Until recently, I fasted each year on Yom Kippur for atonement and to show solidarity with my Jewish ancestors who suffered and those who currently face oppression. This all changed last year when I developed a then-unknown illness and was told by doctors that I should not fast.
Fortunately, fasting on Yom Kippur is flexible or excused for pregnant women, children, and people told by their doctor that they cannot fast. But, in my situation, I did not want my extended family, who I barely talk to, to know that I was sick from a mostly invisible illness.
I found myself spending the day going to services with my aunt’s Orthodox Jewish family, who take Jewish rituals and practices very seriously. I had not seen many of these people since my cousin’s bar-mitzvah four years prior. When we first gathered at a prayer service, a few of them told me that they were proud of my academic and extracurricular accomplishments. At this time, because of the severity of the symptoms that I was dealing with, my grades were a joke, so it was clear they knew nothing about me.
As the day progressed, I started to feel very weak, which came from not eating for a few hours. I told my mother that I had to leave my aunt and uncle’s house, as I did not want to draw attention to the fact that I could not fast, to eat something. I started to move towards the door when a second cousin, who I cannot remember the name of, asked where I was going and if it would be breaking any rules pertaining to Yom Kippur.
I froze and started to think of what to say. I am a terrible liar, as my face turns immediately red, so claiming that I was just going to go on a walk would not work.
“I am dealing with some health issues, so I am supposed to eat,” I said reluctantly. It almost felt like someone was speaking for me, as I did not want those words to come out of my mouth. While I was only speaking to that second cousin, the room went silent.
I left and went to a nearby bagel shop and tried to not think about what just occurred, but I failed.
I was very upset. I did not want people to know that I was dealing with an illness for many reasons. The first being that I did not yet know what was happening to my body — eventually I learned it is vasculitis — and even thinking about being sick and not knowing what it was led me to have daily panic attacks. The second was that I did not want people feeling bad for me. Sure, my symptoms sucked, but I was managing the best that I could at the time. Third was that my body is mine, and I should not feel pressured to explain why I have to do certain things, like not fast, to try and keep symptoms at bay.
After dilly-dallying around the streets of Jersey City as long as I could, I went back to my aunt and uncle’s house. I could hear the soft noise of people talking when I approached the house, but the second I entered, everyone went silent. A few smiled at me, but I did not feel comfortable staying. I ended up taking a bus early back to university because I did not know how to cope with my extended family knowing that I had health issues, and that being a subject of conversation. I just wanted to be seen as a regular university student, not someone who is sick.
But really, what bothered me more than anything was the judgment.
While fasting on Yom Kippur is important to many, those who fast should not question why others do not, as the decision to take part in Jewish rituals and practices is a personal one. Whether it’s for medical reasons, or you simply do not feel compelled to, people should never be pressured to say why they choose to not fast.
Frankly, people need to learn how to mind their own business.