British writer Howard Jacob­sons most recent col­lec­tion of essays, The Dog’s Last Walk (and Oth­er Pieces), was pub­lished last week by Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing. Below’s excerpt from the book, There Was a Rab­bi in Kiev,” offers a Yom Kip­pur tale. 

Now that anoth­er Yom Kip­pur has been and gone with­out my being struck down for my sins – the biggest of them, in some eyes, being my fail­ure to hon­our the Day of Atone­ment in the way a Jew is sup­posed to – I will unfold to you a tale. Call it an expi­a­tion for not ade­quate­ly expiating.

There was a rab­bi … Jew­ish para­bles always begin that way, and as often as not sit­u­ate the rab­bi in Kiev. So: there was a rab­bi of Kiev, only he was not a rab­bi in the con­ven­tion­al sense, he was rab­bi of Rad­i­cal Scep­ti­cism employed by the City Duma’s Depart­ment of Ratio­nal­ism to keep an eye out for irra­tional­ism of a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish vari­ety. Though known to his friends as Vik­tor, he always jumped when some­one shout­ed: Abram!’ This was because Abram was the name his par­ents had giv­en him. When­ev­er this hap­pened, Vik­tor – who had bestowed that name upon him­self – fell into a fit of guilt about his par­ents and prayed for for­give­ness from the God in whom they had believed but he did not. Imme­di­ate­ly he had fin­ished pray­ing he cas­ti­gat­ed him­self for show­ing such dis­re­spect to his own non-belief. Vik­tor did not keep Shabbes, took no notice of any of Jew­ish fes­ti­vals and ate what­ev­er took his fan­cy. Because lap­wing was high on the list of foods pro­scribed in Leviti­cus, he would have tucked into lap­wing with gus­to had he known where to buy it. Food was scarce in Kiev, so it was dif­fi­cult enough to find ossifrage, let alone lap­wing. Snails, how­ev­er, were a del­i­ca­cy he indulged. Hare, whether grilled or in a pie, like­wise. And as for the bacon he fried in but­ter every morn­ing, as an accom­pa­ni­ment to blood pud­ding – so many slices, fried for just the right num­ber of min­utes, a lit­tle salt, a lit­tle pep­per, a dash of oys­ter sauce – why it was almost a reli­gious rit­u­al to him.

But he was trou­bled by an incon­sis­ten­cy. If he could dine on bacon with­out a qualm, and pork sausage, and ham hock, and chit­ter­lings – and there was even one dish he adored of which the chief ingre­di­ent was pig’s rec­tum – why couldn’t he ever eat pork bel­ly? If he saw pork bel­ly on a menu, he need­ed to drink a glass of water. If he sat next to some­one eat­ing pork bel­ly, he had to fight him­self from retch­ing. Once, when one of his col­leagues ordered pork bel­ly, Vik­tor announced he would have to leave the table while the food was being consumed.

Vik­tor, you must be able to explain this incon­sis­ten­cy,’ his col­league demand­ed. But Vik­tor was unable to. It wasn’t what the pork bel­ly looked or tast­ed like that was the prob­lem. It was the pair­ing of the words, the con­cate­na­tion of sounds – pork and bel­ly. Pork on its own – fine. He loved a pork sand­wich with apple sauce. Bel­ly, too, as a dis­crete enti­ty, pre­sent­ed no prob­lems. He had once eat­en yak’s bel­ly on a vis­it to Mol­davia and loved it. But put pork and bel­ly togeth­er and he was dis­gust­ed. It was a for­eign­ness – a trans­gres­sion even – too far.

So what was it a trans­gres­sion against? Vik­tor was damned if he knew.

And thus it was, inverse­ly, with Yom Kip­pur, that’s to say thus it was when it came to ignor­ing it. Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim – Vik­tor respect­ed none of them. He saw his co-reli­gion­ists – except that he was no longer a reli­gion­ist him­self – spruced up for syn­a­gogue and shook his head over them. Slaves to cus­tom and super­sti­tion! Drones of blind faith! On fes­ti­vals where it was nec­es­sary to be solemn, Vik­tor took pains to be seen laugh­ing. Where it was nec­es­sary to laugh, Vik­tor wore his longest face. On Yom Kip­pur, how­ev­er, he kept out of the way. He saw no rea­son to apol­o­gise for his sins since he was always apol­o­gis­ing for his sins. Why set aside a sin­gle day to atone for your guilt when you’ve been aton­ing for it all year? Indeed, if he had a beset­ting sin it was being over-con­scious of sin­ning. So he cer­tain­ly wasn’t going to fast. But – and this he knew to be illog­i­cal – he wasn’t going to be seen not fast­ing either. No osten­ta­tious ban­quets at his favourite restau­rants on this day. No pub­lic retch­ing over anoth­er diner’s pork belly.

On the Day of Atone­ment the sun hap­pened to be shin­ing and Vik­tor decid­ed on a walk. He nod­ded at some of the Jews he knew – more pal­lid than ever on account of doing with­out food – and sud­den­ly, despite hav­ing enjoyed a hearty break­fast, he felt hun­gry. A snack was all he need­ed. A bis­cuit or choco­late. He wan­dered down a side street and found a tobac­conist and confectioner’s. Here he bought a bar of choco­late. But he hes­i­tat­ed before break­ing into it. On this day of all oth­ers, he thought, couldn’t I at least have done with­out chocolate?

But that was a super­sti­tious thought and he put it from him. He ate a piece of choco­late, was dis­ap­point­ed in the taste and decid­ed to throw the rest away. What made him decide to throw it in the Dnieper when he could have tossed it over any fence he didn’t know. But when he got to the riv­er, he realised he couldn’t do it. It looked too much like tash­lich, or cast­ing your sins upon the water, a rit­u­al Vik­tor scorned. As though you could drown a sin! He walked on but knew he had to get rid of the remain­ing choco­late. Why? Did he think he could half atone for half a sin? Did he think he might be half forgiven?

It would seem, he admit­ted to him­self, that I am half superstitious.

Once he got back to his depart­ment offices he con­fessed his recidi­vism and offered to half resign. At a hur­ried­ly con­vened meet­ing of coun­cil­lors he was fired alto­geth­er. You have to make your mind up in this insti­tu­tion, they told him.

There is no moral to this sto­ry. But as some­one who recent­ly bought a bar of choco­late on Yom Kip­pur I can vouch for its essen­tial truth.

From The Dog’s Last Walk, by Howard Jacob­son, pub­lished by Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing. Copy­right ©Howard Jacob­son 2017. Reprint­ed with permission.

Howard Jacob­son has writ­ten fif­teen nov­els and sev­en works of non-fic­tion. He won the Bollinger Every­man Wode­house Award in 2000 for The Mighty Walzer and then again in 2013 for Zoo Time. In 2010 he won the Man Book­er Prize for The Fin­kler Ques­tion and was also short­list­ed for the prize in 2014 for his nov­el J. He lives in London.