For me, it’s always a bowl of chicken soup. Warm, rich, thickened by the lokshen which has slowly dissolved over the past day of refrigeration, enlivened by orange circles of carrots, a patina of tiny fat globules on the surface like the sheen of antique varnish. It’s not a soup, it’s a meal, a whole day’s worth of food.
For me, it’s about the first moment the spoon touches my lips, about how the taste awakens my tongue, about pressing a softened shred of onion to the roof of my mouth. It’s about feeling the hot liquid pass down inside my body and how my pulsing, thumping, bone-grinding headache will start to ease. For me, it’s finding the tiny twists of chicken flesh in the bottom of the bowl and remembering yes, this is how to chew, this is how to swallow. If Yom Kippur is a day on which we pretend to be dead — not eating, as the dead do not eat, not drinking, as the dead do not drink, not making love or using moisturizer or washing our bodies — if all of this is to remember that one day we will be dead, then breaking the fast is a return to life.
For a people obsessed with food, I suppose it’s surprising that the big Jewish event of the year — the one that many Jews who on any other day happily eat bacon-wrapped shrimp for breakfast, lunch and dinner nonetheless insist on observing — is Yom Kippur, a 25-hour fast with no food and no water.
Perhaps the attraction is the drama. Every year there’s the excitement of Kol Nidrei, wondering how the fast will go this year. Every year there are the same conversations: bullish ‘good fasters’ boasting that the difficulty of the thing is much overstated, nervous ‘bad fasters’ waiting anxiously for their first bout of nausea or migraine. Every year, somewhere around lunchtime, someone faints or collapses in the synagogue aisle and has to be taken outside where urgent conversations with a doctor determine whether the fainter may take three sips of water, or six, or must eat half a slice of almond plava very slowly.
But then, every year there’s also the triumph of finishing the fast. The good fasters are filled with self-righteous certainty that their strong minds triumphed over their bodies. The bad fasters just feel grateful to have got through another year. And after the fast itself — which even the best fasters must admit is just a little tiring — we have the release of breaking the fast; obviously the moment the whole thing has been leading up to.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s no spirituality involved in the average Yom Kippur. Apart from the bravado — not to say machismo — of fasting, there’s certainly a sense in which the mere act of fasting asserts the superiority of the spirit over the flesh. For one day a year, we ignore our body’s hunger and thirst, we cease to twitch and jerk in response to every bodily signal of discomfort and instead think of higher things.
But life, as Jews are fond of declaring, is not lived on the ethereal spiritual plane. It’s lived here on earth, where one does actually have to eat and drink. And so breaking the fast is the moment of transition, of synthesis. It’s a time when we try to bring whatever wisdom we’ve learned in the hours of praying and meditation back into the quotidian.
In theory, therefore, I suppose the fast should be broken on the lightest possible meal. Some clear vegetable broth, perhaps, taken slowly. A salad of tofu and beansprouts. Some sliced fruit. Wafer-thin curls of carrot arranged artfully over some raw radishes and alfalfa, eaten slowly and mindfully, with gratitude to the Almighty for every mouthful.
But somehow it doesn’t happen like that. It doesn’t help that family traditions run deep at such times. Some people wouldn’t think of breaking their fast on anything but a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. For others it’s buttered toast and jam. One friend longs for fried fish and potato salad. Another, a doctor, very rationally sometimes breaks his fast on rehydration solution: water mixed with a little salt and sugar. For me, of course, it’s chicken soup.
Some people get together for a big social meal at the end of the fast, a friendly get-together to celebrate surviving another year of fasting. I’ve never understood this. How do these people manage to converse politely when half their body is ravenously demanding they eat everything in sight, the other half is protesting that they shouldn’t do it quite so quickly, while their mind is still partly engaged with the spiritual thoughts of the day? And how do they manage to restrain themselves, when they’re laying out the food, from taking a quick khap of whatever’s nearest to hand? After all, human self-possession will only go so far.
The worst fast-breaking experience I ever had was not after a Yom Kippur fast — when one is at least supposed to be so engaged in prayer that food and drink can, at times, be put out of one’s mind — but after a Tisha B’Av, the fast which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even for the most Orthodox, it’s entirely permitted to prepare food during Tisha B’Av for consumption afterwards so, in the last hours of the fast, I decided to put some lemon chicken and roast potatoes into the oven so that my friends and I could eat as soon as the fast finished. I did manage to restrain myself from tasting the raw chicken or uncooked potatoes — food poisoning worries were still paramount. But, without even intending to, I found that I was licking the last traces of lemon juice off my fingers with a frightening intensity.
It’s this hunger that makes fast-breaking such an interesting experience. Although we might say ‘I’m starving’, many of us, these days, rarely feel true, intense, prolonged hunger. Arguably 25 hours without food and water is barely getting started. For the real experience of life outside the wealthy West we ought to be walking six miles barefoot — say from Hendon to Belsize Park — before we get rewarded with our Diet Coke and rogelach. Perhaps it is partly this sense that makes so many people continue to observe Yom Kippur; the understanding that it’s probably good for our souls to know hunger every once in a while.
Do we fast, then, in order to experience desire for food? Perhaps the whole dramatic performance is leading up to that moment just before the spoon touches our lips. Looking at the warm bowl of soup, cupping it in my cold, aching hands, smelling the sweet-savoury scent, it is impossible to ignore just how real I am. How physical, how dependent, how little we human beings really can live alone in the towers of our minds. If the fast is a triumph of the spiritual over the physical, then breaking the fast is, every year, an acknowledgement that the spirit cannot exist in isolation. We bring our spirituality into the world; and that’s a very Jewish trait indeed.