The mashgiach, (the kosher supervisor), and the Chabad rabbi were returning to Hanoi from a farm in the countryside where they’d bought chickens which they would kill for the Passover Seder meal. They were stopped by members of the Vietnamese … Read More
The mashgiach, (the kosher supervisor), and the Chabad rabbi were returning to Hanoi from a farm in the countryside where they’d bought chickens which they would kill for the Passover Seder meal. They were stopped by members of the Vietnamese police, suspicious of these black-suited foreigners transporting live chickens. My son, David, is recounting the story over the phone, because he was at that Seder last week. He is quite happy that they managed to hang onto those chickens, since he hasn’t had meat in months. Chickens and Chabad are ongoing themes in my life. At Chabad on the Upper West Side, before Yom Kippur I often participate in the kaparot ceremony. Hoisting a live chicken above my head, I circle it around my head three times and recite the prayer asking that this hen will die so that I can attain a good life. Growing up in rural southern Indiana, chickens were a part of daily life. There were the phrases my family used (my mother still refers to going to sleep as "roosting" and when my brother wasn’t married, my father was heard to say, "He needs to find himself a hen." which conjured an image of my brother with a plump hen tucked under his arm.) Every Sunday we went to our Grandma and Grandpa Recker’s farm for supper, and one of the highlights was to gather eggs. Grandma gave us small, plastic containers and warned us, "Now, remember, if the egg is marked with an ‘x’, don’t you take it! That’s a nest egg and if you don’t leave it, the chicken ain’t gonna come back and lay there no more." So we scooped up eggs from the summer kitchen and smokehouse, the tractor seat, the combine, the hayloft and behind the barn, placing them gently in the bucket. We were careful to leave the nest eggs. Crossing the barnyard, there would invariably be our grandfather, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, ax in one hand and chicken in the other. He lowered the ax, and the chicken’s head was a small, bloody mess next to the concrete block. Meanwhile, the chicken’s torso flew and hopped and jumped around until it came to a sudden flopping stop. My grandfather, in his bib overalls, heavy work boots and the John Deere cap that covered his half-bald head, would dip several chickens at a time in the pot of hot water and, even as steam still wafted up from the feathers, he’d sit on a wooden crate – cigarette burning almost to the end – and tear off the chicken’s feathers in a few handfuls. When supper was ready, our little tribe – in addition to my parents and nine brothers, there were usually ten aunts and uncles and over twenty cousins – gathered around the kitchen table, piled fried chicken and deviled eggs, mashed potatoes and gravy on our plates, and retreated to the porch or the basement or to the living room to watch Lawrence Welk and Wild Kingdom. I plucked my own fair share of chickens, and many a hot summer night was spent in our own barnyard dipping just-killed chickens into a vat of boiling water. Not quite as expertly as grandpa, I dipped and swirled them around, then pulled them out and, along with my sisters, sat on crates and plucked. To break the monotony, my sisters and I sat the chickens on the fence where we linked their wings together, crossed their skinny legs, and made them scratch themselves with their wing tips. We squeezed the air from their stomachs and made them fart Years after converting to Judaism, I learned that Jews don’t dip their chickens in hot water before plucking them, because of a prohibition against curdling the blood. Instead, they pluck them dry, resulting in imperfectly plucked but kosher chickens. Now, David tells me that those kosher-killed chickens in Hanoi were consumed by about 30 people, many of them Israelis in their 20s who were travelling in the Far East. Chabad, renowned for its outposts around the world, and for providing a home away from home for Jews, was expecting my son, David, for the Seder because he’d made a reservation in advance. However, when David showed up with two additional kids from his overseas program, the rabbi raised not an eyebrow, simply set out two more places and welcomed them. I imagine that, though David didn’t know this tribe of Jews, distant cousins at best, who’d gathered around the table in Hanoi, Chabad was as much a home where my chicken could go to roost as my grandparents’ farm was for me. Undoubtedly, the chicken soup and the chicken were reminiscent of home. But even if they’d served some kind of matzah-meal Vietnamese delight, I would bet these wandering Jews would have felt a sense of security and familiarity by virtue of the fact that the words of the Haggadah are the same words they’ve said each year on Passover, in Israel, in America, all around the world. Long before the internet, Jews have been a global community, bonded loosely by DNA but far more closely by a common text. Across continents and centuries, regardless of borders, the texts have traveled, much like the sukkahs, the portable dwelling places that were carted across the Sinai. Inside those words, wherever we are, we find our home, we find each other. The nest egg marked with an x that is the text remains in its nest, awaiting our return.