For the most part, Jews celebrate good things with lots of food. Holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover bring to mind full bellies and bubbie’s matzo ball soup, perhaps even more than the feelings of repentance and liberation they are supposed to invoke. On the other hand, to commemorate sad events, we fast. The temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, and an assassination marked the end of Jewish autonomy in Jerusalem (Tzom Gedaliah) and on these days, we refrain from eating to better concentrate on the solemnness of the day.
But Yom Kippur, the holiest of the Jewish holidays, breaks the mold: On Yom Kippur we’re supposed to not eat and be happy about it. The haftarah traditionally read on Yom Kippur makes this explicitly clear. Referring to the ancient Jews wearing sackcloth and ashes, the prophet Isaiah says in the name of God, “Do you call that a fast?” I imagine the end of the sentence must have gone “I’ll show YOU a fast!” as white linen-clad Isaiah dances an over-the-top dance to demonstrate his glee in front of a roomful of Jews in sackcloth and misery.
With the days of Yamim Noraim almost at their beginning not only have my thoughts turned to the dishes I want to make for all the glorious holiday meals that are coming up, but also to the fast of Yom Kippur that will end this time of introspection and atonement.
Fasting is a ritual that is not only central within Jewish tradition but stretches across other religious traditions. Muslims practice the month long fast of Ramadan, while adherents of various Christian denominations, such as Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church, fast during the period of Lent. The Baha’I religion has a feast similar to Ramadan and the first Sunday of each month is a fast day for Mormons.
These periods of fasting offer us the opportunity for intense spiritual connectedness and spiritual nourishment. Yet there is no doubt that by the end of the fast people’s thoughts are begin to turn towards the long awaited break-fast meal.
On Yom Kippur this year, I felt my ancestors calling me more than ever before. Normally I spend Yom Kippur in synagogue, but this year I did my t’shuvah (repentance) on the road, walking through neighborhoods, cities and country landscapes as part of the Right2Know March to get genetically modified (GM) foods labeled. As I fasted and marched alongside 50 other people — some fasting, some not — I felt deeply moved and spiritually motivated to share my Yom Kippur journey and determination to label GM foods with other Jews.
In America today, there is no way to know if we are eating foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Right2Know March is built of a community of organizations, businesses and individuals who are walking to the White House with a simple message: label our food that contains GMOs. The march started on October 1 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and is arriving in Washington, DC on World Food Day, October 16. We are walking 313 miles because we are deeply concerned about the health and environmental risks of GM foods and believe that everyone has the right to know what is in their food. As a Jew, I believe that GM foods are not kosher and are not in line with how the Torah teaches us to take care of the earth.
With Yom Kippur upon us, thoughts of fasting loom. But take solace: Jews are not alone in this practice. Fasting is observed by religions around the world. While the reason, time of year, length, and type of fast vary greatly, almost every ends with a traditional but sumptuous meal.
Through the ages fasting has been prescribed as a way to repent, reflect, and become closer to whichever god one believes in. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during the month of Ramadan it is required that all able Muslim adults refrain from food, drink, and intercourse from sunrise to sunset each day. It signifies devotion to god and is supposed to teach observers about patience, restraint and kindness.
Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to reflect and repent, but for many of us the fasting element of the holiday can be very difficult. The most common problems include extreme hunger pains, headaches from caffeine withdrawal, and shakiness from low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycemia). Personally, I’ve dealt with all three of these issues in the past, and I’ve seen friends and family deal with a combination of them as well. Over the years through trial and error along with my nutrition education, I’ve come up with a list of tips to help get through the fast with ease:
Prep for the big day, and don’t supersize it! For a few days leading up to the fast, eat normal-sized portions at every meal. If you tend to overeat, be aware of how your stomach is feeling, eat slowly so your brain gets the signal you are full, and stop when you are satiated. Preparing for the fast in this way will greatly help control hunger pains.
The 29th day of Cheshvan (November 6th, this year), exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur, marks the Ethiopian Jewish holy day of Sigd, a celebration of the Ethiopian fall harvest and a day where Jews in Ethiopia historically reaffirmed their belief in the Torah and expressed their yearning to return to Israel. The holiday is marked by fasting for the first part of the day. After reading, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet,” from Nehemiah, Ethiopian Jews broke their fast with communal meals and misvaot, or blessed bread, Gil Marks explains in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
The celebration, which was added to the official Israeli calendar in 2008, came with mass migration of Jews from Ethiopian, which began in the 1980s. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the completion of Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Ethiopian to Israel in a massive airlift. Their prayer for return to Jerusalem having been fulfilled, the somber notes of the holiday have in part been melded with rejoicing.
Today, Ethiopian Jews in Israel make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray on Sigd and celebrate their return to Israel. There is dancing. And of course there is eating. Among the traditional Ethiopian Jewish dishes prepared for Sigd is a bread called Dabo (pronounced Dah-boh). Historically, it was made by wrapping the dough in the leaves of the Klabo Tree, covered coals and buried and cooked overnight. Today it is made in the oven. It is delicious with Ethiopian cheese.
Epicurious gives us some “Yom Kippur Recipes and Menus” including ones for Yemenite holiday soup, plumb dumplings and some traditional Jewish fare.
The LA Times explores different break fast traditions of Jews around the world.
“A former army man’s boutique brewery may change the face of Israeli beer,” according to Haaretz
Nikki Cascone, “Top Chef” alum, who is opening Octavia’s Porch, a global Jewish cuisine restaurant in New York speaks with The Village Voice.
When I started telling people that I’m going to New York City for Yom Kippur, my friends and colleagues declared: “But you won’t be able to eat. What a pity!” Though, with almost a week in New York I will get in plenty of fressing (or intense eating) and food shopping in.
I love food, especially in its ability to bring human and Divine labor together to please, in every way, as well as nourish. This is why I spend my days and often nights, immersed in tasting, procuring, cooking, learning and writing about it.
Still, the Yom Kippur fast is among the most meaningful Jewish rituals that I faithfully observe. From the completion of the simple meal before Kol Nidre until breaking the fast with more elaborate fare after the holiday ends, I just stop. No eating or drinking, farmers’ market stand perusing, recipe formulating, ordering, baking, freezing or menu planning for that matter, either.
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