Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to atone. The little girl was me! I especially liked The Day of Atonement. Did you like it, too?
On that glorious day every year, with the leaves in colors like fire, not only did I get to feel bad about myself while wearing my nicest outfit--a calico dress with lace collar, puffed sleeves, and nude nylons--but I also got to not eat. And not only did I get to not eat, but I got to do it in an auditorium downtown, where I'd sit and stand and sit and stand and, not eating, become dizzy from the perfumed women all around.
We were all not eating downtown because on Yom Kippur, so many of our temple's members wanted to fast and pray together that the temple had to rent a hall in a fancy hotel. Our actual temple, very small, used to be a church. It had uncomfortable pews, making praying quite pleasing!
Discomfort is often a virtue.
I wasn't particularly interested in God, but I was extremely interested in my best Catholic friend, Lizzie Horgan, who had perfectly freckled skin. Lizzie and I had identical rag dolls and our favorite game for them was Confession. We'd take our dolls by their limp little hands and go into the bathroom. One of us would step behind the shower curtain and the other one would stand outside it, reach in and take the doll's hands and the girl's hands. The girl outside the shower curtain was the priest. There was much talk of sin in general, but never in the particular. All was forgiven in an elaborate ritual involving water and chants.
We never heard about heaven or hell in my household. It was all about pogroms and rape. But on Yom Kippur I got to lean over and kiss my older sister's dry cheek in the auditorium-temple, upon command of the Rabbi, and say intensely, "I'm sorry I said I hate you this year." Dizzy, I'd stare in her eyes. All I ever got back was a cold stare. This only made me love her more. We shared a bedroom and often I dreamed that a life-sized doll sat on the edge of my bed and scared me. I'd whisper "Help me!" to my sister. I know this annoyed her, so begging forgiveness was important, you see.
The saddest songs, a feeling of shame, and then we'd go home.
There, my father watched football while my mother prepared breakfast for dinner. Pancakes and bacon, matzoh ball soup, angel food cake. A mysterious name for a cake, don't you think? She heated the food in the oven until it was pitch night, and when it was overcooked, then we would eat.
I was scared of the oven, and there is a reason for that, which is that my grandmother told us tales about girls who got shoved into ovens and about families that were so overcrowded, the babies had to sleep in pots and pans on the stove. In some of the tales there was a witch who cooked little girls in order to eat them. "Mmm, I smell a Russian bone!" she'd say, and grab at their legs. One of these story-girls wanted to marry her brother. "Think of the sin," her sister warns her. But they do marry, and then four little dolls are placed in the four corners of a room and they cry like cuckoos. Cuckoo, he takes his sister/Cuckoo, for a wife/Cuckoo, earth open wide/Cuckoo, sister, fall inside! After a while a witch shows up and says, "I smell a Russian bone!" She tries to cook the girl who has married her brother. (This sort of witch has quite a longing to eat sinners, you see.) Yes, then the woods become so dark that not even a fly can find its way home. The dolls' heads are chopped off. Then the girl's sister chases the witch into the sky, where she burns. The brother and sister who have been married, now are set free. The sister marries a different man, and the brother, his sister's best friend.
As a child I would often not eat to get free of sin. Free of someone? That witch, she was always trying to get the dolls and roast the girls. Girls became doves to get away from her, even. And the dolls in the corner cried like cuckoos. Cuckoo.