November 20, 2018

Yom Kippur and Streusel Topping

I’m pretty sure my binge-eating style all started at Yom Kippur.

Or birth, but whatever.

Anytime I can blame my imperfections on “my people” instead of having to take personal responsibility, I’m all in.

“I’m not loud,” I’ll scream at my husband, “I’m a Jew from New York!” Then I’ll slam something — such as my hand on a table, a fly whizzing by my head or, one time in 1997, the back door, sending shards of glass flying. That was one of those fights we used to have a decade ago, when I’d let loose and stalk off embarrassed by my rage.

But I’d also leave thinking: This is why I should have married someone more like me, another screaming, hyperemotional type from the East Coast who “gets” me, instead of an even-keeled sane man from California. Hooking my second-generation wagon to another Eastern European descendant prone to depression and mania in alternating months was so obviously what I should have done. What. Was. I. Thinking?

But back to Yom Kippur and binging.

My parents always drank black coffee the morning of the holiday. Never one to belong to a temple, my father would then spend the day pacing the house, miserable. I’m not sure what my mother did, but she definitely stopped ingestion at coffee. She wholeheartedly believed that her most significant contribution to society was a thin body, so anything that supported her cause was fantastic.

She didn’t believe in religion or God, but if there ever was a time to get with her people on something, sanctioned deprivation was it. Being human often got in the way of her lofty ambition to serve the planet as the thinnest person in the room. I have vivid memories of her body splayed out on the red-and-black-checked couch in our den, an empty bag of jelly beans on her lap. “Why did I eat all those?” she’d ask no one. On Yom Kippur, starve-binge behavior is built right into the holiday! It’s ordained by God, for God’s sake.

I don’t remember starving myself on this holy day as a kid, or as an adolescent after my bat mitzvah. Probably because I never had one — yet another illustration of my mother’s secular and not unusual sexist take on Judaism back then.

“You don’t need a bat mitzvah,” she told my sister and me.

“If you were a boy it would be different,” she’d say, taking a long drag off a Kent.

So, other than my father’s brooding, I had no understanding of the holiday. Until I was on my own and walked in to a service at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, where children bolted up to the bimah giggling, eager to blow the shofar. The catharsis in the building was palpable.

Despite not knowing what atoning was, I’d do my best to not eat, like my parents. I spent a lot of the day thinking about cake. Specifically, streusel topping — those large pebbles of flour, butter and brown sugar plastered on top of yellow-colored cake baked by “Aunt” Minerva, the long-suffering wife of my debonair and narcissistic grandfather.

At the break-the-fast buffet table, I would position myself within arm’s reach of these balls of joy, discreetly dislodging them with my fingers and popping them in my mouth.

Yom Kippur in those years involved a lot of hand-to-mouth eating, which I enjoyed with the gusto of the most observant Jew. Unlike other meals where you had to be polite and use a plate and a utensil, no one cared! You’d been starving all day — I do mean you since I rarely succeeded. I had to eat something so I wouldn’t faint or feel anything — that’s how I rolled. Although not a lot of fun, Yom Kippur did pay off with unregulated crumb topping.

At least until I realized boys don’t like girls built like small sumo wrestlers. That’s when I stopped eating in public and started cleaning up in the kitchen more, fixated on what people left untouched.

Once in a while now, I’ll pull this trick on Shabbat.

“I got it,” I’ll say to a person offering help, eyeing a half-eaten piece of chocolate layer cake, practically breaking a sweat anticipating sneaking it into my mouth by the finger full, clanging dishes with my free hand — my tiny act of rebellion for the Jewish housewife I sometimes fear I’ve become.

If I stick my fingers in frosting with abandon, then I’m not really a grown-up, right? Despite having a husband, a mortgage and two sons (one of whom bathes me in teenage loathing), when I am swiping a thumb through buttercream when no one is looking, I am 11 again and life is sweet.

Unsurprising to me now, one hit of this and I must have more. I find more dishes to clear.

“No, really, I have it, enjoy yourself,” I say, assessing the plates I’ve picked up.

After a final scan of the kitchen for all the memories I can eat, I leave to join everyone with a cup of hot water and lemon.

The wife, the mother, the grown-up.

Chag sameach.

Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”