One gentile friend calls it Young Klippers, and is convinced it marks the day Delilah cut off Samson's hair. Another appears awestruck at a holiday that forbids turning on the TV -- even for "Mork and Mindy."

Yom Kippur, literally the Day of Atonement, is the most important and sacred holy day in the Jewish year. But it is probably the holiday least understood by non-Jews.

I first realized this during the 1965 World Series when then Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher Sandy Koufax, a Jew and an ace southpaw, refused to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Many of my sixth-grade classmates, I recall, branded Koufax a traitor to baseball. Christian athletes play football on Christmas and Thanksgiving, they argued, so what's this Yom Kippur business?

My father, however, considered Koufax a hero. He was indignant that the baseball commissioner would be insensitive enough to schedule the game for the day that devout Jews spend fasting, worshipping and repenting.

(As if to vindicate my dad and others like him, Koufax led the Dodgers to a series victory, despite substitute pitcher Don Drysdale's opening-game loss.)

Yom Kippur is the one day each year on which everything -- even the World Series -- stops. Observant Jews don't eat or drink, write, go to school or work, play games, handle money -- including checks and credit cards -- or operate machinery, which means TV, radio or cars (although some will bend this rule to drive to synagogue).

The worldly routine of bills, deadlines, chores or exams take a back seat to matters of the spirit. The exception is when a person's life or health is at stake. A sick person may eat and a doctor may "work" to perform live-saving surgery.

The day is spent in introspection. Each person reflects on the past year's thoughts and behavior and acknowledges and repents transgressions. Before making their peace with God, Jews are to patch up earthly arguments. It is a time to set things straight, and start the year fresh with a renewed commitment to being a better person.

Part of the holiday's significance is its timing. Yom Kippur begins at sundown before the tenth day of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish calendar's year. New Year's Day, or Rosh Hashanah, falls on the first day of that month.

Legend says that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur, sealing each person's fate for the coming year. A popular greeting during the holdiay period is "may you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life."

As a child, the thing that made Yom Kippur special was not eating. Although fasting is not required of youngsters, I remember trying to do my part. My sister and I stuffed ourselves at dinner before the fast began and were careful to spit out all the water when brushing our teeth the next morning.

My parents allowed us to skip breakfast, and during synagogue services our stomachs would rumble in time with all the others in the congregation.

We would usually break down by lunch, and I recall my mother preparing chocolate milk and a chicken leg, careful not to lick her fingers. At the age of 10 or 11, fasting became a kind of contest among my Jewish friends. We would quiz each other the next day to see who held off the longest without eating.

In my teens I began fasting the whole day, not eating anything until we got to my aunt's house for the traditional "break-fast" meal. That first bite of bread was ambrosia.

But fasting is just one part of the Yom Kippur ritual, a fact brought home to me during college when I was cast in a threatrical production at the University of Maryland.

We were several weeks into rehersal when I discovered that opening night was scheduled for Yom Kippur. I mentioned the fact to some other Jewish cast members, and we brought the matter to the play's director.

Gentile actors perform on Christmas and Easter, so why shouldn't we perform on Yom Kippur? he argued. I sympathized with Sandy Koufax. The director didn't understand the way we observed the holy day.

I had almost decided the play was more important than the holiday, when I mentioned the conflict to my father. He was enraged that the director was forcing me to make that choice and considered it a form of religious persecution.

Giving up the play was a small price to pay for observing my religious heritage, I decided. My ancestors had battled far greater obstacles.

The controversy hit the school newspaper. A reporter quoted me as saying, "Yom Kippur is not a holiday to be celebrated. It is a holy day to be observed." The play was rescheduled to open the following night.

In the last few years I have looked forward to Yom Kippur's cleansing rituals. Although my husband and I go to evening services, we spend a portion of the day in the park, observing nature's cascade into autumn and trying to think about how we are living our lives.

It's refreshing to get off the merry-go-round at least one day during the year. That day of reflection can help put the other 364 into better perspective. And it's a marvelous way to begin the new year.