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First Fast

“No way! I’m not going to wear that… that… that stupid rag!” shouted Tamar.

“Well, I’m certainly not going to buy you this thing. Just look at you,” insisted her mom.

“What’s wrong with it? All the kids where stuff like this,” Tamar argued. She was trying on a tight, slinky, jet-black dress with a revealing neckline that emphasized her budding figure.

“It’s too short. And, I don’t like the neckline. It makes you look too, uh, too..,” her mom sputtered.

“Too grown up? That’s it, isn’t it? I’m not a child anymore. I’m not going to let you dress me like a child. I’m thirteen. I’ve had my bat mitzvah. Face it. This is what kids my age wear,” Tamar insisted.

Tamar’s mom, Ann, had grown increasingly frustrated with Tamar. It started before her bat mitzvah last spring. The smallest thing suddenly could trigger an argument, even unimportant things like watching TV or listening to music or talking on the phone. And then there were the big arguments. Friends, parties, clothes, and, most recently, boys. Tamar wanted to go alone with her friends to movies or to the mall. What were they going to do at the mall? Just hang around? That’s how kids got into trouble, Ann believed.

Ann knew that Tamar; tall, with a budding figure, and beautiful long, wavy dark brown hair, was growing and needed more independence. She was a good kid, smart too. But Tamar wanted more independence than Ann or her husband, Joel, thought a 13-year old should have. The world was a far more dangerous place than it had been was when Ann and Joel were growing up.

Today, they were doing back-to-school shopping. Tamar was going into the eighth grade. She wanted to select her own clothes and shoes. Needless to say, she and Ann disagreed often.

Tamar was still simmering when she and her mom arrived home. Ann had grudgingly let her have some jeans and warm-ups and tops, the kind that all her friends liked, but they couldn’t agree on a dress, which was particularly important again this year. Tamar expected to be invited to a number of bar and bat mitzvah parties this fall, and she had no intention of looking like a child. She wanted something that, in her mind, was really, really awesome.

“Am I going to get a fashion show?” asked her father.

“Why bother?” said Tamar as she tossed down the shopping bag and headed up to her room.

When are they going to treat me like a grown-up, Tamar wondered as she sat in her room, which her dad had recently painted blue after removing the childish teddy bear wallpaper she had long outgrown. She put on one of her favorite tapes, one her mom hated, and let the sound wash over her. She did well in school. She played in the all-city school orchestra, which was an honor. She played sports and didn’t sit around watching a lot of TV. And she had done a good job for her bat mitzvah and even continued to go to Shabbat services sometimes, more than a lot of adults did. Her parents didn’t have any complaints, unlike the parents of other kids who sometimes got into big trouble. But they still treated her like a baby. It was unfair. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got.

The school year started off pretty well, although Ann and Tamar still hadn’t solved the dress issue. Tamar’s parents allowed her to meet friends after school by herself and join the drama club, which sometimes had rehearsals at night. Maybe things would be better this year.

The big back-to-school dance came early, before the High Holidays. Tamar planned to go with a bunch of her friends. Her parents gave her permission, although they wanted her home by 11 o’clock, when the dance ended. “But Sarah is having a party afterward. Her parents will be there. It’s okay with them,” pleaded Tamar.

“Go to the dance. That’s plenty for now. We’ll see how it goes,” said her father.

“What can go wrong? I’m not going to do anything bad,” she argued.

“If we thought something would go wrong, we wouldn’t let you go at all. You can go to the dance. I’ll pick you up at 11,” said her father, ending the discussion.

The dance was packed with kids when Tamar, Sarah, Jennifer, and Molly arrived. Jennifer’s parents drove them over. Sarah’s parents would pick them up and take them all back for the party, except Tamar, who would go home with her father. She arrived at the dance in a bad mood.

A boy Tamar liked seemed interested in her, which quickly changed her mood. She danced with him. Other boys approached her as well. Sarah, Jennifer, and Molly were also having fun. They would all have a lot to talk about.

“Let’s go the girl’s room,” said Sarah, tapping Tamar on the shoulder. “We can talk,” she whispered. Molly and Jennifer were with her. Tamar knew they wanted to talk about the boys. She excused herself and joined them.

The girls rushed into the restroom and began comparing notes on the boys. They were leaning against the sinks when they heard loud noises from a group of girls at the far end of the toilet stalls. Suddenly, two of the girls slumped to the floor. From inside a toilet stall came sounds of someone getting sick. The other girls in the group started to scream. Somebody dropped a bottle of pills. Tamar and Sarah rushed over.

“We should call someone,” said Tamar. She turned to leave, but the biggest of the girls grabbed her.

