People and Poultry: a new translation of Sholem Aleichem's 'Kapores'.
In this story by the famous Sholem Aleichem, the chickens of an un
named shtetl organise a revolt against the pre-Yom Kiper custom of shlogn kapores, in which chickens are sacrificed as an offering of atonement. I wrote this translation for this years Sukkahfest, held at the Isabella Freedman Jewish retreat Center, at which I co-led an interactive workshop reading and acting this story with adults and children at the Adamah farm chicken enclosure. Returning to NYC, on Wednesday night I performed the Rooster's rousing speech at a night of Yiddish monologues at the New Yiddish Rep Theater. I've had a lot of fun with this story and learned a lot from it, and I hope others will too! The photos are from my rather terrifying performance. To learn more about the custom of kapores, and Sholem Aleichem's criticism of it, here's a great article by one of my co-monologuers, Jonah Boyarin. The Yiddish original of this story can be found in Sholem Aleichem's collected works, which have been made available by the Yiddish Book Center. To read it, click here. The story has also been translated into French, by Nadia Déhan-Rotschild, and is available to purchase in a beautiful French-Yiddish edition from my alter-heym, the Paris Yiddish Center.
Kapores, by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Annabel Cohen.
As early as the first day of Rosh Hashone, when everyone was going to tashlikh, you might have noticed a crowd of chickens – cockerels, old brood hens, young roosters and chicks – speeding through the backstreets, necks outstretched, legs raised, hastily bouncing along, all of them in the same direction far outside of town. Peculiar as this was, it didn’t occur to anyone to pause and watch to see where these silly birds were running to. Only later, during the first days of repentance, did people start to realise that the cages were empty, and that wherever there had previously been a chicken, that chicken had flown the coop, now nowhere to be found.
Uproar ensued. "How is this possible?! What are we going to use for our kapores?!"
The women were most distressed of all. A good housewife, even a ‘madame’ with a hat and a grand piano, would have sacrificed herself to get her hands on a white-feathered offering. Like headless chickens they ran to the market, ready to pay whatever the cost to get their kapores – if not a white hen then a speckled or a black one would do, even a red rooster, as long as it could be a kapore! But, as if out of spite, there was not a bird to be bought for love or money. That is to say, birds were available at the market, but not the kinds of birds that can serve as kapores. There were fat-bottomed ducks, geese with plump bellies, turkeys like pompous aristocrats with turned down noses, pure, white, innocent doves, all of which were snatched up and carried out for sale. But none of them were what was needed. For kapores you need chickens, and, even if you lay down your life in return, not a chicken could be found.
So, where had the chickens disappeared to? Read further, and you’ll hear quite a story. *****
Far away beyond the town, on the other side of the mills, all hell had broken loose. The whole field was full of chickens, roosters, old brood hens and little chicks. The crow of the cocks, the clucking of the hens and the tweeting of the chicks was so formidable that if someone had happened to pass by, they may have gone deaf from the din. All of the birds were pushing and shoving their way to one part of the field, the place of honour, where lay an old cut down tree. Onto the old cut-down tree flew a young spritely cockerel, who, with a clap of his wings, started to crow:
"Cock-a-doodle-doo! Raboysay, gentlemen! Listen to what I am going to say to you! You are all familiar with the shameful custom of the townspeople. Every year, when this time comes, our masters are taken over by some sort of devilish frenzy – to hell with them! They snatch us from our roosts, drag us out one by one from our cages, tie us up and whirl us around over their heads, babbling some devil-knows-what from a siddur, fling us under the table then carry us away to the butcher, who does his thing with us. They call it ‘kapores – atonement’. How do you like this honourable function? What do you have to say about this indignity?
Brothers! How long will we stay silent? It’s time we bring an end to this shameful tradition of ‘kapores’! Let us show them once and for all, whatever you want to do with us, we will not be your ‘kapores’! Down with Kapores!"
"Buck-Buck-Buck!" – join in all the birds in unison – "Down with Kapores!"
