I was just sixteen when I was given the honor of co-leading the teen Yom Kippur services at Temple Har Hashalom. This wasn’t completely out of the blue—I’d been a youth-service-leading fiend—devoted, determined—all through middle school. But the High Holidays were the big leagues. A big room. Hundreds of kids. I was nervous but excited.
Yom Kippur that year was unseasonably warm; the air conditioning in the Sandberg auditorium was out of order, and the small, high windows were sealed. Over my thick blue suit I wore a large wool talit the size of a bedsheet. I was definitely overdressed for the weather. I was fasting too—since an early dinner the evening before—fasting, the traditional way, the manly way; not even drinking water. My throat felt parched and my gums tacky.
But I belted out one prayer after another. I closed my eyes on the stage behind the podium so I wouldn’t have to look at all of the kids standing below, praying or swaying, staring or talking—about me, about being bored, about where else they’d rather be.
The heat in the room seemed to rise with the turning of each page. By the time we reached the T’fillah, the central standing prayer, I felt my knees grow weak. The air burbled inside me like a pot of soup. The talit weighed on me like a blanket. The shakier I felt, the tighter I held on to the podium, my hands wet and slippery. I sang louder; I looked at the ceiling.
My co-leader, Jonathan Malman, introduced the Ashamnu, the call and response confessional that is a Yom Kippur list of the community’s collective sins. I recited each sin, pounding my chest, as the congregation of high school boys and girls pounded their chests and repeated: “The sins of arrogance, bigotry and cynicism.” “We all have committed offenses; together we confess these human sins.” Suddenly the room started to spin. “The sins of deceit, egotism and flattery.” I held on to the podium, but the podium started to move. “Greed, injustice and jealousy.” The lights grew bright, and then brighter. The podium started to tip. I felt myself falling backward, falling… lights…voices….
There was a bang and everything went black.
When I came to, dozens of boys and girls were standing around me.
I felt odd. I had no idea what was going on.
Jonathan grabbed my hand and pulled me up. Richard Goldberg, the son of the synagogue president, took over for me in the service. Maya, Julie, Jessie, and Rochelle, four classmates from day school two years before, volunteered to walk me home.
The morning was stunning—hot and clear, not a cloud in the sky. The cars drifted by like hovercrafts, like giant metal butterflies, wheels barely touching the ground. The walk was almost a mile though, and by the time we arrived at my house at about noon, I was even queasier.
The girls came inside to make sure I would be okay. The air inside smelled stale, like old bread. No one else was home; we had the place to ourselves.
Maya, Rochelle, Julie, and Jessie sat down on the teal sofa in the living room. I sat across from them, on the beige love seat.
“You have a beautiful voice,” Rochelle said, rubbing a finger along the marble coffee table. She glanced at her fingertip and frowned.
“Maybe you should lie down,” Julie whispered. “You were unconscious for a good two minutes.”
Jessie’s hands were folded in her lap. “What did it feel like? Did you see a light?”
“You should eat something.” Maya craned her neck to peer around the corner, trying to locate the kitchen. “Don’t you think he should eat something?”
“It’s Yom Kippur. I can’t eat.”
“You fainted.” Maya insisted. “Didn’t we learn this in Mr. Grossman’s class? Health comes first. You can skip any commandment for health if your life is in danger.”
“Except for killing someone,” said Julie.
“His life isn’t in danger,” Rochelle offered.
“My life isn’t in danger.” I was really hungry. My stomach kept spinning. I felt weak. The more I thought of food, the queasier I got. Desperate. Ravenous.
“Eat.” Maya insisted. “Eat. We’ll watch.”
“Maybe just a little. A cracker. Something light.”
We headed for the kitchen. I found a box of saltines in the cabinet above the stove, took out one cracker, then resealed the wax wrapping. I set the cracker on my tongue gingerly, waiting for the saliva to catalyze a violent reaction, an explosion. Nothing happened. My mouth felt really dry.
“I need some water to wash it down.”
“Have a soda,” Jessie said. “We’ll watch.”
“Maybe some orange juice.”
I poured a little orange juice into a tall glass. The glass seemed to be talking to me: Fill me, fill me up. So I added more, and more still. My hand shaky, juice spilled over the towering sides.
