pain, and just felt around to find my hat, my arms flailing in any direction they could. A few inches away, my hat sat on the ground, and I grabbed it and brought it towards my chest.

A cluck interrupted me.

I looked down my body and there, on my chest, almost wearing my hat, was the chicken.

I blinked a few times, my vision not so good.

Wait.

This is familiar.

I’m not in the street.

There is no minivan.

I’m back in the alley where I found the chicken the first time.

Did someone bring me back here?

Did they drag me, unconscious?

I felt myself to check for wounds. My coat was intact. I felt fine. I moved my legs.

I did a little dance while laying on my back, just my legs moving back and forth.

The chicken hadn’t moved. Just turned its head to watch my legs, and then turned back to look at me as if to say “why are you so strange?”

I grabbed the chicken and sat up. I felt like testing myself so without the use of my hands I stood up completely.

I was not letting this chicken go again.

I made my way back out of the alley, and nothing had changed. The men still rushed, the women and children still rushed, and no one was gawking at a car accident.

Retracing my steps to the shochet, I paused at the block where I remember being hit before.

Was it a dream? Maybe I was unconscious from hitting my head earlier, and I just imagined everything in between.

Surely that must have been it, I reasoned.

Just as I resolved the situation in my head, the chicken freaked out and began pecking at me. I instinctively released it, and the chicken flew from my arms across the street.

Panicked, I ran after it.

The silver Dodge minivan slammed into me so hard that I felt my pelvis break.

I was eye to eye with a windshield wiper.

The chicken flew by, its horrible clucking audible in my ears as I passed out again.

 

5.

I woke up flat on my back in a Brooklyn alley. The sun had risen completely, almost blinding me now. It was quiet, and I reached back to make sure my yarmulke was still in place on my head.

I cried out.

“CHICKEN! CHI-CKEN!!!”

When I couldn’t shout “chicken” any longer, I rested the side of my face against the gravel.

I tried to open my eyes again, and blinked several times upon seeing the chicken standing calmly next to me.

Had he heard my cries?

He seemed impatient, as if it had been waiting.

Wait a moment.

This is the alley again.

Oy gevalt.

What did I do to deserve this?

I got up cautiously, eyeing the chicken, giving it a guilty look like my mother used to give.

It cocked its head, and “bawked” at me.

I felt like I just lost an argument with this chicken.

Stepping toward the chicken to pick it up, he scuttled just enough to avoid me.

I tried again and it shifted again, to the other side.

The third time, I went left but reached right at the last moment. It stayed still, so I missed.

But then it just sat down on the ground and cooed. I came up behind it and slowly extended my hands.

I had it in my clutches now.

Exiting the alley, I overwhelmingly ignored the people this time and hurried down the street.

Approaching the corner where I’d twice now been hit, I was extra cautious.

There was no way I was going through this again.

Taking a deep breath I looked to the distance to see the shochet was still down the block.

I began to run with my little chicken football tucked into my chest.

Passing familiar stores and the crowds at full speed, I nimbly avoided running into the scaffolding poles at what used to be Shmilly’s Market and would soon be a condo building.

Outside the hardware store where I once bought a blech for shabbos I saw the extended electrical cord that was wavering in the sidewalk and leapt over it.

Yossi the fishmonger dropped off a shipment right in front of me, slamming fresh fish into trays of ice. I swiveled to avoid it, but crashed into a container, spilling ice everywhere. I slipped on the ice and twirled around, trying to catch myself.

But I couldn’t keep my grip. The chicken, screaming, flew above me into the air and landed in the fish.

I fell backwards against a parked car.

The chicken looked at me, from its perch atop the salmon. I tried to catch my breath.

I felt my stability loosen as the parked car that was holding me up pulled out of its spot, and I stumbled into the street.

No one but the chicken saw the silver Dodge minivan that came from nowhere.

 

6.

I woke up flat on my back in a Brooklyn alley. The sun had risen completely, almost blinding me now. It was quiet, and I reached back to make sure my yarmulke was still in place on my head.

I got up, brushed myself off, and began to walk out of the alley.

By some miracle I was still alive, and I don’t need this kind of tzuris in my life.

From behind me, I heard the familiar cluck.

I turned my neck to see the chicken standing behind me with a longing look on his face.

Resolute, I faced forward and walked away.

The chicken freaked out and I could hear the storm of squawks and wings flapping as I took two more steps.

“Fine…” I muttered, and turned around again.

Suddenly the chicken flew right at my head, and defensively I ducked and caught the bird in my flailing arms.

The bird calmed down. I composed myself.

One way or another, it seems, I am meant to bond with this chicken.

Suddenly it struck me- if I was going to catch the shochet I’d better run!

With every ounce of skill, I retraced the steps I had taken so many times before, and tried to avoid every pitfall that had bested me before.

Stop at the corner. Wait. The coast is clear. Wait anyway. Be patient. All good things in time.

I carefully danced past the scaffolding, the hardware store and Yossi the fishmonger.

