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Breaking the Fast

As it gains popularity as a social event, the meal that ends Yom Kippur can sometimes eclipse the holiday itself—but ultimately, it reinforces our sense of community

Jenna Weissman Joselit
September 28, 2017

Many years ago, The Jewish Home Beautiful, one of my all-time favorite Jewish publications, offered American Jews of the interwar period a series of cheerful prescriptions on how to live a meaningful Jewish life through the pleasures of the palate and the delights of a well-appointed table. “Every festival, every holiday [the Jewish woman] observes with symbol and ceremony,” the text affirmed, transforming the home into a stage set or a canvas. Suggestions for Rosh Hashanah, for instance, had the Jewish homemaker artfully arrange on the dining room table or sideboard an array of New Year’s greeting cards alongside a prayer book and a shofar for decorative effect. Detailed recipes for holiday treats followed.

Yom Kippur, in contrast, was conceived of as a stark, dramatic affair. The Jewish Home Beautiful recommended that the dining room table be covered with a simple white cloth and graced with a pair of silver candlesticks and a memorial candle in the form of a lone taper. Not a word was said about breaking the fast.

The grandchildren of the women who cherished this guidebook, finding its sensibility at odds with their own, turned to an alternative source of wisdom: The Jewish Catalog of the early 1970s, whose easygoing, free-floating approach to modern Jewish life was as much in tune with its time as The Jewish Home Beautiful had been in its era of upward mobility and social aspiration. Though The Jewish Catalog’s discussion of Yom Kippur referred at some length to kapparot, the swinging of a chicken around one’s head as a form of expiation, breaking the fast did not come up at all.

In both instances, there was no need to make a fuss over the break-fast because there wasn’t much to fuss about. As Amy Reichert, a Chicago architect and Judaica designer who grew up in suburban New Jersey, put it, you came home from services and “simply charged toward the refrigerator.”

Boy, have things changed. The break-fast has taken hold of the contemporary American Jewish imagination in ways that even the most creatively minded authors of The Jewish Catalog and The Jewish Home Beautiful would never have envisioned. It’s gotten to the point where the repast comes awfully close to eclipsing the actual fast. In some quarters, it may even be the vehicle by which some American Jews and their families mark the Day of Atonement. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that in many contemporary American Jewish households, what to eat at the conclusion of Yom Kippur is as much a subject of animated conversation and engaged practice as Yom Kippur itself.

Not everyone, of courses, partakes in the break-fast. Some of us, myself included, prefer to end the day the way it began: in quiet contemplation. Besides, we’re too tuckered out by its physical and emotional exertions (all that standing in shul, all that introspection) to be good company. Still, I suspect we’re in the minority.

I’ve been keeping my eye on the Yom Kippur break-fast for some time now, as have other scholars of the American Jewish experience such as Nora Rubel. When last I wrote about the phenomenon, way back in 2007, it was going strong. A decade later, it shows no signs of abating. On the contrary. Where so many Jewish practices ebb and flow, especially among the grassroots, the Yom Kippur break-fast has not only held its own; it’s become more popular, and its array of foodstuffs more varied, than ever. Suggestions for what to serve abound on the web, from the traditional Ashkenazi fare of smoked fish to the Persian frittata-like dish of kuku as well as hariri, a sweetened almond-milk drink favored by Iraqi Jews.

That the sale of nova, whitefish, bagels, and cream cheese—said by some to be “the perfect food for breaking the Yom Kippur fast”—has increased over the years is yet another index of its popularity. In 2014, for example, Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side sold more than 5,000 pounds of hand-sliced smoked salmon in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. Two years later, Zabar’s, its Upper West Side competitor, sold nearly twice that amount during the holiday season, even going so far as to hire extra “lox men” to keep up with the demand. Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, the cool newcomer to the world of appetizing stores, unloads 1,500 pounds of cream cheese, much of it to customers who swing by on their way home from services, or so Peter Shelsky, the store’s cheerful proprietor, told me.

Elsewhere, some consumers stand in line for what seems like hours, the jostling and the chatting a form of Yom Kippur prep. Others, encouraged to “order early,” prefer to make use of their smartphones. One way or another, an awful lot of smoked fish ends up being consumed as the sun goes down on the 10th of Tishrei.

Near as I can tell after informally polling friends and colleagues down South, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast, as well as those in the greater New York area, the Yom Kippur break-fast has become a national phenomenon. While food is its centerpiece, something larger than a meaty chunk of whitefish or a soothing sip of hariri is at stake.

Some American Jews find it a relatively effortless way to acknowledge their Jewishness. In our food-centric culture where the imprimatur of tradition clings to cuisine, the break-fast appeals to a broad swath of the American Jewish population, fasters and non-fasters alike. An exercise in sociability rather than socialization, it demands little of its participants other than a hearty appetite and good conversational skills: No facility with or knowledge of Jewish ritual is required.

What’s more, the practice makes good on American Jewry’s commitment to inclusiveness and “radical hospitality.” These days, when many American Jewish households contain Jews by choice and Jews by birth as well as members of other faith traditions, it enlarges the parameters of community.

A welcoming gesture, the break-fast also takes the edge off of what Reed College professor Steven Wasserstrom calls the “displeasure of deprivation.” At this moment in time, most of us are fortunate enough to have had little experience with hunger or want. Fasting puts us in touch with elements of the human condition and of history that are at a considerable remove from our daily lives, leaving us feeling brittle, uncertain, and downright uncomfortable. The prospect of a substantial meal at the end of the day not only assuages those sentiments, it holds out the possibility of emotional release.

Concomitantly, the Yom Kippur break-fast salutes the power of community. At first blush, it seems to be entirely about food, but it’s really all about fellowship. Having spent an uplifting day in the company of others, we’re reluctant to see it go, hesitant about returning to our normal, fractious, atomized existences. At once a liminal moment and a ritual meal, the break-fast extends the day, sustains its momentum and prolongs its gifts of amity, mindfulness and communality.

It’s good for the Jews.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.