"Cock-a-doodle-doo! Consider, faithful brothers and dear sisters, are you strong enough in yourselves that you won’t give in to temptation? That you won’t let yourselves be led down the garden path? They will surely come and offer you millet, or corn, and I know you, you gluttons and drunkards, for a bit of millet or a handful of corn you would give away three dozen eggs!"
"Buck-Buck-Buck! Khas V’kholile! God forbid! They could give us gold and we won’t give in! Buck-Buck-Buck!"
"Cock-a-doodle-doo! Remind yourselves again and again – You must have nerves of steel. If someone tries to catch you, you must not let them! Peck out their eyes before you give in! You must not allow yourselves to be captured, you hear? The end! It’s over! Down with Kapores!"
"Buck-Buck-Buck! Ko-Ko-Ko! Down with kapores!"
In the town, tempers were also fraying. It was like the whole world was teetering on the edge. People stopped each other in the street, talked, shrugged their shoulders, gesticulated hopelessly.
"What do you say about all this?"
"Indeed, a fine state of affairs! What more is there to say?!"
"This is the kind of thing you only see once every thousand years!"
Like so the matter was discussed in the shtetl, and it was decided that the women should go out beyond the town and coax the chickens back into their cages. This is what the ‘fairer sex’ are for, after all – ladies of the house! The women did as their husbands bid them. Some with corn and some with millet, some with bags and some with sieves, they went out beyond the town to cajole and catch the chickens and trap them back in their cages.
"Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep", little-by-little the women edged up to the chickens, sat themselves down on the ground and poured out their little bit of millet and corn. "Cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck … Buk buk buk buk buk…" With these and other such proverbs, the women tried to entice the chickens.
When they caught sight of the millet and a whiff of the corn, the hungry chickens went straight for it, and in the blink of an eye the little bit of corn and millet had been completely pecked up, with not a single kernel left. But they were by no means going to allow the women to catch them. A couple of women did manage to cover a few small chicks with a sieve, but the old brood hens and the roosters came to their rescue, descending upon the women, jumping right up to their faces such that they were lucky not to have their eyes pecked out and even to get away with their lives.
When they came home and told this story to their husbands, riotous laughter erupted among the men-folk. They were simply rolling around on the floor, splitting at the sides with mirth.
"Ha ha ha, you birdbrains! By my life, you’re no better than the chickens! Can you even imagine, a chicken overcoming a human? Fools, ha ha ha!"
"You know what" – said the women – "if you’re so capable, why don’t you go yourselves, go to war with the chickens! Show everyone how clever you are!"
And the men folk took their sticks in their hands and went out beyond the town to see what was going on out there with the chickens.
Men are, after all, men, not women. Men have a completely different kind of strength – manliness! Catching sight of the crowd of chickens from afar, they came up with a strategy. All together, they stole themselves quietly around and behind, to the other side of the chickens, where they all raised up all their sticks in unison and, employing their superior intelligence, set about chasing the birds home:
"Cluck Cluck Cluck Cluck Cluck! [and, in Russian, because, naturally as farm birds chickens speak Russian] Do domay! to your houses! Kish Kish Kish Kish Kish!’
Their ‘kish-kish’, however, was as much help as a hole in the head. All at once, the whole crowd of chickens – the roosters and the hens, the old brood hens and the little chicks – descended on the men, jumping up to their faces, pecking at their heels, tearing at their long coats, plucking at their beards, all the while crowing and clucking and cheeping. Feathers flew through the air like snow, the street became dark – this really was a war!
Indeed, many chickens lost their lives in this war, trampled by their own brothers and sisters and beaten by the men’s sticks. Many men, however, were also injured, wounded, left with bloodied hands and faces. One man had an eye pecked out, another part of his nose, one of them was left with a hole in his cheek so big that you could see his back teeth! Blood was spilled on both sides. Mi yodea – who knows how it would have ended if the men had not thrown away their sticks, rolled up their coat tails and skedaddled back into town.
Seeing their beaten, bloodied, masters in their pecked-up coats, the women were filled with joy:
"Nu, you aren’t laughing anymore? Such pros! Hot-shots! Masters! Men!"