The shochet was still ahead, in clear view. I can do this.

Right as I felt my most confident self, the chicken freaked out again.

I tried to keep a grip on it. I felt like I could hurt it, with how hard I was squeezing.

But it pecked my hands and flew off.

Almost instinctively, I was about to chase after it into the street but waited an extra moment. The silver Dodge minivan barreled through the intersection, and after it passed I crossed with care.

The chicken was now causing a scene and I needed to contain it quickly. Women were screaming, shielding their children from the menacing bird, and men were whipping their mikvah towels at it like locker room pranksters.

“Who let this chicken loose?” One man shouted.

I ran into the center of it all to save the day, only to be whipped mercilessly with mikvah towels before anyone realized I was there.

Shielding myself in a standing fetal position, I called for some semblance of sanity.

The toweling stopped.

The bird, still flapping and squawking, began to calm down.

I closed my open hands around it and scooped it tightly into my body like a fumbled football.

I laid there until the commotion died down.

Then it was peaceful.

I fixed the crooked hat on my head and emerged from the rabble.

It’s amazing how quickly an angry mob loses interest when they realize they have someone else to judge.

 

7.

The shochet was on his way to daven when I stopped him in the plaza. He had already packed up but was still in his stained clothing. He looked weathered, with the droopy expression of a man who had been up killing animals for the past twelve hours.

My kind inquisition as to whether I could convince him to kill one more chicken fell on deaf ears.

“If I don’t get to Shacharit I will miss Shema” he explained.

As if on a dime I quickly degraded to begging.

“You don’t understand what I’ve gone through to do this Kapparah…” I pleaded.

“I need this.”

He paused, looking me in the eyes. He looked down at the chicken, still tightly in the bend of my elbow.

“Let me see this chicken,” he relented.

I held out the symbol of my year’s wrongdoings proudly, like fisherman who caught a six-foot Marlin.

The shochet looked at the bird, and without moving his head, his eyes darted back up to meet mine.

I gave a desperate little smile, like a child who wants a candy.

His dour expression didn’t change.

It dawned on me that perhaps he was pitying me.

The shochet scoffed and began to turn away.

I looked down to see the drooping neck of the bird. Somewhere among the commotion, the bird had snapped its own neck.

It was dead.

It was no longer kosher.

The shochet walked off up the steps of the shul and disappeared.

I was stunned. Heartbroken.

I stood there, motionless for however long, until the honking sound of angry Brooklyn drivers brought me back.

Walking toward the trash can at the corner of the plaza, I held the limp bird for a moment and then let go. It hit the bottom of the barrel with a wet thud.

 

8.

In a daze, I stumbled back to a park bench and collapsed.

My head lowered, I began to sob into my hands.

“How could this happen to me? What did I do that was so terrible to receive such a curse?”

I ran through a range of emotions. But mostly Anger. Wrath. Fury. Rage. My hands clenched into fists before my eyes.

Then, a hand reached out and touched my sunken shoulder.

I jumped, almost striking the individual.

Looking up through the teary eyes, there before me stood the Rav.

My hands instinctively released from balled fists into open palms. How could I come so close to attacking my dearest teacher?

The man was in his eighties and his long white beard and thick brows gave him an ethereal glow in the morning sun.

“May I sit with you?” He inquired.

“Of course, of course…” I wiped the thick tears from my face and stood to allow him to have the full bench.

Leaning on his cane, he slowly sat. I continued to stand before him.

“Come. Sit with me.”

I relented and took my place as before albeit more self-conscious.

“Why are you crying?”

“Was I crying?” I defended, wiping another tear from my cheek.

He smiled at me.

I felt ashamed for not owning up to my obvious pain.

He could see the depths of my soul just by looking at my eyes.

Now, instead of the waterfall from my eyes, my mouth opened to release all that it contained.

I told him the whole story. I tried to explain what I remembered, and attempted to explain the parts that made no sense to me.

The Rav listened intently, never judging or scoffing at the implausibility of it all.

When it was done he paused and thought before he spoke.

“You are very fortunate. Few people have the zechus to do Kapparah so many ways in one day.”

“What do you mean? I never even did the Kapparah; I didn’t say the brachah, I didn’t shecht the chicken, I hardly even got my hands on that ridiculous bird.”

He nodded, and after penetrating me with his eyes once more, spoke:

“Every day, Baruch Hashem, Hashem gives us another chance to try. When we miss the mark, or come up short, we hope for another chance to redeem ourselves. We don’t know how. We don’t know when or why. All we know is that we hope. Because as long as we keep the Torah in our heart and daven towards Jerusalem, we are never truly lost. This is the point of Kapparah. We know we are meant to die for our shortcomings. At some point, we will. And yet, in the meantime, we get to live while the other does not.”

“But why did the chicken snap its own neck?” I pleaded with the Rabbi.

He smiled at me with warm wisdom, like only a teacher who truly knows you can.

“To get to the other side.”

 

 

Featured image by Apionid.