To fast or not Its hard to ignore the call of Yom Kippur

Last year around this time, Rico Hurvich took a break from services to get a sandwich. That wouldn't have been so notable, except for the fact that it happened to be Yom Kippur that day.

The Mill Valley resident hasn't fasted since he had a heart attack 12 years ago. "I always fasted before that," said Hurvich, 65. But after the heart attack, "my doctor said I shouldn't, so I haven't."

After his meal, Hurvich returned to his car to find a parking ticket on his windshield.

"God put it there with Her own hand," he said. "God knew I had a heart attack, nevertheless it was a little reminder that you're not supposed to eat. She was saying, 'This is what you get.'"

Anecdotal evidence suggests that fasting on Yom Kippur — which begins Sunday evening this year — is one of the most widely observed rituals in Judaism. But talk to individuals about why they fast — or don't — and their answers vary.

Jewish law exempts those who cannot fast for health reasons, and many people do sip water if they cannot otherwise get through the day.

According to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh or the saving of life, one is forbidden to fast if it will aggravate an existing illness. "And he shall live by them, but not die by them," is what it says. Nonetheless, even those who have good reasons for not fasting sometimes feel disconnected.

Hurvich confessed to having mixed feelings about not taking part in a ritual so widely practiced. While he doesn't miss the hunger pangs, he does miss another aspect of it. "I miss not being part of everybody doing it," he said. "There's an 'other than' feeling when everyone is breaking it and I'm not."

Hurvich's daughter, Elizheva, 33, who relayed her father's story when asked about fasting, noted that she felt fasting for one day was a privilege.

"I see starving people on the streets and know I'm not truly afflicted by choosing not to eat or drink for 25 hours," said the Berkeley resident. "It's a huge privilege, choosing not to eat."

The younger Hurvich admitted that she fasted largely because it connected her to the Jewish people but wished there were another method available to her to do her personal accounting.

Being hungry for only a day causes most people to focus on when their next meal is, she said, while fasting for a longer period would be more effective.

"If we could use that time to put into thinking about how to nurture the planet, or what is our higher purpose, or what do our souls really need, I think it would be helpful," said Hurvich, "but I don't think a one-day fast really afflicts us."

That sense of being a part of something is what Noah Hoffman was seeking when he fasted last year for the first time. Hoffman, 25, was traveling around Europe and called his mother from Rome. The Hayward resident had maybe been to synagogue once in his life. His mother is Jewish, but beyond the occasional seder, his observance was nil.

In that conversation, though, his mother mentioned that the next day was Yom Kippur, a time when Jews traditionally fast.

"I did it just to be part of something, to participate in something, even though I didn't know everything about it," said Hoffman.

Perhaps it was the discipline involved that challenged Hoffman, who wasn't sure himself what propelled him to fast, especially since none of his traveling companions was fasting.

"I thought that I can be a part of something, and save money at the same time," he said, "so it looked like a win-win situation."

Hoffman said he would fast again this year and is now interested in learning more about Judaism.

Also new to the ritual of fasting is Max Meyers, who just became a bar mitzvah at Tiburon Congregation Kol Shofar on Aug. 31. The Mill Valley 13-year-old has been fasting half a day on Yom Kippur since he was 10 — saying, "I thought I could get the practice to get ready for when I'm 13."

Meyers said he was looking at the ritual anew, now that he is a bar mitzvah, though again, if he feels too sick, he will eat something.

"It's not something I'm losing sleep over," he said. "I'll just eat, because that is the commandment, to eat something. I like the idea that if you get sick, you're commanded to not fast."

Though quite a bit older than Meyers, Serena Shaw, 33, of El Cerrito, is also looking at fasting through different eyes this year. Shaw began fasting in 1996, the year she decided she wanted to convert to Judaism.

And inevitably, during the past years, in the late afternoon, when her hunger was at its worst, Shaw would get thoughts in her head that "'I'm not Jewish, I don't have to fast. Why should I have to suffer?'

"But of course I continued fasting and made it through," she said.

Her conversion took place in June, so this year, she anticipates, "I just feel like I'm not going to have that thought of 'I don't have to do this.' Now I'm just going to have to do it."

Shaw described fasting as a "huge blessing," saying that "it quiets a lot of my energy, and I only have enough energy to do what's most important."

Like Hurvich, Shaw said fasting for one day was not such a huge toll on the body. "But it's neat to have a pang of hunger and then remember I'm trying to make this a special day," she said. "On a normal day, I'd feel irritated by that."

For Israeli Oded Haner, who has been living in Foster City for all of a month now, Yom Kippur is the "one occasion you use to be Jewish for a day."

Haner, 28, has some family members who are religious, but for the most part, they are secular Israelis like himself.

When the High Holy Days approach, said Haner, "I do become a bit more religious and connect a bit more to my roots and the rest of my family."

Now, especially that he's abroad, Haner feels more of an obligation to fast and observe the High Holy Days. "It's that one occasion that you have, without being religious or being too connected to it, to ask forgiveness for the sins you make."

San Francisco resident Jacob Mandelsberg, 43, who spent many years in Israel, recalled the intensity of spending Yom Kippur on Kibbutz Yahel in the desert.

When he was younger, he was fasting primarily for himself. Now he feels as if he's fasting for the Jewish people.

"Maybe this sounds a little naive, but when you think of the consequences, look at what we are facing right now: war, hatred, occupation and fear. I would prefer that my fasting did have an impact not only upon myself, but upon the bettering of our society as a whole.

"We must all be able to humble ourselves, be willing to compromise, and accept the enemy as 'one whose story we haven't heard,'" he said, referring to the Palestinians. "What better way to accomplish this then by purging all of the ill feelings and toxins that have accumulated in our bodies and hearts for the past year, especially this past year."

San Francisco writer and performer Matthue Roth, 24, who describes himself as "post-Orthodox," recalled last year's Yom Kippur fast, when his usual afternoon crankiness did not set in. Rather, "I started feeling lightheaded and like I was going to collapse, but I didn't. I remember almost feeling my body detoxify, like everything was going out of it."

Describing the sensation, he said: "It wasn't bad, it felt good. I felt really focused, like my brain wasn't working very fast but that meant I was taking time to think about everything. Since I was not thinking very quickly, I could dwell on every second. It helped me think about the way my brain was working and it made me think of random things that had happened the past year."

Roth concluded of the experience: "I never look forward to fasting. But after it happens, I'm really grateful that I did."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."