Yesterday was Yom Kippur and the last of the ten days of awe in the Jewish calendar. As the day of atonement, it is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar and with a full plate of joy and challenges. Pun intended.
On Yom Kippur, I get to do two of my favorite things – sing Hebrew melodies and spend considerable time in synagogue, reading the English portions of the worship service and pretending I know the Hebrew.
But I am also commanded, or at least encouraged to give up two things I hold even more dear to my heart – working and eating. Yes we Jews, as a form of expiating our sins from the previous year and showing a greater reliance on God-provided strength, must fast from sundown on Kol Nidre (the eve of Yom Kippur) to past sundown the next night. 24 plus hours of devotion without the joy of food.
Needless to say, the fast could not be any more slow.
What’s interesting about Judiasm is how it defines sin. We jews tend to make an art form out of guilt but the theology suggests we should do otherwise. When you get to the synagogue, the first tendency is to thank God the day of atonement is only one day because you are guilty of several of the deadly sins and have a fairly long rap sheet to prove it. But when the action begins, you realize you are atoning for more nebulous and elusive sins, like drinking straight from the carton of OJ, misapplication of pride or joy, neglect of the Sabbath, making premature judgments, on others and ourselves.
So even though the fast doesn’t have to apply to the big kahunas of sinning, there are plenty of subtle acts of omission and commission worth having cleaned from the slate.
Speaking of judgment, don’t judge my food intake by my slender build. I’m one of those people who aside from Bingo and Shuffleboard, really likes to go on cruises because of the around-the-clock buffets. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s first to go down and grab a snack, then use the bathroom.
I know I like eating, but it takes Yom Kippur for me to realize that food is the cornerstone of my life.
I was well prepared for yesterday’s fast. At about 5:45 began the se’udah mafseket ( the Jewish version of the last supper. I started gluttonizing, vacuuming as much pasta, fruit, sushi and other easy to eat foods as I could. By 6:15, I had eaten a Michael Phelps-sized meal and was off to house of prayer to begin the atonement.
The opening night service (Kol Nidre) finished around 8:15 and since it ended on an upbeat melody, I was able to sing my way through the next hour. After doing minor house chores and making calls, I was feeling good. Although I opened the fridge a few times out of habit “I can do this I say to myself… Just sleep and when you wake up, only half a day remains. Just think of all the pizza you can eat.”
But reality delayed is not reality denied.
Sure enough yesterday morning I woke up in a ravenous mood. The bunch of bananas? No such luck. The cereal and pancakes I normally eat? Sorry you can look but can’t touch. The irony is not lost… On a day when I actually need a ton of energy, when I have to follow along a few hundred pages in the prayerbook then go to cover a hearing on Capitol Hill, no food, no coffee, no nada.
At this point, it’s only 8:30 am and I have at least another 11 hours to go..
Somehow I am able to shower and dress nicely. That alone consumes a huge chunk of my reserve tank. Even before I get to synagogue, the cravings kick in. Oh man, I could just really go for some cheese and crackers, or a hard shelled taco with beans, tomatoes and cheese. How bout some toasted pita with hummus? Grapes, strawberries, chocolate milk! Tuna rolls with just a little bit of soy sauce. And this is just what I want for appetizers
By eleven, some combination of the delirium tremens and anorexia nervosa has set in. I am emotionally and physically waylaid and I haven’t even made it to lunch. Did I just say lunch? Oh for God’s sakes (yes another sin, I used the lord’s name in vain), how can I possibly make it through the day when I normally live meal to meal?
The question seems to have about as many answers as the hearing on the Wells Fargo CEO scandal I just witnessed. But I’m off to synagogue again. Yes misery needs company.
The hardest part about the morning service, aside from the fact that my eyes are too tired to read the Hebrew ( I have seemingly forgotten how to read Hebrew) is the amount of times we need to stand. Every time I get comfortable it’s back on the feet because ark is opened, we are davening or some other sacred ritual like praying for Curb your Enthusiasm to return. At some point, I start seeing milk duds and freshly baked slices of naan bread careening out of the ark. I make it through the morning service. It’s only 1 pm.
On my way back to the car, the appropriate plot conflicts kick into higher gear. I walk by Chipotle, Whole Foods, two cantinas, a 7-11 and my favorite local place, the House of Falafel. “You know God, I really wasn’t that judgmental. And I donated a bunch of money through Go-Fund-Me drives. How bout just an apple? I’ll only eat half.”
The interior monologue continues but I let the hunger pangs give me a little bit of tail wind. I have to get to school to finish my news feature.
When I get to class, everyone is either drinking coffee, eating lunch or both. They are smiling. I stare in front of the computer hoping for some sympathy but knowing that is a spiritual no-no. One is not supposed to agonize over nor advertise the fast. I try to write but my narrative seems to make about as much sense as an early-days Elton John song.
By mid afternoon, two preconceptions about myself have been reinforced. One, I’m a masochist at heart. Two, I have a little bit of resolve when I set my mind to something. I also have a better sense of what runners experience when they do marathons. At some point, it’s not even mind over matter; their selves and bodies have become two separate entities. At this point in the day, my body is on its own. It will have to find a way to make it through the next six hours
I finish the unintelligible paper, my body listens to a lecture and by five I am back at the synagogue.
I make it through the next two hours by thinking about everything imaginable. Actually I pretty much just think about family, food, food, food and how lousy my voice is. I’m a little mad at the Sox for not performing in the playoffs but my love for baseball has an element of sin so I catch myself mid obsession.
The service concludes at 7:30 with the final blowing of the shofar. In Judaism it’s called the Neilah. I call it the mercy blow. While many of the congregants smile, I’m just trying to stand up straight and remember where I am.
In the banquet room, we say the prayers for the bread and wine. I can barely utter a word. And then my body and self are re-united. Like a jailbreak, everyone hits the deli line, grabbing foodstuffs one never even considered went together. I ended up with a tuna sandwich on pumpernickel with cucumbers, two types of cheese, tomatoies, falafael, hummus, onions and I think chocolate chip cookies in there somewhere.
I also remember going back for seconds and thirds.
By the time I got home at 9, I scoured the fridge but the eating at home somehow still felt taboo. Maybe we atone for a day, but guilt over pleasures, even daily necessities .lingers,
As I write, I am munching on a bowl of cereal and making pancakes. These ten minutes will likely be the highlight of my day..
In retrospect I’m glad I fasted. It got me to see, once again, how much I enjoy food and how much I take my easy access to it for granted.
Maybe today I’ll buy some food for a homeless guy. I might even try to do another fast sometime soon just to prove I have the willpower.
God knows I’m not up for a marathon