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The Struggle is Real: Coping Without Coffee on Yom Kippur

Don’t call if you need me

Rebecca Klempner
September 21, 2015

Forgive me for my crankiness if you cross paths with me this week: I’m preparing for Yom Kippur, and I’ve given up coffee.

No, this is not some weird 21st century form of penance engaged in by the Orthodox. Fifteen years ago, I spent the afternoon of the summertime fast known as Tisha B’Av curled up in fetal position—not in bed, but in the women’s section of a local synagogue. Pressing my palms against my eye sockets, I tried to understand why the light seemed to be pulsing through my head; I’d never experienced a migraine before. Prior to that day, I’d always prided myself at being a “good faster.”

My moans and gasps alarmed my friends so much that they offered to fetch my husband from the men’s section.

“No!” I exclaimed, embarrassed at my very public suffering.

“Why don’t you put your head down for a few minutes?” suggested the woman sitting next to me. I followed her advice and the throbbing in my head finally dimmed. The next day, I wondered: had the headache resulted from dehydration?

The following Rosh Hashanah, I chugged water to head off the minor fast, Tzom Gedaliah, which would arrive on its heels. It seemed to work, but when I practiced the same regimen before Yom Kippur, I crumpled again.

After several more debilitating headaches on fast days, I finally pinpointed the cause: caffeine withdrawal. A year and a half before my marriage, I’d become a teacher. I stayed up late most nights to plan lessons and grade papers, then awoke at 5:45 a.m. for my commute. In order to cope, I drank increasing amounts of tea and coffee to keep myself perky and alert. Unfortunately, without my daily dose of caffeine, I was more likely to be exhausted, impatient, and sarcastic. My first-graders deserved better.

Initially, I found the evidence that I was dependent on a chemical—albeit a legal and socially-acceptable one—somewhat embarrassing. Firmly believing that Neilah—the final service of Yom Kippur, with its energetic singing and the final shofar blasts of the High Holiday season—is meant to be spent in synagogue rather than in bed, writhing in pain, I began to prepare for Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashanah even hit.

First, I switched from drinking two or three coffees a day to two cups of tea. Then I cut back to one cup of green tea. After a couple days, I eliminated even that lone cup of tea. And it worked.

But the problem with this was that I didn’t really like myself off caffeine. I not only felt less awake, I also felt less sharp, less witty, and less creative. I navigated L.A. traffic with a fuzzy brain, I forgot to pick up the milk on the way home from carpool, and I couldn’t think of appropriate come-backs to my husband’s banter over dinner. And don’t even ask about how my writing was going. I felt like a G-rated William Burroughs deprived of his junk.

Over the years, I have discovered that I am far from alone in my affliction. Several friends have confessed to me that they spend Tisha B’Av or Yom Kippur in bed with a migraine. Once, I showed showed up for an appointment with my non-Orthodox OB/GYN a couple days before Yom Kippur. When she asked me a question I should have been able to answer, I stared at her speechlessly for several moments with a blank look on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I explained. “Can you repeat that? I skipped my coffee today.”

“Me, too!” she squealed. “You get that withdrawl headache, eh?”

And on Pico Boulevard I’ve bumped into random people who gaze longingly at the door to Starbucks.

“Are you okay?” I’ve asked them.

“Can’t have caffeine until after Yom Kippur,” they say, shaking their heads.

I like to console myself that our shared suffering pushes us towards greater Jewish unity. The Talmud states that even small inconveniences like reaching into your pocket for a coin and pulling out one of the wrong denomination should turn our thoughts to possible transgressions we should atone for. Maybe if I accept my mental fog and fatigue as an alert to change my ways, I can atone for some of the nastier things I’ve said or done in the last year. Of course, I probably committed many of those offenses while I was off caffeine the last time.

But, God willing, I’ll make it through all the services this Yom Kippur, on my feet and not curled up in a ball. I’ll be singing at Neilah, crying tears of release and joy.

The next morning, you’ll find me at my favorite location of Coffee Bean. If the line is too long, there’s always instant coffee. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.