On this holiday, we are supposed to fast from sundown to sundown, to give ourselves twenty-four whole hours to remember all the people we’ve done wrong in the last year. Believe me; some people I know need way more than twenty-four hours. My rabbi explained that fasting shows our commitment to putting our physical concerns aside to address matters of the heart and soul. Unfortunately, I am pretty darned devoted to eating and never really think my soul is in such bad shape. That is usually the sign of someone who should be especially sorry.
At first glance, this fasting deal may seem like a piece of cake. After all, we are only giving up breakfast and lunch here. Can’t I just take a great big nap until dinner, wake up a few pounds lighter and call it a Happy and a Healthy New Year? Well, no actually, I can’t. Instead of hibernating, it seems I am required to hunt and forage for the contraband all day; shopping for it, looking at it, preparing it, smelling it, but God forbid, tasting it. I might venture to say that I am never around food as much as I am on this day. The entire holiday has become a series of tests to see if I am really sorry or just dieting.
By 9:00 AM, I was already good and cranky at the thought of not being able to eat even if an Emergency were to arise in which I might become extremely stressed out, like maybe finding out that four extra people are coming to Break-Fast, the traditional fast-ending meal; or that my kitchen has suddenly and inexplicably become moth-infested; or like if some people I know were really misbehaving. I was also a little concerned that I might actually have to modify my own self-righteous, judgmental ways, which, quite frankly, are working for me.
At 9:05 AM, I began preparations for the siege of the Yom Kippur War. As years of training for this battle had taught me, I first hopped on the scale to see if, per chance, I’d lost a few pounds in my food-deprived sleep.
Obviously, the scale is wrong.
Next, I slipped into my Somber Suit—a black wool skirt, turtleneck sweater, suede jacket, and patent leather shoes. I do not normally dress this way. My daily uniform consists of a Lycra gym ensemble and sneakers. But today I was trying to convince God and 400 fellow congregants that I am a modest, professional type who has got my act together and taken it to temple. I even combed out my naturally snarly hair in a grand gesture to the Lord that I was ready to straighten things out.
All suited up, I proceeded to assist my kids in the selection of a suitable Sorry Ensemble. My daughter was already dressed in the skirt and top I had laid out for her and was standing before her open closet facing what has become our annual Shoe Situation. Once again, I had failed to remember to purchase appropriate fall footwear for the kids until the actual Day of Atonement. Our options were of a pair of scuffed white sandals or a muddy pair of sneakers. I was filled with appropriate remorse and braced myself for the deserved condemnation of my synagogue sisters.
“What kind of mother lets her kid wear white sandals in October? Doesn’t she know the rules? Is she even Jewish?”
But what was percolating in the next room was sure to turn this mere cup of criticism into a silo of censure. My son had chosen an outfit that included a pair of over-sized, wrinkled cargo pants, a polo shirt and a hooded sweatshirt with a bold PUMA transfer on the front.
“No.” I say looking at this child dressed for an Extreme Games competition at the skate-park, “No words. It’s a rule. No sports words on clothes in temple. It’s not allowed.”
Thou shalt not wear sports logos in temple. Am I wrong?
My decree incited a wardrobe hurling war, tension rising so high as to cause the nerves in my neck to twitch like Frankenstein during an electrical surge. I bombed him with a cable knit sweater and ran for cover, dodging into his brother’s room. Not taking any chances, I handed him his clothes and told him to dress quickly as we were already an hour late for services (although in Jewish Time, this is not all that late). Then what happened was I blinked, and when I opened my eyes the clothes were on him, but not in their normally designated places. His pants were slung way below his hips with his boxers puffed up above them, his un-tucked button-up shirt open to reveal an unauthorized Hanes t-shirt.
“No.” I say, looking at this child who appears to have leaped from somewhere up above and landed in a pile of laundry, “No low pants. It’s a rule. No underwear-exposing clothes in temple. It’s not allowed”
Thou shalt not display undergarments in temple. Am I wrong?
