My Stomach: My Ruler, My King

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Like many Jews, I have stomach problems. Fortunately for most people, their problems aren’t as severe as mine. For three years I lived with physically crippling symptoms before I was finally diagnosed by an amazing NYC gastroenterologist. He basically saved my life.

As part of my prescriptive lifestyle, I have to eat whenever I feel hungry. Even waiting five minutes too long can leave me severe pain for hours later.

And one can imagine fasting, even on Yom Kippur, is entirely out of the question.

I probably should have known this was coming years ago. I remember attending afternoon services with my family nearly 10 years ago. I was reading the haftorah, the book of Jonah. As soon as I finished, I left the sanctuary and nearly ran to the bathroom to throw up. When my mom came to check on me, we chalked it up to being on a new medicine.

The next year, I attended neilah services with just my father while my mom was home preparing the break fast meal. All of a sudden, I became sick to my stomach. I quietly grabbed my dad’s cell phone and went to the parking lot.

“Mom, can you come bring me a granola bar?”

She was confused. I explained that I was nauseous and needed something to eat right away. She drove all the back to shul just to give me a snack.

The problems continued when I got to college. Our Hillel handed out a goody bag of treats to students who showed up to neilah so that we could break fast as soon as the services ended. Of course, I snuck to the bathroom and threw up. I went back to services to grab my goody bag and went to another floor of the building to eat.

It was around this time, after getting sick for many years in a row, that I decided that I probably shouldn’t fast. It seemed simple enough. That should solve my Yom Kippur dilemma. But in fact, it created a whole set of new problems

First, what does one eat on Yom Kippur? Is it better to eat as little as possible, just what’s needed to keep me healthy, or to eat a hearty, full meal? And what should I choose to eat? Perhaps it should be Jewishly related food, maybe a nice bagel with cream cheese or matzah ball soup. Or should I stick with something simple, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

Going to break fast meals presents another issue. We generally go to the home of friends. Being kind guests, they insist that we eat first. I say, “Really you should eat first,” but I don’t want to tell them why. They remark how delicious the food is, not because the dishes are amazing, but because how they longed for food all day. I just smile and nod.

At services, people wish me a tzom kal, an easy fast. It’s kind of like when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas. I’m polite and wish them the same back. But deep down I know that my fast is the easiest of them all.

Over time, I’ve learned to volunteer at the children’s services or baby sitting. They don’t mind that I share their challah or apples and honey.

But perhaps the hardest thing is going to services knowing that I am doing something different than everyone else. Sometimes, I wonder if they can’t see that morning bagel happily sitting in my stomach. By the afternoon, I’m not weak, my face isn’t pale, and I’m surely not complaining how hungry I am. Do they know how delicious that tuna sandwich tasted this afternoon? And standing for all of neilah is a breeze. I’m covered just in case with an infamous granola bar in my pocket. Does it qualify as muktzeh?

Without fail, on Yom Kippur I am ridden with guilt. Even though I do not fast at the recommendation of my doctor, I feel that I am doing something wrong. While I know that it is possible to have a spiritually meaningful Yom Kippur when not fasting, it makes it hard when one cannot truly atone for what feels like a sin. On a day where we admit our guilt and get a fresh start, I am overcome by shame. On a day where we once again become clean in the eyes of God, I feel dirty and impure. Though I thought I had gotten control of my stomach two years ago, on Yom Kippur it is the ruler, the king.

And so once again, Yom Kippur for me is little more than a day when I go to services and smile at the people I haven’t seen in a while. The prayers are little more than motions I go through. In the end, I look for spirituality on other holidays.

And in case you were wondering, my favorite holiday is Shavuot. Predictably, I’m not lactose intolerant.

Posted on September 20, 2007

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