Posted by Rob Eshman
Now that it’s almost Yom Kippur, the kapparot stands along Pico Robertson are in full bloom. Here’s a sign I saw for one of them, set up in the parking lot of a building at Pico and Shenandoah.
Kapparot is a ceremony that takes place in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur during which Jews swing live chickens above their heads while reciting a chant that symbolically transfers their sin onto the bird: ““This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
It is a custom now confined largely to the Orthodox or Hasidic community. Other Jews who observe kapparot do so symbolically by transferring money to charitable causes.
But around LA and other big cities, you can still find plenty of places to swing a chicken. And you’ll recognize them by the stench, the shrieks of the birds, the stealthy, guilt-clouded atmosphere at which these men (mostly it’s men) carry out a duty they know most people find cruel, and which indeed inflicts a measure of absolutely superfluous cruelty on animals destined to die. A kaparot area resembles nothing so much as the seediest strip club, where men slink in and out, compelled by a force they can scarcely understand.
This week we published on line a terrific piece by Dr. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns that took issue with the practice from the point of view of animal welfare. Read it, then let’s discuss how by 5771, Los Angeles can be the first Jewish community to find a meaningful ethical replacement for live chickens at kapparot:
Kapparot is a ceremony preceding Yom Kippur in which many Orthodox Jews, especially in the Hasidic world, swing chickens around their heads while reciting a chant about transferring their sins symbolically onto the bird:
The chickens are then slaughtered and may be given to the poor. The idea is that when practitioners swing chickens slated for slaughter, they’re supposed to regard the slaughter of the bird as a substitute for the punishment that God in “strict justice” would mete out to them instead of mercy. Rather than the sinner, the innocent chicken suffers “strict justice.” This idea of the role of the chicken contradicts assertions that chickens used in Kapparot ceremonies are treated with compassion.
Documentation of Kapparot ceremonies shows that the birds are seldom if ever treated humanely. On the contrary, prior to the ceremony, the chickens are packed in crates, often for days without food, water or shelter. Birds not used have been found abandoned in their crates when the ceremony was over. Practitioners often stand around chatting with fellow observers while holding a chicken with the wings pulled painfully backward and the legs dangling, as if the bird were an inanimate object instead of living, feeling being.
This way of holding chickens is painful and potentially injurious to them. It is particularly painful given that the main types of chickens used in Kapparot ceremonies are young “broiler” chickens about six weeks old. These birds have been bred to grow many times faster and larger than normal chickens. As a result, they are susceptible to painful joint degeneration, crippling lameness, and heart attacks reflecting genetic infirmities incurred in the quest for meat production. In his paper “Pain in Birds,” Dr. Michael Gentle cites the “widespread nature of chronic orthopaedic disease in domestic poultry,” and Dr. John Webster, professor of animal husbandry in the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science, points out that these birds “have grown too heavy for their limbs and/or become so distorted in shape as to impose unnatural stresses on their joints.”
Shown pictures of chickens being held with their wings pulled back by Kapparot practitioners, Dr. Ian Duncan, Professor Emeritus of Poultry Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, wrote that “holding a domestic fowl with the wings pinned back as shown will be painful. It will be extremely painful if the bird is held in this position for some minutes.” Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, observed that “the manner in which the man is holding the chicken, with the wings pulled back, puts the chicken at risk for ligament and tendon injury, possibly even bone fracture.”
Opponents of the use of chickens in Kapparot ceremonies point out that their use is not required by the Torah or the Talmud. Most Kapparot observers swing money for charity as a gesture of atonement, repentance, and goodwill. Swinging money in a handkerchief, which maintains the tradition of giving charity to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in prayer books, including the Artscroll Siddur, which is used in many Orthodox synagogues.
In the 16th century, a Code was devised to offer practical guidance in the application of Written and Oral Laws. This Code, known as the Shulchan Aruch, is considered authoritative within Orthodox circles. In it, the concept of tzaar baalei chaim - the mandate not to cause unnecessary pain to any living creature - is affirmed: “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.” In other words, the concept of tzaar baalei chaim includes a need not only to avoid causing pain to animals, but also to show them compassion.
For these reasons, we urge Jews and others who care about animals to disperse the kindness message in Jewish teachings that encourage compassion for animals. We urge that Kapparot observers use money instead of chickens, and that rabbis incorporate the cruel facts about the use of chickens in Kapparot ceremonies, and how to have a compassionate ceremony, into their Rosh Hashanah sermons. While reducing the suffering of the chickens is possible, genuinely compassionate treatment of the birds is not compatible with their use in these rituals, which do not require them. Even in communities where religious traditions are strong, customs can evolve to a higher standard of justice and compassion for all of God’s creatures, and this is what opponents of using chickens in Kapparot ceremonies are asking for.
