For observant Jews - quiet unlike myself - it goes a bit like this:
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. The most solemn and holy day of the year, a day marked by fasting, prayer, and meditation. From sundown to sundown, not a morsel, not a drop should pass your lips. It comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The intervening period are sometimes known as the Days of Awe, in which we confront our bad deeds and those we have done wrong to. We ask our trespasses be forgiven, and forgive those who have trespassed against us. At the end of all this soul searching, your friends and your family forgive you and you forgive them. Your god forgives you. Even you can forgive yourself.
And then, we eat.
For we non-observant Jews like myself, the process is less proscribed but is still imbued with symbol and significance. The seasons change, the leaves blush and burn, the kitchen fogs with soups and stews, honey cakes and pumpkin spice. The start of a new term, the fresh cracking open of books and conkers and the packaging of stationery. Renewal.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, I was two days in to my new career as a short order barbecue chef and already thinking that there must be easier ways to earn £9 per hour. My feet hurt and I smell of meat fat, apart from my left hand which smells weirdly of mayonnaise. I hadn't realised that mayonnaise was a smell. And despite being bone-crushingly tired after the last night’s shift, I had failed to get to sleep afterwards, racked by leg and lower back pain and panicking about which sauce goes with which meat.
The sleeplessness continued over the next few weeks. It gave me a lot of time to consider everything I had done wrong this year, in excruciating detail. My religious education is lacking in places and confused in others. I conflate the stories I was told in Hebrew school and by my grandparents - biblical, traditional and historic - and as a child I was terrified by all sorts of nighttime visitations: the Angel of Death, the golem, the prophet Elijah, the Einsatzgruppen, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus. As the nights ticked forward towards Yom Kippur I considered myself before the recording angel, an ancient of days with a long white beard and blood red robes would be making a list and checking it twice, and decide if I was nice enough to be allowed to live another year.
I worry about how this year measures up. I haven't done much to recommend myself to either God or Santa this year. I fear I may well be on the Naughty List.
This year I have been scared and disheartened. I have been angry and sad. I have been not entirely honest. I have been vain and proud, for all the good it did me. Like Jonah I have been stuck in the belly of the beast with no thought for anyone or anything other than my own pitiful state and how the hell to get out. I have been a seething pit of resentment, begrudging everyone their health, their wealth, their happiness, their success, their good looks, their relationships. I have been a bad friend, a standoffish daughter, a flakey sister, an absentee aunt, a pointless employee and absolutely no cop whatsoever as a wife and partner.
I’m also probably a bit guilty of being somewhat hard on myself.
But how to say sorry and make amends? And how to forgive when you really, really don’t? I scraped the barrel of my soul trying to muster something that wasn’t green and slimy, and was surprised to find grains of… something. Compassion, maybe. Understanding. Accepting that we are all born to trouble, even as the sparks fly upwards. That we’re all clinging on for dear life. Maybe I could just understand that sometimes people fuck up, I fuck up, things are fucked up. Compassion. Understanding. Fuck it.
Friday night was Erev Yom Kippur, which is a bit like Christmas Eve if you knew that Christmas was going to be shit. Traditionally, it begins with the prayer of Kol Nidre. It’s a sacred, profound and cathartic moment, so I must say I felt conflicted, standing in my apron, gloves and work boots in a cramped commercial kitchen, prepping smoked pork and sausage meat for Spicy Hog barbecue sandwiches. Working on the Sabbath is bad enough, but up to my ankles in leather and up to my elbows in pig meat on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths? Oy.
It’s coming up for sunset when the lights begin to flicker. The water stutters out of the tap. A power cut locally is resolved, but has somehow put all the water pumps offline for the block. Thames Water is called and lots of little white vans and tutting men in high viz appear. We struggle on for a bit, but there really is a very limited amount of time one can safely engage in food service without hot and cold running water. We have to close. Everyone’s being sent home. All the food prepped will have to be wasted, so I selflessly volunteer to give it a good home.
I call my mum. She’s made a chicken soup to break the fast, but not done anything else. She says to bring the brisket, but leave the pork. Not on Yom Kippur.
And so we will fast for the next 24-ish hours, or mean to, or attempt to. And then we will gather at my parents’ table, like we do every year. There will be seven of us, or ten, or fourteen, whoever can make it. The youngest not yet two, and the eldest not quite 90. We will gather and eat and talk and laugh as though the intervening months, years, centuries never happened, and if they did it’s just water under the bridge.
Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Chicken soup. Brisket.