“I need to end the fast at six,” Jon said as he pushed the stroller along the East River promenade. He was wan. His voice was quiet. “We’ll have dinner with Zee, then put her to bed.”
I paused. Yom Kippur was going to end at 7:55. The thought of eating when still light out felt illicit, wrong.
Though Jon and I were both secular Jews, our backgrounds differed. He studied at a Christian British public school, while I went to one that taught Yiddish grammar and Zionist poetry. I did not fear being smitten by God, but I fasted diligently every Yom Kippur as it felt like my link to community, to my past. Jon wanted our 2-year-old daughter to have a global background, and played her barnyard songs—in Mandarin. I wanted her to have a strong sense of her heritage, sang lullabies about Dachau, and tried to keep kosher (or at least kosher style). But something in Jon’s suggestion perturbed me; something that was not just about Yom Kippur, but also Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Passover and all the holidays to come.
“Six?” I asked. “In three hours? Are you sure?”
“My migraine is kicking in,” Jon said. “I need to. But you should do whatever feels comfortable for you.”
I cringed. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate his gesture. It was that something about this reminded me unpleasantly of my parents’ relationship. My father was always much more observant than my mother, in Judaism and in life. He was an early-bird, a disciplined man who exercised every day, attended synagogue on holidays, and kept a strict vegetarian diet. My mother was perennially late, never kept to any regimen, and loved her 1960s Kibbutz séjour, but that was about the extent of her religious observance. On Friday nights, we lit the candles and said blessings, but then everyone retired to their own rooms, and we ate dinner at our own times. Just as we did every night.
Growing up, I constantly felt I’d been forced to choose between two models. I could accompany my father to services, or sit home with my mom and listen to public radio. I could stay kosher or nibble on Chicken McNuggets. My parents were more like two individuals than a united front, often gently critiquing the other, which meant that I always had to pick. With almost every activity—from shopping to praying—I had to decide whether to do it mom’s way or dad’s. Though this made me very self-conscious and aware from a young age that there was no particular truth, no one system for the way things had to be, it also made me stressed. I constantly questioned my decision to go one way; I always ended up feeling guilty that I hadn’t supported the other. Often, I felt that the parent I hadn’t followed was unhappy about it, quietly disapproving from their corner of the kitchen.
Like my parents, Jon and I were different in many ways (I, a yoga nut, had to drag him to the gym—and only had luck on pizza night), but we were careful not to outwardly admonish each other’s preferences. That afternoon, in my hunger, I dizzyingly wondered if it was good to give my daughter options. Perhaps we could lovingly show her that Daddy and I were different people who might have opinions that diverged once in a while. Or, was it better to form a cohesive partnership? To adhere to custom together?
“Mommy, daddy, holdy hands,” Zee called from her stroller seat, reaching her arms out to the side. I knew she wanted each of us to take one, make a circle, and sing “Ring Around the Rosie” as we walked down the street.
Jon and I both did this while pushing the stroller, and Zee cracked up. We all ended up laughing. This was perhaps not the right sentiment for a somber holiday when we’re supposed to ruminate on our sins and weaknesses, but it did remind me of how important that circle was. And it reminded me of my Judaism—tradition and religion were not about laws, but community and relationships.
So at 6 p.m., while the crisp sun cast shadows of water towers along the building across the street, I drank orange juice and ate whole wheat challah with my husband and daughter, despite the fact that I could have managed two more hours of fasting, despite the fact that it was light outside. It still felt odd and wrong, but it also felt right that I was having dinner with my family
Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between. Her forthcoming book is about Jewish women who fought in the resistance against the Nazis.