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Ali Berlow

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Fasting (or Not) on Yom Kipppur

Posted: 10/06/11 04:15 PM ET

The fast will soon be here. Twenty-four hours without coffee and meals -- the creature comforts, routines and calories that get me through my day. On this Yom Kippur, the highest of high Jewish holidays, I'll be doing my best at not-eating. In observance with my congregation, I'll wear white and skip the leather. In theory I could choose not to fast. I'm not Jewish, after all. Or maybe I'll do that slippery slope thing. Nibble a little-something to get me through the day and fain the mixed part of my marriage by opting out, hall pass in hand. It's tempting. I've never been a good faster. Who is? But that is the point, isn't it? The journey of Yom Kippur is not about the singular one's comforts. It's (in part) about atonement and powerlessness. Acceptance, transformation and trust.

Many Yom Kippurs past spent with my mostly secular husband have ended abruptly. With our low blood sugars and cranky confusions -- "Are we or aren't we Jewish? And what does it mean to be a Jew anyway?" -- we'd bolt from a crowded synagogue mid-day. Running away conspiratorially hand-in-hand, stomachs in full cramp, we fled into the most non-Jewish neighborhoods of Boston we could find in search of an all-American diner where no one could possibly know what we were running from, or what day it was and then we'd eat. Boy, would we eat. Prayers were said over bowls of chili, plates of burgers, club sandwiches and fries. Cobb salads, iced-teas and Cokes. Cakes, cheese and chocolate. Lingering over coffee, we had no place else to go. I remember these wrestled meals. They were complex improvisational choreographies of primal gluttony, rebellion and that which is sacrosanct. We ate as if trying to define, ignore and explain everything.

Between forkfuls, my questions were mostly superficial and focused on practicalities, the logistics: "Why do we have to reserve a ticket for the most holiest of days? Am I supposed to wear a tallit and/or a yarmulke though I'm not Jewish? Can't we drink even water?"

The depths of Sam's answers belied his secular veneer. He was open, as always, to the debates and discussions that ensued. And I had queries that remained unspoken. Sealed and rubber stamped Personal was my doubt. What will happen when it's revealed I'm not Jewish? The corners of this question still haunt me today, G-d knows.

Let me explain that there is shy skin stretched over my Germanic-heritage bone structure that has always been prone to a rosy blush at the slightest hint of insecurity or anxiety. This holiday in particular has the capacity to send my body into a red-hot blotchy over-drive to which I discovered, a well-poured and creamy Black Cow could assuage. Sam and I found temporal refuge and perceived sanctuary on those Yom Kippurs, scurried away in anonymous naugahyde booths eating treif. Safe, desolate and familiar was the flow of just another day, spiraling away as one and none, like cigarette smoke in some gritty, lonesome song.

While in self-imposed exiles with full bellies, a palpable desertification was well underway. Insidious, like recklessly felled rainforests for profit and greed, the spiritual lands before us were dead and drying up before they even had a chance to germinate. That thrill of collusion -- ditching services and running off into something, whatever -- wore off as quickly as heartburn and indigestion set in. You can't hide from G-d, and you certainly can't hide from G-d on Yom Kippur, no matter how much mayo you order, dip and slather. Outside, a parallel universe of universal prayer for peace, justice and freedom that people all over the city, this country and around the world came together on Yom Kippur, to confess our sins, ask forgiveness and to atone could not be ignored for long at all. I stopped in my tracks to turn back.

At least our waitresses always benefited. We left hefty tips for those oxymoronic Yom Kippur meals. Anyone would, after signing into such a book of feasts.

I used to never understand the moods that took over my husband during the High Holidays. For weeks, his gaze grew distant while his demeanor introspective. Seeking direction, his Heschel books came down off the shelves. Over the years, I sought my own path. Harvey Cox's "Common Prayers" remains a book that's been both salve and quench in my journey, season after season. We all have our rhythms. These days were Sam's. Over time they have become mine as well, even as I remain the wifely outsider.

Will I make the fast? Bad breath and all, I will. It's not much to ask. I anticipate the day as a gift of turning space and time into opportunity to explore the depths, mystery and wisdoms of Torah, prayer and tradition. The vast and extended in between. Reflecting on how time was spent, how we will spend it in the New Year, speaking what words and with which intentions and actions, to each other. How sweet the singular yet collective tastes of breaking this fast will be then.

 

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