D.C. Area's Take on Yom Kippur's Downtime

Aviva Kempner, left, works in her kitchen on dishes that will break the fast on the holiday.
Aviva Kempner, left, works in her kitchen on dishes that will break the fast on the holiday. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown tonight, makes some intense demands. For 24 hours, Jews fast and repent, asking God for forgiveness and to spare their lives for another year.

By late afternoon Thursday, the liturgy and fasting generally leads to one thing: They want a break.

The afternoon of Yom Kippur, the only formal pause between the morning prayer service and the evening prayer service (and eventually, when the sun sets, dinner) is a time of individual tradition, when individuals and families have their own ways of distracting themselves from growling stomachs and repeated prayers about judgment.

Some spend those few hours going for a walk, others nap, although there are Jews who believe napping is improper because Yom Kippur is the day during which tradition teaches God is watching closely. Some might sneak a quick bite or a drink of water. Still others keep their focus on the serious mission of Yom Kippur by talking with loved ones to acknowledge their mistakes of the past year and their goals for the coming one.

And this being Washington, there are opportunities to talk politics and journalism.

During the afternoon break tomorrow, congregants who stick around Temple Rodef Shalom can listen to a discussion of the presidential race from the Jewish perspective with NBC political director Chuck Todd, Republican Jewish Coalition director Matt Brooks and Democratic National Committee director of Jewish outreach Matt Dorf, all members of the Reform congregation in Falls Church.

At Adas Israel in Cleveland Park, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher and Emily Yoffe of Slate will riff on a bit of ancient rabbinic commentary about journalism as gossip and will talk to a hungry crowd about the ethical dilemmas of reporting and the spiritual importance of truth-telling.

Those programs are not unique. Most synagogues offer special afternoon programs, although few people remain around for them.

Although some programs have a strong secular angle, others are more like Scripture study. Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, is holding a contemporary healing service with ancient and modern poems and songs as well as a multimedia program.

Yom Kippur tends to be observed even by many Jews who typically don't go to synagogue or keep kosher. It is the final bookend to the High Holy Days -- or Days of Awe -- that began last week with Rosh Hashana, when Jews believe God is making judgments on the world.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom says there are ways to combine surviving the afternoon and honoring the purpose of the day.

"If a long walk with a loved one, talking about how to do better in the coming year, is your speed, I see that as consonant with the message of the holiday, even if you have to take a water bottle," Dobb said.

Local filmmaker Aviva Kempner, 61, who hosts a big break-the-fast dinner after sunset, says she and her brother have a long-standing afternoon tradition: "seeing who will drink first." As they are preparing for guests, they poke fun at each another for having pasty tongues and try to egg the other on to eat or drink. "It makes a reflective, sad afternoon fun," she says.

Congregants of Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, have a unique option for the woozy afternoon hours. A neighbor who has a 10-by-17-foot mosaic by artist Marc Chagall in her garden has for decades let worshipers come in to relax in her back yard and look at the piece. It includes different scenes: images of Greek mythology, European refugees coming across the ocean, the woman and her husband sitting in the shade of a tree.

The structure of the day has evolved over time. Two millennia ago, there was no actual prayer book, and prayer was an oral tradition of memorization.

In the centuries that followed, great thinkers were attaching comments and poems to the routine prayers, and by the 10th century the structure of Yom Kippur -- as well as other holidays throughout the year, and the Sabbath -- was largely set. It begins tonight with Kol Nidre, a prayer that asks for divine protection if a vow made is later broken. Tomorrow includes many prayers pouring out wishes for the new year, including the solemn Unetanah Tokef, which explains what is "sealed" on Yom Kippur: "who shall live and who shall die . . . who shall perish by water and who by fire . . . who by famine and who by thirst . . . who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished." However, it says, repentance, prayer and righteousness can "avert the severity of the decree."

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