My first real exposure to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was when I was dating Matt, my future husband. I didn’t really know what observing these holidays entailed. He wasn’t flying home to visit family during that time, and as he was working and living in my small Northern California hometown, he reached out to a synagogue in Sacramento (the nearest “big city”) to find services and a group of people to join for Rosh Hashanah dinner.
The following week he fasted, and I met up with him briefly between classes. He was not in the best mood, understandably. “You can’t even have water?” I asked.
I was in disbelief, but also intrigued by this custom and by my exotic new Jewish kind-of boyfriend. I relayed this to a friend in one of my classes, who informed me that she herself was half-Jewish. “But not even water? He must be Orthodox!” she said.
“I… don’t think so?” I replied.
Matt is not Orthodox, but he was the first practicing Jew I had ever met. Not practicing as in strictly keeping Shabbat, but he’s always observed the High Holidays and was set on marrying a Jewish lady.
Enter the Jewish lady–me, four years later, almost converted, about to be engaged, and ready to take on this fasting thing. I had celebrated with Matt the year before as well, but he had dissuaded me from attempting to fast. “A girl doesn’t need to fast the year before her bat mitzvah. Why put yourself through that if you don’t need to?” he asked.
So I didn’t, and instead set about preparing for the holidays by purchasing challah, baking a flourless chocolate cake for Matt’s break fast, and generally absorbing as much as I could through osmosis and anticipation of what was to come. We lived in Los Angeles at the time, and the school district where I taught actually gave us the Jewish holidays off, so this was fairly easy. “L’shanah tova–tell his parents that,” one of my students coached me.
A year later, my first fast was going well. I had the day off, though not everyone at my new school in Nashville was quite as understanding as those in LA had been (“So I guess this means you’ll be coming in during Christmas break, huh?” one colleague joked). The night before, we had friends over for a pre-fast meal and attended Kol Nidre services.
Matt and I had kept our hunger at bay all the next day by, perhaps strangely, preparing for our meal that night. I had, for the first time in my entire life, gone nearly 24 hours without eating or drinking.
But then it happened, despite my earlier bravado. We were at synagogue and had been standing for almost an hour during the concluding service, Ne’ilah. As we were rapping our chests for the al chet, I felt myself wilt with each thump. Then it was a ringing sound in my ears and with that, I passed out and slumped back heavily into my seat.
Immediately, people surrounded us, instructing me to put my head between my knees, bringing me something to drink, declaring, “Oh, it’s her first fast! Of course! Everyone passes out their first time!” My attempts at blending in seamlessly as one of their own had been thwarted.
A lot has happened since that first fast. I’ve converted, dipped in the mikveh, taught Temple Sunday school, and married under a chuppah. Not only do I have documents that say I’m legit, but our framed ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is displayed in our living room. I am, as my rabbi first put it, a member of the tribe. The silver Star of David necklace that my in-laws gifted me declares that to the world. And during High Holiday services, my husband and I have stood before our congregation and opened the ark together.
This Yom Kippur, I will be fasting again after being pregnant or nursing for the past two holidays. I think I’ll do fine–as I did the year after my fainting incident–but my body has housed and fed a baby since then. For someone accustomed to eating every few hours and addicted to her morning coffee, it won’t be easy.
I fear that lightheaded feeling again.
But what I don’t fear this time is embarrassment in front of the other members of our community. This is, after all, the same community who came to my aid the first time I felt woozy.
These are the same people who helped prepare me for the mikveh and danced at our wedding. The same community who fed us after my father passed away and packed our living room for our son’s bris; with whom we have shared countless Shabbat dinners; who are now some of our best friends. They are the people who now seem happy to claim me as, dare I say it, one of their own.