Kapores (1903) by Sholem Aleichem, translated for Vashti by Annabel Gottfried Cohen
*Note: Yiddish transliterations of Jewish religious terms have been used in keeping with the original text*
As early as the first day of Rosh Hashone, when everyone was going to tashlikh, you might have noticed a crowd of chickens speeding through the backstreets. Cockerels, old brood hens, young roosters and chicks, all were hastily bouncing along, necks outstretched, legs raised, heading in the same direction far outside of town. Peculiar as this was, it didn’t occur to anyone to stop and look 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.
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 serve as a kapore! Yet, as if someone were playing a nasty trick on them, 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 be 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 would do the job. For kapores you need fowl, and, even if you were willing to lay down your life for it, there was not a fowl to 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 the log of an old cut-down tree. Onto the log 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! You are all familiar with the shameful custom of the townspeople. Every year at this time, 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 goodness-knows-what from a sider. Then they fling us under the table and carry us away to the butcher so he can do his deed. They call it ‘kapores’ – ‘atonement’. How do you like this honourable assignment? 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: do with us what you will, we will not be your kapores! Down with kapores!”
“Cluck cluck cluck!” joined in all the birds in unison: “Down with kapores!”
“Cock-a-doodle-doo! Consider, faithful brothers and dear sisters, are you strong enough not to give in to temptation? Not to 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! Cluck cluck cluck! Khas V’kholile! God forbid! We’ll never give in, not for all the tea in China! Cluck cluck cluck!”
“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 if need be! You must not allow yourselves to be captured, you hear? The end! It’s over! Down with kapores!”
“Buck buck buck! Cluck cluck cluck! 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 in a thousand years!”
And 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 – these reputable housewives! The balebostes did as their husbands bid them. Some with corn and some with millet, some carrying bags and some sieves, off they went beyond the town to cajole the chickens back into their cages.
“Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep” cooed the women, slowly edging up towards their targets. Sitting themselves down on the ground, they poured out their little bit of millet and corn. “Cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck… Buck buck buck buck buck…” With these and other such proverbs, the women tried to entice the chickens.
Catching sight of the millet and a whiff of the corn, the hungry chickens made a beeline for it. In the blink of an eye, the little piles of grain had been completely pecked up, with not a single kernel left. Yet 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, they jumped right up to their faces. Narrowly avoiding an eye-pecking, they were lucky to get away with their lives.
When the women came home and told their story, their husbands erupted in riotous laughter, rolling around on the floor and 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 outsmarting a human? Fools! Ha ha ha!”
“You know what”, said the women, “if you’re so clever, why don’t you go yourselves? Go wage a war with the chickens! Show everyone what you’re made of!”
And so the men took their sticks in their hands and went out beyond the town to see what was going on with the chickens.
After all, men are no women. Men have a completely different kind of strength – manliness! Catching sight of the crowd of chickens from afar, they first devised a strategy. Moving as a unit, they stole themselves quietly around and behind, to the other side of the chickens. Then they all raised up their sticks in unison and, mustering their superior intelligence, set about chasing the birds home:
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck!” – and, in Russian, because naturally all farm birds speak Russian – “Do domay! To your houses! Kish kish kish kish kish!”
But their “kish kish” was no use. Within seconds, the whole flock of fowl – the roosters and the hens, the old brood hens and the little chicks – fell upon the men, flapping in 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 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, 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 yoydeye – 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 wifely joy:
“Nu, you’re not laughing anymore? Such pros! Hot-shots! Masters! Men!”
“If you can’t go over it, you have to go under it.” Thus spoke the skilled and capable menfolk, thanking God for giving them such witticism. An assembly was called with the rabbi, and after much discussion, muttering and chatter, it was decided to send a delegation to approach the chickens amicably and find out what they wanted.
Naturally, only the most wealthy, powerful and important were chosen for this task – the rabbis, judges, cantors and ritual slaughterers. Unarmed this time, without their sticks, they journeyed out beyond the town. The rabbi, moving to the head of the delegation, addressed the chickens in the language of diplomacy:
“Shema na, Raboysim! Hear, o’ poultry! Tell us, what do you want? Speak, 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 if you all scream at once. Listen, our people chose us to act 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. Puffing himself up like a visiting in-law, he turned down his nose and demonstrated that he was prepared to act as mediator for the council.
Meanwhile, a few ducks, terrible loudmouths, chimed in with “Quack quack quack!” to show that they were also there among the birds.
Yet before they could say much more, a brazen red rooster also jumped out of the crowd, crowing:
“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 guzzling, gossiping 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!”
“Ka ka ka! True! As right as we are roosters!” joined in all the chickens in one voice, and the noise of their cry continued to grow. 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.
“So then, chickens, tell us. What do you want?”
“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!”
“What are we supposed to do? We are Jews, we have to sacrifice kapores!”
“Oh really? Where is this written?”
“Where is it written?! Well, uh … relating to this … hmm … how is this your business, where it 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?”
“You have 613 mitsves!”
“And is it not an honour, that when we sacrifice you we say the words ‘bnei odem – the children of men’ three times. Are you not honoured to be used in such an important ritual for humankind?”
“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’.”
“And what about the blessing that the slaughterer says over you?”
“He may as well bless a rubber chicken!”
“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?”
“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?”
“We slaughter geese for Khanike, 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!”
“Ritual slaughterers? Butchers! Buck buck buck! May all the butchers in the world die an unnatural death! Go on, we dare you – hand over a couple of your butchers!”
“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!”
“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? 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.”
“Kukuriku! 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 one: A day before the beating of kapores, the chickens will be given food and drink as if nothing was going to happen to them.
“Two: During the kapore ritual, when saying ‘bnei odem’ 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’.
“Three: When the ritual is 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.
“Four: The chickens will no longer be bound up in pairs, but one by one, each chicken separately, because chickens have different characters and don’t always get along, and they often peck and bloody each other when bound together.
“Five: The chickens will be plucked only after being slaughtered, not before, as is the custom in many places.
“Six: When the butcher takes the chicken between his feet and twists its head off–”
“Kukuriku! How do you like these ‘privileges’?!” 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 – may 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 like always. 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? For everything there is a season, and every season comes to an end▼
Annabel Gottfried Cohen is a historian and a Yiddish teacher and translator currently working towards a PhD in Modern Jewish Studies.
Like what you just read? Get The Pickle direct to your inbox every Thursday.