A day of fasting, a lifetime of memories

I used to dread Yom Kippur. The best thing about it, I would think as the Day of Judgment approached, was that at least next Yom Kippur was a full year away. That’s changed over the years, but my Yom Kippur memories are as vivid as they are evolving.

As a kid, I loved the communal singing of Kol Nidre and was amazed to see our small-town shul, where my father was the rabbi, miraculously filled to capacity like no other time of the year. But the service seemed endless, and by the time we got home, with about 21 hours still to go, I was dry of mouth and incredibly thirsty. Fasting the full 25 hours or so, I concluded, was simply impossible.

That changed when I was about 11 and we hosted a guest cantor (for an auxiliary service) who arrived so late, just before the fast began, that he had no time to eat dinner — a meal during which I did my best to stuff myself to ward off impending hunger pains. The fact that our guest seemed to do just fine was astounding to me, a feat worthy of a Jewish Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, I felt, and I never complained as much about the duration of the fast after that.

But I didn’t like being the odd-man-out among my peers in shul, not an unusual role for a rabbi’s son, especially in an Orthodox family in a Southern town in the 1950s and ’60s where my brother and I often were referred to as “the Jewish rabbi’s sons” (as opposed to … ? I wondered even then). Hardly anyone else wore sneakers on Yom Kippur — part of the traditional custom of not wearing leather — so the combination of my annual new suit and white high-top Keds was sure to attract puzzled stares. (“What’s your hurry?” people would ask.)

And I was quite sure that for my friends, fasting did not include refraining from brushing one’s teeth. So I kept my distance, even during breaks in the hall. It was a day for communing only with God, who wouldn’t mind my bad breath, I figured. After all, the no-toothpaste policy was His idea.

Then there was the fact that while Yom Kippur meant a total news blackout for me — we didn’t watch television or listen to the radio — everyone else seemed to be abuzz with inning-by-inning information on the day’s World Series game. (I used to think that Ford Frick, the cold and austere commissioner of baseball at the time, would pull out a Jewish calendar every year and schedule the World Series during the High Holy Days.) I was a serious baseball fan, rooting then for the Dodgers, who invariably were in the Series against the hated Yankees, and not knowing what was going on was agonizing.

One perverse pleasure my friend Michael (whose father was the cantor) and I took during High Holy Days services, though, when we were teens was to pick an arbitrary spot in the service and stand up from our front-row seats. Invariably, there would be a rustling and stirring behind us as gradually the entire congregation of several hundred would rise, following our lead. As soon as everyone was up, we would sit down, and they would do the same. This mischievous act would be repeated a few minutes later, then again, until my father, seated facing us in his white robe on the bimah, would direct an almost imperceptible frown and shake of the head in our direction, though with the hint of a smile on his lips.

As I grew older, the meaning of the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy began to resonate for me. I came to recognize the day as an opportunity to connect with God, and with myself, resolving to change my ways and improve myself.

As a yeshiva student I remember watching some of my rabbis — pious men who spent their days and nights in Talmud study and devotion to mitzvot — weeping as they prayed, beating their chests with fervor and crying out for forgiveness. I was deeply impressed with their devotion, yet had a sinking feeling within.

If these rabbis leading exemplary lives of total dedication to the commandments are so fearful of their fate, what does that say about me? I worried. After all, I was guilty of countless sins, and couldn’t even throw myself into the mood of the day sufficiently. Surely I was doomed.

Over the years I have come increasingly to appreciate the majesty, depth and wisdom of Yom Kippur, a day I no longer see as a burden but as an opportunity.

It’s become less about physical deprivation and more about the chance for spiritual growth, a specific time to focus on the soul rather than the body and learn about one’s self even as we pray for others.

That’s one of the beautiful qualities of Yom Kippur: The more we strive heavenward, the more we come to understand and appreciate the world and people around us.

We realize that every day is a blessing, every person in our lives a potential friend, if not angel, and that Yom Kippur is not a sad day — the Talmud describes it as one of the happiest — because it is a gift to the Jewish people, one we shouldn’t dread but rather cherish and embrace.

So I wish you not so much “an easy fast” but a meaningful one, through which we will all be brought closer together, toward peace and each other.

Gary Rosenblatt is the editor of New York Jewish Week.