Breaking Down the Break-fast

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published October 03, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
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In its embrace of the new, American Jewry has given rise to any number of far-reaching ritual practices, from kosher-style cuisine to lavish bar mitzvah celebrations. But the one that really takes the cake is the post-Yom Kippur break-fast, a phenomenon that seems to have grown steadily in popularity over the years, eclipsing even the fast itself. In many households across the United States, more attention seems to be lavished and more energy expended on what will be consumed at the conclusion of the 25-hour fast than on its spiritual dimensions and implications.

Increasingly de rigueur in contemporary America, an elaborate meal has supplanted the humble repast of yesteryear, where, upon returning home from synagogue, one happily made do with a glass of juice, a cup of coffee or a glezele tey, and a slice or two of buttered challah before calling it a day. Not anymore. In contemporary America, no meal is complete without a towering display of bagels, heaps of whitefish salad, ample platters of smoked salmon — and a houseful of hungry guests.

Retailers, their antennae keenly pitched to the ways of the folk, have capitalized on this trend, often with unintentionally risible results. Taking out a full-page advertisement in a local New York Jewish paper, Balducci’s, that self-proclaimed “Food Lover’s Market,” recently trumpeted the merits of its “Yom Kippur Menu,” promising to “make your special holiday extra-special… End the Day of Atonement knowing your meal has been prepared especially for you.” On the Internet, Whole Foods advertises a “Yom Kippur Salad Platter,” even going so far as to inform its customers when the holiday begins (at “sundown Friday, September 21”).

On and off the Web, consumers have responded favorably. In my neighborhood, they stand cheek to jowl at the local appetizing store, patiently awaiting their chance to purchase a ton of food l’kavod (in honor of) Yom Kippur.

How are we to account for this phenomenon that runs counter at every turn to the spirit and sensibility of Yom Kippur,a day completely given over to renunciation and contemplation rather than satiety and indulgence? Is the elaborate break-fast a reward for having successfully met the challenges of the fast? That’s one way to look at it. Another might be to read the bountiful break-fast as a consequence of the unprecedented affluence that characterizes American Jewry of the 21st century, perhaps even as a ritualized acknowledgement of the abundance that has come its way of late. Call it a Judaized Thanksgiving. Then again, the break-fast might just as easily be construed as a creative adaptation, a positive reworking, say, of an earlier cultural improvisation: the Yom Kippur ball.

Rejectionist and transgressive through and through, the Yom Kippur ball was the handiwork of anarchists and socialists who, in the early years of the 20th century, anathemized religion. To their way of thinking, there was no better vehicle with which to convey disdain for the Divine and hostility toward its champions than to host a lavish banquet complete with music and dancing on the holiest night of the year. While everyone else was in synagogue feeling hunger pangs — or worse still, the pangs of remorse — the devotees of the Yom Kippur ball pursued pleasure with a vengeance.

While the sensibility, not to mention the timing, of our contemporary celebration is, admittedly, miles apart from that of the Yom Kippur ball, I can’t help but wonder whether something of the ball’s high spirits rubbed off somewhere along the line. Linking the two together, at any rate, has the advantage, the pedigree, of history.

Whatever its origins or, for that matter, its consequences, the bountiful break-fast seems here to stay. Should we welcome it with open arms as the very latest in a long line of new cultural traditions? Or cast a disapproving eye? Would a simple shrug of the shoulders be more effective? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, perhaps it would help matters to see today’s break-fast as a testament to the creative power of the grass roots and its appetite for new forms of ritual engagement. Or better yet, as an exercise in fellowship and community.

Bagels, anyone?


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