In Hebrew, the words are pronounced Yom Kippur, Yome Kee-Poor, but where I grew up, the Yiddish speaking Jews of my family always called The Day of Atonement “Yum Kipper.” No atonement was ever actually attempted, or only very, very rarely, and with the usual conditions and caveats, but the holiest day of the Jewish year was a day my father mortified himself by fasting and praying every year.
Even most secular Jews retain some feelings about Yom Kippur. Sandy Koufax famously wouldn’t pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, when his start fell on The Day of Atonement one year, though I have no doubt he ate bacon cheeseburgers with Don Drysdale from time to time. My mother always had a coffee in the morning, and maybe a piece of toast. She didn’t quite fast, though she ate lightly.
Where I grew up there would be a long service in the morning at Hillcrest Jewish Center where the thousands in membership dues the family paid each year, to give their children a rude Jewish education, also gave them the right to buy seats in the synagogue for the High Holy Days.
I don’t know how much the package was to have a seat for the biggest show of the year in the temple, but my father, as I recall, opted to sit in one of the hundreds of folding chairs they set up in the gym. One year, I remember, he had a seat in the Ferkauf Chapel, in an alcove under the main sanctuary but a floor above the gym. It was slightly more upscale, with carpeting and without the faint chlorine smell from the pool down the hall you sometimes got in the gym. My mother never went to shul, my sister and I were forced to Junior Congregation for a few years, and never went again, so my father only bought one of the costly high holiday seats. Fittingly, I suppose, he prayed alone at Hillcrest every year.
The seats in the main chapel were for local millionaires and my father wasn’t going to be gouged for the right to pray in the first class cabin. I’m sure even those seats in the gym weren’t cheap. I remember seeing Caroline and Ralph there once, in that overflow crowd, fasting and praying in the gym while rising and please being seated in a wave with hundreds of others. They, like my father, like the immense crowd of local Jews in their best clothes, jammed into every room of the Jewish Center, went every year, religiously.
One year, my father reported that a woman fainted in the gym during her Yom Kippur fast. She’d been asked to rise one too many times, I guess. The faces of the Jews at Hillcrest were indeed solemn, as if acutely aware of exactly what was going on in the heavens above them as Yom Kippur came to an emotional climax.
In Jewish folklore The Almighty sits over an unimaginably immense ledger, like an all-powerful accountant, reviewing, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the good deeds, bad deeds and borderline deeds of each Jew. Based on their repentance, their generosity in forgiving those who seek it from them, their devotion to good works, their pious obedience to their Creator, or their failings in these departments, they’d get marked down in The Book of Life for a good year or a bad year in the one about to start.
Jews have ten days to straighten out their accounts, the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, also known as The Days of Awe, to make amends, to repay debts, to seek forgiveness, to forgive those who seek it. In my experience, among the Jews I’ve known, this is rarely done in a terribly soul searching way. It is very hard to have the humility to do all of these things, to be aware of every hurtful thing you may have done and humbly seek forgiveness for them, and it is not often done, except among people who really love each other, and even then, it is not the norm to go into detail. We assume, by our love and continuing friendship, that we forgive each other, I suppose.
But even many of the most casual Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Even those, like me, who find the rituals of worship empty and many of the ancient commands lacking in soul. As for fasting, I don’t speak for the others, but I have always done it, am doing it now. I also made a practice of walking down to Hillcrest toward the end of the evening service every year to meet my father and walk him back to break the fast.
The shul goers would get a break during their day of fasting and praying, a few hours of downtime after the grueling morning session. My father generally took a nap, I’m sure many others did too. Fasting and praying is hard work.
I suspect that final afternoon into evening stretch of praying while fasting, and knowing that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, was fixing to make the final notations on your page in the Book of Life, and then actually seal your fate for the coming year with a giant seal, had to be very emotional. It all leads up to a tremendous, long, sobbing blast on a ram’s horn, at that exact moment God seals the Book of Life, everyone’s fate sealed for the coming year.
Fasting is enough for me, and walking down to meet my father and walk him home after his second long bout of praying was the only other Yom Kippur ritual I observed.
There would be a swarm of Jews outside the synagogue, as though a concert had just ended in a giant hall. In the last of the dying sunlight I’d recognize a few, sometimes say a brief hello, but everyone on the sidewalk in front of Hillcrest was distracted, slightly drained, hungry, thinking about getting home, darting this way and that, as soon as the sun had completely set and there were three stars in the sky– bagels, lox, soup, fruit, thick slice of tomato, water, coffee, fresh orange juice, schnapps. Food rarely tastes as good as those first bites after twenty-four hours of fasting. Anybody I ran into while searching for my father was understandably not in a mood to schmooze, which was fine with me too.
I would find my father in this swarm of dazed, hungry Jews fanning out from Hillcrest in every direction, and we’d walk home along Union Turnpike. It was not a long walk, five or six blocks.
Only one year did we have a meaningful talk I still remember. I initiated it and it was a very important talk for me, for my relationship with my difficult father and his with his difficult son. We sat in the living room, my mother in the kitchen, the food all ready to eat, everything smelled delicious. All the stars were in the sky, it was past time to eat, and we continued to talk instead of breaking the fast, and he continued to pretend not to understand what I was talking about, he went into all his tricks.
It took quite a long time, maybe an hour or more, and my mother never appeared in the living room after she’d greeted us and saw us locked in this conversation, but eventually, after displaying a forbearance that surprised us both and untangling all of his tactical diversions, I got my point across, he agreed to do what I had asked, and we went in and broke the fast.
I have written at length about this conversation, and I will do so again, but a hungry Sekhnet is on her way, and I have to be ready when she gets here. We have a vast fruit salad to assemble before our friends arrive home from shul to break the fast a few hours from now. I have to say, I can already taste that first swallow of pulpy orange juice.