Saturday, September 18, 2010

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur has always been my least favorite holiday. There I said it. I know it sounds heretical, but for me, the deprivation from food and especially water for 26 hours trumps all the meaningful sentiment that is part of the holiest day for the Jewish people. Despite having built up some additional reserves in the last several years, I do not handle fasting very well, and around early afternoon on Yom Kippur, I get very dizzy, cranky and miserable. Growing up, whenever life presented me with challenges, my Dad would say to me, ".קשה להיות יהודי" (it's hard to be Jewish), and for me this rings the most true on Yom Kippur. One of the standard greetings on this holy of holy days is, "Have a meaningful fast." And, while I've caught myself saying that many times, the real meaning is that I can't eat or drink, and I simply dread it.

So why do I do it? I suppose there are several reasons. Fasting on Yom Kippur is part of who I am and part of what I do. I can't imagine not fasting - it has never entered my mind. Not an option. There is something special about standing during services with hundreds of other (hungry) people who are sharing the same experience and chanting familiar songs that Jews all over the world are repeating every year. Songs that were sung by my grandparents and their grandparents, and even by my ancient ancestors; songs that I hear my children sing, and that their children and grandchildren will sing. These tunes have been refined over centuries, a melodic evolution that resulted in sounds that would spiritually lift even the most agnostic of people. The final song of the Yom Kippur service, Avinu Malkenu, echos in my head for hours, and I can't, and don't want to, extract it. It's a part of my heritage that I experienced as a child in my parent's synagogue, in college at Hillel, and at our own synagogue as an adult, and without which I would feel that part of me was missing. For me, it's all about tradition and community.

After having experienced Rosh Hashana in Israel, I knew what to expect on Erev Yom Kippur. The stores that even opened that day closed around 1 pm, and the buses stopped running, and then around 4:00, the roads went completely quiet. Here in Israel cars are not allowed on the streets on Yom Kippur. Instead, nonobservant Israelis take to the streets on their bikes, rollerblades and skateboards. In fact, we biked to Kol Nidre services because we knew we would not be able to drive home, and walking would have meant starting our fast even earlier to account for walking time, a totally unacceptable option. I recall Ann making some comments about biking in a dress or a skirt, but that problem was resolved when she remembered how people dressed for Rosh Hashana in shul. The average congregant wore either slacks or jeans, a polo shirt and flip flops. There were some Israelis who wore shorts and T-shirts, and a group of American college students conspicuous in their dress slacks and ties. The rabbi had prepared us for this by stating the dress code: no ties allowed, and anything else goes. At Kol Nidre, one fellow arrived wearing a white t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with his rollerblades hanging over his shoulder, presumably his ride home.

After Kol Nidre, we left the shul to a unique spectacle. All of Ramat Aviv was out in the streets. Most were riding bikes, but many were just standing around talking. The streets were so crowded, that we had to ride our bikes for one stretch on the sidewalk, which I felt kind of defeated the purpose of being able to ride our bikes in the street. When we got to the major road, the crowd thinned out a bit, and we were able to ride in the middle of the street, along with hundreds of other people. You would think that on these split highways, people would ride in the same directions that traffic normally flows, but you would be wrong. There was random two-way bike traffic on both sides of the median, so we had to pay close attention as we rode to avoid bumping into oncoming bikers. This was especially stressful as I was the lead bike with my three children behind me and Ann bringing up the rear. While there are no traffic accidents on Yom Kippur, I would bet that the emergency rooms are more crowded on this day than any other because Israelis seem just as reckless on bikes as they do in their cars, and the bikers ranged in age from 2 year olds with training wheels to senior citizens. I shot this 17 second video with my iPhone right outside of the shul:


I woke up on Yom Kippur morning thinking of food and knowing from experience that I would be fine until about noon, when I would start deteriorating steadily. While Ann fed the twins breakfast upstairs, I got ready to leave for morning services. I don't know how Ann is able to prepare the kids' food during Yom Kippur while fasting. I prefer not to see anything edible. Elana fasted last year and was determined to do so again this year. I took great inspiration watching this 11 year old kid with a will of iron go through the day with no food or drink. Elana knew she could quit at any time, but she managed to fast until the very end. (Only later did I learn that she had a 10 shekel bet with her friend Daniel that she would be able to fast the whole time.) During some of my rougher patches, I looked at Elana and said to myself that if she can do it, so can I.

After Tamara and Benny had eaten breakfast, we rode our bikes to shul. It is one thing to know intellectually that the streets are safe for bikes, but it is still quite an experience to turn from our small neighborhood street onto a major road and cross a large intersection by bicycle, with the children following close behind.


The ride home in the early afternoon was uphill and more challenging because it was hotter out, and hunger, thirst and exhaustion were settling in. We considered riding back to the synagogue for the evening Neila service, but I did not want Elana riding a bike in her weakened condition, and was frankly not so confident in mine and Ann's abilities to ride safely either, so we walked. The rabbi announced that the service would end at 6:30, and a woman congregant raised her hand and exclaimed that it was actually 6:26 pm, generating widespread laughter. At 6:18, the Hazan (cantor), who had not paced himself that well, finished the service. An awkward silence ensued. The rabbi stalled by making some announcements, but could not fill the time. Sensing restlessness in the congregation, he sent someone outside to see if he could observe 3 stars, and upon an affirmative response, proceeded to call for the tekiya gedolah, a prolonged sounding of the shofar signifying the end of Yom Kippur. What followed is a blur in my memory, but somehow, approximately 3 minutes later we had made the 25 minute walk home and were sitting at the table eating delicious leftovers from Ann's pre-fast extravaganza. I'm not certain, but there's a pretty good chance that we set some olympic records getting home. I noticed that most of the people walking home from various services were not lingering to socialize in their customary way, but were setting speed records of their own, walking with a purpose, and carrying any small children with them who might have slowed them down.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement when we seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings during the past year. I wish the Jewish scholars who set the rules had come up with something easier. How about a simple "I'm sorry"? But, they chose fasting, and so another year has gone by, and another fast is done. Until next year, I plan on enjoying every meal, every snack, and every nosh that comes my way. Gmar Chatima Tova to all my friends who observe Yom Kippur. May you have a healthy, happy, peaceful and prosperous year!