“Can I fast?” “Should I fast?” “Must I fast?”
As the eve of Yom Kippur draws near my husband’s phone is inundated with questions about fasting. He is a family physician and I can hear that the person at the other end of the line usually wants to fast, while my husband is tasked with telling them that their job this year is to eat. This brings back to me, in an almost visceral way, the Yom Kippur eleven years ago that I too joined the ranks of the unwilling eaters. At the time I was undergoing chemo for treatment of breast cancer, and my oncologist had told me unequivocally that I was forbidden to fast.
One the one hand, I wasn’t feeling too great. I had lost my hair, my energy level was down, my big goal every morning was to get through the day. Creativity, accomplishments, and joie de vivre were a distant memory. I was hopeful that they would return but for now the focus of my life had shrunk to the very mundane details related to my physical health. I understood that eating on Yom Kippur was important. I understood that I was very sick.
On the other hand, I was 56 years old, and I had completed the previous 44 Yom Kippur fasts. From the time I was eleven years old preparing to be a bat mitzva, through pregnancies, childbirth, nursing, young parenthood, up until now I had not missed a fast. This day is so central to our experience as Jews and fasting is an integral part of that experience. How was I to eat? How could I pray with all my hears the awe inspiring prayers of “who will live and who will die?” and then go home and eat a sandwich?
The days leading up to that Yom Kippur of eleven years ago threw me into a turmoil. I knew I would eat. I knew that I did not want to eat. I knew I had to eat. I knew that I did not want to eat. The struggle went round and round in my already dizzy head. I imagined myself sitting down and eating. What would I eat? How would I eat? Would I eat the leftovers of the pre- Yom Kippur holiday meal? Would I eat cheese and crackers on the sly?
A day before Yom Kippur it dawned on me that this Yom Kippur was a special one for me, indeed. My heart was open to prayer. My relationship with God was more open and direct than it had been in years. Having cancer can do that! And so, I wanted to mark this Yom Kippur in a most unusual way. I decided that I would set a holiday table for one. I would use the good china, white table cloth, crystal and all. I would sanctify the wine with a special Kiddush, as we do on the Sabbath and on all holidays. I would break bread on two loaves, as well, and in the Grace After Meals, I would add the holiday prayer “Yaaleh ve’Yavo”. After all, Yom Kippur is a sacred day, a holiday. If I had to eat on this day, I was not going to do it hunched over in a dark corner, quickly snarfing down something so that nobody would see me. I would eat proudly. I would sanctify the day with my food and my drink.
After reaching this decision, I scoured the internet for sources to help me with prayers for Yom Kippur related to food, and found very little. That did not deter me. I created my Kiddush which I bravely sang to myself with tears rolling down my cheeks. I washed my hands and broke bread on two loaves, and I sang the Song of Ascent and the entire Grace After Meals out loud , with a special Yom Kippur addition. I proudly ate, finally understanding that at different times in our lives, we need to approach God, worship, our relationships to both God and (wo)man in different ways. Just because we have always done things in a certain way, doesn’t mean that that’s the way it has to be. For me, the year of eating on Yom Kippur, was a life lesson that I carry with me till this day.