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Day Five: Should I Fast For Yom Kippur?

I decided that I wanted a bat mitzvah when I was 20. I had been living in South Africa and spending a lot of time with Jews whose lives seemed enriched by their faith. Though I had not been raised religious and wasn’t looking for a holy-roller conversion, I wanted to do something to mark my Jewishness. The plan dissipated upon my return to the States, but my desire to participate in some of Judaism’s more meaningful rituals—an excuse to celebrate with people I love—did not. I have not lived up to my plan. When a friend invited me to her break-fast this year, I made up my mind not to fast unless I had a good reason. Taking a random sampling of Jewish friends, I found that most observed because of their parents, because that’s what you do on Yom Kippur. But we’d never done the High Holidays in my home, so the tradition was really mine to take or leave. Consulting Rabbi Leonard Gordon about the fast’s biblical roots was informative, but predictable. I knew I’d need to find a more tangible reason than souls and spirits. I liked the drama inherent in Rabbi Alan Flam’s description of the fast as a “structured encounter with death,” and I was drawn to the possible peace of mind that I imagined confronting mortality might bring, but I worried that I’d be too self-conscious trying to achieve this state. I did not want the pressure of trying to feel something as massive as death. I wanted a reason that wasn’t shrouded in religion. Dr. Myron Yaster insisted both to my relief and disappointment that so long as you have a functional metabolism, your body will be fine. Where I had thought that the fast was something to struggle through, Dr. Yaster made it sound like half of America is fasting. (Which of course they are.)
Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair suggested that rather than being an excuse not to eat, Yom Kippur can be used as a way to forgo body issues for a little while. This self-help-y language, while perfect for a self-help column, was not entirely convincing. It was Wendy Shanker, a regular (and insightful) Jewish girl, who finally convinced me I should fast. For Shanker, a day shouldn’t require deprivation to be holy, but it does require doing things outside the norm: not checking email, not putting on makeup, not having sex, and yes, not eating. It means going to synagogue and being reminded of family and thinking about what is important in the coming year. I have decided to fast on Yom Kippur because I want to be with a community of people who are also trying to feel something. I know I won’t be the only person in the congregation who is perplexed by why it’s important to spend the day starving. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to “check in” or “turn inward,” or even keep quiet during shul, but I will make an attempt, and if I fail, I’m not a bad Jew.

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