The chickens will pay for your sins. Mary Smith stumbled onto this gambit while walking to the Starbucks in her Pico-Robertson neighborhood on Sunday, when she noticed “many, many cages” crammed with chickens in an alley behind the Bait Aron building at 8701 Pico Blvd. The sight of the birds was, she recalls, “alarming and sad.”

Back home, she Googled them. The chickens were for kaparos or kapparot, a ritual performed in preparation for Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A person swings a live chicken over his head three times, recites the appropriate verses (“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace”), then kills it. The carcass, or its cash equivalent — currently $25 to $35, depending on the breed — is donated to the poor.

Practitioners believe that the person's sins will be transferred onto the chicken, wiping the slate clean for the New Year.

The woman was horrified by what she observed. For the record, “Mary Smith” is not her real name. Pico-Robertson is, after all, a “tightly knit community” and she must shop and eat in the same places as her neighbors.

She is a vegan. And though tarps had been draped over the fences, she and her husband still saw the chicken each time the rabbi raised it above his head. The sounds were the worst: “It was a horrifying, squawking, screaming sort of thing.” Later, as workers hosed down the driveway, she spotted chicken pieces in the gutter — a tangle of entrails, a bit of comb.

In kapparot, white chickens are customary. A man takes a rooster. A woman takes a hen. It's one chicken per person, though sharing of chickens is permitted for cost-saving purposes.

The ritual can be performed anytime within the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, which begins tonight at sundown. The frequency of chicken sacrifices ramps up as the Day of Atonement nears.

On the day after Smith first spotted them, a Monday, more chickens arrived, left to broil in the late-summer heat, without food or water. Smith snapped a few photos with her cellphone before security guards shooed her away.

“My husband, he's a sweetheart, he didn't tell me last year,” she says. She points now to the cute, smiling cartoon chicken on the Bait Aron banner, beneath the slogan: “Serving the community since 1961.”

“It's sick,” she says. “A lot of my neighbors are upset about it, too.”

Ken McPeek, for instance. He's lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, which has a strong Orthodox presence, for the past 15 years. He's tried to feed and water the birds. But the birdseed trickled uselessly through the wire lattice.

Every year he witnesses chicken kapparot, and every year it disgusts him. He finds the idea of transferring sin onto the fowl particularly bothersome. “So now you're gonna take this sin-laden chicken and give it to poor people? That's nice.”

Chickens have been paying for people's sins for a very long time. The custom is ancient. So, too, is the controversy.

Chicken kapparot is not observed by all Orthodox Jews. Almost as soon as the first chicken neck was severed, in the 9th century, rabbis and worshippers spoke out against the practice, condemning it as animal abuse. They have decried it as “pagan,” “silly,” “foolish” and “deplorable.”

Especially since substitutions are allowed. Killing a chicken is not mandatory for kapparot. Many observant Jews instead use coins wrapped in a white handkerchief, or flowers, because they find the alternative “quite unpleasant.” The ritual, admits Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the Orthodox Union's West Coast regional office, is no less effective with money or flowers. “I understand the concerns of the neighbors,” he says.

He still recalls 10 years ago when PETA protesters dressed up in chicken suits and paraded around his synagogue. “They are concerned that there are live animals sitting outdoors. This definitely is a health issue. This is a matter for the city of Los Angeles to address.”

The number of chickens is considerable. Last year, more than 5,000 were used for this ritual in Los Angeles.

Kalinsky, however, personally practices chicken kapparot. He does it to honor tradition. Because “that's the way it was done in the shtetl” a thousand years ago.

“This is a ritual we only do once a year,” he says. “That's why the city doesn't want to get involved in this matter and legislate. But,” he adds, “they do provide the pick-up service for the chickens that are not going to be used for consumption.”

Recall, if you will, that early ritual in which a high priest placed the sins of the ancient Israelites onto a goat and sent it out into the wilderness. This is the origin of the term “scapegoat.” Think of these birds as scape-chickens.

