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For The Sin Of Not Fasting

For The Sin Of Not Fasting

In going through my litany of shortcomings each Yom Kippur, it’s generally hard to avoid a biggie: my failure to fast.

Now, before you dash off a comment about how, after intermarriage, I’m the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity, let it be known that I do not completely neglect the rites of Judaism’s holiest day. I do go to synagogue all day and, while I am not a hard-core “not one morsel of food or even a drop of water for 25 hours” type, I’m also not one of those people who spends Yom Kippur gorging on bacon and lobster while I sneer condescendingly at the primitive folks who are so stupid and superstitious as to believe in God.

Nonetheless, I have to confess that, despite good intentions and a generally decent level of self-discipline, I have only once completed a fast (well, except for the no-water part, which I can’t even begin to contemplate), and that was largely because I was visiting a more pious friend and felt too embarrassed to eat in her presence. My divine reward for making it to the holy finish line of repentance? Feeling so dazed, light-headed and idealistic the next morning that I fell for a costly scam perpetrated on the streets of Manhattan by an Israeli man. (Leave it to a Sabra to prey on earnest American Jews, the day after the Day of Atonement.)

Growing up in a wholly secular family, I hadn’t even heard of Yom Kippur until I was 7 and read about it in Sydney Taylor’s excellent “All of a Kind Family.” But since then, especially because we moved that year from Texas to a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, I’ve always viewed the day as a test of sorts separating the Real Jews from the Bad Jews. The problem is, I just don’t deal well with hunger: it makes me nauseous, headache-y, irritable and self-pitying, rather than reflective. Year after year, I’d vow to fast, only to break down around noon and then, figuring that I’d already blown it, furtively nosh throughout the remainder of the day.

A few years ago, I worked out a compromise: I drink water, coffee and eat a small breakfast, then allow myself a handful of nuts or a piece of bread in the afternoon. Pathetic compared to the real fasters, but I don’t pass out or throw my oh-so-irritable Ashkenazi digestive tract into a tizzy. It is enough of a sacrifice that I am hungry and a little uncomfortable, yet not so much that I can’t follow along in the prayer book or be reflective. And I’d like to think that it is in keeping with the Reform/Reconstructionist approach of carefully considering traditional practices but not automatically following them to the letter.

What does any of this triangulating have to do with intermarriage, other than that I am intermarried and thus the only person in the household even obligated to fast under Jewish law? (Only 4 and 7, our daughters are exempt.) Not a lot, I confess. But interestingly, last year at Yom Kippur services when I asked a non-Jewish friend whose husband and children are Jewish if she was fasting, she looked at me a bit indignantly and said, “Of course I’m fasting!” Meanwhile, this year one of my few Jewish friends who is actually married to another Jew but is very secular accidentally scheduled a birthday party for Yom Kippur, changing it to the following day after I pointed out it posed a conflict for me and might for some other guests as well.

The rescheduled party was a lot of fun, although sadly another interfaith couple we know couldn’t make it because it conflicted with a Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebration.

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