Kapporos, 2021, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City
I’ve photographed Kapporos in Williamsburg three times, from 2018 until this year, 2021. Williamsburg has a very antiquated ambiance that I love to witness and photograph generally, and Kapporos is a time period that’s extremely provoking, despairing and captivating to photograph. Briefly, Kapporos is a ritual performed by a subset of ultra orthodox Jewish communities just before Yom Kippur. A special prayer is said, and a live chicken is waved over the head, in order to absorb the sins of the past year for the person reciting the prayer. Girls and women use female birds, and boys and men use male birds. The bird is then supposed to be slaughtered immediately, according to strict kosher law, and then processed for consumption and donated to charity.
In practice, many birds wind up in the garbage. The largest sites in Williamsburg do butcher and donate, but unfortunately in Crown Heights some sources claim that the birds are put straight into the garbage afterwards. Sunrise in Crown Heights the morning before Yom Kippur finds rescue crews opening giant green garbage bags behind the staging area where most slaughter took place the night before. They painstakingly search for living birds who are stuffed haphazardly into the plastic bags, birds not used during the ritual but who must be removed before sanitation comes and hauls the garbage away forever.
I had never seen the ritual in Crown Heights, but knew that it was a much bigger event there, and that it attracted visitors from all over the world, especially Israel. I went to Crown Heights late in the afternoon, in anticipation of a wildly active and vibrant neighborhood that was almost completely new to me. I didn’t know if my presence would be well tolerated because the event is extremely controversial and the presence of activists and their specific style of photographing and videoing would make it difficult for me to work independently, working to create natural images of the people and the event without my presence causing ripples of tension or anger. I wandered the neighborhood,eating pizza, talking with people, and feeling like I could understand why the neighborhood is so attractive to so many from around the world.
It reminded me a bit of parts of Jerusalem. It was like a giant block party, including the area near President Street getting ready to accommodate the slaughter of thousands of birds, with all of the accompanying odors and sights and sounds. I want very much to be able to photograph as naturally and honestly as possible. This ritual is highly charged and controversial because of the birds and the immense suffering they endure. The innocence of the children involved as well as fair practices regarding photographing a community with care and justice can become nearly impossible because of the immense distrust that is a direct result of the Hasidic Jewish community being vilified in the media at times, and by the public in the relative privacy of person-to-person negative encounters over the years. Anti Semitism is commonplace and in evidence daily, resulting in physical attacks, verbal harassment and a general sense of exclusion.
For me as a photographer it is still very important—despite accusations that the images may promote Anti Semitic commentary— that I include the images of the birds and the slaughter because it’s part of daily life. Although the slaughter is part of the ritual of Kapporos, the acts that cause death are performed millions of times each day all over the world in the worst, most unimaginable conditions. The birds themselves are engineered for consumption, a breed called the Cornish Cross that reaches slaughter weight at 6 weeks, an astonishingly short period. These birds are what feeds and powers the population of the United States and are universally consumed. Because this event takes place in the street and is public, accessible and highly visible, it is the first time most people have witnessed an animal dying during this process. My personal feelings have become separate from my drive to capture this complex and deeply rooted tradition. Most Jewish people have never heard of Kapporos, and most New Yorkers are unaware of the practice. It is an arcane and particular ritual, confined to a community of ultra orthodox people who must be carefully photographed in order to present the beautiful complexities that are visible on the street.
It would be unfair and totally inaccurate to present anything other than a wider perspective. I found the most beautiful and engaging people engaged in a horrific practice with little regard for the suffering of the birds who withstood intense heat, no food or water for days, and sometimes very haphazard and cruel treatment after slaughter. The families who participated did not have a window into the suffering for many reasons including the one we all have regarding animals we consume or otherwise use: the inability/refusal to perceive the sentience of animals, and the willingness to concede that even the smallest beings have the same rights as humanity expects for itself.
I found an incredibly engaging community and a sense of belonging and vitality that is just as important to photograph as the chaos of Kapporos and everything it entails for for every person who consumes animals or their products, including myself. During the night I spent photographing, I was asked if I wanted to do Kapporos. Young boys, around ten or eleven years old, startlingly mature and well-spoken, offered to help me with the prayer, hold the bird, make circles over my head, absolve me of sin for the coming year. I could feel a pull….and I almost wanted to say yes….if only there was no death involved. Although I have no regard for religious practices of any kind in my own life, I understood in those moments the intense feeling of belonging and warmth that people feel when they are doing something like Kapporos together. I felt tremendously conflicted on a personal level. My self-imposed role as a photographer trying to be as fair as possible in my representations means that I must photograph people in a way that not only represents objective reality, but also tries to capture how people feel about themselves, offering a faceted view as opposed to a monolithic judgement. I don’t feel judgements are my place. I found myself feeling disappointed that the people participating are not recognizing that the suffering and ill treatment of the birds can and should be acknowledged and rectified, and that the process of this particular observation of Kapporos methods represents a human failing. A deep flaw in an otherwise perfect gem that can be overlooked only at times when the light is just right.