To fast or not to fast – Yom Kippur and what it means to me

Last night at 7.05pm (well actually slightly later because the chicken took longer to roast), I started my fast. For twenty-four hours (actually twenty-five) until 20.05 tonight, when the sky grows dark and we see the first three stars, I will not be eating. Along with countless other Jews I will be fasting for the day of atonement, or Yom Kippur as it is more commonly known. You’ll see orthodox Jews in trainers and crocs, multi coloured feet walking the streets, because on Yom Kippur you are supposed to give up anything luxurious, you are not supposed to wear comfortable shoes,and if it’s leather it means it was killed, you’re not supposed to wear anything that was killed. You are supposed to abstain from most things, like writing blogs let alone being on a computer. At the end of the fast, a ram’s horn will be blown in synagogue. It is something wonderful to see and hear. Then the fasters head home to eat. The more pious will have their reasons, the ‘right’ reasons.

When I was a child we would drive (we were reform Jews) to synagogue for the end of Yom Kippur, with sweets in our pockets ready to eat as soon as we were out of the temple doors. Boiled sweets, I can still taste the orangey, lemony flavours. In the afternoon prior to the fast ending, my sister and I would sit in my parents’ house and play food games. ‘When I went to the shops I bought…’ and so it went on for hours, sometimes with our cousins, until we had to stop because we had made ourselves so hungry and our parents so crazy. As soon as we returned from synagogue, the kettle would be on and my granny Lily’s sandwiches would be placed under the grill. Granny Lily’s Yom Kippur sandwiches were a family favourite – they might sound odd to you, but toasted they were just what our empty stomachs craved. Chicken and mashed potato with coriander in white bread (I may have forgotten something). We never ate them at any other time of the year. When the fast was over we used to congratulate each other on how we had done, whether we had fasted well, some even went over the twenty-five hours, and if anyone had fainted we all knew about it. I remember the stench of bad breath and unwashed bodies in the synagogue, because you are not supposed to brush your teeth in case of drinking water – or because it feels good – or bathe. Remember nothing luxurious is permitted. I brush my teeth, always have and I shower. It feels great and I don’t feel bad about it.

I fasted as a young woman because that’s what they did, my parents and grandparents and I followed. As I grew up I continued to fast, but when I lived in my parents’ house we were not allowed to watch television (no computers then), I couldn’t ride my bicycle, or write, basically we did none of the things we usually did. We sat as a family in the living room and talked (mostly about food). No bad thing. I remember once (when I was very young) I wanted to take my guns to synagogue with me and wear a cowboy outfit. You can imagine the response. I went for several years without fasting, or breaking it fairly early on, because I had no willpower, because I had no sins to atone for, because it was easy for me to open the fridge and eat. But once I broke the fast early I felt guilty. If only I had kept going for a few more hours, how noble I would feel. Then I stopped fasting because I just couldn’t understand why I was doing it. Yeah, okay, dropping a few pounds overnight was great, but it never lasted and I don’t think the Rabbis really meant for teenage girls and young women and more mature women to fast so that they could lose weight on the most holy of Jewish holidays. There were other ways to ask for forgiveness, to atone for one’s sins other than fasting. Over the years I have questioned myself a great deal about it. Now I do it my way.

I’ve fasted for the past few years because I want to observe the day. It gives me a sense of belonging to know that many others are doing the same. I am fasting today, but probably not for all the reasons I am supposed to. I am not fasting to lose weight. There are many things I usually do that I am not doing today – working (this is not work), playing my ukulele, going to my Pilates class and swimming or watching TV, spending hours on my computer. I was going to stay off FB and Twitter, I did for about 16 hours, mostly when I was asleep. Yom Kippur has become a day for me to think more about my loved ones who are no longer here; my sister, my uncle, my friends, my cousins, my grandparents. Not that I don’t think about them anyway, but today it is more concentrated. Today when I would be thinking about buying something, shopping, cooking, I am instead thinking about them.

I should add that I am sipping water, not to is I believe not good for my mind, and I do have to drive north later on so I can be with the rest of the family to break the fast. Sipping water is unacceptable to many, to me it is totally okay. Driving is also totally unacceptable to many.

And of course as today is the day of atonement, I am repenting for my sins, but to be honest, I can’t think of any that I have committed. But if I have, if I have forgotten about them, or someone knows of anything I have done to them or anyone else this is the time I ask for forgiveness. No harm intended. And if that doesn’t work for you, come see me.

To the non believers this may all sound a bit crazy, but I do believe in something, I always have and it has helped get me through the most difficult of times. I do my religion in a way that works for me, in a way that suits my lifestyle – I don’t think it makes me any less of a Jew.

For most, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement. For me it has come to signify a time to be still, to reflect, to be calmer, to not hurry, to be. Not eating focusses my mind on all the other things I would normally do. Am I hungry? Yeah. Only five hours to go.

Think of me later on driving through the north London streets, where croc footed, white trainer women, and men in Converse and big hats walk to and from their place of worship. Think of me at 20.05 in a north London back garden. If the sky is clear I will be outside searching for those stars. The kettle will be on, my mum will make tea, the table will be ready. We haven’t had Granny Lily’s sandwiches for a few years. When I eat I will be grateful for the food, because so many don’t have it. And so many of us take it for granted. I will remember all those we have lost and try to add a little stillness to my days ahead. As I do every year, I will try to take time for me.

Until then, I will sip water and stay away from the kitchen. I will stay away from the kitchen.

3 thoughts on “To fast or not to fast – Yom Kippur and what it means to me

  1. Mmm how we do Yom Kippur….

    My dearest Shelley,

    For many years now Yom Kippur has been a day when I think about the loved ones absent from my life. By absent I’m sure you will understand that I mean both those departed from this physical plane and those just absent. I think about them, I remember them, the best & the worst & I miss them being in my life. I take time to acknowledge both what they gave me & what they taught me. I forgive them & I wish them peace.

    Mostly I fast, sometimes I don’t. Today I’m feeling a little rough (nothing more than the back to school bugs) so I needed some soup. I don’t believe it has made me any less focused on the day.

    I took the children to Shul for the kids services so that they can understand the day in an age appropriate way. Kizzie didn’t want me to stay with her. This made me smile & also a little sad. I watched Kingsley engaged in the younger ones activities & was secretly pleased that this meant I didn’t have to join the congregation upstairs. For Yom Kippur for me is a time for my own reflective & private thought. Just to be (at-one).

    And my quietest thoughts must have been heard. This afternoon I had promised to contribute to the Lewisham A&E victory celebrations. The event was running late & so my slot was cancelled. So no dancing in the rain was required from me today!

    As in previous years, as the day draws to a close I begin to focus on the here & now & on the things I can & should change.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about our long standing relationship. Caught up in the day to day mayhem, I don’t believe I acknowledge or tell you enough just how much I love you & appreciate you in my life (and that goes for the wifey too). I meant to write something of this nature in the book I got for your birthday, I meant to wrap it beautifully. I didn’t then, so I am now! You’re the best Big Sis I ever could have wished for.

    This evening I’m ‘breaking the fast’ with my Sil (sister-in-law Gail). She is not legally my sister in law and wasn’t even when she was married to Shaun, She is part of the amazing spiritual family the universe has provided for me.

    Thanks for being here with me x

    Please give my love to your folks x

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