Bagels and Schmear

Here is something a wrote a while ago. This is about Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday where Jews fast for 24 hours and then gorge themselves on bagels and lox and other gross yummy stuff that is salted and creamy.



Bagels and Schmear

Looking over the spread in front of me I can feel the saliva pooling in my mouth as a painfully loud rumble sounds in my empty stomach.  On the counter bagels are lined up by type, 4 types of cream cheese have been set up in gleaming porcelain bowls, and there are at least 5 plates stacked high with various and extraordinarily pungent smoked fish.  I turn to my father, clutching my hollow stomach, “Can I please just eat an olive?” I beg. My father, whom is usually quite anal retentive about keeping a clean shaved face, rubs his prickly chin and says “for the last time you need to wait for everyone to get here.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.  I hate Yom Kippur. It is actually the worst day of each year.  

Yom Kippur is the Jewish New Year, and it is the most important holiday of the year.  Like most other New Year holidays Yom Kippur is all about repenting for one’s sins, and starting the New Year off with a fresh slate.  The holiday lasts from sun down to sun down the next day.  Before the first and after the second dusk there is an enormous feast. Families gather and bond over quintessential eastern European food, which are recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.  Like Christianity, Judaism is known for its many martyrs. However, none of them have ever died for our sins.  Instead, at the end of each year we are personally responsible for our own repentance.  In order to wash one’s soul of all his or her iniquities. One must spend a day in temple among his or her peers, and pray that god understands our wrong doings.  Trading a year’s worth of sin for an entire day spent in temple, praying in a language I don’t really understand, and wearing a dowdy modest dress with uncomfortable heels, seems to be a good deal to me.  However, Jews kick it up a notch.  They also want you to fast.  

Fasting is abstaining from all food, and is usually to religious observance; and it’s the worst.  The rules are strict. For example, brushing your teeth is not allowed because you might swallow some water or toothpaste. Personally I don’t consider toothpaste a food, but apparently God does. Morning breath is not something to be trifled with.  Especially when you are standing in a room with 200 other non-brushing temple goers who are singing and praying, mouths opening and closing, pushing breath in and out, for at least 5 hours.  Morning breath is not the only odor issue of the day. After about 9 hours of no food or drink, when the only thing in your stomach is its own acid, a smell begins to rise up your trachea and out of your mouth.  This smell could only be described as more vile than decaying gym socks, sushi that’s been rotting in the heat for 10 days, mixed with an entire cheese isle.  The mix of morning breath and stomach acid funk is enough to make anyone retch, except you can’t, because you haven’t eaten.  

Aside from the scent issue, the most terrible part of the fast is the fact that you’re starving.  I’m a breakfast person.  I can’t start my day without a little something to eat.  Forgoing my morning meal means that by 10 A.M., when I arrive at shul, my stomach pains begin.  At first they are light grumblings, but after an hour or two my stomach begins to roar with the ferocity of wild jungle cat.  The family sitting next to me chuckles every time they can hear the gurgling of my insides over a hymn. I notice a throbbing headache beginning at 1 P.M.  The headache starts as a slight pounding at my temples, and soon it feels like I’m taking a vicious beating over the top of my skull.  By the time we get home from services it feels like a jackhammer is going off through the middle of my forehead.  After attempting and failing to take a nap, I lounge on the sofa watching TV.  It isn’t until one has fasted that he or she first realizes just how many commercials are centered around food.  By 5 P.M. I can no longer focus on anything and if I stand for too long my blood pressure drops and my head sways dangerously.  

My father, sister-in-law, and oldest brother return to temple around 5:30 P.M. for the last of the services.  I am too weak and exhausted to even contemplate leaving my house, so my other brother and I skip the evening services.  However, by skipping shul we have automatically volunteered ourselves to set up for the break fast.  My shaking hands spoon out globs of Zabars finest cream cheeses into bowls, while my brother cuts fresh bagels and begrudgingly places them in a cloth-lined basket.  Nova, belly, and pastrami lox are laid out on plates. I bring my salted fingers up to my nose and have to restrain myself from biting them off.  My brother and I, ever the masochists, sit and look at the enormous spread before us and wait for the others to return home.  It isn’t until after the sun dips down and stars shine bright in the sky that we even receive word that temple is over.  And it isn’t until 8 P.M. that my family returns home. At long last! We can eat! But no, my father has invited guests, and now we must wait… again.  I turn to my father, clutching my hollow stomach, “Can I please just eat an olive?” I beg. My father says, “for the last time you need to wait for everyone to get here. ”By the time the various family friends and family arrive I have already eyed the bagel that I’ll be having and I am standing precariously close to the toaster.  

My father insists on a toast to the new year.  I might die.  I hold my champagne flute up as best as I can.  With shaking hands and darting eyes we toast each other. I then proceed to down, in two gulps, a fine ’04 vintage Dom Perignon.  The race to the bagels involves some slight elbowing and I am pushed to third in line for the toaster.  When I pull my bagel out of the toaster I don’t even feel it singe my fingers.  I slather plain cream cheese on to one half and top it with an Irish smoked nova lox, the other half has pink lox spread slathered a mile high. I grab a seat and take the first bite.  Absolute nirvana.  It isn’t until the third bite or so and half of my halved bagel is gone that I even begin to taste it.  A crunch through the toasted meat of the bread, a creamy salty swirl of thinly sliced fish and cream cheese hit my tongue and I swear I can see colors.  Two minutes later I am waiting on another bagel to be toasted.  I chew loudly on a chocolate rugelach, and eye the chocolate babka cake, imagining how many slices I can physically fit into my stomach before i explode.  

After 2 hours or so the meal begins to wrap up.  Out of 42 bagels bought we have maybe 3 left.  The dessert station has been reduced to a pile of crumbs and my eyes grow heavy.  I sit with my legs out and my pants unbuttoned rubbing my overly full stomach.  Bloated guests waddle towards the door. It takes all my might not to push them out the door so I can finally sleep. “Happy New Year, La Shana Tova,” they say as we hug goodbye.  Shortly after as I climb into bed I think,  “another successful fast, perhaps next year won’t be too bad.”