Los Angeles Times Local
Killing of chickens in Jewish ritual draws protests in L.A.
Protesters debate with a woman, right, outside the Ohel Moshe synagogue on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Kaparot rituals have been held at the synagogue’s parking lot. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times / September 10, 2013)
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Photos: The Jewish ritual of kaparot
In a parking lot behind a Pico Boulevard building, inside a makeshift tent made of metal poles and tarps, a man in a white coat and black skullcap grabs a white-feathered hen under the wings and performs an ancient ritual.
He circles the chicken in the air several times and recites a prayer for a woman standing nearby whose aim is to symbolically transfer her sins to the bird. The young man then uses a sharp blade to cut the hen’s throat.
In the days before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, this ritual will be repeated untold times in hastily built plywood rooms and other structures in traditional Orthodox Jewish communities from Pico-Robertson to Brooklyn. Promotional fliers on lampposts in this neighborhood advertise the kaparot service at $18 per chicken or $13 apiece for five or more.
But the practice is increasingly drawing the ire of animal rights activists, and some liberal Jews, who say the custom is inhumane, paganistic and out of step with modern times.
“An animal sacrifice in this day and age?” said Wendie Dox, a Reform Jew and animal rights activist who lives nearby. “That is not OK with me.”
This year, activists have launched one of the largest, most organized efforts ever in the Southland to protest the practice, known variously as kaparot, kapparot or kaparos.
Over the weekend, a coalition of faith leaders and animal rights proponents held a “compassionate kaparot ceremony” during which rabbis used money rather than chickens for the ritual, an accepted alternative. Organizers say that more than 100 people attended and that some stayed to demonstrate late into the night.
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PHOTOS: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Kaparot ritual of swinging chickens over the head
Posted Sep 11, 2013
Swinging chickens over the head is part of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Kaparot ritual in the Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel,Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. Observers believe the ritual transfers one’s sins from the past year into the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year which starts at sundown Friday.
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken over his head as part of the Kaparot ritual in the Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel,Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. Observers believe the ritual transfers one’s sins from the past year into the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year which starts at sundown Friday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews hold chickens as part of the Kaparot ritual in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken above his head during the Kaparot ceremony in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, on September 11, 2013. AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
An Ultra-orthodox Jewish woman swings a chicken above her head during the Kaparot ceremony in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, on September 11, 2013. AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
The Euless neighborhood is mostly quiet, a sleepy suburb of pleasant ranch-style homes, winding creeks and mossy oaks that looks as if it could have been plucked from any American city. Except, of course, for the ancient gods that populate the home and religion of one of the area’s most controversial residents.
Inside Jose Merced’s shrine room, devotees of all ages participate in the cleansing ceremony for Virginia Rosario-Nevarez as part of her seven-day initiation into the Santería priesthood.
The deities, or Orishas, communicate through cowrie shells, telling one woman about her past, present and future in a divination reading.
A Santería priest performs the cleansing ceremony on Nevarez (center) before 60 or so deities, which sit in pots on the shelves to her left.
Money is part of the ritual offering to the Orishas during a cowrie shell reading.
But Jose Merced doesn’t shy away from controversy—and he has no plans of doing so on this crisp day in late September. No matter that his neighbors remain uneasy with the ritual singing and drumming that are part of his Santería religion; no matter that they might, as before, call the police if they feared he was engaging in animal sacrifice; no matter that the city of Euless, even after losing a drawn-out lawsuit that tested the boundaries of religious liberty in Texas, is still searching for new ways to shut down Merced’s spiritual practices. For him, the deities who reside in the back room of his house have been silenced long enough.
It’s been nearly three and a half years since he stopped the ritual slaughter of four-legged animals in his home to pursue litigation against the city over his right to do so. With a decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in his favor and against the city’s health and safety concerns, Merced, a flight attendant, will resume his full religious practices tonight.
As the sacrificial hour approaches, several priests (Santeros) are preparing the 40 assorted goats, roosters, hens, guinea hens, pigeons, quail, turtle and duck who grow noisy and nervous in their cages. Their lives will be taken in an exchange mandated by Olofi, Santería’s supreme god and source of all energy, to heal the broken body and spirit of Virginia Rosario-Nevarez and to initiate her into the Santería priesthood. No medical doctor has been able to alleviate her suffering—the intractable back pain that makes walking unbearable, her debilitating depression and loneliness.
During a spiritual reading, lesser deities have told Merced that for Nevarez to be healed, she must become a priestess. In the initiation ceremony for priesthood, a high priest will sacrifice animals, which must die so she can live a healthy and spiritual life. In a theology similar to Christian grace in which Jesus died to forgive the sins of his followers, the animals will be offered in sacrifice to Olofi and the other deities (Orishas), who will purge her of negative energy as she makes her commitment to them.
