Monday, September 9, 2013

Yom Kippur - Awe man!

Yom Kippur is coming and there's not a lot to do at home - no festive meal, no fun family ritual, barely even any songs to sing.  Traditionally, this is the day to spend all day at synagogue in reflective prayer.  Of course we all know, depending on how old your kids are, just because you're fasting doesn't necessarily mean you get a day free of distraction, where you can meditate on how you have lived your life in the past year.  But taking care of your children's very real needs doesn't need to totally supersede your Yom Kippur experience.  Here are some thoughts on how to experience this potentially challenging day as a family.

The Basics
So, without a festive meal, a table ritual, or any other specific home activities, what is there to do?

The meal before Yom Kippur

The meal we eat before Yom Kippur begins isn't exactly part of the holiday, but it is a piece of how we observe it.  You might point out, or give your kids a chance to notice, that there is no wine and no Kiddush blessing.  This is a big meal, one carefully planned, so that it leaves you full in a lasting kind of way, not too thirsty and well-hydrated.   You could discuss with your kids how we prepare for a difficult task, and how to fortify yourself for a day of fasting, as they'll do when they're old enough.  

הדלקת נרות - Hadlakat Neirot - Lighting Candles

The one ritual element that does happen at home on Yom Kippur - or technically just before Yom Kippur starts - is candle lighting.  Candle lighting happens after the meal, before you leave for services (if you're not staying home putting kids to bed).  Lighting candles initiates the holiday and marks the time when the fast begins.  The blessing is the same as for other holidays:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָה ה' אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל יוֹם טוֹב
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel yom tov 
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who makes us holy with commandments and teaches us to light the holiday lights. 

יאָרצײַט - Yortzeit - Memorial Candles

Yom Kippur is one of the holidays when it's traditional to light a memorial candle for a close relative (parent, sibling, child, or spouse) who has passed away.  These candles burn for 24 hours and are lit just before the holiday candles.  If you light yortzeit candles, or if you spend the holiday with someone who does (my parents stay with us for Yom Kippur, so the kids see yortzeit candles on the counter in our house), this could be an opportunity to talk with your kids about people who you remember fondly and are missing around the holiday season.  You might notice that one of the candles is for someone whom one of your kids is named after, and talk about who great-grandpa so-and-so was and how you hope your child will grow up to be like him.  After all, so much of the high holy day season is about connecting to our tradition and thinking about who we hope to become in the coming year.  

Breaking the Fast 

Yom Kippur ends after sundown, when there are three stars in the sky (about 7:40 this year in our area), with another meal at home, not exactly part of the holiday, but also not totally separate from it.  Many families make a special meal for the break-fast or go to a break-fast with friends or family.  The meal is usually dairy, often bagels and cream cheese, sometimes with lox, maybe a kugel, or quiche, tuna or egg salad.  To me, the meal doesn't feel complete without my mother's deviled eggs, though that's probably just me.  When I was a kid, we used to have those deviled eggs along with potatoes and sour cream.
Whatever foods you use to break the fast, it can be another memorable moment to experience with your kids.  It's an opportunity to point out how grateful you are for this particular meal.  Notice how hungry you are.  Even if your kids aren't feeling it themselves, watching you experience the holiday can be a powerful experience.  If you're not in the habit of making blessings at every meal, this could be a moment to let your kids see you get the year off to a good start by thanking God for the blessing of having enough to eat.

What else is there to do with kids?
Beyond beginning and ending Yom Kippur in the traditional way, what else can you do to make the holiday meaningful for your kids and feel like you're observing the holiday too?

Fasting for Beginners

Discuss with your kids in advance why adults are fasting, why kids aren't, and what they could do to participate in this part of the ritual in a safe and healthy way.  
Why kids aren't fasting is the simple part of the discussion.  There are a few reasons you could explain to the kids about why adults are.  Here are two:

So we can concentrate on other things

Normally, we're busy thinking about the practical, day-to-day details of our lives - things like: what's for breakfast, what's for lunch, what's for dinner?  A fast day, with no eating, and no need to prepare meals, gives us a chance to think about other things, to pray, and to decide how we want to grow and change in the coming year.  Maybe your kids can help keep the food preparation to a minimum by deciding together in advance what they can eat when they need to, and if they're old enough, choosing things that are pre-prepared or that they can take for themselves.  

Because we don't need it - practicing self denial

Another reason for fasting on Yom Kippur is that we can live without food for one day.  When the Torah tells us about Yom Kippur, it instructs us to practice self-denial.  This is a great opportunity to discuss with your kids the distinction between things we need and things we want.  Of course we need to eat, but for adults, it's a healthy practice every once in a while to notice that we could eat tomorrow instead of today.  For everyone, there are foods that we really want, but actually don't need.  
Try talking to your kids about using will-power, or "practicing saying no to yourself" about food choices, at whatever level they're ready for.  Maybe it's no dessert after dinner the evening Yom Kippur begins.  Maybe it's no treats between meals during the day.  As they get older, maybe it's skipping breakfast or lunch.  Maybe it's eating simpler things - leaving the butter or jelly off the bread, choosing water instead of juice or soda, or plain milk instead of chocolate.  If your kids do practice "saying no to themselves" in some way during the day on Yom Kippur, make sure there's something they really want to look forward to at the break-fast.

