Fasting for Yom Kippur on Your 21st Birthday
Turning 21 in the United States has many high expectations placed upon it. It’s a day that is glorified in pop culture: images come to mind of going to the club with your best friends, gleefully pulling out your driver’s license to the bouncer which confirms that yes, you are officially allowed to partake what should be the “wildest” night of their young lives. It’s the moment every college student looks forward to, the moment they are admitted to the exclusive club that is a symbol of the beginning of adulthood.
My 21st birthday was not like those images, it was not the vibrant and drunk memories society forced onto me. I fasted through it.
It was all the way back in June. I was looking on Google to find out when the Jewish High Holy Days were this year so I could see if I could go home and celebrate them with my family. I knew my birthday would occur on a Wednesday, but I wasn’t prepared for the moment I looked at the chart for the Hebrew calendar just to see that Yom Kippur would fall on my birthday. But not just any birthday, the one birthday built up to appear that the world would fall at my feet and multiple doors of opportunities would finally open. The last time Yom Kippur had fallen on my birthday, I had turned 10 and did not have to go to synagogue for the first service of the holiday, Kol Nidre. I distinctly remember eating a slice of my birthday cake in the swirl that was the adults in my family casting brief but longing glances at the cake. So when I saw the date that Yom Kippur occurred this year, I wasn’t very pleased but I would bear it.
On the day of my birthday, I woke up around 7:30 am to a sunny but cool autumn day. I gathered the textbooks and notebooks I would need for the day and briefly glanced at the shot glass I had bought that said “1995: Happy 21st.” For a moment, the small amount of hunger I had flared up. The temptation was there, but I had gone through many Yom Kippur fasts before and I could do it again. I looked away from the glass, got my student ID and keys, and headed out the door.
I had 2 classes that day with a 4 hour break in between: Intro to Asian-American Literature and Intermediate Japanese I. In that large break time, I studied in the hallway for the Kanji character quiz I had to take in Japanese class that day (which I got a good grade on). Immediately after the class was over, I rushed back to my dorm room, changed out of my sweater and jeans into a white dress, and ran off for the last service of the holiday, Neilah. There, I read from the siddur along with the 50-odd people that attended the Conservative service hosted by the school’s Hillel. Finally, I got on the 6 train to a family friend’s apartment and broke the fast in a delicious birthday meal of bagels, lox, and spinach quiche.
Throughout that entire day, I had felt no other pangs of hunger, no gnawing feelings in my stomach saying I should not do what I was doing since it was a special day. I ignored all of them.
Yom Kippur is not exactly a happy holiday like Rosh Hashana or, say, Purim. It’s the holiest day in Jewish tradition, known as the Day of Atonement, where it is said God seals every human being’s coming fate in the new year in the Book of Life. The purpose of fasting for those 25 hours is to focus on the repenting of your sins and to forgive those who have done you wrong over the last year. It is in those thoughts that you make a new plan to make yourself better that year.
While I had focused so much on the fact that I could not celebrate my 21st birthday the way I had originally planned, I did not think at the time of how it could indulge me like the promise of a cosmo martini. Instead of following the norm that had been set up by American media, I could think of new ways to make my 21st year fulfilling and the start of a new me. I got to celebrate my new freedom with my friends later that week anyway with no pressures to go big or go home.
Just remember, there’s hundreds of ways to celebrate turning 21 without consuming alcohol. It’s better in the long run.