Mounted against a wall in the back room shrine in Merced’s house are shelves containing clusters of small ceramic pots, ornately decorated and filled with shells, stones and other artifacts—the physical manifestations of the Orishas that reside in the room. To initiate Nevarez as a priestess, new godly manifestations of the old gods on Merced’s shelf must be born. To make this happen, animal blood will be spilled onto new pots, which the priestess will take home to begin her own shrine with her own newly manifested gods.
Much of theology behind Santería’s rituals remains unknown to Nevarez, though more of its secrets will be revealed to her as she grows in her commitment.
Secrecy defines the Santería religion, which is why estimates, even by its own followers, of the number of its U.S. adherents vary widely between one and five million. The religion’s clandestine nature was also a point of contention during the lawsuit. At trial, the city asked Merced if its health officials could witness a sacrifice to determine if it violated Euless’ ordinances prohibiting animal cruelty, the possession of livestock and the disposal of animal remains, but Merced said only initiated priests were permitted to see one. The exclusion of outsiders stems from the long history of persecution Santería’s followers suffered. Santería came to Cuba from West Africa during the slave trade centuries ago, a peculiar melding of the Yoruba religious traditions of captured slaves and the Catholicism of their masters. Slaves were forbidden from practicing their indigenous beliefs, so they hid that practice from their oppressors, adopting the names of Catholic saints for their Orishas (Saint Peter for Ogun, for example) whose divine intervention they could call upon when seeking protection, health and wisdom.
But tonight, Merced has had enough of secrecy. The litigation has taken a toll on his physical appearance. He looks heavier, grayer, worn out. The national media generated by the case, however, has left him more comfortable with the presence of strangers in his house, even with local news trucks parked in his front yard. And this evening Merced is allowing his first nonbeliever to witness an animal sacrifice.
“I’m going to let her see one and that’s it,” he says, standing in front of a long, flowing curtain concealing the entrance to his shrine. He is unwilling to listen to any who oppose the outsider observing the ceremony. Some in the shrine raise their eyebrows but return to the task at hand. They figure Merced’s deities are in control today. If he’s allowing the Orishas to be seen by a nonbeliever, then the gods must be OK with it.
Merced has recently disregarded other premonitions of danger. Three days earlier in his home, he held a séance for Nevarez in preparation for her priestly initiation. Ten members, all wearing white, gathered inside his converted garage, now a spare kitchen. On top of a white tablecloth sat a crucifix, prayer books, pencils, paper and a fishbowl of water—there to cleanse the spirits from negative to positive. Hanging on the wall were decorative hollowed-out gourds, painted in primary colors to represent a handful of the 60 or so Orishas in Santería. In one corner sat a life-size female black doll dressed in a flowing skirt and bandanna, a half-empty bottle of rum and lighted candles placed nearby.
One of the Santeros at the table knotted his face, his expression troubled. He began to grunt and take short breathes, acting possessed by the spirit, which came alive through him and asked for some rum. A woman handed him a gourd brimming with white Bacardi. As he gulped the rum, he walked hastily toward Merced.
This was a negative spirit, and it had a message: It would be best for Merced to leave the area or send everybody away from his home and remain alone.
Merced folded his arms defensively across his chest. Time and again, throughout his legal troubles, lawyers, neighbors, friends and even Santeros had proposed he do the same. Why didn’t he just leave Euless? Worship somewhere else? Why come out and create so much controversy when he could just keep things secret and live in peace like the others? To Merced, this spirit represented an insult to everything he had accomplished.
“How dare you?” accused Merced, reminding the spirit that it was “immaterial”—and in Merced’s house. “I don’t have to go anywhere. I’m going to keep up the fight.”
Jose Merced never intended to be the face of Santería in North Texas, although he might argue that it was his fate.
He grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and recalls his childhood as happy and stable—that is, until his father left the family. Merced, at 12, felt abandoned and grew physically ill, developing a sharp, chronic pain in his stomach and intestines. A medical doctor suggested exploratory surgery, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it.
She had grown up in a home where regular séances took place between family members. When pregnant with Jose, a stranger stopped her in a shoe store and told her she would give birth to a male child on April 20 who would possess the gift of spirituality. Merced was born on April 19 and early on became intrigued with the spiritual realm.
After Merced became ill, he asked his mother to bring him to a woman his mother had been seeing for private spiritual readings. Even without him mentioning it, the woman told him about his intestinal pains and his nightmares. Hoping she could cure him, Merced began attending weekly séances at her home. Many of those attending wore colorful, beaded necklaces, and he asked the woman how he could get some. She told him those who wore the necklaces were followers of Santería, and he could only get them when he needed them, not when he wanted them. A year and a half later, she did a reading for him with the deities of Santería and told him it was time.
At 14, he donned his collares—necklaces that represented the protection granted by the Orishas. For a short while, Merced, who weighed 210 pounds, began to feel better, but it didn’t last. “Spirits also can bother you when you’re not knowing or understanding what it is you come in life to do,” he now explains.
