On the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a time of reflection and renewal, I often find myself fantasizing about bagels and orange juice. By late morning, my thoughts turning ever more frequently to coffee, my temples throbbing from caffeine withdrawal, my belly gnawing from hunger, I begin to snarl. As my stomach growls, so do I. By noon on Yom Kippur, I’m often a cranky mess, anxious and irritable with my husband and children, angry at myself for my shortcomings of spirit.
It was during one such moment last year, when an acquaintance who doesn’t observe a complete fast, asked why I put myself — and my family — through this misery. (My husband, because of a tendency to faint when he abstains from food, abandoned this ritual soon after his bar mitzvah year.) At that moment, I was too cantankerous to respond properly. I didn’t tell her about how at some point late in the afternoon, my mood shifts, about how the fast slows me down, allows me to appreciate the sun on my face as I amble back to services, helps me to savor the sweetness of family, the love of a friend.
I didn’t tell her about my long-standing tradition with one dear friend. My friend, who is single, has broken the fast with me for the past four or five years, arriving at my apartment an hour before the Neilah service, decked out in flowing, loose white garb from head to toe. It is an outfit that her sister warns will drive away potential suitors, but one that always puts me in a holiday mood. We are an earnest pair as we leisurely make our way to synagogue, avoiding gossip in a way I so often find difficult to manage, conversing in a manner that is both peaceable and joyful, and sometimes profound. Later, we stand beside one another, praying, swaying, singing, as the gates of heaven close, as Yom Kippur draws to an end.
This is my “meaningful fast.”
It hasn’t always been this way. As a young adult, I remember contemplating all the long day about the break fast to come; I recall focusing only on the finish line, the end of the abstinence, almost like a race. Then there was the year when I lived in Tokyo, when I woke up with a teary, sneezing, wheezing cold but fasted anyway, and almost vomited as the sun was setting.
In recent years, some Jews have tried to add a new dimension to the fast, augmenting its meaning. Amichai Lau Lavie, executive director of the innovative program Storahtelling, writes in his blog about how the approach of Yom Kippur inspired him to eat in a more mindful manner, examining both his health and the environmental impact. Rabbi David Kalb, who is director of Jewish education at the 92nd Street Y, knows of Jews who donate the cash value of one day’s meals to a charity that focuses on hunger.
I know I’m not alone in finding the fast challenging.
My friend Naomi Wilensky, who is a religious school director for a synagogue in upstate Ithaca, says, “The point is to fast with kavannah/intention, not for the purpose of deprivation. With that in mind, I always drink water. Traditionally water is not included in a fast, but not drinking water makes me feel so ill that I would not be able to concentrate on other matters of the day.”
The goal of fasting is “a letting go of preparing, clearing up after and thinking about food while one travels deeply toward uninterrupted desired transformation,” writes Rabbi Goldie Milgram on her website, reclaimingjudaism.org. But since the rabbi’s blood sugar tends to drop precipitously, she eats 10 peanuts at mid-day.
For Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, assistant professor of Jewish education at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, the experience of fasting depends on a host of factors, some of which are beyond our control. “If the synagogue service fits one’s personal expectations, the prayers are both pleasing and evocative, the spoken word is meaningful and enhancing — then the fasting only serves to further help you enter inwards to a contemplative centering wherein one can attain a deeper sense of wholeness, connectivity and growth of self.”
The rabbi acknowledges: “Yes, I have been there once or twice and only having experienced it can I imagine it happening again.”
Elicia Brown writes the All She Wrote column for the paper. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org