Karen Davis, PhD is president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. For more information, visit www.upc-online.org.
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September 24, 2009 | 7:59 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I bought my first chickens more than 16 years ago, when we lived in Santa Monica. We moved to Venice, I went chickenless for years, then about five years ago discovered the Omlet, a clean and cool way to coop them up, and started again.
Now Susan Orleans in The New Yorker has brought the Omlet and chicken raising to the level of sophistication and acceptance only an article in The New Yorker by Susan Orleans can confer. That just may create an orgy of chicken buying that parallels the Great Beagle Run of the early 60s, when the Snoopy character in the Peanuts comic strip unleashed beagle-mania on America. That had to end badly, as a former beagle owner like myself would know. (What’s the difference between a beagle and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.)
But… before you buy your chickens from a pet store, hatchery or farm supply store, consider the fourth option: rescue.
Pidyon ha’ben is Hebrew for “redemption of the first born,” an arcane Jewish ritual that involves a symbolic buying back of the first born son from Temple service. A simple and obvious pun turns it into a redemption of hens from certain slaughter, the fate of many a bird in ethnic markets around big cities.
I get my chickens from John’s Feed Store, which is, in actuality,a Latino butcher shop in the all-Latino area south of downtown LA. Chickens spend their lives in stacks of cages, awaiting the time when a customer will come in and order a pollo vivo. A worker will pull out a big healthy bird, hold its neck to a rotating razor blade, and bleed it, gut it, and defeather it while you wait. None of this is hidden—you pick your bird, then watch it killed in a window area as if you’re watching a candy maker on the boardwalk.
The idea is that fresh birds taste better. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never bought a dead bird from one of these places, but I do buy my live birds there. I ask for a pollo vivo, and then I quickly specify “no muerte”—not dead. They’ll give you a hen unless you specify a rooster—roosters cost more, because they’re considered to be part supper, part Viagra. Again, I wouldn’t know.
The helper always gives me a funny look—I think she thinks I want to bring it home and kill it myself. She calls to a worker, who stuffs my bird into a filthy cardboard box, and I pay my 6 bucks and take it home.
Since these are mature hens, I end up with eggs within weeks, not the months it takes if you buy chicks or young birds. And every time I look at the birds, I get the satisfaction of telling them how I saved their lives, how they don’t know how lucky they are. And is there any more pure religious feeling than feeling supremely self-righteous? I don’t think so. Even better, mine is a good deed that gives back in fresh eggs.
If you live in the LA area, you can find a rescue bird from John’s, or from one of the several places in Chinatown that sell live hens. In San Francisco, Boston and New York’s Chinatown, you’ll also find live bird sellers.
Next week: my rescue goat.
Click here to find Johns.
September 23, 2009 | 2:52 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
I know, it sounds like the opening line of Penthouse Letters, but it’s true. During the High Holy Days, when Naomi leads Nashuva services, she has the band over to run through the music for the special Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy. Sounds great, two guitars, a bass, two singers, a pianist and a violin all amped up in our living room, all night. I love the music, but I also like to get away from it. Hearing the Yom Kippur melodies five days before the actual holiday spoils the misery for me. It’s a liturgy that means a lot to me on one day every year, but its impact dwindles when I hear it rehearsed over Johnnie’s pizza, wine, beer, and Coke on the other side of my bedroom door.
So I stayed away for a while.
I took a book and dropped into Cole P.E. on 6th street downtown, where I had just finished a meeting. It was 5 pm. I ordered an Anchor Steam. I was already feeling melancholy—Naomi had the band do one Yom Kippur prayer to the tune of “I Will Remember You,” a song I played endlessly when my cousin Lloyd dies. And the Anchor Steam—shit, after I ordered it I remembered Lloyd and I actually visited the brewery.
But I drank it slowly and looked down the bar, at all the other men, shoulders hunched, slightly stubbly beards, thinking, drinking. Do women ever find as much comfort in a bar as men do? And I realized: they all, basically, look just like me. Middle age-ish. Trying to gather their souls back to them after a long day. Letting the alcohol transport their thoughts beyound their immediate worries. They wore their shirts out. They spoke—I overheard—of commercials to film, a song score to write for a Disney movie featuring a pair of 11 year old girls, baseball scores. The bartenders, men a decade younger, but they’ll get there, served us beers and Cole’s retro cocktails. Somewhere 13 miles west my wife was lost in ancient melodies, but could this scene, this need, be any less ancient?
