For The Sin Of Not Fasting
09/21/2010 - 19:36

In going through my litany of shortcomings each Yom Kippur, it’s generally hard to avoid a biggie: my failure to fast.

Now, before you dash off a comment about how, after intermarriage, I’m the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity, let it be known that I do not completely neglect the rites of Judaism’s holiest day. I do go to synagogue all day and, while I am not a hard-core “not one morsel of food or even a drop of water for 25 hours” type, I’m also not one of those people who spends Yom Kippur gorging on bacon and lobster while I sneer condescendingly at the primitive folks who are so stupid and superstitious as to believe in God.

Nonetheless, I have to confess that, despite good intentions and a generally decent level of self-discipline, I have only once completed a fast (well, except for the no-water part, which I can’t even begin to contemplate), and that was largely because I was visiting a more pious friend and felt too embarrassed to eat in her presence. My divine reward for making it to the holy finish line of repentance? Feeling so dazed, light-headed and idealistic the next morning that I fell for a costly scam perpetrated on the streets of Manhattan by an Israeli man. (Leave it to a Sabra to prey on earnest American Jews, the day after the Day of Atonement.)

Growing up in a wholly secular family, I hadn't even heard of Yom Kippur until I was 7 and read about it in Sydney Taylor's excellent “All of a Kind Family.” But since then, especially because we moved that year from Texas to a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, I’ve always viewed the day as a test of sorts separating the Real Jews from the Bad Jews. The problem is, I just don’t deal well with hunger: it makes me nauseous, headache-y, irritable and self-pitying, rather than reflective. Year after year, I’d vow to fast, only to break down around noon and then, figuring that I’d already blown it, furtively nosh throughout the remainder of the day.

A few years ago, I worked out a compromise: I drink water, coffee and eat a small breakfast, then allow myself a handful of nuts or a piece of bread in the afternoon. Pathetic compared to the real fasters, but I don’t pass out or throw my oh-so-irritable Ashkenazi digestive tract into a tizzy. It is enough of a sacrifice that I am hungry and a little uncomfortable, yet not so much that I can’t follow along in the prayer book or be reflective. And I’d like to think that it is in keeping with the Reform/Reconstructionist approach of carefully considering traditional practices but not automatically following them to the letter.

What does any of this triangulating have to do with intermarriage, other than that I am intermarried and thus the only person in the household even obligated to fast under Jewish law? (Only 4 and 7, our daughters are exempt.) Not a lot, I confess. But interestingly, last year at Yom Kippur services when I asked a non-Jewish friend whose husband and children are Jewish if she was fasting, she looked at me a bit indignantly and said, “Of course I’m fasting!” Meanwhile, this year one of my few Jewish friends who is actually married to another Jew but is very secular accidentally scheduled a birthday party for Yom Kippur, changing it to the following day after I pointed out it posed a conflict for me and might for some other guests as well.

The rescheduled party was a lot of fun, although sadly another interfaith couple we know couldn’t make it because it conflicted with a Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebration.

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From a Torah point of view (you know our faith that people were willing to die for over the centuries, that brought Monotheism to the world and such values as the sanctity of human life, universal education and respect to women etc.) one should really strive keeping fasting on Yom Kippur. Here's why. If one is not able to keep all the Mitzvot but wants to keep the ones that the Torah itself sees as most important one should fast. We can understand which Mitzvot are considered most important by the type of punishment is given for violating that Mitzvah. The following violations (not a long list) have the most severe punishments from the perspective of our Torah belief system itself... 1. Keeping Shabbat (only ritual in the "Top Ten" Commandments... punishment by stoning - it is said that one who keeps the Sabbath is as if he or she keeps all the mitzvot and one who violates it as if one who breaks all the commandements... The following 3 commandments are (according to our tradition) punished by Karet which means a degree of being spiritual cutting off in the next world... or premature death or dying childless (very severe) only a small number of things can earn this harsh punishment for a Jew which include the following: 2. Eating on Yom Kippur 3. Eating Chametz on Pessach (not just bread but anything with Chametz) 4. Not being circumcision (for men only) 5. Forbidden sexual relationships such as types of incest, having relations with animals etc. So anyone out there that wants to keep the basic things the list above comes before lighting Chanakah candles- that is the opinion of our Tradition itself. Something to think about. For more info go to which is a great resource on Judaism and presented in a very interesting way. 2. Fasting on Yom Kippur
What was the costly scam?
Enjoyable column as usual. Of course, it raises for me the question what constitutes "non-Jewish". [I hope it wasn't me who was "a bit indignant"!]

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