Jews talk a lot about eating, but this post is [mainly] about not eating.
The Jewish ritual year calls for abstention from food on six occasions, the most well-known and observed fast being that of our upcoming Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. According to the latest National Jewish Population Survey, 60% of American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a number that is significantly higher than those who belong to synagogues (47%). Among those Jews who are affiliated, the number is higher (79%) a percentage that comes close to the 83% who light Chanukah candles and dwarfs the lighting of Shabbat candles (48%).
Why is this particular observance so popular?
1. Fasting on Yom Kippur can be redefined as a physical purification akin to the contemporary “cleanse” detox diet. Or it can be spiritually purifying on a variety of levels. While many people fast as a repentant effort to have God hear their prayers, others may take advantage of this day of hunger to think of those who have no food. 2. Fasting on Yom Kippur—unlike adopting a strictly kosher lifestyle—is a twenty-five hour annual experiment. When it’s over, you don’t have to look back. Plus you usually do it with your friends and family. Which brings us to
3. Other Jews are doing it all over the world at the same time. Fasters may feel linked to their ancestors and their community through this annual shared experience.
My parents never fasted, without apology. My sister and I have often reminisced about the difficulties of attempting to fast on a particular Yom Kippur morning with the delicious smells of breakfast wafting upstairs. Due to my own spotty observance, the first time I fasted on Yom Kippur—I mean really fasted—was six years ago when Pakistan was hit with a tragic earthquake which killed tens of thousands and left even more homeless. The quake hit during the fasting month of Ramadan and I kept hearing news stories of survivors continuing their daily fasts as the world fell apart around them. I thought, a bit sheepishly, if they could do it under those conditions, I—in my comfortable house in Connecticut—certainly could do it. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that “saying grace is an act of the greatest importance….We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in a world which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and because our memory is short. Yet those who live in less fortunate countries understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of marvels…” Similarly, the ability to choose to fast when others go hungry not by choice is an important lesson in privilege and inequality.
In my class on foodways, I spend some time discussing Ramadan. My students are usually split on their responses to the fasting and feasting that occurs during that auspicious Islamic month. “Are you really thinking of the poor when you are preparing to party after sundown?” they ask. Ramadan is in fact a time when many Muslims increase their regular practice of zakat, or alms giving. While there is a tradition of celebrating grand iftars well into the night, those who have nothing are remembered more keenly in light of the celebrations of plenty. Similarly for Jews, we should remember the Talmudic passage that declares that the “The merit of fasting is the charity [dispensed]” (Berachot 6b). Many synagogues do host food drives during the month of Elul, so we should think of the food we are not eating on Yom Kippur and donate the money we likely would have spent on food to the poor.
My students are usually appeased when I explain that the purpose of Ramadan is actually closer in spirit to Christmas than Yom Kippur as it commemorates the literal word of God being given to the world as manifested in the Qur’an, much as Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, for many Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Christmas Eve is a fast day followed by the celebratory feasting on Christmas Day. Despite these historical precedents, there remains discomfort for some with the idea of celebrating after a day of fasting.
Discomfort aside, the late twentieth century has seen a rise in such celebrations among American Jews. The first Break Fast I hosted fell during Ramadan. Coincidentally (or maybe not), my guests were all families with one Jewish parent and one Gentile parent. As a gesture to my Muslim brothers and sisters, I chose to serve apricot juice and dates—the traditional iftar foods. My good interfaith intentions fell by the wayside however when a dear friend showed up with some really good-looking smoked fish and ice-cold vodka. Immediately the juice and dates were moved to the kids’ table. In a recent New York Times piece, religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer explores the Break Fast rituals in America and quotes Alana Newhouse saying that the best part of breaking the fast “is breaking the fast on some kind of liquor. It’s better than any hallucinogenic drug. It’s a European tradition. It is the closest I have come to a mystical experience.” I concur with Newhouse.
The new American Break Fast Feast as it is now observed, I submit to you, fills a need not just for those of that are hungry after 25 hours of self-denial, but also for those American Jews who have been able to engage with the Jewish ritual calendar mainly through the embrace of secular symbols such as dreidels and potato pancakes. So what are we celebrating when we eat our bagels and whitefish after sundown? That we made it through the day? I think that we are offering a thanksgiving for our ability to share food with our loved ones and our community.