"If you can’t go over it, you have to go under it" – so said the skilled and capable menfolk, who were grateful that God had given them such a witticism. An assembly was called with the rabbi, and after much discussion, chatter and muttering, it was decided to send a delegation to the chickens to ask them amicably: what do you want?
Chosen for this task were, of course, the wealthy, powerful and important, the rabbis, judges, cantors and ritual slaughterers. Unarmed this time, without their sticks, they journeyed out beyond the town. The rabbi, presenting moving to the head of the delegation, addressed the chickens in the language of diplomacy:
"Shema na, Raboysim! Hear, o’ chickens! Tell us, what do you want? Say it, we will listen judiciously, and if your demand is within our power to grant, we will surely grant it, God-willing.
A cry rose out from the crowd of chickens, with such crowing and clucking and cheeping that not a word could be made out. The rabbi piped up again:
"You know what, chickens? No good will come from all this screaming when you are all screaming at once. Rather, hear me out, the people chose us as mediators, diplomats. Why don’t you also select a delegation, made up only of refined, respectable birds, so that we know who to talk to. Are there not among you a few turkeys, geese or ducks?"
"Gobble gobble gobble"announced the single turkey, who had dragged himself there with the chickens, and now puffed himself up like a visiting in-law, turned down his nose and demonstrated that he was prepared to act as mediator for the council.
"Quack Quack Quack!" chimed in a few ducks, terrible loudmouths, to show that they were also there among the birds.
At the same time, however, a brazen red rooster also jumped out of the crowd and screamed:
"Cock-a-doodle-doo! Chickens! If you want to be sold for a bushel of oats, then go ahead and put yourselves in the hands of our pompous turkey in-laws, or the illustrious geese, whose grandfathers once saved the city of Rome, or the guzzlers, the gossips – the ducks. They are not used as kapores, they shouldn’t be getting involved. We, the chickens, we are used as kapores, we should form the delegation!"
"Buck Buck Buck! True! As right as we are roosters!" joined in all the chickens in one voice, and the cry and the noise became even greater. The chickens all cackled in unison, jumped towards each other, pecking at each other’s heads, and after a lengthy and broad selection process, a delegation emerged: two or three Galagan hens with substantial beards, a couple of lovely, ordinary roosters and several young boy-chicks – great crowers with young, vibrant voices. And so the two delegations began the arbitration, which will be described in the following chapter.
Town-leaders: So then, tell us what you want, chickens?
Chickens: What do you think we want?! We don’t want to be your Kapores! We give you our flesh, our feathers, everything you want from us we give, but you have no right to beat us for your atonement!
Town leaders: What are we supposed to do? We are Jews, we have to sacrifice kapores!
Chickens: Oh really? Where is this written?
Town leaders: Where is it written?! Well, uh…relating to this … hmm… how is this your business, where this is written? It is an ancient custom of ours, an old custom of our ancestors. You are strange chickens! Do you prefer it when we slaughter, roast and eat you? Why does it bother you that Jews use you to fulfil a mitsve?
Chickens: You have 613 mitsves!
Town leaders: And is it not an honour, that when we sacrifice you we say the words ‘bnei odem – the children of men’ three times, that we use you in such an important ritual for humankind?
Chickens: If you knew what it was like to be roasted meat, like we do, maybe you’d have a better understanding of what really goes on among you ‘children of men’
Town leaders: and what about the brokhe, the blessing, that the slaughter blesses you with?
Chickens: he may as well bless a rubber chicken!
Town leaders: And what about the fact that the children of Israel use you for the very last meal before such a holy fast as Yom Kiper, and break their fast with your meat?
Chickens: Why has such a fate befallen us, poor chickens? Are there not enough lazy geese, fat ducks with round bellies, and aristocratic turkeys wandering aimlessly around your town, doing nothing but feasting, guzzling and waddling about in all the puddles?
Town leaders: We slaughter geese for Hanuke, and use their fat for frying on Peysekh, we also roast ducks for this. Turkeys we breed for festivals, and we need you for kapores. Don’t be so impudent, you are not addressing young boys. You are talking to masters, rabbis, judges, ritual slaughterers!
