Taking Back the Kip


I’ve long feared Yom Kippur. My dread begins early, even before Rosh Hashanah. With mounting trepidation, I become aware that, in not so very long, I will have to refrain from eating and drinking for 25 hours and spend most of that time in synagogue, sitting and standing, repeating and repenting, atoning and lamenting.

I have fasted more than 30 times now, so I know what to expect. For example, I know with some certainty that my caffeine headache will begin right around 10 a.m. and last until the final shofar blows. At 1 p.m., I will begin fantasizing about what the soft, chewy bagels waiting at home taste like, as if I’ve never before tasted a bagel. By 3 p.m., my stomach will begin feeding on itself. At 5 p.m., my partner and I will commence our own version of The Hunger Games, a misery competition involving expressive, woeful displays of suffering, as each of us attempts to out-agonize the other and pawn off parenting duties. “No, [partner’s name], you don’t understand. This year I’m really sick. I feel like I might faint/die/have a stroke. Can you please take [child’s name] to the bathroom??” We will feed our whiny offspring juicy apple slices and savory crackers that make us froth at the mouth. By the time the end arrives, I will feel almost too weak to eat. And yet, at the same time, a truly sick voice in my head will say, I feel so thin. I must look really good right now.

I’ve been thinking about my fear of Yom Kippur and wondering if maybe it isn’t due only to the physical deprivation. It might be PTSD. Growing up as a female in an Orthodox Jewish congregation, I felt like an outsider. The men and women sat separately, with the men performing the rituals and the women spectating. But even spectating was challenging: the mechitza partition that divided the men’s and women’s sections was made of a gauzy, filmy white material, so it was a bit like peering through cataracts. The rabbi’s sermons on Yom Kippur were angry rants about the evils of Conservative Judaism or about women dressing immodestly or men who pretended Zionist devotion but who were too cheap to give money to Orthodox groups in Israel.

And that’s when I was listening. Wherever possible, I’d check out entirely and while the rabbi was pounding the lectern and threatening hellfire, I would either daydream about some girl I had a crush on or spend the time self-flagellating for the aforementioned daydreams. It was not a spiritually uplifting experience. It’s entirely possible that my discomfort with the Day of Atonement was learned at so an early an age, I have a hard time hearing the words “Yom Kippur” without wanting to run screaming.

But, in fact, my Yom Kippur experience today is nothing like my youth. In 1995, I decided to stop attending services at my childhood synagogue and instead spent the holiday at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue in New York. My first Kol Nidrei there, I listened to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum talk about forgiveness rather than judgment, about integration of the self, about how important it is to love ourselves as we are and to understand that our imperfections are something to be celebrated, even as we strive to be the best human beings we can be. I cried through the entire service.

I have spent every Yom Kippur since then with CBST, and the Day of Atonement has become a far more spiritual experience. I will probably always hate fasting, like any good Jew, but I do believe it gives me an ability to focus on my own spirituality in a way I can’t and don’t the rest of the year. With just five days to go until this year’s fast begins, I am choosing to acknowledge the Yom Kippur traumas of my past and am attempting to move past them. I will remember that I am participating in this community ritual not out of guilt or because I fear the wrath of an old man with a long white beard, but because I choose to, for my own spiritual growth. I will reclaim the day as my own and use it to reach a higher spiritual plane.

But I still plan to feel 100 times worse than my partner.


Oy yoi yoi, Yom Kippur!

Tags: , ,


  1. I haven’t fasted in years and years. Each year, recently, I think, “Maybe I’ll give fasting a try…” and then I eat breakfast pretty much immediately. I haven’t found in my adult life a reason to do it yet that is meaningful to me. On the other hand, I’m pretty close to thinking I might keep Passover this coming year, with the Sephardic provision that I can eat legumes. We’ll see. I wish you an easy fast (that’s still much, much harder than your partner’s — obviously).

  2. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to sit in services and listen to my stomach growl. Uch, the suffering!!

    Wishing you an easy fast.

  3. Thanks, Susan! Fasting is definitely not for everyone. I remember thinking when I was a kid how silly it seemed for people to be fasting to the point where they were too sick to come to services. If you can’t even participate in the community ritual, what’s the point? And yes, much harder than my partner’s–thank you. 🙂

    Deborah, I find it helps to carbo-load all day long on Friday. Then you’re not really wanting to murder anyone until about 3pm the next day. A tzom kal, an easy and meaningful fast, to you and yours! May it all be over quickly…

  4. I’m glad you found a more comfortable spiritual home. Wishing you an easy fast.

  5. Pingback: The queer tent | VillageQ

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.