Getting Dressed

There are a few traditional changes in the way we dress on Yom Kippur.  Many people wear white.  White is symbolic of the purity we strive for on the High Holy Days.  Wherever you and your kids will be, you can try to incorporate white into your or their clothing.  
It is also traditional to avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur.  Why?  Partly because leather is a luxurious kind of item.  Just like we don't need to eat for one day, and we probably don't need to eat as extravagantly as we do most days, we also don't need to wear leather.  You could also see not wearing leather as an act of compassion for the animals the leather is derived from.  For one day, we are not so presumptuous as to use the skin of another living being for our own comfort and pleasure.  If you decide to avoid wearing leather, it probably means choosing a different pair of shoes than you'd be inclined to wear on the holiest day of the year.  Here's another opening for a discussion with your kids about how it feels to be wearing their crocs (or whatever else they have that isn't leather) with their best white dress or shirt.  How important is it to look dressed up?  How important is it to feel humble?  Why do we dress up, and why is it appropriate?  

Bring a Little Bit of the Yom Kippur Service Home 

On Yom Kippur afternoon services, after the Torah reading, the Haftarah, the reading from the prophets, is the book of Jonah.  If you're home with your kids, sometime during the day, you could read or tell the story of Jonah.  G-dCast has a fun, kid-friendly version of the Jonah story on their website at  For younger kids, I really like the book Oh No, Jonah!  You can find other versions online or in a Tanach, a full Jewish Bible.  Here's a translation of the original from  

Some questions to discuss: Why did Jonah run away?  What do you think you would have done if you were him?  Why didn't God destroy Nineveh in the end?  Was Jonah right to be upset?  What have we run away from this year that we really should face?

If your kids are on the younger side, try my English adaptation of the Ashamnu confessional prayer.  (Words are below.  Or you can hear my lovely and talented husband, Cantor Ken Richmond, sing it here - click on track number 6. We Were Angry)  If they're older, and my examples don't quite fit, why not have them help you think of a mistake for each letter of the alphabet that members of your family have made this past year, and that you'll hopefully do a better job avoiding next year.  

Kids' Confession Song
Ay ay-ay ay ay, ay-ay-ay ay ay ay, ay-ay-ay ay ay ay

We were angry,
we behaved badly,
we were cranky,
we dawdled,

Ay ay-ay ay ay ...

we exaggerated,
we fussed,
we grabbed,
we hit,
we ignored,
we jumped on the bed,

Ay ay-ay ay ay ...

we kvetched,
we lied,
we moped,
we called names,
we overreacted,

Ay ay-ay ay ay ...

we pushed,
we quarreled,
we ran away,
we didn't share,
we threw tantrums,
we upset others,

Ay ay-ay ay ay ...

we were very whiny,
we exploded,
we yelled,
we zoned out.

Ay ay-ay ay ay ...

Attending Services

Yom Kippur is a day traditionally spent at synagogue.  A whole day may be a lot for your kids, but finding out when the children's services happen could give them the experience of having the holiday in community and could give you a chance to go to part of the service on your own and experience the holiday on a grown-up level.  Think about spending some time together in the main service before or after so your kids have a chance to see what it's all about and you have a chance to be in that space together.  

The Final Shofar Blast

Even in you're not able to stay at synagogue with your kids all day, you could think about going back for the very end.  Hearing the shofar as the day comes to a close is a dramatic and memorable moment, and Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of the day, is sweet and often has beautiful, accessible music.  

When I lead children's services for preschool and kindergarten age kids, one of the activities we do is the "Feed the Hungry (grown-up) Snack Bag."  As the kids have a snack for themselves, I ask them to think of a grown-up they care about who's not eating today, and make them a snack to deliver as soon as the shofar is blown, or as soon as the fast is over if they've gone home already.  If your kids don't come to my service, and you're home with them in the middle of the day, this could be a nice way to prepare for the final shofar blast.  Let them gather some things that would be easy to pack in a small bag for the hungry grown-ups in their lives.  (Our bags usually have raisins, veggie straws, pretzels and a juice box.)  Talk about how lucky we are that being hungry is an unusual thing.  Think about how on other days we can feed people who are really hungry because they don't have enough food to eat.   Many synagogues have a pre-Yom Kippur food drive that you can participate in by bringing a non-perishable item to Kol Nidrei services.  And food banks are always open and accepting donations.  

I hope you've found something you'd like to try in the suggestions here.  Yom Kippur is a hard one, but it's never too early to start getting a taste (no pun intended) for the holidays, even the serious ones.  If you've got a great idea I didn't mention, please post it in the comments!
And, once Yom Kippur is over, Sukkot is just around the corner, with lots of fun ways to celebrate with the family!  After all, it's the holiday of happiness.  It doesn't get much better than that!  It's not too early to start thinking about how you'll celebrate Sukkot with your family this year, with new traditions, twists on the familiar, and creative ideas.  Hopefully the Sukkot post will come out later this week, to help you start getting ready even before Yom Kippur.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah! - Wishing you a good end of the High Holy Day season,
Rav Shira