Such was Osef’s arrival in Jerusalem before Rosh Ha’shannah and Yom Kippur, Yamim HaNora’im, those Terrible Days, and the ten days between. Shortly after his arrival, he had discovered the shuk, the open and episodically covered market off Jaffa Road, past the central bus station, hemmed in by Agrippas Street. Across Agrippas was walled Nahalot, one of Osef’s favorite neighborhoods, more a village contained within itself, a town of Oz with delightful softly religious munchkins rightfully pleased with their lot in life. Osef confessed that he envied not so much their true beliefs, but really the warmth of their families.
But, the shuk’s grimy glass roofs reminded him of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus on the covered markets in Paris. Benjamin had lugged the suitcase full of manuscripts as he was escaping the Nazis; denied entry to Spain, Benjamin poisoned himself to deny the Nazis the pleasure of killing him. Benjamin’s text celebrates the increased communality, especially during Parisian greyish winters, that the glass-roofed markets brought to the citoyens, both the hoi polloi and aristocracy. Osef had already shopped the shuk before the holidays. But it was during the Yamim Ha’nora’im that he saw his first shekhita, that ritual slaughter to allay sins.
Two days before Yom Kippur, he set off for the shuk. Usually, Osef traveled to each stall as if it were the station of a pilgrimage: the butcher for chicken, the Arab green grocer; the Menahem Begin-festooned fruit booth; the Ethiopian’s for quinoa and spices. “Not Christ’s stations of the cross, rather, Jews’ stations of the fres,” he confessed to his old high school buddy, Yehuda. In the shuk, nothing should distract him.
The big-bellied butcher, who raised his own chickens and sheep, who was heavily bearded, whose swollen red hands bespoke familiarity with blood, had promised Osef a freshly killed bird. Or the fruit man, whose diminutive stall was watched over by a massive poster of Begin. Or the Ethiopian spice stand. Or, or, or.
But, then, the shuk, like the City, is mostly distractions.
That day, a small breech in the shuk wall beckoned. It was on Agrippas Street, just past the rugelach bakery and before the Arab knupfe and sweets seller. First, he noticed the two girl soldiers guarding the opening. Instead of bustle, an occasional person or a couple entered or left solemnly. The two steps up were half-ramped with rough cement, the stuff the Romans invented.
Osef, the flaneur, entered hesitantly. An open courtyard with three tables forming an open square not quite greeted Osef. Greeting doesn’t come to mind here. Only after a few moments a pungent under-tone, an indistinct rankness fogged about him — came and went. Osef recognized later the fragrance of fowl death. He saw a trio of pairs behind each table and perhaps five people before them, one young religious couple milled about centrally before they stop in front of the tables of judgment. Matters dawned on him. Osef saw the kippa’d shochet withdrew a live chicken from a coop to present to the young couple for inspection. He had a deft, practiced manner. One-handed, he pinioned the wings behind the bird, immobilizing it.
Osef heard peeps and realized that these were almost-chickens; oversized chicks, pubertal birds. The chicken, while white, had a besmirched breast, as if it had not yet come clean of sins. It soon must. Of the young couple, the woman, hair-covered, tilted forward slightly from the waist, as if she were withholding her body, yet her gaze magnetized by the bird. The chicken-wielder passed the bird in an elliptical orbit and just at an angle near the woman’s head, like some off-centered rings of Saturn. The schochet’s lips moved. Then, he pulled back this feathered satellite and released thumb and forefinger from the wings to restrain the chicken’s head: goose-necking the bird. In his other hand, he wielded a straight-razor, similar to the old types once leather-stropped, but this had replaceable “safety” blades, the kind Gillette invented. Not so safe for the fowl. The schochet made a gentle slit, much less than Osef thought would be needed for death-bringing. Then, schochet upended the beheaded bird into one of eight zinc funnels sticking out of the table before him. Little was seen from these funnels above, except the kicking chicken legs — Osef thought he spotted a few feathers ascend heavenward, but they were brought back by wind and gravity before they got too far. Hard to get up there from here. Perhaps, outdoing Newton, gravity is stronger in this city; it is a grave city. Again, Osef thought he spied the legs kicking, but perhaps this was his fevered imagination. He had seen the blood funneling down below. The couple, looking relieved or calmed, perhaps certain that at least the woman’s sins had been dispelled, left hand-in-hand. Money exchanged hands, unseen.
The fellow at the back table, furthest from the wall breach, beckoned, beckoned again. Osef recoiled. Osef had thought that he could buy a fresh chicken here rather than from his beefy butcher, but realized that this was not to happen. Another sinner examined a pinioned chicken carefully, perhaps like the Temple’s red heifer, checking for mumms, defects that might cancel the bird’s cleansing effect. Far to the right, well behind the ritual action, a young fellow, perhaps fifteen, Arab-looking, worked chicken carcasses against a lathe-like instrument that stripped birds of their feathers, made them naked. Whirlwinds of flying feathers surrounded him. Osef — retreating through the breach, bile rising in his gullet — wondered what would happen to these sin-soaked birds. What was their fate?