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.