Russ & Daughters in New York. Even before the day of repentance, many Jews are thinking about the meal they will be serving
When Jill Medvedow, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, was growing up, she broke her fast after Yom Kippur at home, with just her family. After she married, she would go to her mother-in-law’s house for the annual meal known as the break-fast. But when her mother-in-law left Boston, Ms. Medvedow and her husband became break-fast orphans.
There was no shortage of invitations, but some of them seemed, well, unappetizing.
A number of break-fasts had gotten catered,” Ms. Medvedow said. “They were really big. They were parties. We wanted something homemade, intimate, flexible and warm, at the end of a day that we take seriously.”
In one sense, it’s hard to mess up a break-fast. Yom Kippur, which begins next Friday night and ends Saturday night, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the culmination of 10 days of contemplation, self-renewal and rededication to the path of righteousness. After such extended religious labor, capped off by a day without food or drink, the parched and hungry Jew is happy with whatever nourishment comes.
But in recent years, the break-fast party has become part of the Jewish social calendar. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, many are attending large, crowded break-fasts, where the spirit of the High Holy Days can get lost in the mixing, and where the day’s solemnity quickly abates, smothered by large quantities of cream cheese and hummus.
Vanessa Ochs, who teaches religion at the University of Virginia, says the new, bigger break-fast raises theological questions. Even before the day of repentance is over, many people are forced to think about the meal they will be serving.
In the last 25 years, the break-fast has, in some friendship groups, become such a moment for gratitude and coming together that people will stay home from services to cook and prepare,” Dr. Ochs said. “That isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing, but from a non-halakhic” — extra-legal — “perspective, if this meal marks who is in your friendship circle, and who is going to be there for you, then this is a holy communal feast.”
One way to keep the meal preparations at a minimum is to hire a caterer. At Manny’s, a prominent deli in Chicago, the owner, Dan Raskin, says he has seen an increase in catering break-fast meals, with many orders for groups of 50 to 60 people. This year, Manny’s is catering at least 100 meals for break-fast — and they haven’t received all the orders yet, Mr. Raskin said.
There is a sense of community,” he said. “People like to include not just family, but family friends.”
At Russ & Daughters, the famed “appetizing” store on the Lower East Side, all the preorder spots were filled two weeks early, said Josh Russ Tupper, an owner.
Ten years ago, Ms. Medvedow, the museum director, started hosting her own break-fast at home in Brookline, Mass. “The regular group includes friends, neighbors, Jews, non-Jews,” she said. “We have somebody of Indian descent, a couple African-Americans. We have Jews who come who do not fast.”
Ami Saffron, the vice president of Jerry’s Famous Deli, a Los Angeles-based chain, said they probably sell 10 times as many meat platters as on a regular weekend — some to Jews beginning the new year in ethically dubious fashion.
Recently, we see more people bringing in their own pots, pans, and trays from home,” Mr. Saffron said, “and have us put some of the more difficult items to make in their own kitchenware, so it looks like they made it.”
Many of those interviewed appreciated the diversity, and open-mindedness, of today’s break-fasts. Leah Angell Sievers, who lives in Richmond, Va., and consults for Holocaust museums, said the calorie demands of competitive swimming made it difficult for her to fast on Yom Kippur, and more recently she has been pregnant with, or nursing, her two children. But she said nobody judges at her friend’s break-fast.
It’s a big break-fast, with a lot of well-known people in the Jewish community in Richmond,” Ms. Sievers said. “But it’s very inclusive, in that they make an effort to invite people like us, who are new in town. And nobody ever asks whether I have fasted or not. Sometimes I bring it up, like, ‘You should eat first, I didn’t fast.’ ”
Susie Fishbein did not include a break-fast meal in “Kosher by Design,” her popular 2003 cookbook. “I felt it inappropriate to set up a Yom Kippur break-fast ‘party,’ ” she said. “It doesn’t fit the mood of what we’ve done all day.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Fishbein is not averse to a large sociable gathering. “It’s definitely somewhat of a happy occasion,” she said. “When the fast is over, the hope is that your prayers were answered, and you were written in the Book of Life and it will be a good year. So in those emotions you want to be surrounded by friends and family.”
In a paper she will be presenting at a conference in November, Nora Rubel, who teaches at the University of Rochester, writes that the large break-fast seems to be an artifact of the last half-century; the 1964 “Guide for the Jewish Homemaker,” for example, offers that “at home a light meal is eaten.”
The break-fast may seem more important today because it unites observant Jews with the growing number who feel a cultural, but not religious, connection to their tradition. “With the increased popularity of the break-fast party,” Dr. Rubel writes, “the holiday becomes a bit more palatable to those Jews who enjoy the time with family and friends but may be less likely to spend the day in organized prayer.”
Alana Newhouse, who edits the online magazine Tablet, says Yom Kippur was always the holiday she “loathed most in the world.”
But ever since deciding to make a big deal out of the break-fast,” Ms. Newhouse says, “the fast itself has become much more meaningful to me. There is something to look forward to, in the interaction with other Jews, and non-Jews.”
The year Ms. Sievers and her husband hosted a break-fast, in Richmond, they invited the Muslim neighbors across the street, who were ending a day of Ramadan fasting. For Ms. Newhouse, the break-fast now competes for favored status with the Passover Seder, another ritual where Gentiles are often welcomed.
But unlike at the Seder, at almost every break-fast there is an actual discussion of the religious ritual,” Ms. Newhouse said. “There are funny stories, too — someone passed out in shul, or somebody accidentally brushed their teeth.”
At the typical Seder, Ms. Newhouse laments, “half the time you get there and people want to talk about Obama.”
The most obvious virtue of the break-fast is the abundant gratitude for the food: the lox and whitefish. For Ms. Fishbein, the menu includes “cream of vegetable soup, my mother-in-law’s noodle kugel, and a panini station.” But the tradition Ms. Newhouse considers “really great,” she says, “is breaking the fast on some kind of liquor. It’s better than any hallucinogenic drug. It’s a European tradition. It is the closest I have come to a mystical experience.”