Making Yom Kippur My Own
By Susan Goldberg
Photo © rawpixel/123RF
Oct 5, 2017
A confession: I haven’t fasted in years, possibly decades. For at least that long, apparently, it hasn’t felt particularly relevant to me, this Yom Kippur edict to abstain from food and drink from sundown to sundown. I can’t pretend that I wrestled with the choice of whether or not to eat, or even that I definitively remember making the decision. Most likely, I woke up one Yom Kippur morning and decided to eat breakfast, and felt no particular twinge of guilt once I did. And that was that.
Which makes it slightly ironic, I realize, when I confess that I’m also a big fan of the breaking of the fast — that ritual meal that comes at the end of Yom Kippur, when hungry (or not) and grateful Jews come together, finally, to eat.
My mother, Ruth, loved to feed people. She took exquisite pleasure in planning and preparing feasts, cooking up excessive quantities of food and inviting people — anywhere from a few to several dozen — over to share it.
She took same exquisite pleasure in feeding people who really seemed to need it: students and young families, second and third cousins who had recently moved to town and didn’t have a place to go on Friday nights or high holidays. The recently single, the recently bereaved, new parents, the newly diagnosed.
Any meal, even any snack, could be an occasion (when I brought home a friend or someone I was dating, I’d have to prep them in advance: “My mom’s going to tell you everything in the fridge. Just nod and smile.”), as could any restaurant meal — today, it’s difficult for me not to over-order in Chinese restaurants. Friday-night Shabbat dinners were a command performance.
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But where my mom really shone was the breaking of the fast.
[My mother] took the same exquisite pleasure in feeding people who really seemed to need it: the recently single, the recently bereaved, new parents, the newly diagnosed.
Maybe it pained her to imagine that many Jews that hungry for that long. Maybe she knew she had a captive audience. But for years, until her failing health made it impossible, my mother held an annual break-fast dinner at my parents’ suburban Toronto home. It was an institution. She invited the same 9 or 10 families as a baseline, and then actively scouted for anyone else who might need an invitation, have nowhere to go. She menu-planned and baked weeks in advance. The day before, the table would have been set, serving dishes waiting, scraps of paper in each one telling us what it would be filled with. After services on Yom Kippur morning, we got home, and she got to work, pressing me into service for the final push.
The menu was pretty much standard each year: egg and tuna, teriyaki salmon (she had freezers full of salmon flown in from Vancouver, where we’d lived for four years and where she’d developed a taste for Pacific fish), bagels and cream cheese and lox (ditto), green beans with almonds, seven-layer dip, this god-awful casserole where she smothered broccoli and cauliflower in cans of cream of mushroom soup and shredded cheese — she broiled that whole thing for a while and then topped it with French’s Crispy Fried Onions. It was gross, but it had its annual fans and no one could imagine the table without it. There were sides and salads and all kinds of things I’m sure I can’t remember. And the desserts: her famous cheesecake, “thumb” cookies with a dab of strawberry jam in the middle, some kind of rolled up cookie that she called “kufels,” brownies, squares, coffee cake.
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And then, to make a long story short, my mother died. And I moved away, from Toronto, where it was possible to be Jewish by osmosis, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with a Jewish population of under 300 people and a synagogue that served, generously, maybe 40 households. Maybe. I didn’t attend services for many years, and once my young, intermarried, atheist family finally joined the congregation to create some sense of community for our sons, I never attended the community breaking of the fast, held in what felt to me like the too-big synagogue social hall, a highly impersonal meal with maybe a half dozen people. It didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like my version of community, like the Judaism I was used to or like the Judaism I had been trying to carve out for myself and my kids as an adult.
"You don’t have to fast. You don’t have to be religious. I grew up with my mom putting out a big spread for tons of people on Yom Kippur, and I want to try to re-create some of that spirit. Please come.”
Living in a small, Northwestern Ontario town with a tiny Jewish population, there’s no being Jewish by osmosis. I’ve been forced to try to carve out what my heritage means here, how I’ll live it. And it means that I often have to actively work to create that life, because no one else will do it for me. So, much to my surprise, I am now on our synagogue’s executive. At our fall meeting, I volunteered my house instead of the shul for breaking of the fast. And last Saturday night, 36 people — 36! — gathered at my house to say a few quick (and optional) prayers led by our fly-in rabbi. We sang some songs, read a few poems, performed the end-of-Sabbath Havdallah ritual. And we ate. A lot.
No, I did not make the broccoli-cauliflower casserole. But people brought gefilte fish and challah and kugel and honeycake and lots else. The kids, many of whom had never been to a break-fast dinner, ran around the house in delight. I reached out to people I met in passing, to newcomers to the city, a young student couple, to older members of the congregation I hadn’t seen in a while, to Jewish people who weren’t part of the synagogue, who worried that because they, too, don’t fast, that they shouldn’t come. I said, You don’t have to fast. You don’t have to be religious. You don’t have to show up for the prayer part if that’s not relevant to you. I said, “I grew up with my mom putting out a big spread for tons of people on Yom Kippur, and I want to try to re-create some of that spirit. Please come.”
And they did. And it was lovely. I could feel my mother’s spirit everywhere, which is what I wanted all along.
Next year, I doubt I’ll fast. But I will absolutely invite everyone over to break the fast with me. I hope to create a new tradition, carving out new rituals that are relevant to me and to my family and community. Because if I don’t do it, here in this place, no one else will do it for me.
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