When I was a child, I was always fascinated by Yom Kippur, even though, out of all the Jewish holidays, it was the least fun. Still, I was mysteriously drawn to the day in all its haunting sadness. In preparation, I would always sit on the floor with my mom and read together from my children’s book of Jewish holidays. In the section on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we looked at illustrations of people apologizing to one another and going to temple, and, on another page, we saw families throwing their breadcrumb sins into a river. There was also a picture of an open book, depicted in soft muted colors, against what looked like an open sky. This was the book of life, where God would write down everything that would happen in the coming year, both the good things and the bad ones.
I grew up in a fairly secular Jewish home and so, even as a child, I was taught to understand God’s open book as a metaphor. Still, it frightened me to think about a God was keeping this type of a tally on me, and that, if I didn’t follow the protocols of Yom Kippur, I might be inviting bad things to happen. I became an earnest apologizer, even when many of my friends who weren’t Jewish didn’t quite understand what I was apologizing for. In that same spirit of penitence, I admired the fact that my dad fasted every year. Yom Kippur was the one day on the calendar where my dad wouldn’t work, and it was the one day a year when he would light a candle in memory of his own parents, who had died long before I was born. After a full day of fasting, my dad would always sit at the table and feast on all sorts of wonderful foods. He ate with such passion and gusto, it was proof of how abstaining from food could culminate in something more life-affirming.
I have longed to replicate my father’s fasting and feel that burst of pleasure it yields, but I have never been able to. Shortly after I was old enough to fast, I developed anorexia, which came and went throughout my teens and for one final year when I was twenty. There was nothing spiritual or beautiful about my fear of food, which started, like it does for many young people, as a way to quell anxiety, and as a response to a society that worships thinness. My days were filled with compliments and concern about my rapidly shrinking body and my nights were filled with my stomach’s constant growl.
I know that turning away from food on Yom Kippur is meant to inspire us to turn inwards but, for me, the physical and emotional experience of not eating is still tethered to this experience I had as an anorexic teen. Perhaps this is why, for the last decade or so, I’ve opted out of fasting, choosing instead to observe Yom Kippur in other ways—going to services, meditating, thinking back on the previous year and setting intentions for the coming one.
For a long time, I felt guilty about this. After all, fasting is often perceived as the one true way to observe the holiday, even more so than going to services. Jewish-American shows like Broad City, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Transparent each has episodes devoted to poking fun and gleaning meaning from Yom Kippur fasting. Likewise, the community-wide adherence to a shared ritual establishes a bond of togetherness that I find admirable, and, on some level, I wish I could share in that experience too. But, in truth, even something as simple as the tradition of wishing someone an easy fast often leads to a lot of awkwardness. So many people take a declaration of not fasting as evidence that you are not observing the day at all or taking an easy way out.
Of course, there are provisions that one need not fast for issues related to health. If you are pregnant or sick, a child, or very old, fasting is not a necessity and people are very understanding. But these issues become complicated with mental health concerns. There is still a lot of shame and stigma surrounding disordered eating, and I don’t always trust that the person I am speaking with will respond to me in appropriate ways. I worry that people will look at me differently or that they will ask invasive questions. Sometimes, it’s simply easier to say to well-meaning strangers, “Yes, I’m fasting too.”
I had always assumed that I was the only Jew who had this type of intensely conflicted relationship with fasting on Yom Kippur until I began doing research for this essay. I was surprised to find that there are quite a few online forums and articles exploring how eating disorder survivors cope with the high holidays. Perhaps online it’s easier to share in a community of non-fasters with similar shared doubts and a common drive to find other avenues to make the holiday meaningful.
Some rabbis, too, are actively trying to emphasize a Yom Kippur tradition that honors introspection over self-flagellation. When I spoke with Rabbi Sarah Tasman, founder and CEO of The Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity, she explained how the word, “ve-innitem” is often translated to mean “self-afflict” but that it can hold other meanings too.
She explains that on Yom Kippur, we are told you shall, “ve-innitem nafshotechem.” We can read this as a commandment to answer, rather than afflict. But what, then, does it mean to answer ourselves? To her, it’s about holding up a mirror and really seeing ourselves for who we are: seeing our own mortality, facing the great achievements and losses we’ve been through this past year, allowing ourselves to feel the happiness and grief we’ve experienced and answer for what we’ve done well and where we’ve missed the mark. Only then are we given the chance to start anew.
The idea that Yom Kippur could actually be perceived as a kind of joyful awakening of the self is a complete re-imagining of the holiday I fell in love with as a small, oddly existential child. Then again, it is also an affirmation of the ways that I’ve been observing Yom Kippur for many years: as a day of mindful reflection, rather than restriction.
When I first adopted a tradition of not fasting, I assumed it meant that I was still irreparably damaged. But now I realize that every year of atonement is a reminder that I am only able to grow and change because I managed to nurture myself back to health. As it is for everyone who observes Yom Kippur, an essential part of the holiday for me is simply acknowledging the beauty that another year has come and gone. How glorious it is that God’s holy book is open once again and that we have another opportunity to be grateful we are alive.
Arielle Bernstein is a DC-based writer, whose work has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Salon, among other publications. She teaches academic and creative writing at American University.