Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Believe it or not, I always look forward to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Although I appreciate attending services and being among my friends and family during the holiday, the principal reason I enjoy Yom Kippur is partaking in the ritual fast.
To be clear, I love eating. I love to prepare food, search for colorful produce at farmer’s markets, and consume festive meals. My father continues to remind me at the dinner table that “I am a growing boy.” But I’m no longer a child, and as a Jewish adult, as much as I love food, I truly value abstaining from food and drink on the Day of Atonement.
When I was younger, my parents reasonably recommended that I refrain from the traditional fast until I reached my bar mitzvah. I happily complied; after celebrating the taste of honey and the opening shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur’s somber traditions seemed unappealing. I struggled to comprehend why Jewish people willingly davened on empty stomachs.
Eventually, though, I was curious about my older siblings’ experience on Yom Kippur. I began fasting each successive holiday for gradually longer intervals in the day. While initially unpleasant, I enjoyed feeling included in a community. I often looked around the prayer space and sensed a familiarity to the other congregants based on our shared circumstance. Despite this note of solidarity, not eating still posed an uncomfortable challenge, and I was sometimes a little too eager for the holiday to conclude.
Over time, my interpretation of the Yom Kippur fast evolved as I engaged more closely with Judaism.
The idea of fasting arises throughout the Bible as a process related to mourning, repentance, and organizing for significant events. In the Book of Jonah, which many congregations study during Yom Kippur, the city of Nineveh recognized the words and commandments of God by fasting.
Jews participate in the ritual as a sacred exercise: to evaluate their faith. In the period that leads up to the High Holidays, Jewish communities spend the month of Elul reflecting on the previous year, blessing strong relationships, and renewing the passion to live and learn. Yom Kippur signifies the final chapter that is read before stepping into a new year. Those that fast hope to deepen their bonds to spirituality as they move forward.
So, why do I choose to fast? The ritual allows me to break out of a routine and embrace my thoughts fully. Moving from one activity to the next, from work to home, from eating to cleaning up, it is difficult to slow down. Fasting obstructs these daily patterns.
Without the energy to accelerate through a tightly-pressed schedule, I turn inward and meditate on issues that I typically disregard. I am never able to completely resolve the questions that confound my mind on Yom Kippur. Rather, during the holiday, I take time and take a sincere look at the ways I make decisions and the concern I grant toward specific people and causes.
Yom Kippur is perhaps one of the hardest days in the Jewish year as we are instructed to confront our errors in judgement, conformity to societal ills, and ignorance towards others. Facing this daunting task of atonement, I notice that fasting advances my intentionality over the holiday. I listen and assess my character more thoughtfully when I feel physically bare. When the fast does conclude hours later, I am called to be more cognizant of how I progress through my life. I hope to cherish the moments in which I can pause, deliberate, and maintain the integrity of my values.
Whether or not you elect to fast on Yom Kippur, I hope the holiday gives you a chance to reflect and bring more purpose and beauty into the rest of the year.
G’mar chatimah tovah! (May you be sealed well!)