After the Anchor Steam I was tempted by the menu’s description of the Rickey: fresh lime juice, Millers gin, simple syrup, soda. Love those. And I was tempted by the bottles of once-rare Italian apertifs and digestifs behind the bar: Punt e Mes, Fernet, Aperol. But I had to drive home. I nodded good bye to the bartender, and took leave of my pew-mates with the ritual grunt. Yom Kippur was waiting.
September 21, 2009 | 8:05 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
My resolution for the New Year is to make more cholent.
Cholent is the traditional Sabbath stew, assembled and put in the oven (or on the stove, or in a crock pot) on Friday before the Sabbath, then cooked at a low temperature until Sabbath lunch.
I made one for Rosh Hashana, and remembered what a difference a good cholent can make in your life.
Having a big pot of stew cooking all night and day perfumes your house, whets your appetite for hours., Cholent is gastronomic foreplay. It demands that you take time on Saturday for a big meal. No errands. No Home Depot. No running off to a movie. It demands you invite friends over: try making a cholent for two, or even four. And it demands you slow down and relax the rest of the afternoon—cholent demands a post-meal nap. It is healthy eating, but it is not light eating.
These are all good things as far as I’m concerned—good smells, good food, long meals, a good nap—and cholent is the Way.
I prefer a Moroccan style cholent, called a dafina, or the more general Sephardic style, called Hamin. Both have more intricate spicing than Ashkenazic. Keep in mind: whichever you choose, this is as easy as cooking gets. If you can throw clothes in a suitcase, you can throw ingredients in a pot, and that’s cholent.
Here’s my recipe:
1 pound white beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 heads garlic, peeled
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 potatoes, peeled and cut in 2 ” chunks
2 yams, peeled and cut in 2 ” chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut in 2 ” chunks
1 t. cumin
1 t. tumeric
1/4 t. cinnamon
1 t. paprika
1 T. salt
1 t. freshly ground pepper
2 pounds brisket
2 pounds lamb or beef bone (or shortribs)
1 c. rice, wrapped loosely in cheesecloth
3 T. olive oil
1 pound ground turkey,lamb, beef and or chicken
2 t. ras el-hanout (Moroccan spice mixture)
Mix ground meat with two eggs and ras-el hanout and 1 t. salt. Roll in log, wrap in foil or cheesecloth and seal tightly. Drizzle olive oil over rice.
In a very large oven and stove proof pot, heat 3 T. olive oil until hot. Add the brisket and sear on all sides until a crust develops. Remove, pour off excess fat, and deglaze with some water. Place half the beans in the pot. Add half the garlic. Lay in the brisket, the ground meat loaf, the rest of the beans, the rice, the vegetables, the eggs and the spices. Add water to go 3/4 up to the top. Bring to boil then simmer one hour. Cover with tight-fitting lid. Place in oven preheated to 250 degrees.
Cook overnight, at least 8 hours. Check twice or so to make sure water is still at 3/4 level. Serve hot, offering each guest a little of everything. Great with some harissa on the side.
Serves 15 very hungry people
For a vegetarian version, leave out the meat. No one will starve.
September 17, 2009 | 9:03 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I just got off the phone with Frank Luntz, who I interviewed about his new book, “What Americans Really Want…Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams and Fears” (Hyperion). One thing he said, and wrote, leapt out: One of the single greatest determinants of whether your kids will grow up to use drugs is whether you eat dinner as a family five nights a week.
That’s it: family dinners can save your kids life.
On page 257, under the heading, “Healthy Children to Healthy Adults: The Six Steps Parents Really Need to Know,” here’s #1:
Having dinner with your children. Nothing says, “I truly care about you” more than spending dinnertime with your children at least five times a week. ...parents who dine with their children produce healthier adults because it sends a clear signal that children are a high priority. ...Parents who miss dinner—no matter what the excuse—are sending the wrong message.
I don’t know what research backs this up, but it strikes an intuitive chord with me. (Until I read Po Bronson’s new book, which I hear says we give too much attention to our kids….).
Scratch that: I don’t care what research backs that up. I do family dinners because I like them—I do them for me. I like to start thinking about what I’m cooking around now—5 pm. I like to shop on the way home. I like to walk in the house and start thinking about cooking and dinner, rather than keep thinking about work. And I like to watch my kids eat.
Since 2000 I’ve kept a journal of what I make for dinner, and I keep the journal by my bed. My wife keeps a prayer book by her side. Same difference.
(By the way, my Luntz interview will appear in next week’s paper. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t have a partner, spouse or kids—but as he told me, his research changed his thinking, not his behavior).