As the "Day of Atonement” approaches, reflections on a holiday spent with God, sin, and an empty stomach.

By Mary Beth Crain

To us Jews, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, period. The “Day of Atonement,” the “Day of Awe,” the day when you have to give up fun in all its forms to face God in all His towering righteousness and tell how bad you’ve been, and how good you promise to be.

You know Yom Kippur is serious when you can’t eat or drink anything for 24 hours. To the Jews, not eating is the equivalent of not breathing. In fact, there’s an old saying: “At a wedding, the Catholics drink and the Jews eat,” to which I’d add “and the Protestants watch.”

Our house was always well-stocked with rich foods and tasty desserts. My father, who was a difficult, tyrannical man, only knew how to show us love by bringing us seven-layer mocha cream tortes and butter cookies from the Israel Bakery. My mother always had milk and cupcakes waiting for us when we got home from school. And whenever I spent the weekend at my grandparents’ house, my dear Nana Annie, bless her soul, considered it her duty to ply me with breakfasts that consisted of six pieces of fresh challah toast lathered with Breakstone’s Whipped Sweet Cream Butter, just because I happened to be a skinny kid.

“A mouse!” she’d wail. “Look at her! No bigger than a mouse! Eat, darling! Do you want to go out and faint in the street?”

Pastrami, Jerry Lewis observed, killed more Jews than the Holocaust.

So, you better believe the Jews mean business on Yom Kippur. It’s the perfect penance for a food-oriented culture. Not only are you forced to confront the past year’s worth of transgressions, you have to do it on an empty stomach. From sundown on the 10th day of Tishri to sundown the following evening, you fast and dream of everything from Krispy Kremes to kreplach, all the while feeling guilty because your mind should be on your sinning soul and not your grumbling stomach. Was it a coincidence that Yom Kippur reminded me of kippered herring, with scrambled eggs, on toast…Yum—Kippers! Oh, Lord, they haven’t even said the Kol Nidre yet and already I’m starving!

But food isn’t the only thing you have to give up on Yom Kippur. There are actually five prohibitions: no eating or drinking, no bathing, no using creams or oils, no wearing leather shoes, and no sexual relations. The logic, of course, is that with all your distractions taken away, you’ll have an easier time concentrating on holy pursuits. The reality, however, is that a hell of a lot of penitents are probably expending most of their energy fighting fantasies of kippers, bubble baths, and hot sex. At least those who are old enough to know about hot sex. My memories of Yom Kippur are confined to my childhood and early adolescence, that happy, clueless time of life when you wouldn’t know the real meaning of either sex or atonement if it fell on your head like a lead mazohball.

As kids, my twin brother and I were spared the grave preparations for the main event, which began the previous day and included the kapparot, and the viddui. In the kapparot, or atonements, you traditionally swung a live chicken around your head, while reciting the following prayer, in Hebrew, of course:

This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This chicken is going to be killed and I shall enter upon a long, happy, and peaceful life.

Since live chickens were hard to come by in bastions of modern civilization like the ‘burbs of Rochester, New York, this ritual had been modified by the time I made my acquaintance with Yom Kippur, and a handkerchief with money was substituted for the unlucky bird, the contents to be used for tzedakah, or charity.

The viddui, or confession, is recited during the afternoon prayers the day before Y.K. It’s also repeated throughout Y.K. as well, but the here it performs the added function of spiritual insurance: in case you die before Y.K., you’ll already have confessed and begged forgiveness. The customary dress for the men is white, and in the old orthodox tradition, men even wore a kittel, the white burial robe for the dead.

The evening of Yom Kippur, or Erev Yom Kippur, we sat down to the seudah-ha-mafseket, or the final meal. This is supposed to be a fun event, just like Mardi Gras is the party before the gloomy stretch of Lent; as the Talmud proclaims, “just as it is a mitzvah to fast on the tenth of Tishri, so it is a mitzvah to eat on the ninth.” You get typical Shabbat fare, like matzohball soup and roast chicken and plenty of fresh, sweet challah, and you might as well pig out because otherwise you might not make it through the next 24 hours, and it would be a far worse sin to break the fast illegally than to indulge in a little pre-Y.K. gluttony.

