My First Yom Kippur

By Elizabeth Meyer

September 25, 2009

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empty bowl symbolizing fasting for Yom Kippur

I passed out. I thought I should give you the ending first so you know this isn’t some story about a Baptist girl who jumped right into the Jewish holidays with grace and style. No, I stood there in the middle of Neilah, turned white as a sheet, and slowly lost the ability to stand as my blood sugar continued to drop.

“I called my father, a Baptist minister, to discuss what he thought I should do about it. Would it be more respectful to fast along with my boyfriend and his parents, or simply “tag along” and quietly eat a granola bar at regular intervals? Should I stay home, altogether?”

 

But let me back up. My husband (who at the time was my boyfriend) and I were in our first High Holiday season and celebrating with his parents. Not only was it my first holiday season, it was my first time in a service at the temple. I had already attended Rosh Hashanah (with some trepidation) ten days earlier. Despite my concerns about “knowing what to do” and “looking out of place,” the services on Rosh Hashanah went smoothly and I even enjoyed myself, though I could not understand most of what was being said in Hebrew. Everything was new and interesting. I had never even seen a Torah before and I found the entire day to be fascinating. It didn’t hurt that Rosh Hashanah is a lighthearted holiday and its celebratory mood was infectious.

Yom Kippur was another story. I had even more concerns–big ones. I had heard about fasting and all the rules, and I was not at all sure I should be participating in this serious holiday I knew very little about. I called my father, a Baptist minister, to discuss what he thought I should do about it. Would it be more respectful to fast along with my boyfriend and his parents, or simply “tag along” and quietly eat a granola bar at regular intervals? Should I stay home altogether? I do not know what I expected him to say, but I think I was secretly hoping he would say, “Baptist girls don’t fast.”

Of course, that was not at all what my father told me to do. In his usual loving but blunt way, he said, “Beth, it is one day. Suck it up. Fast with them and show them that you can respect their traditions.” I knew he was right. To show respect to my boyfriend’s religion, I was going to have to respect as many aspects of the holiday as I could, and this was one of the easiest ones. With that decision made, I set about the task of being the best Baptist observer of Yom Kippur I could be. And that meant research. As the holiday approached, I tried to read everything I could get my hands on about Yom Kippur–food, clothing, behavior. I tried to cover all of the bases. I consulted all of the Jewish friends I know. Was gum OK? What about medications? How long was the service? What should I wear? What should I not wear? I carefully filed away all of the advice I was given and I purchased two new conservative outfits for the occasion. I was ready.

The day before, I drank lots of water and ate a low-salt meal to end the day, just as I had been instructed. In the evening, we attended our first service. It was really lovely; I felt like I had it under control and this fasting business was going to be no problem.

In the morning, I made sure I had leather-free shoes, wore no makeup or perfume and dressed conservatively in my new outfit. I was a little sluggish without my morning coffee, but perked up during the morning services, which passed without incident. We took a short break in the afternoon and then returned for Neilah.

That’s where things went wrong. I had gotten a lot of advice prior to that day, but no one had ever mentioned that nearly all of Neilah is conducted while the Ark is open, meaning you are standing the entire time. It isn’t a terribly long service, only about an hour, but an hour of standing after 24 hours of fasting does not exactly fly by. Truthfully, I’m not sure it would have helped if I had known about the standing part of the service, but the surprise of it all made it seem exponentially worse to my tired body. As I stood there, only 15 minutes into the ceremony, I felt worse and worse. My boyfriend looked over at me and asked if I was OK. I smile and reassured him, even as I started to get cold and shaky all over. He realized what was going on and explained that it was OK for me to sit. “Yeah, right,” I thought, “I’m just going to sit down while the Ark is open. That will make a really great impression.”

I was determined to tough it out … and then I blacked out and he had to half-carry me out of the service while the rest of the congregation tried to focus on their prayers. My future in-laws left the service behind us, concerned for my health, of course. But I could think of nothing except how mortified I was. I even continued to refuse anything to eat until the shofar was blown, as though anyone (God or my future in-laws) cared whether I had a tam-tam cracker at that point.

I felt like a complete failure. I could not even fast for 24 hours, and I had ruined the Neilah service for the very people I was trying to impress. It was guilt and disappointment that followed me the whole year. That’s why, the following year, I was determined to do better. I was determined that it was just a rookie mistake and I could do it. I could be the best observer of Yom Kippur who wasn’t Jewish. And the next year? I passed out again during Neilah. I disrupted the service again, and caused a scene again. That’s two-for-two if you are keeping score at home.

I have been a little slow to learn the lesson, but this year it finally sunk in. What will “impress” my in-laws and husband is not that I follow Jewish law to the letter, but that I make an effort to support their traditions in the spirit of family. I had been missing the point entirely. I was so caught up in the details of being a perfect holiday participant that I missed the chance to focus on the familial and religious experiences during the holidays. Putting the holidays in perspective and remembering where my focus should be has relieved me of the anxiety I used to feel about celebrating holidays with my in-laws.

I hosted a Passover meal for the first time this year. My charoset was terrible and we forgot the matzoh ball soup. No one cared. We had a great time, and I felt proud that with help from my mother-in-law I was able to put together the holiday meal for my family.

So, yes, I will eat a granola bar before Neilah this year, but I’ll be standing there next to my husband and my mother and father-in-law to hear the shofar: something far more important to me and to them than the calories I will need to consume to be able to do it. 



About Elizabeth Meyer

Elizabeth Meyer is originally from Pittsburgh and now resides in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband, Brad. She is a real estate attorney by trade and spends her free time baking, reading and and experiencing the joys and challenges of marrying her Baptist background with her husband's Jewish faith.