“The twirling of the chicken, or giving money, is a symbolic act,” Kalinsky explains. “That does not gain atonement. The atonement is gained through a person recognizing that because of one's behavior, one should perhaps be treated like an animal. When a person sins, there's punishment. It's supposed to trigger in your mind a change of behavior.”

Historically, the chicken was to be the person's last meal before the 24-hour fast of Yom Kippur. “It has to be slaughtered ritually, the same way you would slaughter a chicken in a kosher slaughterhouse.”

What, then, about the awful screaming of the chickens? On Tuesday night you could clearly hear it.

“Yeah, no pain happening there,” says a protestor named Tamara, a high school teacher. (She declines to share her last name.) She's come to the Ohel Moshe Temple at 8644 Pico, a few blocks down from the Bait Aron building. In the temple's parking lot, a small plywood shack has been erected. Families drive up, slip between the shack's red curtains, and wait their turn with the rabbi and the slaughterer. They are in and out in five minutes. “Totally kosher slaughter.”

By night's end, a clusterfuck will develop. Tamara, who is Jewish, will debate the finer points of Torah with old Jewish men, young Jewish men and random people walking by on the street. A man from Ohel Moshe will curse at her, and she will ask, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” and he will respond, “I'll kiss you!” To which the protesters will cry sexual harassment. Almost simultaneously, a Korean protester will get in a Jewish man's face, and a member of the neighborhood watch private security patrol will whip out a Taser. The Taser will make zapping sounds, and LAPD will swoop in: Eight cop cars, with 16 officers, who will lean the private security guy against a fence and pat him down.

Vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike will blanch at the sight of feathers and blood on cement. Tzvi Lowenstein, founder of the private security patrol, will agree that blood washed into the sewer system is not a good thing. “There's already a stench,” he'll admit. Perhaps next year, they ought to use larger pens, he says.

Some Jews are focused on the bigger issue.

“The core question is why are we engaging in a ritual which is so subject to animal cruelty and which is against Jewish law and against a basic moral code?” says Rabbi Jonathan Klein, founder of Faith Action for Animals. “The cruelty is they're in cages until slaughter, in tightly confined spaces.” Chickens above defecate on chickens below. The chickens at the lowest level are covered in feces and urine.

“The community that does this tends to focus on the slaughter itself. That it is surgical and pain-free,” Klein says. But, he counters, there is no evidence that the kill is painless, or that the chickens are in a calm state right before the slaughter.

“Sociologically what's happening is that people love the blood. It's not a ritual until you draw a little blood.”

One young man seems to validate Klein's theory. “It should scare us,” the young man says. He is 25, an Orthodox Jew, passionate, bright and articulate. “We should see the blood and think, 'That should have been me.' But because God loves you, he will take the chicken instead.”

God is not taking all the chickens. Not this Yom Kippur. Some will live to squawk another day. On Monday, 20-something protester Nicolas Tomas grabbed one chicken and spirited it home. Safely ensconced in the backyard of his El Monte home, the rescued chicken didn't even know how to scratch dirt, Tomas says.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Klein had negotiated for the release of a total of seven chickens, with an additional seven each subsequent day. In exchange for the birds' lives, he agreed to tone down the protesting — from a vocal demonstration with shouts of “Murder!” to a silent candlelight vigil.

The folks at Ohel Moshe, however, refuse to negotiate. They will not surrender any chickens. So the protestors stay all week.

“Shame! Shame! Shame on you!” they chant.

An older couple in a shiny Lexus pulls into the parking lot. “Do you know they're killing chickens in there?” one protester demands.

“So what?” the man fires back.

“I don't think your sins are forgiven,” Ken McPeek calls out as the man walks away. “Not at all.”

A woman in a long black skirt emerges from the plywood shack and shakes her head. She looks frustrated. She says, “People eat the chicken. Every day they eat.”

(Update: The California Department of Food and Agriculture today told both Ohel Moshe and Bait Aaron to shut down their kaparot ritual, as they were in violation of state law.)

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