Roger L. Simon

Why I Fasted on Yom Kippur for the First Time in Twenty... or Is It Thirty... Years

From the title of this article, it should be evident I don’t remember the last time I fasted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

When I was a kid, I used to tell my father I was going to fast in order to avoid going to school. (Despite a sizable Jewish population, the New York City public schools were open.) Then I would go out to play stickball with my friends, only to sneak off shortly thereafter for a French fries and egg cream break at a candy store on 85th and Madison known to us as Jesse’s Gip Joint. That usually happened somewhere between 10 and 11 a.m. As you can see, I didn’t make it very far.

That was in the 1950s. The years after that, decades actually, are a blur. I can vaguely remember trying or pretending to fast, but I can’t remember really completing one. I do, however, recall gorging myself on several occasions at break fast dinners out of Philip Roth novels, as if I had fasted.

But today I really did.

Well, not completely, but pretty close. I didn’t eat any food at all for the required twenty-five hours, but I did have a little water in the morning. (You’re not supposed to.)

I do have an excuse, however. As a part of my battle with Father Time (and for pure pleasure), every Wednesday I have a singles tennis lesson with Godwin Omuta. Godwin is six-foot three with the shoulders of an NBA forward and is (no joke) a former member of the Nigerian Davis Cup team. He hits the ball, as you might guess, pretty hard. If I rallied with Omuta for more than ten minutes in the L.A. sun without taking water, forget the battle with Father Time. I would expire on the spot.

So today I did fast… mostly… don’t quibble or call my rabbi on me. You can’t anyway. I don’t have one — unless you count Dennis Prager.

Which leads me to one of the reasons I actually did it. A couple of weeks ago, feeling more guilty than normal (more of that in a moment), I decided this was the year I should attend Rosh Hashanah services with my family. A few years ago, we had gone to a Chabad service, but that was more of an anthropological expedition to visit the ultra-orthodox Hasidim. Interesting as it was, it was more of a (not very unconscious) exercise in keeping religion at bay and making it a curiosity.

Dennis was another matter. I listened to his show almost every day on my commute to PJ Media headquarters. Not only that, I had been on the show myself and he had been to the PJTV studios for interviews. I knew his views pretty well and agreed with them 95% of the time, which is about as much as I agree with anybody.

He is, needless to say, one smart dude and knows considerably more than I do about Judaism — although I knew secretly more than the garden variety agnostic, having visited Israel several times, written a novel set in the country, and studied my religion with, yes, a Chabad rabbi about twenty years ago.

Still I knew I had a lot to learn from Dennis and that his extraordinary “gift for gab” would make the service more entertaining than most. Besides, he promised to keep the whole thing mercifully short.

Well, he didn’t entirely keep that promise. Nevertheless, his non-stop commentary, particularly on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, stimulated a serious discussion about the existence of God in my hemi-semi-demi-agnostic family. I won’t go into it here — there are plenty of places to read about the creation of the universe more interesting than I could be and I’m already past 600 words. I want to get to another reason I fasted after Dennis put me in the mood.

The religious has always been close to the political for me. Although (mostly, depending on the day) I remain an agnostic (barely), I have always been a staunch Zionist. I’m certain that it stems from my childhood visits to my father’s medical office when I saw the numbers from Auschwitz tattooed on some of the nurses’ arms. Those numbers are seared indelibly in my mind. Perhaps they are now part of my DNA.

So today, on Yom Kippur, after having listened to Dennis a week ago, and with Ahmadinejad in New York, a man — some readers may recall — I encountered face-to-face in Geneva a few years ago at a United Nations gathering, I had no choice in my mind, body, and soul but to fast. “Never Again” is a serious matter to me.

Even though I’m a decent tennis player for a man my age, I’m way too old to volunteer with the Israeli Air Force to go after those despicable beasts, so the least I can do is affirm my identity as a Jew. I imagine I’ll be fasting next year too. Maybe I’ll even cancel my lesson with Omuta and go full bore.