I began fasting for Yom Kippur at age eleven. Every year, no matter what, I abstained from food and water from sundown to sundown on the Jewish Day of Atonement. The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – and they culminate ten days later with Yom Kippur.
Ever since I was a child, I have chanted the following words to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer during services:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,”
The prayer goes on and on, but it basically means that God judges you and decides whether or not to write you into the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah, we say to each other, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” The belief is that with repentance and fasting and prayer, we may soften God’s decree before it is sealed on Yom Kippur.
Fifteen years ago was the first time in my adult life that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. I was pregnant with my first baby, a son, and Jewish law decrees that you may eat on Yom Kippur for medical reasons (diabetes, pregnancy, etc).
On Rosh Hashanah that year, my husband and I held hands and chanted the Unetaneh Tokef. I thought of the new life growing in my belly, and I flushed with happiness at the words “how many shall be born.” During the Torah Service, when the Rabbi called new parents up to the bimah for a special aliyot, my husband and I whispered to each other, “Next year we will get to do that!”
I prayed for my baby, that he be inscribed in the Book of Life. I still remember how I felt a flutter of doubt about not fasting on Yom Kippur, a fleeting thought that I might bring bad fortune upon myself, even though I had a medical reason.
As the weeks after Yom Kippur passed, I forgot about my fears. My belly grew; the ultrasound photos showed our little one happily sucking his thumb; the seasons changed.
It was later that we learned that he would not live. During the memorial service, I thought back to the High Holy Days. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die. All these years later, I sit here with tears as I write for the first time about that Rosh Hashanah. I remember the innocence, the pure joy I felt as I celebrated, not knowing that my baby would never make it to the bimah the next year.
My husband and I lost some of our Judaism along with our baby. We could not accept that there was a God that judged me or judged my baby and determined that our firstborn son would die. I believe that good luck and bad luck are scattered without reason or discrimination, that some babies are born whole and healthy, and others have ruined kidneys just because.
We did not attend services the following year, neither for Rosh Hashanah nor for Yom Kippur. Instead, we spent the holidays visiting a baby girl in Missouri who was in foster care. Life is for the living, and we chose life, but on our own terms.
We did not fast. We did not pray. We turned our faith toward the tiny little girl who needed a family, and for week after week after week after week, we flew to Missouri on Friday nights, spent Saturdays visiting the baby girl, and we flew home without her on Sundays.
We found our joy and faith again on Thanksgiving, when we brought our baby daughter home from Missouri. The following year, we returned to services with our toddler, but I regarded both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with cautious distance.
My ambiguous relationship with the Jewish holidays has continued for many years. Sometimes I attend the adult services; sometimes I do not. What I do feel when I attend services is a deep connection with the other Jewish people in the synagogue who have experienced doubts and questions, particularly those who are grieving the loss of a child or a partner. I wonder how they reconcile their losses with the Book of Life and with their practice of Judaism. I would love to have that discussion someday with others.
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