Holiday candles were lit, blessings said. And then, the sun dipped down into the horizon and my young heart sank along with it, as the first stars appeared in the evening sky, and the Five Prohibitions officially kicked in. Yom Kippur, clothed in dread, had begun.

We went to evening services at my grandparents’ shul, an Orthodox synogogue where, according to strictest tradition, the women sat on one side of the bimah, or altar, and the men sat on the other. I’d be dressed in my best: new fall suit, black patent leather pumps, white gloves and the obligatory hat. The entire service was said in Hebrew, and there was a lot of rocking back and forth and wailing and moaning.

To a 10-year-old, it was all very creepy and long-winded, and I fidgeted madly in the hard pew, pissed off that I couldn’t sit with my brother, who was off on the other side of the aisle with the other privileged males. If I had him beside me, we could whisper and giggle and pinch each other til we turned blue, which would certainly have alleviated the crushing boredom. As the rabbi rambled on, I had no idea what anyone was saying, or why. Not being old enough to have done any real transgressing, and not being Catholic, I wasn’t terribly well acquainted with the many dimensions of sin. To me, the Day of Atonement meant asking God to forgive you for being naughty, and that was that. It should have taken all of 30 seconds; why it took 24 interminable hours was a true mystery.

I’d go home that night aching to raid the refrigerator, but way too afraid to. The long warning fingers of my parents and grandparents had instilled the fear of God into me. I might not comprehend the vast dimensions of sin, but I sure as hell knew that eating on Yom Kippur was the worst act you could commit next to spitting on God Himself.

The next day was even more arduous. You went to morning services, where the droning in a foreign tongue continued all day long. You could take a break in the afternoon for a nap, but you had to be back by 5 p.m. for evening services. It was really too much for a child, but then, at 10, I was no longer considered a child. The cut off point for exemption from the rigors of Yom Kippur was nine. So, I sat and fidgeted some more, counting the hours until sundown, when the fast would finally be broken and I could tear into the bagels and lox.

One Yom Kippur, however, shall live in infamy. That was the Yom Kippur I cheated and ate an Oreo. I think I was 12. I remember very little of the day, other than I had basically had it and wasn’t going to go one damn more minute without sustenance. So, when we went home during the afternoon break, I snuck into the kitchen, snitched an Oreo, and downed it in the hall closet.

Did it taste as good as I thought it would? Yeah. Did I feel horrible afterwards? Yeah. Did I tell anyone? No—not until just this last week, when I laughingly confessed the incident to my mother, who at 42 would have been horrified, but who at 85 thought it was hilarious. And I felt somehow relieved, absolved, after 43 years. I’d never imagined how much one little Oreo could weigh.

As for the real purpose of Yom Kippur, which is to confess your less-than-honorable deeds, ask forgiveness, and wipe the slate clean until next year, it makes a lot more sense to me now than it did 43 years ago. It’s a matter of confronting yourself, which is generally not a pleasant experience, and feeling, in the painful process, the terrible, beautiful humility of your imperfection. Since this is something most of us never do, preferring either to make excuses for our bad behavior or simply deny it entirely, the creators of Yom Kippur were very wise to make sure we have so spend at least one day out of 365 holding a mirror up to our souls and squirming before our true reflections.

Unfortunately, 24 hours of physical and spiritual discomfort just isn’t enough. If Yom Kippur really worked, every Jew would be perfect. Instead, most of us just break the fast with a sigh of relief and resume our imperfect lives until the 10th of Tishri rolls around again.

Yom Kippur should last all year. It should be “L’Shana Kippur.” If we had to be on our best behavior every day, imagine our transformations. We’d all be mensches at last! Of course, if we had to fast 365 days of the year, we’d all be dead too, but I don’t believe eating and drinking should stand in the way of proper atonement, which is not the beating of breasts and rending of sackcloth, but rather consists of the far more demanding practice of merciless self-scrutiny and the daily determination to do better and simply live a more generous, compassionate, non-judgmental life.

Well, God should live so long. But it’s a noble thought, anyway.


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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was No Brownie Points for This "Brownie."

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