“I think that’s enough.”
The girls stood around me, almost in a perfect circle, like witchcraft, a pagan ceremony, as I drank the juice in one long gulp. Man, was I thirsty!
“That looks so good,” Maya licked her lips.
“God, I want that,” Jessie said, lifting the orange juice bottle, then setting it down again. She sighed loudly. “Isn’t there a special rule—about drinking when you’re helping someone in need?”
“I think I learned that. Didn’t we learn that?” Maya turned to Julie.
“I think we must have. That seems Jewish. You’re supposed to help people.”
“Do you want a glass?” I opened a cabinet.
After we had finished the orange juice, we polished off a bottle of apple cider.
“There’s too much liquid inside me now.” Jessie rubbed her stomach slowly. “I need something solid. To wash it down.”
“How about a cracker,” said Julie. “Have a cracker.”
We watched Jessie eat a saltine.
“That just made me hungrier,” she said.
“Have another,” I suggested.
She ate a second one.
“He’s the one who fainted.” Maya pointed to me and then ate a cracker. “He’s the one who should be eating crackers.” She stuffed a second saltine in her mouth, and then a third.
Julie grabbed them from her. “Self-control. It’s the holiest day of the year. Show some self-control.” She removed a cracker from the box, and then another.
Rochelle had been quietly standing in the corner, eyeing us disapprovingly. “You guys,” she whispered. “You guys.”
“Want a cracker?” Maya held the box out to her.
“Oh God, yes.” She grabbed the box and pulled out the pack—the whole wax paper-wrapped package—and tore it open. Crackers went flying everywhere.
Like a switch, there was something in the tearing of that paper, and the scattering of the crackers on the tile floor, that shattered whatever remained of our self-control. We tore through cabinets and cartons, bottles and cans in one gluttonous frenzy of eating: gefilte fish and matzah left over from Passover, cookies and chocolates, peanut butter and then peanut butter straight from the jar, potato chips and 7 Up, herring and chopped liver, half-frozen chicken legs, apples and tangerines, more saltines slathered with blueberry jam….
We ended up, the four of us, sitting on the floor, leaning on the lower cabinets, bloated and holding our stomachs, surrounded by wrappers and crumbs and plastic, spilled liquids, and random, abandoned crusts of bread.
I looked around. The bedlam. The chaos. The destruction. “What have we done?!”
Jessie tried to stand but then settled back onto the tile. “There’s a lesson here. I think. Is there a lesson here?”
Julie managed to rise to her feet, holding on to the kitchen table for support. “No,” she said softly. “There’s no lesson.”
Three of the girls soon left. Maya stayed a little longer to help me repackage the foods, sweep, sponge…hide the evidence of our crime, my crime. The crime of gluttony. Of eating. The crime of eating.
At five o’clock I returned to the synagogue for the closing service, Ne’ila, when we are sealed in the Book of Life for a New Year, sealed and forgiven, if we have repented, if we have said our prayers, if we are humble, if we have fasted….
As I stood for the silent prayer, I noticed Rochelle and Maya in the crowd a few rows forward. At that very moment Rochelle turned and caught my eye. I felt my whole body lightly tremble. I spun and spotted Julie and Jessie behind me, standing calmly, serious, with their parents and brothers and sisters. We four were a band, a mafia, bound together by the knowledge of our secret crime. I felt the congregation around me, the rabbi on the tall bimah, his stern eyes toward the ceiling. We shouldn’t have done it, I thought. It was wrong of us. I hung my head. But underneath it all, like tiny pinpricks in my ankles, I couldn’t help but feel alive.
The Ashamnu, the last repetition of the public confessional, followed a brief explanation by the rabbi and a shivering murmur through the crowd. Hands were raised to pound our chests. And then the cantor began to sing in a full, low, repentant voice.
“We have been obstinate, weak of will, and have yielded to temptation. We are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before You, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess: we have gone astray, we have sinned.”
Aaron Mayer Frankel is the principal at Congregation Beth Israel in Munster, Indiana, where he is co-facilitating a Hebrew school merge with Temple Beth El down the block; and author, among other works, of Jerusalem Mystery (URJ Press).