Every other year we had an Erev Iyun. That meant we stayed late at school for an immersion experience on a single topic. This year, the topic was the alte heim.
One of the activities for the evening was a tour through a reproduced, model shtetl. A group of students converted three classrooms into three dioramas of shtetl life. The artistry was amazing. Armed with only posterboard, spraypaint, and used furniture, they created a set any designer could be proud of. (And any flaws were hidden in the dim light.)
The students had an eye for the perfect finishing touches – little bits of movement that brought their model to life. Like a white shirt on a washline, flapping in the breeze of a hidden fan. Or a live chicken cooing in a wooden crate.
As you toured the diorama, an audio tour pointed out items of interest, and told you inspiring stories of the purity of life back then.
But this is about the chicken.
“You rented a chicken?” I asked one of the exhibitors.
“No, we bought it out on Long Island,” she said.
“So what are you doing with it afterwards?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll take it.”
I always wanted a pet as a kid. I was the one who volunteered to take the class hamster home every Shabbos. A homeless chicken was exactly my bailiwick.
Other activities for the evening included a dead chicken – we all participated in a group koshering activity. At the end, the chicken feet were left forlorn so I nabbed those (yeah, I was that kid). My mother had once reminisced about chicken feet in the soup when she was growing up. For some reason I thought she’d be glad to relive her childhood.
I had a friend from camp over that Shabbos. She still reminds me of the time she refused to eat the chulent because there were chicken feet floating in it.
Oh well. I thought they were good.
Anyway, I’m climbing into the mini-van with my chicken feet when a teacher comes running out. “Wait, aren’t you supposed to take the chicken?”
“Oh yes! Ma, wait, they have to bring the chicken!”
“What chicken? From the feet? We don’t need that chicken, it’s okay.”
“No! From the diorama!”
My poor mother still did not comprehend. She typically encountered chicken dead, skinned, and plucked. So she was puzzled when the students came out carrying… “A milk crate?”
“Yes, look! It’s our new chicken!”
“Should we put it in the trunk, Mrs. S?”
“Bad4! Is that a real chicken? You’re bringing home a chicken?”
“Yes. We can keep it, right?”
Gusty sigh. “Yes, we can keep it. Put it in the trunk.”
I have the best mother ever.
Back then (and perhaps still now) a chicken roaming the backyard could entertain an entire neighborhood for a week. Neighbors old enough to walk themselves over to stare, did so. Neighbors too young to walk themselves over were brought over by their parents.
“Look! It’s a chicken! It says ‘cluck cluck!’”
The predatory neighborhood cats were also in a tizzy over what appeared to be a bird, but was way too large to attack. One Shabbos afternoon we watched a cat spend five minutes stalking across the backyard to where the chicken was napping in the sun. When it finally got there, it reached its head all the way out and sniffed.
The chicken twitched.
The cat shot in the air like a cartoon and zipped back across the yard in less than a second. Hearing our laughter, it paused and scratched its ear, before slinking out of the yard, ashamed.
Although I bought our chicken a sack of corn and kept its water bowl full, the chicken did not last. The internet told me that chicken sellers frequently pawn off their sickest and weakest to unwary sellers, so I comforted myself in knowing that at least we had given her comfortable, free-range hospice care.
For some interesting stuff about life in the shtetl, hop over to this page of mine on the alte heim. If you’re a history buff and into primary sources, definitely hop over.