Why Must This Be?


R. C. Curtis

I am an animal rights activist. I am, thanks to my mother, also a Jew. I am not a religious person by nature, but I have always been proud of my Jewish heritage. I am proud of a legacy of compassion and courage, triumph over adversity and rich cultural achievement that is very much a part of that heritage. And I find appealing the Jewish tradition of questioning – even questioning tradition. As a vegan who unapologetically supports animal rights and animal liberation, I have learned to question certain traditions, especially those traditions which perpetuate animal suffering and exculpate the exploitation of animals simply because “it’s the way it has always been done.” I have found it imperative to ask myself and others, “Why must this be?” I have learned what it means to be an outsider whose attitudes and habits are deemed suspect and alien by the majority. Yet I could never imagine living an unexamined life, just going with the flow, afraid to live out my ethics lest they bring into question the prevailing attitudes of the dominant culture and therefor create a disturbance.

Last September between the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the “Days of Awe,” the Yamim Nora’im,I was part of creating a disturbance in the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. I did not help to create this disturbance out of disrespect for the religion of my mother’s people; I was there to contribute my voice, my presence, my energy and my compassion, out of respect for innocent sentient beings: chickens, held captive, cages and cages of them, packed like crate loads of old schmattas waiting to be picked up by the rag man in the alley. But they weren’t rags, they weren’t mere things; they were emaciated hens, white leghorns, spent factory farm egg layers, left for days with no food or water, kept in their own excrement, baking in the hot sun, some already near death but each one struggling for life, hanging on to existence. And each and every one of them destined for one last, terrifying moment when a human being would take her out of the cage, not so that she could enjoy, finally, a taste of freedom, a time of comfort, but to swing her through the air, cut her throat and then throw her poor, abused body into a trash bag. Why must this be?

The Suffering of Living Creatures

“This is my exchange, this is my contribution, this is my atonement. This [rooster or hen] will go to its death and I will enter into a good, long life and to peace.” – the last words a kapparot chicken will hear.

I had heard of kapparot (or kaparos) before, and knew it to be ritual slaughter performed by some orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. I was shocked by the description of the use of chickens and could not understand why those suffering, innocent beings had to take on the sins of the people, especially right before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But that was the other side of the country. I could not imagine being confronted with such a strange and cruel practice here in Los Angeles. Early last September I learned first hand that there are, indeed, those who perpetuate this deplorable practice just a few miles from where I live, albeit a minority within the orthodox Jewish community. And I learned that there are many orthodox Jews and others in the Pico Robertson neighborhood and beyond, who see the practice as shameful, wasteful and cruel.

On Sunday, September 8th, 2013, I attended a “Compassionate Kapporot Ceremony,” presided over by orthodox Rabbis Yonah Bookstein and Eliyahu Fink and by my friend Rabbi Jonathan Klein. In this ceremony, money was used instead of chickens as a means of expiating sins. This was performed across the street from one of two sites where the chickens were to be killed. A protest at both kapporot sites followed. I did not know at the time that much of the next week would be so dramatically dominated by subsequent protests in the neighborhood, confrontations with supporters of the practice and a profound feeling of shared purpose and emotional bonding with others who passionately wanted to see an end to such barbarism.

I will not go into detail about those days. I will tell you that they were tumultuous and confusing; they were filled with a strong sense of purpose and overwhelming frustration, anger and sadness over what was taking place just a few feet away. We saw the poor chickens in their stacked cages out in the alley behind Young Israel. We felt the overriding desire to liberate them all and the crushing reality that we could not do that, though we eventually managed to save many in a hard won agreement with the chicken killers. I heard the screams of the birds as they were manhandled and slaughtered. I saw chicken blood and guts being dumped out into the gutter. I caught glimpses of the ritual taking place in a makeshift shed in a parking lot adjacent to Congregation Ohel Moshe. I saw young children, screaming and crying, as they were pulled unwillingly into that shed so that the torture and slaughter of an innocent animal could take away their supposed sins. And I was called an anti-Semite and a Nazi for protesting all of this. I was told that chickens had no feelings. Murderous glances were directed at us from the kapparot profiteers.

But I also encountered young orthodox girls who were hungry to find out why we were protesting. I met people from the area, Jews and non-Jews, who, though not vegan or animal rights activists, had come out to help end a practice that had so long blighted their neighborhood during this time of year. I felt great joy over the release of some of the chickens and a great feeling of solidarity with my fellow protestors. And I felt a sense of hope that the Torah prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (literally, the suffering of living creatures) would prevail and that all Jews would see that the use of chickens in the kapparot ceremony is inconsistent with Judaic teachings.

I, A Jew

I was deeply distressed by the cries of anti-Semitism directed at myself and others who cared so profoundly about the importance of compassion and sensitivity – rachamim – that we were willing to face such accusations. I was also distressed that a few protestors were not careful enough in the language they used, that they opened themselves and, by association, the rest of us, to such accusations. During those dramatic days and nights we were all on a sort of public stage, playing out our heartfelt roles as fighters against the exploitation and torture of sentient beings for financial gain in the name of religion. Was it a morality play? In some respects, yes, very much so. There were moral lines to be delivered . But there was also so much more we needed to learn about the orthodox Jewish community. Those who profited off the killing of the chickens and conned their fellow Jews into believing their bodies would go to feed the hungry are villains in my script. But most of those who took part in the ceremony, those who came to have their sins expiated, were playing roles delineated by their rabbis and their understanding of what it means to be a good Jew. Is there a way of reaching them, convincing them to use money instead of chickens? I hope so.

At no other time in my life have I felt so strongly the need to immerse myself in my Jewish character. I wanted to portray all that is good and decent and honorable and compassionate in Judaism. I wanted to be able to say, with conviction, “I, a Jew, oppose this cruelty. I, a Jew, care about all sentient beings. I, a Jew, detest speciesism just as much as I detest racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. I, a Jew, care about these chickens. Not just because I am an animal rights activist, but because I am also a Jew.”

I am a Jew. I am an animal rights activist. I am a man who, though not religious, has strong ethical convictions. I don’t have all the answers but I will continue, in the tradition of my mother’s people, to ask the important questions. And I will continue to ask, “Why must this be?”