Author pho­to­graph by Ryan Muir

I approached my first Yom Kip­pur with trep­i­da­tion. It was not the idea of atone­ment that I feared, but the prospect of fast­ing, of choos­ing to go hun­gry. In 1994, when I was sev­en years old, I moved with my par­ents from north­ern Chi­na to New York City, where we lived in pover­ty as undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. Twen­ty-four years lat­er, I remained haunt­ed by the mem­o­ry of attend­ing ele­men­tary school every day on an emp­ty stom­ach. When­ev­er hunger twist­ed inside me, I found myself trans­port­ed back to that school cafe­te­ria in Chi­na­town, count­ing down the min­utes to the free meal.

In 2018, my now-hus­band and I attend­ed Yom Kip­pur ser­vices in a local ele­men­tary school — a makeshift syn­a­gogue for Jews who had not yet found a con­gre­ga­tion. (We had tried sev­er­al, but at that point, we hadn’t yet dis­cov­ered one that wel­comed me as a per­son of col­or.) Over a year before, I had whis­pered to myself that I would even­tu­al­ly embark on this avow­al of faith, not know­ing how my body would respond. Since that day, the thought of hunger had writhed inside me, telling me that I could not pos­si­bly face it — that last and most phys­i­cal of my child­hood scars.

In the mid­dle of the morn­ing ser­vice, I real­ized with a start that we were actu­al­ly in the school’s lunch­room. I was seat­ed right in front of the serv­ing sta­tion — where I would have stood as a child, my stom­ach turn­ing over pock­ets of air, wait­ing for food to be slopped on my tray. I won­dered why it had tak­en me so long to reg­is­ter where I was. Maybe I hadn’t been ready to revis­it the past, to see its per­fect align­ment with my present.

In that instant, I was trans­port­ed back to that sec­ond-grade class­room, will­ing myself to con­cen­trate, des­per­ate to blend in with the rest of the class. My hands quaked until I pressed them against the under­side of the wood­en table, bumpy with dried gum.

I stared at the words on the board, but unlike my class­mates, I was still strug­gling to learn Eng­lish. All I could think was that the chalk marks were white as pow­dered sug­ar. The num­ber two pen­cil in my hand was a bread­stick. My teacher’s pin-straight strands of hair were soba noo­dles about to be dunked into a miso broth. I tried to com­fort myself by cat­a­loging the delights that I vivid­ly recalled from my years in Chi­na: roast­ed duck with crispy skin; stir-fried tofu nest­ed under onions and pep­pers; stewed beef dressed with glaze.

I snapped back to the class­room at the tick­ing of its clock, the heart­beat of my con­stant shad­ow, hunger. Eigh­teen hours had crawled by since I’d last eat­en food. This was just anoth­er day in my sev­en-year-old life.

All I could think was that the chalk marks were white as pow­dered sug­ar. The num­ber two pen­cil in my hand was a breadstick.

The moment I thought I could last no longer, when I imag­ined I would fade into the shad­ow com­plete­ly, it was time for lunch. All my ener­gy flowed to my legs as I rushed to the cafe­te­ria, where I joined the line with the oth­er poor, under­fed, and unwashed kids. We formed a ser­pent that coiled around the room as we tast­ed the air for the promise of lunch. It would be sev­er­al min­utes before the rich kids — who were not rich, real­ly, only slight­ly bet­ter off — trick­led in, tow­ing lunch box­es adorned with white Dis­ney princess­es. We watched as our clean­er, less hun­gry coun­ter­parts took out sand­wich­es, cheese sticks, and fruit. We sali­vat­ed as they ate half of their won­ders and dis­card­ed the rest. I had to stiff­en my back against the wall just to stay standing.

My nose knew when the trays of lumpy meat in brown gravy were uncov­ered. The odor was dis­tinct. By the time the line start­ed inch­ing for­ward, the rich kids were already out in the playground.


When I turned my thoughts back to the Yom Kip­pur ser­vice, it came to me how dif­fer­ent my real­i­ty now was:

In this lunch­room, I stood with an open stance, shoul­ders wide and relaxed. Eigh­teen hours had crawled by since I’d last eat­en food. But there was no stiff­ness in my back, no tremors in my hands, no iso­la­tion in my heart. I felt hunger but not its com­pan­ions, lone­li­ness and fear. With­out them, it was no longer so scary. As I joined the rest of the con­gre­ga­tion in a melod­ic prayer, I was able to feel at peace for the first time while in the pres­ence of hunger.

Then the words of Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel came to me: Prayer begins at the edge of empti­ness.” Only in depri­va­tion do we make room for the full­ness of our faith, and only in the face of fear and dis­com­fort does our strength find its voice.

Dur­ing that ser­vice, I no longer need­ed to lean against the wall. I stood for­ti­fied, shoul­der to shoul­der in com­mu­ni­ty. The clean next to the less clean, the rich­er next to the poor­er — we all stood in that lunch­room as equals before Hashem, unit­ed in our voic­es, our hunger, our atonement.

When the fog of my hunger had dis­solved, I found myself new­ly able to see out­ward, past my own child­hood fears to those of the for­got­ten chil­dren of today, chil­dren who must still lean on that wall in hunger and lone­li­ness. It was then that I awak­ened to the need to repair not just my world but also theirs — to sup­ply them with the strength, sus­te­nance, and faith I had been blessed to receive on the holi­est of days.

Qian Julie Wang is a lit­i­ga­tor and the author of Beau­ti­ful Coun­try: A Mem­oir. She is the founder of Cen­tral Synagogue’s Jews of Col­or group and a mem­ber of its racial jus­tice task force and its social jus­tice lead­er­ship. She lives in Brook­lyn with her hus­band and their two dogs, Salty and Peppers.