Fast Times In The Synagogue

I am sure I knew the definition of “fast” long before I started kindergarten, but as a child I soon decided that its meaning was the exact opposite of “speedy.” The reason for that has to do with my family’s faith, my annoying older sister, and my competitive nature. 

My sister is three years older, and so, as a kid, I was an annoying “Me-Too”-er: whatever Gloria could do, I absolutely had to do too. When she first became a teenager, she told my parents that she was old enough to observe the twenty-four hour fast during our holiest holiday, Yom Kippur. Jews fast from sundown of the first evening through the next evening’s sundown, which allows for eating both dinners but nothing in between. I was positive, even as a mere ten-year-old, that I could fast too.

Well, I was positive until my first breakfast-less experience the next morning. I would have been tempted to call it quits and frosted-flake myself into my daily sugar high, but there was Gloria, shaking the cereal box in my direction with an evil, come-hither expression, eager for me to fold. I persevered. Fortunately, most of the day was spent praying at our synagogue, where there was no food temptation, nor any free time to indulge. But I certainly learned that day just how Slow a Fast could be. 

And speaking of slow, even though I have now waited sixty-five years, I have decided it is not too late for me to ask the Lord’s forgiveness for a transgression I have been guilty of since that Yom Kippur of 1958. During services that afternoon, with a mere four hours of praying standing between me and my mom’s spectacular break-the-fast sundown feast, I strayed into vice.

During one of those interminable “the congregation will now rise” periods of marathon standing prayers, I remembered that the suit I was wearing had been purchased a few months before for an older cousin’s wedding, and that my father had given me my first monogrammed handkerchief and tucked it in my suit pants pocket, informing me that a young man should always carry one in case of a sudden sneeze. 

Apparently, I was not paying the strictest attention to the medley of prayers we were reciting, because the mere memory of Dad’s handkerchief caused my nose to start itching and twitching with just enough warning that I was able to have my never-used handkerchief in place to muffle the subsequent sneeze. 

It was when I returned the handkerchief to my pants pocket that sin set in. There, at the bottom of the pocket, my fingers made contact with something small, round, a bit sticky, and definitely holey—but the wrong kind of holy on this holiest of days: it was a Lifesaver candy! 

And then I remembered that a mini-roll of Lifesavers had been placed as a favor at each guest’s place at the children’s table at my cousin’s wedding. I had made quick work of chewing the tiny roll of them before the matzah ball soup appetizer had even arrived, but I’d obviously pocketed the last one and here it was, so close to my mouth on the worst possible day of the year. 

And by this time, I was so wanting just a little something to tide me over. The whole row of congregants who were praying with me was being serenaded by my empty stomach growlings. How simple to pop that Lifesaver into my mouth; nobody would even see it. Except God. 

It was time for self-deception. I knew I could resist this temptation, as long as the Lifesaver was any flavor but cherry—my absolute, irresistible favorite. I pulled the candy stealthily from my pocket for what I hoped was a lemony or (ick) pineappley peek: but no—CHERRY! I’d never noticed before that the color was the exact same shade as the devil’s pitchfork. 

Before I could really register it, my fisted hand went from pocket to mouth, stifling a non-existent yawn but delivering an all too existent lifesaver onto my tongue. I had no pleasure at all in sucking on it, and not just because there was a soupçon of pocket lint clinging to it. I had cheated in my synagogue, maybe endangering my entry into heaven and eternal life. Had any candy ever been more misnamed! 

My punishment arrived twenty years later. Moving to Raleigh from Los Angeles, I found the perfect congregation for me at Temple Beth Or (“House of Light”). My comeuppance arrived at the first Yom Kippur service I attended there. I had noticed earlier, at my first sabbath evening service, that next door to Beth Or was a hamburger stand that did a brisk business in take-away food. Since then, I had often visited there, waited for my order to be called, and walked away with a delicious lunch.

Having never attended our temple in daylight until Yom Kippur, I was appalled that starting around 11 a.m.,  even through the thick temple doors and stained-glass windows, we could hear, in somewhat muffled tones, the orders being called over their loud speaker system: “Pick up order: five cheeseburgers, four onion rings; one patty melt, extra cheese, double French fries.”

By noon, I had been fasting sixteen hungry hours, and these visions of delicious fast food were killing me. It was obvious that the regular congregants had heard the orders for decades and could ignore them. Not me. I was in grave danger of salivating on my sacred prayer book. 

And I was even more thirsty than hungry, so my lifesaver guilt returned in full force when the last order blared out: “Pick up: four CHERRY cokes.” 

Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here


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