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Day Four: Should I Fast For Yom Kippur?

For my final day of decision-making, I didn’t want to talk to an expert. I didn’t want to hear what the Torah had to say, or how my cells would dry up and die, or how fasting contributes to body … Read More

By / September 18, 2007

For my final day of decision-making, I didn’t want to talk to an expert. I didn’t want to hear what the Torah had to say, or how my cells would dry up and die, or how fasting contributes to body dysmorphia. I just wanted to talk to a Jewish girl like me, someone who had a flexible relationship with the faith, and who practiced on her own terms. I wanted to know what her reasons were for fasting, if she did it just because, or if there was intention in the ritual. I met Wendy Shanker at New York’s City Bakery. She daintily picked at black rice, snow peas, and chickpea-encrusted chicken, and sipped an ice coffee. I ate three vanilla bean cookies. Shanker is 34 years old, the author of the memoir The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, and the kind of person you want as your friend. She’s warm, she’s proud, and she laughs easily. Shanker, who doesn’t belong to a shul but keeps Shabbat and fasts each year, grew up believing that Yom Kippur was about suffering for sins, since for Jews, not eating is a major concession to God. As she got older, she found that a 24-hour fast doesn’t really work as punishment. It’s not long enough to cause much discomfort or to achieve elevated peace of mind, let alone a transformation. And fasting, as she noted, is not so different from what has become normal eating behavior. These days, it’s not only obsessive Jewish girls saying, “I had a huge dinner last night so I’m going to skip breakfast and lunch today,” but a good portion of everyday working stiffs who try to wedge their first bite of the day in at 4 p.m. If abstention is the status quo, does the Yom Kippur fast work as atonement?
Talking to Shanker helped me understand on a personal level what Rabbi Gordon meant when he assured me that guilt and suffering weren’t the ultimate goals of the holiday. But I was still concerned about the way fasting echoes unhealthy eating behavior. I had perversely thought of the fast as having added weight-loss bonus, but for Shanker—who’d spent years trying to lose weight with various dieticians and trainers—not eating comes with an entirely different kind of guilt. Rather than giving her the secret pleasure of being allowed to skip meals, Yom Kippur instead roused unpleasant memories of being told not to eat. She’d had enough trouble dieting for her own well-being; why was it so much easier to do for God? To make the fast meaningful beyond punishment-lite or indulging Jewish-girl body neuroses, I did not want to do it for an abstraction like God, or transformation, or even forgiveness. Shirking dogma and religious obedience, Shanker finds the fast significant partly because it reminds her of childhood and family, and partly because it makes the day different. There is no expectation of transformation, no half-hearted nod to forgiveness; she draws meaning from the day by designating it meaningful. This is usually the kind of thing I hate—deciding something is meaningful just because. Unlike most mass holidays, there’s nothing particularly fun about Yom Kippur. There are no gifts, you can’t observe it until you’re old enough to at least fake solemnity, there’s even a special prayer just for the dead. And so unless you have a deep-seated faith or are just going through the motions, finding meaning in the ritual can be a struggle. This is what finally appeals to me, what makes me almost want to start fasting this instant—being in a room full of other people who are also trying to find meaning in what we have been told is a holy day. Next page: Hunger Pangs

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