To provide context: I am not a religious person. My mother was raised Jewish (Ashkenazi from Odessa), my father was raised Catholic (from outside Naples) and their response to all that lore and dogma was to raise me in a world with a lot of holidays with little to no connection to religious ritual. It is worth mentioning, however, that my mother was a deeply moral person (right is what is done, wrong is that which we do not do) and I’ve never met a man who loved his fellow man the way my father did.
The dogma is nothing. The message is everything. But that’s another essay. (Scroll all the way back: it’s called “In Which I Propose A New Messiah.”)
Anyway, one result of all this was that the solemn and thoughtful Yom Kippur (fasting, no presents) was not a part of my childhood. We did Passover with my Grandfather Pincus (and Grandmother Harriet, while she lived) , we did Hanukah with lighting an electric Menorah and a little present every night. But no Yom Kippur.
As an adult, with the choice of doing whatever the hell I want, it may surprise you to hear that I have, now and again, actually “celebrated “Yom Kippur. Not as an observance of Judaism, per se, but because it struck me at some point that taking a day off and thinking back over the past year, while fasting, was an interesting and possibly even useful activity for a thoughtful person.
About a decade ago, I had a Yom Kippur experience that has always stayed with me.
It was the day before the night, to coin a phrase, and I hadn’t decided if I was going to fast that year. I was a little beat and under the weather, and I have found that fasting when you’re getting sick is a fantastic way to ensure you become INCREDIBLY sick.
It was a Sunday. I went to the flea market at Fairfax High School.
I stepped up to the used bookseller: he has a terrific collection of great stuff. He was an older gentleman, and he was wrapping up a discussion (argument, debate) with another older gentleman, all in black. As I approached and (no kidding) pawed through the weathered Kafka paperbacks, the gentleman in black was saying, “But He sees all, my friend. He knows! He watches!”
The Bookseller made a “pfah” kind of sound and said, “Maybe He has time to watch you. I hope He’s not wasting time watching me.”
The gent in black looked, rather suddenly, at me, “What about you, young man? Will you be fasting this evening?”
I was a little surprised to be so immediately identified as a member of the Tribe, but I wasn’t about to deny the heritage.
“I honestly haven’t decided yet, sir.”
A gnarled finger pointed at the sky, and with a smile on his face the First Wise Man repeated, “He watches! He watches me, and you, and even this guy here!”
We all laughed, and it was a good-natured thing. The insistent prophet tottered away with a smile and a wave.
The Bookseller gave me a look.
“That guy. Guys like that. So full of shit. Nobody’s watching. Nobody cares. We’re just here, right, and we try to do good and that’s what matters, right?”
I agreed, not must to be agreeable, but because I didn’t disagree.
“So… are you going to fast?” he asked.
“I wasn’t kidding him. I haven’t decided. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Not to please Yahweh, but because it’s not a bad thing to take a day off and think.”
“Better you should think on a full stomach.” We laughed again.
I bought a book. I no longer remember what it was.
I went to Ralphs. All spiritual narratives should have a trip to Ralphs, right? (Non-LA residents: it is a large supermarket chain. Cf. The Big Lebowski’s opening scene.)
I was wandering the aisles, wondering. Buy food or not? Go home and fast?
The third old Jewish man of the day approached me, quietly and politely.
“Pardon me, do you happen to know how long til jahrzeit?”
Again surprised to be so quickly identified, I said, “I’m not familiar with that word, but from context I’m going to guess that you mean to ask what time sundown is today.”
The Third Wise Man smiled and said, “Yes, I’m sorry. It means ‘the lighting of the candles’. I thought perhaps you were…”
I said, “I am, but of the standard, suburban, American, not-really-practicing type.” As he nodded, I checked my watch. “I think sunset is around 6:30 today. We have about two and a half hours yet.”
“Ah, good. Are you going to fast?”
As previously stated I am not religious, so we’re going to have to postulate here that the Rule of Threes is a thermodynamic law rather than a spiritual precept.
For the third time, I said, “I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am feeling under the weather, and I’m afraid that fasting will make me sick.”
He put his hand on my arm, “Do you know… there is dispensation for illness. God doesn’t want you should be sick. He wants you to take care of yourself. Eat a meal and be well.”
I thanked him, wished him “Good Yontiff” and he went off. Possibly to buy candles. You can, in fact, buy Jahrzeit candles at most Ralphs in Los Angeles.
Maybe it’s the rule of threes, maybe it’s the fairy-tale-like repetition of question and response, maybe it’s the three completely different answers to a theological issue, but this has always stayed with me. Judaism, and Jews, summed up. Three ways of being, all worthy of my respect, all connected to me and my family.
My own views are closest to that of the Second Wise Man, the Bookseller. God isn’t watching. It’s up to you. But I have some sympathy for the view of the First Wise Man, even if I can’t believe. And I was moved by the kindness, the compassion, of the Third Wise Man.
Later that evening, I had some roast chicken, some toasted baguette, a little broccoli. If Yahweh was offended, he didn’t say anything about it.
Good Yontiff, and Happy New Years, brothers, sisters, unbelievers and devout.