Tips for a Yom Kippur fast

September 2018
Simone Rotstein


Addictions, I’ve had a few. Well, maybe two. Both helped me to cope with social awkwardness; keeping my hands busy and my mind aroused. In university, I started smoking cigarettes and progressed to become a-pack-a-day addict. I used to look forward to the reassuring pull on that first cigarette, as I woke each morning. It was a hard addiction to give up.

My second addiction, which continues to this time, is caffeine. I cannot imagine a day without coffee and, in the morning, I wake up looking forward to my first sip of that dark, aromatic brew. Initially, my coffee drinking was done socially, occupying my hands and my mind. Now, it is a routine that is almost always satisfied in my home. I drink three cups a day, two in the morning, with my breakfast, and one espresso after lunch. Not a huge intake, but, essential to my well-being. Over the years, I’ve switched from a drip coffee maker to a French press and from ground to dark, shiny whole beans, milled daily. 

Eight years ago, I splurged on a miraculous, Swiss coffee maker. I pour dark, whole coffee beans in one side of the machine and clear, filtered water in the other, press a few buttons and, straightaway, the machine creates a wonderful, fragrant java. It produces the perfect cup, grinding the correct amount of beans and pushing through the grinds, as much hot water as is needed to create the brew I desire. The coffee has a delightful, pale crema sitting on top of the dark infusion. My parents referred to the crema, the thin layer of foam on their Turkish coffee, as ‘whish’. They used to discuss the consistency of the ‘whish’ as a reflection on the quality of the demitasse. The ‘whish’ needed to be thick, creamy coloured and blanket the coffee. 

My machine and I have a very close relationship. By the different sounds it utters, I understand what it is telling me. “Your mug is ready.” “The beans need replenishing.” “You need to clear out the old grounds as the container is full.” I instinctively recognise the signals it transmits and respond with care, as I would to a person expressing needs. It has a digital display to inform me when it is heating up and when it is ready to prepare a cup of joe and it tells me to clean it or to decalcify it, at the appropriate times. I take good care of my coffee maker and it reciprocates.

How do I know this is an addiction, despite the fact that I do not increase the amount I drink? Well, as a Jew, I observe Yom Kippur. This day of reflection and atonement is also a 25-hour fast day – no food, no drink. As a young teenager, I had no problem with the fasting but I remember my mother, year after year, ending up in bed with a massive migraine and unable to enjoy the savoury, cheese sambouseks, and the sweet, date-filled ma’amouls she had prepared to break the fast after sunset. She didn’t join us for that meal, remaining in bed, moaning and in acute pain, not rising until the next morning, weak and famished. Until I, like my mother, became a coffee addict, I didn’t sympathize with her suffering. 

The withdrawal from food on Yom Kippur is not that difficult. The pangs of hunger reduce during the day, remaining twinges and, as the hours pass, I am closer and closer to good food. In contrast, for some of us, the withdrawal from caffeine is debilitating. Nausea, headaches and general feelings of being unwell exhibit themselves quickly. The 25-hour fast becomes excruciatingly difficult. 

I need about 10 days before the start of Yom Kippur to withdraw from my daily intake. The first two days, I whittle down to two cups and over the next few days, reduce my consumption to one. It’s a challenge to give up that last coffee. I mix it with some decaffeinated grounds, horror of horrors, and then, switch to green tea. Finally, on the day before Yom Kippur, I am reduced to drinking herbal tea. With these preparations, I sail through the day, avoiding the troubles that plagued my mother.

The evening that Yom Kippur ends, I eagerly chew on a delicious slice of apple with honey. Subsequently, I seek out a flavourful, fragrant cup of coffee, sleep be damned. Without a hitch, I restart my addiction.

Simone Rotstein is an emigrant from Egypt via France to Montreal. She has lived in Hamilton since her marriage to Ed. Her writing began about seven years ago.