Chickens: Slaughterers? Butchers? Buck-Buck-Buck! May all the butchers in the world die an unnatural death! Go on, we dare you – hand us over a couple of your butchers!
Town leaders: Are you against the ways of the world? You want to turn everything upside down? Are you rebelling? Revolting against the authorities? You won’t forget this!
Chickens: Oh really? Ay-Ay-Ay! What are you going to do to us? Of course, you will denounce us. Prosecute us with ‘oysane-toykef’, your hymns of repentance. Go on, if that’s what you want! Buck-Buck-Buck! Ko-Ko-Ko!
A cackle rose up from the hens, and the roosters began to crow at the top of their lungs, such that their cock-a-doodle-doo could be heard for miles around.
The town-leaders took themselves off to the side, whispered, confided, consulted – what are we going to do? And it was decided once again to approach these feathery-firebrands, promise them some sort of incentive to see if it was possible to get something out of them, whatever it might be, perhaps one kapore out of two, even out of three, as long as they could get their kapore! The rabbi once again stood at the head, and called out to the chickens:
"Hear, O’Chickens! Hear us out. Here’s the situation: We didn’t need to spend all this time reasoning with you. As a matter of fact, this is not how we usually do things. Believe us, we are not short of ways to take you by force, if we wanted to. But time is short, it’s almost Erev Yom Kiper, and we could – God forbid – be left with no kapores! We are extending to you this privilege."
"Cock-a-doodle-doo! A privilege!" – let out a rooster, a white-feathered comrade, and the hens began cackling again ‘cluck cluck cluck! A privilege! Privilege!
And the Rabbi began to explain, just what kind of privilege they were being offered:
"Privilege number 1. A day before the beating of kapores, the chickens will be given food and drink as if nothing was going to happen to them
2. During the kapore ritual, when saying ‘bnei adam’ they will not wave the chickens crazily around their heads, and will not rush through the words ‘thisismyexchangethisismysubstitutethisismyexpiation’, but say them slowly, respectfully – ‘This is my exchange. This is my substitute. This is my expiation.’
3. When the ritual was finished, they will not throw the chickens under the table, like before, but slowly and respectfully place them down and carry them away to the butcher.
4. They will no longer be bound up in pairs, as until now, but one by one, each chicken separately, because chickens are different in character and don’t always get along, and it often happens that they peck and bloody each other when bound together.
5. The chickens will be plucked only after being slaughtered, not before, as is the custom in many places.
6. While the butcher takes the chicken between his feet and twists its head off– "
“Cock-a-doodle-doo! How do you like these priveleges?!” Screamed a young rooster, another firebrand. All the other chickens followed suit: ‘Buck-Buck-Buck! Enough of your privileges already! To hell with these masters and their privileges!’
The chickens started towards the townsfolk. And these great leaders, let no humiliation befall them, apparently understood what was coming, for they took to their heels and marched back home, each of them back to where they came from.
And so the extraordinary chicken strike was concluded. From then on, they were still slaughtered just as before. They were plucked, cut up, cooked, roasted, fried, served at the table with all kinds of sauces and dishes – everything just as before. However, no more kapores were beaten, and they were not exchanged for the sins of any ‘bnei-odem’ – feh! Down with kapores! The custom, you see, was no longer a custom. It seems that, in fact, there is nothing in the world that is really eternal? To everything its time, and its end.
Kapporot and chicken welfare today
Finally, you can learn more about chicken welfare in the US here and the problems with industrial chicken farming here . The custom of kapores still continues, however, as Jay Michaelson pointed out back in 2015, today its cruelty pales in significance when compared to that of industrial farming. 'For every one chicken waved over a hasid’s head in Brooklyn, literally a million suffer far, far more grievously in the American industrial agricultural system.' While Sholem Aleichem's revolutionary roosters focused on the religious issue, today Jews who follow in his footsteps by protesting the custom use it as a focal point for a broader movement against factory farming. Today, many Jews wave money over their heads as kapores instead of chickens. In 2017, my friend and ritual collaborator, Kohenet and Chicken Advocate Sarah Chandler, pictured below hugging a chicken, led a humane version of the ritual in which participants whispered their sins into a chicken's ear.