Fasting into Fall
I love the fall. The sky changes color and of course, so do the leaves. The kids go back to school. And in our family we get dressed up and go to Temple. We don’t go much throughout the year other than to drop kids off at their required religious school – because even though we aren’t continuously observant we want them to know who they are and where they came from and we want someone else to teach it to them.
Fall is the time of the Jewish Holidays. The big ones. The High Holy Days. In swift succession there’s Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzreit (love that one). I went to Cardozo Law School which is part of Yeshiva University and I learned not only about the law but every obscure Jewish holiday in the fall because school was closed half the time.
Rosh Hashanah is great. Apples and honey and blowing the shofar. Sukkot is even fun, eating in a hut – which for a Jewish girl is practically camping amid the gourds, pumpkins, and more apples.
But Yom Kippur – not so much fun. This is the holiday where we say we’re sorry for everything we did all year. We even beat our chest. And, we don’t eat all day. I wonder how many people go to Temple that day just so they won’t eat or because they might hurt someone? It’s generally a very cranky day. And then when the sun sets we all stuff ourselves beyond belief – breaking the fast while breaking records.
I used to joke at least Yom Kippur wasn’t Ramadan where we’d have to fast for 30 days. In fact I often didn’t fast at all because I frankly didn’t believe being hungry for a few hours was going to make a difference. I still was going to be bitchy and cranky and all the things I was supposed to be sorry for and not eating would just reinforce my bad attitude.
But as we embark on the holiday of Yom Kippur, this year is a little different, because this year I’ve been transformed…by belief. This past year I was surprised to learn I actually believe, even just a little bit, in my religion. As a result the holidays have taken on a bit more meaning.
Last April, as my family sat down to celebrate Passover I was flying to Beirut for a tour of the Middle East for my work – Lebanon, Oman and Saudi Arabia. It was a wonderful and illuminating trip and in some ways defined me more in my Jewishness than my trips to Israel.
I never felt uncomfortable with any of my hosts, most knew I was Jewish and it was a non-issue. I did find myself internally editing my yiddishisms which I’d always thought were just New York’isms, i.e., schlepp, became carry. At the passport control in Lebanon, as the guard rifled through my passport, he asked in halting English, “Israel stamp?” “Nope,” I replied with a wide welcoming smile. He wasn’t going to catch me out – it was a new passport, what they call a clean passport. But I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as I made my way past the guard with machine guns.
It was on my last day before returning home that I experienced my first crisis of faith. I was in Jeddah, the Miami of Saudi Arabia. I was relaxing with my hosts having tea and dates and talking about my experience on the plane ride over from Oman. I had witnessed pilgrims in the plane dis-robe from their daily clothes and put on a special white robe and start praying in the aisles. I was sitting in first class next to a Pakistani from Long Island and he explained that as the plane passed over the holy airspace the pilgrims would start their prayer. I marveled at their dedication and their utter faith.
As I was sharing my experience the next day in Jeddah, one of the guests, a wonderful, warm fellow asked me what I was doing the next day before my flight home. He asked me if I’d like to see Mecca – the holiest city for Muslims – which was about an hour away by car. “But I thought you had to be Muslim to enter Mecca?” “Yes, you do, no worries, I’ll convert you. I’ve done it to lots of Americans.”
I was speechless. Convert? Here in the middle of a party? I had already accepted an invitation to go to the beach house of one of my hosts. Of course I was already lamenting that I wouldn’t get much relief from the 110 degree weather because I couldn’t wear a bathing suit, but had to wear my dark long abaya (the robe I had to wear in public).
I joked that I was an infidel and I’d rather go to the beach. But he insisted on “converting” me so that I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity. I kept thinking he was joking but when I turned to some of the others around him, including his wife, they affirmed it was that easy – snap you are converted. Except first you have to answer these questions:Do you believe in God? Sure I said (easy enough to say yes, although a few years ago I might have entered a philosophical discussion on that one).
Do you believe that Abraham and Moses were Prophets of God? Sure. (He knew I was going to say yes to that one).
Do you believe that Muhammad was a Prophet of God? For some people (I answered hedging my bets).
He smiled broadly, “Close enough. That’s it you’re converted.”
But then something happened, maybe a light of recognition, maybe it was the light of betrayal, as I thought about my daughter entering her year of Hebrew lessons for her Bat Mitzvah year, it just seemed wrong to “convert” so easily just so I could go to a city which for me would be a tourist feather in my cap and for others is a place so holy they change into white towels on a plane and lay prostate in the aisles.
“You know I’d rather go to the beach,” I said. He looked so disappointed, but somehow I knew that I was doing the right thing. The next day at my host’s beach house he asked me to relax and enjoy the view as he sat and prayed on a small carpet in his living room. In that quiet moment I experienced something more holy than a pilgrimage to a dusty city based on a lie of conversion, I experienced the quiet faith of a man in prayer as the sun set over the water.
Tomorrow as I fast and spend the day in Temple with my family I come to the holiday with a renewed understanding of why we do what we do. We are seeking something personal and at the same time communal that will transform our everyday lives into something holy. And that’s worth not eating for.