Thursday, October 09, 2008
Why I don't fast on Yom Kippur
Millions of Jews around the world are fasting today, in observance of Yom Kippur. From sundown last night to sundown this evening, they will drink and eat nothing, in honor of the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar: the day your fate is sealed in the book of life for the coming year.
I am not fasting this year, or next year, or any other year. Not because I'm too gluttonous to give up food and drink for 24 hours. Not because I think it's irrelevant.
I'm not fasting because of what it means to be to be hungry, to be fed, and to be strong.
Let me tell you a story: My first Yom Kippur fast happened the year I turned 13--an adult for the purposes of Jewish law. I wanted to fast. I wanted to behave like an adult. I wanted to look pale and weak, to feel my stomach cave in toward my spine, to do my duty and sacrifice for the sake of holiness.
(If this sounds like the rhetoric of anorexia, well, keep reading.)
I made it through the night, the next morning, the next afternoon. Through hours of services, singing, breast-beating, and sermons. I was strong. I was proud. I was adult.
I was also very, very hungry.
In our house then, food was a kind of emotional currency. Food could be love or punishment; withholding of food could constitute either extreme. My mother was always dieting, which means that we ate, but always with the sense that we weren't really supposed to. The less you ate the better. Appetite was a bodily function that made you weak, and gluttonous, and fat. Appetite was to be squelched at every opportunity.
By 5 o'clock that Yom Kippur afternoon, I felt like I would faint if I didn't eat something. Anything. I left services and went around back, to the synagogue's playground (it was also an elementary school). I sat on the swing, went down the slide in my fancy new dress, and dug idly in the sandbox.
And that's where I found it: a half-eaten Milky Way bar. Someone had taken a few bites and then tossed it, wrapper and all, into the sandbox. It was food. It was my favorite candy bar. It was covered in sand and looked better than any food ever had to me.
I peeled the wrapper and took a bite of the uneaten side. I took another, and another, and soon had eaten the whole thing, sand and all. I felt guilty and ashamed. I was weak. I was unworthy.
I was also, later that night, sick as a dog, throwing up the candy bar and the break-the-fast meal we ate a few hours later. Retching and miserable, I had plenty of time to connect the dots: I had sinned, and I was being punished. Violently. Virulently. Righteously.
Fast-forward 35 years or so, to a night when my daughter Kitty was lying in the ICU, dying from anorexia. She was dying because she would not, could not eat. It took every ounce of determination and grief my husband and I had to help her start down the road to recovery.
That's when I connected the new set of dots: Not eating could kill you. Being hungry held no virtue. In the ultimate appetite sweepstakes, being hungry was the booby prize. You thought it was the goal, but really it was the punishment.
There have been plenty of times in my life since that Yom Kippur long ago when I have been hungry. But in the intervening years I've learned to honor my appetites--for food, for love, for compassion, for connection. This learning has changed my life.
And that's why I'll never again deliberately starve myself, for a day or for a month. There's far more virtue in learning to live with appetite and hunger than in shutting it down.