In my family, when I was growing up, fasting was alien territory. If, inexplicably, you failed to pause for “a little something” between lunch and supper, it was a known fact that your blood sugar level could plummet to a dangerous low. My father and sister were especially prone to this problem and would suddenly explode into volcanic rage, prompting my mother and me to roll our eyes and mouth “low blood sugar” at each other.
Fasting was something we thought perhaps Catholics did; after all, they’d taken the idea of self-denial and expanded it to last 40 days. My one close Jewish friend claimed she fasted — voluntarily! — once a year for Yom Kippur, but it seemed unlikely. Like me, she was an ardent devotee of cake, praline and marzipan. I am still slightly in awe of the fact that she once ate an entire Gateau St Honore (a heavenly creation involving choux pastry, crème patissiere, and crackly caramel) all by herself. As we say in my family when passing on a cake recipe: Serves six (or one).
But then I met Ben and became a “proper” Jew. Luckily, I got pregnant not long after we married and managed to have The Boy on Yom Kippur so was absolved of the need to fast that year, but it wasn’t a trick I could pull off annually.
The first year I fasted (to support my husband; it seemed like the sort of thing a good Jewish wife would do), I was wild-eyed by 9.30am due to the lack of tea and toast. I thought it would be easier at shul — all that standing up and sitting down would surely distract me?
We go to shul. We stand up. We sit down. Some stuff about atoning. Stand up. Sit down. Is it a sign of middle-age when you notice that you’re fantasising more about food than about sex? I try really hard to think about atoning because I am a crummy person so it’s not as if there’s a shortage of material. But a vivid image of a large strawberry tart keeps getting in the way, like a persistent Jehovah’s Witness who in response to the statement “I’m Jewish” says, “Well, we don’t like to leave anyone out” (this actually happened last week). The tart is red and glistening, a thing of beauty. I mentally cut it to reveal a deep layer of vanilla-scented crème patissiere and buttery pastry. Stand up. Sit down. Our rabbi is saying something important. Would a little whipped cream on the side be too much? Stand up. Sit down. Add a large cup of tea into the picture.
Later, I ask the Husband which foods he fantasises about when he’s fasting and he answers straightaway: chicken soup, challah, honey cake. Look at that! That’s why he’s a proper Jew and I’m still a semi-shiksa in training: he has nice, haimische food fantasies while mine are a bit WASP (though it could have been worse; it could have been a toasted bacon sandwich, which would require way more atoning than I have time for).
At “lunchtime” — sob! — we go home and the Husband lies down and falls asleep within 20 seconds of being horizontal, while I close my eyes only to witness a procession of trolleys, laden with food, wheel through my mind. It’s a top-notch fantasy, with white-gloved waiters offering platters of carved roast beef and piles of crunchy potatoes. I mentally switch the beef for crispy roast chicken as it’s a bit more Friday nightish, and conjure up a steaming dish of carrots tsimmes on the side. I might struggle to be spiritual but at least I know when I need to clean up my act.
By four o’clock, when sensible people are pausing for a cup of tea and a scone, I’m half-crazy, snapping at the Husband and the Boy over every tiny thing. By the time we emerge from Neilah, the concluding service, all restraint has gone out of the window and I’m shoving old people out of the way to get to the free honey cake. Ben says, “If you really want to support me next year, maybe give the fasting a miss, eh?”
This year, post-barmitzvah, is the first year that The Boy is expected to fast too. Husband Ben is being weirdly zealous about it despite my protestations that the Boy has 50 per cent Leon DNA, so is hard-wired to need food every 90 minutes. I point out that teenage boys can eat entire packets of chocolate digestives in a single sitting then genuinely look baffled and say, “What biscuits?” when questioned as to their whereabouts. More importantly, if the boy is fasting, I can’t sneak into the kitchen to “pre-empt a hypoglycaemic episode”, can I?
I fear it’s going to be a very, very long 25 hours.
Shana Tova and I sincerely wish you very well over the fast.
Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things….) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue. Zelda Leon is a pseudonym