On the evening of Yom Kippur, in preparation for the 25 hour fast, Jews the world over will offer charity, request forgiveness from friends and family whom they may have wronged, and immerse themselves in the mikveh (the ritual bath) to be purified. At some point, perhaps post-mikveh and before donning their white garments for the Kol Nidre service, many of them will stick a little something up their tuches.
I discovered this secret several years ago, here on West 90th Street in the week before Yom Kippur when I was complaining to a neighbor about how not eating or drinking doesn't bother me, but the caffeine withdrawal is brutal. "In Monsey, there's a run on caffeine suppositories the day before Yom Kippur," my in-the-know friend shared with me. I envisioned a hoard of desperate, bearded Jews pounding on a pharmacy door, like heroin addicts begging for a fix.
The purpose of fasting is to enable us to focus on our prayers and thereby to come closer to God, without the distraction of thinking about food. It tends not to work out that way, in my experience. This same friend's wife confided that while she can pray with her whole heart in synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur, come afternoon she is obsessed with food and so she sits at the kitchen table, reads cookbooks, and fantasizes about crème brulee. Jewish porn.
It's hard to transcend the pounding headache and slip into an altered spiritual state if you're pre-occupied with food or coffee. So if that caffeine suppository offers you a path to God, I say hallelujah. The end justifies the means.
Though my husband grew up in an Orthodox home, he'd never heard about going the rectal route. He jokingly considered asking one of his many rabbi relatives whether this backdoor loophole is recognized in the rabbinical world as being kosher, but his family doesn't like to encourage those kinds of "frivolous" questions. "All I know," my husband said, "is that a lot of matches were made on Yom Kippur afternoon."
This was a revelation to me. "Really? Why?"
He shrugged. "I guess these guys are starving and some girl says she's got a nice brisket at home and a pie and he's in a weakened state..."
This was clearly more about my husband's fantasy of what would entice him in the long, dark, lonely hours of repentance. The fact that this conversation took place over dinner in a restaurant, (no home-cooked meal), was not lost on me.
But it was a curious idea -- that on Yom Kippur, when you have bad breath and are cranky and can't wear lipstick and you smell (no bathing or anointing the body, which means no deodorant or make up -- these laws I have yet to follow) -- you will attract a mate. Yet, a little research corroborated that my yeshiva-educated husband was correct. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel wrote that in the times of the Temple: "There were no festivals in Israel like... Yom Kippur, for on them the young women of Israel went out in borrowed white dresses...and danced in the vineyards. And what did they say? `Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.'"
While the men may have been viewing the women with visions of brisket dancing in their heads, my guess would be the women were looking at the men and seeing spirituality. Whether either of them could in reality offer tender roast beef or whisper sweet-nothings in Aramaic was beside the point. It was Yom Kippur, and if it was possible to start anew with God, you could consider starting anew with another human being. It's that kind of hope that keeps Jewish matchmaking sites like sawyouatsinai in business.
Like everyone else on my block and in the greater, observant Jewish world, I'm not averse to seeking out ways to alleviate the effects of the fast (before the fast begins, have a teaspoon of honey; drink Pedialyte with juice...) However, I've noticed that there's a pointed lack of discussion between people on what is supposed to be at the center of the day - our relationship with God. I truly think my neighbors would flip out if I stopped them to confide that I worry if God heard my prayers, or if I inquired if they'd felt God's presence as much as I had in synagogue. Better, I should speak of suppositories than of my personal soul-searching.
On Yom Kippur, the presumed duality between the body and the soul seems even more pronounced. Our preoccupation with our hunger and our bludgeoning headache only serves to re-enforce how very earth-bound we are, and as a result the two feel to be at odds with one another. Perhaps the idea that the physical and the spiritual are not in conflict but are part of the whole is the lesson that can be learned from the custom of the young women dancing and chasing the men on afternoons many millenniums ago in the old country. On what other day are our physical and spiritual selves so on display and available, and our awareness of our own and others' quite so heightened?
May Yom Kippur be a time of spiritual beginnings, in your partnership with God and with others. I wish you an easy fast, whatever route you take.
"Lift up your eyes, and see what you choose for yourself."
This post originally appeared at zeek.net.