The woman became his godmother in Santería, and she continued to treat him with herbal potions and spiritual readings. Over the next 18 months, he lost 60 pounds and had good months as well as bad.
Finally, Merced says that the Orishas spoke through the woman and told her that the only way to make his pain disappear was to get initiated as a priest. Merced was ready, but the ceremony was expensive, $3,000, and he didn’t have enough money. For a year after graduating high school, Merced saved up, working as a clerk for the Puerto Rico Department of Education in San Juan. By early 1979, with his mother’s help, he had saved enough money, though he still had no idea what to expect.
He had helped with other initiations at his godmother’s house but was never allowed inside the shrine-room. “I saw the animals going in alive and coming out dead,” Merced recalls. But he had no idea why. He helped by cleaning or cutting up the meat or plucking chicken feathers. Sometimes he would ask the people outside the room what was happening inside. “And when you asked something, all they answered was, ‘It is a secret.’ If you’re not crowned [a priest], you’re not supposed to know. So when I went in to my ceremony, I didn’t have a clue.”
On the day of his initiation, he was called inside the shrine and told to keep his eyes closed. Four hours later, he was dressed in regal-looking robes, his head completely shaven. Later he was told he had been possessed by his Orisha, but he remembered nothing.
After the crowning ceremony, it was time for the animal sacrifice. As the animals were brought in, he was told to touch his head to the animal’s head and its hooves to other areas of his body. The animal was absorbing his negativity. He had to chew pieces of coconut, swallowing the juice but spitting the coconut meat into the animal’s ear.
He would later learn that this was necessary for the “the exchange ceremony,” which came next. The pieces of coconut represented Merced’s message—his thoughts, feelings, needs—which were transferred to the goat for direct passage to Olofi. His physical contact with the animal was also symbolic of his commitment to God. As soon as the animal’s blood was spilled, Merced’s negativity, which had been absorbed by the goat, was released. The purified blood then spilled into the pots.
Shortly after the initiation, he says his stomach pains subsided. “I never, ever have felt again the same pain that I used to feel before,” he says.
Although he had little contact with his father, a nonbeliever, he invited him to his divination readings two days later. His father also visited him at his mother’s house immediately after the seven-day ceremony concluded. Merced was wearing all-white, his head shaved clean, and his father insisted this was all his mother’s doing—she was the one who had become a priestess a year earlier. His father demanded he end these religious practices and join the National Guard like he had. Merced told him, no: He had become a priest for health reasons, and he refused to let him shake his faith, particularly after his father had been so uninvolved in his life for so long.
If his father had learned anything from the divination readings, he would know what the Orishas had in store for his son. The priest had told him he would travel the world. He told him he would become a priest who would initiate others. And he told him that people would have reason to remember his name.
The first year of his priesthood was a difficult one. At the department of education, many of his co-workers would shoot him strange, even hostile glances when he wore his necklace and dressed in the all-white attire his religion required him to wear in the year following his intiation.
In 1989, he learned about a job opening with a commercial airline, and the next year he began to work for the company in Dallas. The work was good, but his spiritual life suffered.
He didn’t know any Santeros here and removed his necklaces to avoid drawing attention to himself. “I didn’t want people to know [about my religion],” Merced says. “That’s hiding. And I lived hiding for a long, long time.”
A closet in his apartment in Euless served as the shrine for his Orishas, which he had brought in cloth bags when he first traveled from Puerto Rico to Dallas.
A year after the move, he bought his first home and dedicated an entire room to his deities. Using the Yellow Pages, he located a botanica (a spiritual supply store) on West Jefferson and felt brave enough to introduce himself as a Santero. Here he would find others who shared his beliefs.
Over the years, he would become godfather to at least 500 followers and initiate at least 17 priests. As these new priests went out into the community and gave out necklaces to their own godchildren, Merced’s own house grew. He estimates that today there are close to 1,000 believers in his Santería community.
As Merced grew more confident in his job and in himself, he stopped hiding his religion to outsiders and would tell them about it when asked. He took the same approach in his personal life. And in 2002, when his boyfriend, Michael, decided to take his last name, their commitment to each other seemed a natural progression. “This is me,” Jose says. “And everyone will accept me for what I am.”
In 2002 Merced moved into the house he currently owns in Euless, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he started attracting the attention of the authorities. On September 4, Euless police and animal control officials showed up unannounced at his home. An anonymous caller had complained that goats were being illegally slaughtered in his backyard. When the authorities arrived, Merced was in the middle of a sacrificial ceremony inside his shrine. The police told him to stop—that if he didn’t they would fine him or arrest him. But the animal control officer intervened: Merced was allowed to continue the ritual and would not be arrested, at least not that day.
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Great Cuba documentary
Uploaded on May 15, 2007
Scenes from 2005’s “Havana Centro” by Paul Johnson. Rare scenes of a Santeria ritual taking place in Havana, Cuba