When I do not fit on Yom Kippur

February 23, 2024

By Talia Makowsky

Yom Kippur is approaching and I dread it.

I have always had a tenuous relationship with the day. As a child with a black and white sense of morality, I found it hard to understand that people can be chosen to live or die, and that our fate is written down and unchangeable, and we don’t have any control.

But the worst was always the fasting.

Fasting is hard. No matter your observance during holidays, fasting is a difficult thing to do, especially when so much of our American culture revolves around food. Not just food, but the dangerous, obsessive relationship with food that many of us are taught. Food has morality. Food is a reward. Food is something I have to work for, feel guilty about, and constantly measure, consider, and deny myself in relation to the size and shape of my body. (At least that was what I learned, though more and more research show diets do not work. They do not work.)

So being told to fast, that I should be suffering from the lack of food for a whole day, feels a little… wrong. Food is always causing me suffering. Food, or lack of food, or too much food, always causes me guilt and shame and trauma. I’ve spent my whole life learning that what I put in my body, to nourish and care for it, must be determined by how it makes my body look instead of feel (again, this does not work.)

My relationship with food isn’t safe. It’s often toxic, abusive, and directly causes harm to my body, mind, and spirit. It used to be a lot harder, but these days, thanks to the work I’ve done engaging with fat liberation, I feel a bit more ease. Instead of abusing my body, I am able to care for myself in a way that feels fulfilling. 

But every year, as the Yom Kippur fast approaches, I come face to face with the harm I’ve self-inflicted in the past and, to some degree, in the present. For some years, fasting for a whole day on Yom Kippur was an accomplishment. Something I was proud to do, knowing that I was preventing anything from enlarging my body that day. It was almost easy, as I was already accustomed to denying my body nourishment in order to try and fit it into beauty standards I will never reach.

And then, some years, it was the hardest thing I had to do. All the work I had done to reacquaint myself with my body, with the actual needs of my being, could easily be undone by a single day of fasting that led to a new spiral of disordered eating.

Being in community during the Yom Kippur fast is also hard. The usual conversations among congregants devolve into kvetching about being hungry in a competition of who is suffering the most, who is “The Best Jew” because they’re suffering more than you. The break-fast meal, lovingly imagined throughout the day, feels like a binge episode to me. The excessive amount of food that is often offered, “to make up for being hungry all day,” only brings me back to those moments when I lost control and didn’t realize how much I ate until I was over-full, sick to my stomach, and swimming in shame.

There’s really no winning scenario. And choosing not to participate in any Yom Kippur rituals only leads to more guilt and a sense of isolation, as I feel adrift from Jewish community.

Jewish community is already hard to find, not to mention being intermarried and queer. I still have the privileges of cisgender identity, conventional gender expression, and whiteness so my presence in  most congregations isn’t questioned, even if I’m the fattest one in the room. But what I’ve realized is that I shouldn’t just be “fitting in.” I deserve more. All of us do.

It’s been queer identity and fat liberation that have helped me to value my body, just the way it is. Before understanding my queer identity, I thought I had to fit into cishet beauty standards. In order to attract a partner, I had to be thin, and white, and feminine, and have long hair, and popular makeup, and clothes that hid my body. I had to constantly apologize for my size in relationships and be grateful for the men who lowered their standards for me

But then I started to understand my queerness as well as the fat liberation movement. I started to meet queer people, Jewish and not, white and not, fat and not. I started following queer and fat people online: writers, educators, fashion influencers, people who actually looked like me. And they weren’t trying to fit into cishet beauty standards. They wore clothes that showed the beautiful rolls of fat on their backs and the soft curves of their belly lines. They dressed in outfits that brought them joy, instead of sharing tips on how to flatter your figure. They taught me about fat liberation. I started to understand  that my terrible experiences at the doctor, the negative comments from “friends,” the too-small chairs that I’ve broken — these are not my fault. They taught me that I could be queer, and fat, and joyful all at the same time.

Nowadays, I usually don’t struggle daily with my eating disorder. Most days, the critical voice sleeps in the back of my mind, held back by the affirmation I have found in my relationship, in my friendships, in the way that I care and hold and strengthen my body. But Yom Kippur is a perfect time for the struggle to awaken, stretch itself from slumber, and wrap itself around my mind once again, holding me hostage from my own body.

So this year I will not fast. As many other writers, educators, and spiritual leaders have written and spoken about, I will not be alone. As we, Jews, uphold the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, we also understand this value to apply to being mentally unsafe, not just physically. Fasting makes me mentally unsafe. For years I refused to see how fasting hurt me as I tried to fit in. But I don’t want to fit in anymore. I’ve seen the joy and catharsis found in breaking down barriers and boxes and identities and forming your own that fits so well it feels like a soft, familiar sweater, holding you like a hug. 

I have the deepest appreciation to the queer and fat and Jewish ancestors that led me here: a feeling deep inside my round body that is the most profound more spiritual experience I can imagine.

I hope you have a safe and meaningful Yom Kippur.