My request to pull up, button up and hurry up was met with formidable resistance. I watched impatiently as he wrestled his shirt over the boxers and into the waistline he had hiked up somewhere under his chin.
“Is this better?” he asked wickedly. But there was no time to argue. Hearing my husband’s summons down stairs, I said a few words I would soon be apologizing for and rushed him out the door.
Out onto the street they tumbled, the motley lot of them. Why is it that on this most blessed day, my beloved children, the very same ones I boast are really pretty well behaved most of the time, turn into the most wretched demonic vessels ever to walk the earth? I could develop a whole new question section for the Yom Kippur service, like The Four Questions on Passover.
On all other days, we respect our parents. Why on this day do we act like we don’t have any?
The boys had shifted into high gear, and were swinging each other around by their shirttails like a WWF version of Ring Around the Rosie. The PUMA sweatshirt had resurfaced as a whipping rag, and my daughter was executing an Irish step dance routine to save her bare toes from frostbite.
These children have been raised by wolves. Where is their mother?
I was taking all of this in and practicing deep breathing exercises when I noticed a fellow approaching us. To my horror, it was my husband, the alpha wolf, sporting a wrinkled pair of blue pants, a tattered black suit jacket and a spiraling grey tie. Vagabond Man grimaced and told the boys to tuck in their shirts, which were now billowing like parachutes in the autumn breeze.
Vagabond Man and wolf children on Yom Kippur. Oh yeah, I’ve got plenty to be sorry for.
It is this way every year, like a regularly scheduled appointment for electro-shock therapy, jolting me from my starving stupor into a code red, full state of alert; as though we all need one final grand purge of our hideousness. Throughout the services, the kids fidgeted and giggled and I found myself conjuring up punishments to dole out to everyone seated within a ten-foot radius of me. Though lame in comparison to the Who shall perish by plague-fire-flood thing the rabbi is talking about, I settled upon a long list of No’s: No new tennis racquets, no more Nintendo, no TV for the rest of your life, etc. Every now and again I pointed out an important Take Home Point for my husband in the prayer book. Helpful stuff like, I am weak and I have not lived up to my responsibilities and commitments to remind him of just how sorry he should be.
Learn from me, Vagabond Man.
I lean over to my children and shush them for the hundredth time.
Hush wicked little wolf children.
Signaling the end of the service, the Shofar blows its final rousing call, and I hurried home for the next event in the annual Fast and the Furious Festivities. The first of my challenges began with my kids who were too young and too skinny to fast, reaffirming my suspicion that young, thin people do, in fact, have it better than me.
The children had suddenly become hungrier than they had ever been in their lives, rivaled only by maybe those kids in Sally Struthers’ Feed the Children commercials. Limping into the kitchen, they whined, “What do we have to EAT?” I rattled off the entire contents of my refrigerator and pantry, only to be met with, “Wait, what do we have again?” Then, as an extra test of the purity of my soul and emptiness of my stomach, I was held hostage in the kitchen to grant special culinary requests and watch them eat.
My children, however, were just the hors d'oeuvres for this festival of forgiveness. The next course involved preparing an all-you-can-eat buffet for a dozen or so relatives that are always just a little too pleasant to have actually been fasting…I quickly zipped through preparations like The Road Runner while muttering things that must be beeped out and then waited for the guests to arrive. Some people I know always arrive late as they have probably stopped for a little nosh along the way.
Finally, the stubborn sun resigned behind the horizon and my family was seated around the table. Vagabond Man and the wolverines had vanished and in their places sat my loving husband and three delicious children. The diverse cast of characters that is my family has gathered once again for the meal to be enjoyed, the stories to be shared, the jokes to be botched, and memories to be reinvented. And we laugh and we learn and we love.
It is a struggle to stay together, wrestling for that pure space in which we can share our love for one another. Perhaps the palette really must be cleared, our bitterness purged, before we can taste the sweetness of our families again. All I know is I am really grateful for the Do-Over.