What I Learned Fasting For Yom Kippur

I was raised very Catholic. I attended a Catholic school from ages 3 to 14 and have since received every sacrament that a living, single girl possibly could. As a child, I questioned the details of my religion: Why do we have to confess our sins if God is all-forgiving and omniscient? If God created the earth, why can’t we get married outside, in nature? These questions and many more stood at the forefront of my mind, but I never questioned my religion as an aspect of my life. My grandparents are all Catholic, my parents are Catholic, and so I, too, was raised Catholic.  

The religion was a shelter, both physically and psychologically. It was the vessel by which my parents and teachers taught me the morals and values that still influence my life, and everyone with whom I was a friend operated under these same life rules. I can still remember transferring to my town’s public high school and mistakenly assuming one of my best friends’ religions. She went to church, her parents were happily married, and, like me, she didn’t party. Surely she was Catholic! When I learned that she was confirmed in her faith on a different timeline than I was, she said, “Izzy, I’m not Catholic. We’re Christian, but it’s not the same.” So, inevitably, the curtain was lifted: not all good people were Catholic by default. 

The knowledge that goodness is not tied to any particular upbringing and that goodness itself is subjective has since led me everywhere from conversations about Christianity around my parents’ dining table to covering my hair to visit mosques in Marrakech. This year, it has resulted in my fasting for the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. So, why is a Catholic-raised girl fasting for a Jewish High Holy Day?  

One of my best friends, Cady, was explaining Yom Kippur to me. She said, “It’s when we have to atone for anything bad [we’ve done] or if we’ve mistreated anyone.” She went on to say, “It is one of my fave holidays, like, I’ve always thought it was the most important.” Because of the prominence of the holiday, she was choosing to fast from sundown to sundown—a full 24 hours—as an act of atonement. I have always believed that to love someone is to engage with that which is important to them. And so, I decided to fast, as well.  

The first thing that I noticed during the process was that I was more active in the experiences of my friends who were fasting or observing the day in other ways. I heard of the traditions of friends who have always gone to temple with their grandparents or who have always broken fast with the same bagel spread from their neighborhood shop. Inside of these religious traditions lie family traditions and by participating in the holiday I had an entry point to hear and learn about the people I care about in new contexts. It also meant that throughout the day we were texting and messaging each other, checking in to see what was going on and how the day was being spent. Before going to bed on the first night of Yom Kippur, one of my Jewish friends who was fasting—as he has done many times before—told me to just sleep in past breakfast time. So there were strategies to this and I heeded his advice.  

The next morning passed without much thought, but as the early afternoon hours crept along, I became aware that I was hungry. I spent the afternoon with my Filipino grandparents, who continuously asked if I wanted something to eat. As any Filipino can attest to, this question comes readily and continuously, especially from grandparents. I was offered mangoes, cookies, fish, and noodles, all of which I graciously turned down. Of course, there was a part of me that considered a small something to eat. Would it really be cheating if I took one bite of fruit? Wasn’t it the thought that counted? I even went so far as to search the internet for any people that believed it was medically permissible to have a snack here or there while religiously fasting. Ultimately, I decided that most things are not worth doing if you’re not doing them fully and I continued on sans snack. I took my grandmother to the grocery and she asked me if I wanted a bag of candy or nuts. I was acutely aware of these offers in a way that I was never before. Here were two people—of many in my life—who were constantly thinking about my needs and comfort, often before their own. My heart was filled with gratitude and that feeling surpassed any inklings of hunger. 

About an hour before sundown, I decided to take a walk to keep myself busy until I was allowed to break fast. While I was out, I encountered two separate families walking into town. One seemed to be a grandmother and a grandson; the older woman was nodding her head as the young boy chattered to her about his day. As I overtook them, I matched their pace for a moment to say hello and ask them how their day was going. This is something that I would do anyway, but perhaps I lingered in the friendly conversation a little bit longer. I felt almost conspiratorial knowing that this grandmother and her grandson, who was sporting a kippah, were likely headed to temple. I only knew because Cady had told me about going to temple on Yom Kippur: the beautiful music, the conversation around the importance of atonement, and the welcoming atmosphere. When I asked her what her experience at temple was like she said, “I like going to Yom Kippur. It’s no pressure—you just have to recognize you haven’t been perfect and that some things take a while to atone for. It’s not a guilt situation.” 

Fasting for Yom Kippur brought about a lot of feelings of gratitude and thoughtfulness that helped me to better engage with the people around me, regardless of their relationship to the holiday. It also made me realize that deeper awareness of other cultures starts with engagement. Without a commitment to embrace some of the practices in order to understand and connect with a culture, any awareness comes from an outsider’s perspective. But perhaps the best result of my engagement with Yom Kippur is a desire to further explore the important cultural aspects of the lives of those I care about and of people who have had different experiences than mine.


Author: Isabella Skovira
Email: izzyskovira@gmail.com
Author Bio: Isabella Skovira is a girl that likes making things and asking questions. While writing this article she listened to “Baby Teeth,” an album by Dizzy.
Link to social media:  Instagram @htothe_izzzo

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