The Fast Unchosen

fast

How eating during Yom Kippur left me feeling more Jewish

by Lois Greene Stone
I ate today. So what, you wonder; don’t I eat every day? Yes … but today’s Yom Kippur.

In my white dress, wearing non-leather shoes, I participated in the service, standing up and sitting down like an obedient child when the rabbi waved his arms, but I deliberately had breakfast before I left the house. Decades earlier, I consciously decided to stop fasting, and that defining moment affected both my Judaism and sense of self.

My son’s stomach growled from the empty hours. He questioned me as I nibbled on bread. Did I ever fast? What was Yom Kippur like when I was young? If I once fasted, why am I eating now? Do I believe in Yom Kippur?

Do I believe? … As a young girl on Long Island, clad in fall clothing, I walked to shul. My white wool caused discomfort as the day was most always hot. Services went on all day; I walked in and out. Only when told anyone with living parents must leave for Yizkor did I take a break without feeling guilty.

Fasting, after confirmation, was adult “cool”; it gave me a sense of importance. Weakness, feeling lightheaded, reinforced my ability to overcome and emerge in total control over myself. It was as much an ego trip as a religious experience. My peers policed one another, seeing who was going to sneak a smoke or a Life Saver, who really drove and parked three blocks away, who broke rules and carried a purse. I’m not sure I felt as humble before G-d as I felt strong to myself. Deprivation for a day made me certain I’d have enough stamina to endure whatever life would later offer.

At least the solicitations for funds ended with Rosh Hashanah services. I loathed the humiliating way money was raised. My being rich was noted by my seat in the synagogue … Well, my father was president of the place, and my mother headed the women’s auxiliary; we had to sit up front, I defended. Other than not liking the crimson velvet square with gold lettering in-memory-of someone that draped over the bimah, services were okay.

In college, I once fainted from fasting. My forty-five-year-old father died during the spring of my junior year. I stopped fasting. I was angry with G-d. I’d show Him, by eating, and wearing any clothing and leather shoes. I stayed for Yizkor, but not for the day. Standing or seated, a prayer for the dead rekindled my anger. Why my father? Why not, G-d replied. Could I make Him notice me annually by my violations?

What was it like when I was young? Lots of family shared food at my mother’s table. Kol Nidrei, satin shawls, rocking men, my new dress, the long walk to and from shul, ending with more family in the dining room, did not compensate for the Jew-haters in my school who mocked me upon my return. Why couldn’t that solemn day be on a weekend, when attendance wasn’t taken?

I’m not so sure I believed in the opening/closing of G-d’s ledger as much as I feared the possibility it existed. Same thing today. I did believe one should apologize for hurting another, and each year should begin with the attempt to be kinder. I liked the erasure of grudges, the awareness of the brevity of life, and the philosophy behind starting anew. As years progressed, I was often the only one among my associates who felt that way. When I was young, I heard I was silly to ask forgiveness for offenses; as I became older, the phrasing was different, but the message was the same.

I no longer seek forgiveness from my peers. Congregants hear about the folly of coveting material goods, while oftentimes, services is the place to display a new fur or ring, or to exhibit a silk tie and cashmere suit. Congregants hear about putting aside grievances, while whispering they’ll never forgive so-and-so for omitting them from a party. Families that feuded beat on their chests—’for the sins we have sinned’—and continue to turn from one another as Yom Kippur closes. This confused me; it still does.

I ate today. I’ve eaten this day since 1954. I feel guilty. I carry a purse and ride to the Reform synagogue where few wear shawls or stay for day-long rites. I’ve stopped, but only recently, asking peers to pardon mannerisms or words that offended unintentionally, for I can no longer face their mockery at my taking this time so seriously. Others may cling to grudges; I’ve no time, and hate takes up too much energy.

I hoped my questioning child and his siblings would become sensitive humans, that G-d would protect them, and that they would respect G-d. And now, in 2011, my still-Jewish children have produced 14 Jewish offspring—quite an accomplishment for this generation. The one who questioned me is Hasidic, another is Reform leaning to Conservative, my youngest is Reform.

As I watch grandchildren become bar/bat mitzvah, I think of my parents, the mind-boggling amount of years my father has been deceased, with my mother and older sister occupying graves on either side of him, and then I smile at the beautiful continuity of Jewish ritual. Grandchildren tell me of the sense of accomplishment they feel after completing a fast. I eat, but I remember my parents and Yom Kippur as a girl. I still feel blessed.

Why did I stop fasting so long ago? I wanted G-d to notice my anger. Why do I still continue to have meals when my loved ones are abstaining? Now I feel a silly fear that if I should fast, something terrible might happen, as G-d might notice I’m once more following Jewish ritual, consider I’ve made peace with mortality, and the Book of Life will close for me. Since I neither want to be noticed that way, nor any Evil Eye to observe any change in my pattern, I quietly put food into my mouth as if each morsel could make me less visible. The defining moment, back in 1954, of saying ‘I’m angry’ and I’ll follow moral laws, but not ritual fasting, still ‘defines’ the Day of Atonement, but for a reverse reason. Since when does being rational relate to strength or weakness?

 

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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