“You can’t. We’ll get in trouble. Here, hold these,” said the girl, pushing another bottle of pills into Tamar’s hand. “They just need to throw up and drink some water. They’ll be all right.” Jennifer and Molly, afraid that the girls might be really sick, had already run out to get the chaperones. Within a minute, the adult chaperones pushed into the restroom.

Tamar’s father had decided to arrive early, just so see what went on at school dances these days. What he found was chaos. Several ambulances were open to receive stretchers. Many kids were milling around outside. Chaperones and police were everywhere. Joel couldn’t find Tamar, Sarah, Jennifer, or Molly anywhere outside.

“I’m looking for my daughter,” Joel said, frantically pushing his way into the building. Inside, he found the police questioning Tamar and her friends about the pills. It took a while before the true story got sorted out, and it was well after midnight when Tamar, Sarah, Molly, and Jennifer finally left, each with her own parent.

The problems at the dance seemed to erase all the progress Tamar felt she had been making since the start of the school year. Her parents interrogated her about everything, every little phone call. “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t bring the pills. I didn’t take any pills, and I didn’t give anybody pills. Those kids admitted it. The police believe me. Why don’t you?” she exploded, when her mother asked for the umpteenth time about whether Tamar ever did anything with the girls who had taken the pills.

By this time, the Jewish High Holidays had arrived. For the first time in her life, Tamar really looked forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and not just because they provided a few days off from school. It’s a time for a new start, a fresh start, her father always said about the holidays. Tamar couldn’t agree more. She hoped he was right.

She not only wanted a fresh start, but a whole new relationship with her parents. How could she convince her parents that she could act responsibly, that she wasn’t a child who had to be constantly held by the hand?

The idea of the Yom Kippur fast jumped into her head. This was the first year she, a bat mitzvah, was obligated to fast as an adult. She had never before really fasted the full day, but this year she would. She was determined. How else could she demonstrate that she wasn’t a child anymore?

The synagogue was crowded on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The family belonged to a small synagogue that relied on volunteers to handle a lot of the programs. Volunteers ran the tot service and Junior Congregation for older kids. On high holidays, a volunteer also arranged for babysitting. Since Tamar was a bat mitzvah, she intended to skip all the kids’ programs and sit through the grownup service.

About halfway through the morning, Tamar whispered to her mom that she had to go to the restroom. “Come right back. They don’t like you kids hanging around in the hallways,” her mom said as she left.

Geez, I can’t even go to the bathroom, thought Tamar as she slipped out of services. Her friends were hanging around in the hall.

As Tamar was leaving the ladies’ room, Mrs. Weinberg rushed up to her. “The babysitters never arrived. We have a room full of little children and no babysitters. Tamar, can you grab a couple of girls right away and go in there, read them some stories? We also have some blocks and toys for the children to play with.”

Tamar agreed. “But you have to tell my mother where I am,” she said.

“Of course,” said Mrs. Weinberg, but then she went rushing off in the wrong direction. Tamar quickly rounded up some girlfriends and went into the babysitting room. In no time, she had a story circle and a building block circle going.

Ann grew nervous when Tamar didn’t return promptly and slipped out to find her. She looked in the ladies’ room first, and then started checking the hallways where the bigger children hung out. Tamar was nowhere to be seen. Ann was both worried and angry. Finally, she found Tamar in the babysitting room.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded angrily.

“I didn’t have time. It was an emergency. I asked Mrs. Weinberg to tell you and she said she would,” Tamar insisted. Her mother looked doubtful and mumbled something about it being Tamar’s responsibility, but it was clear that Tamar was busy. As Ann left, Tamar felt that she couldn’t get a break; even God, it seemed was against her. She had hoped the High Holidays would show her parents how grown up she was, but on the first day she blew it.

Only later did Mrs. Weinberg finally catch up with Tamar’s parents and explain that she was the irresponsible one, not Tamar. “Tamar saved us from a babysitting disaster. She performed a wonderful mitzvah,” Mrs. Weinberg added.

“I’m sorry for getting angry,” Ann said to Tamar.

Yom Kippur followed the next week. The Yom Kippur fast started earlier than Tamar expected. The family sat down for dinner before five o’clock, so they could finish and clean up in time for the Kol Nidre service, which began before sundown. Tamar wasn’t used to eating dinner so early and didn’t even feel hungry. She ate as much as she could, but the fast wasn’t getting off to a good start, as far as she was concerned.

The next morning, the family left for synagogue without breakfast, of course. In years past, her mother would insist Tamar, a child, eat something, but Tamar made it clear that she, a bat mitzvah, was fasting like an adult this year.

The synagogue was crowded when they arrived. Mrs. Weinberg rushed right up to her. “Can you help with the tot service, Tamar? Mrs. Kaplan was going to do it, but her child is sick. You’ll be helping Mrs. Bloom. You read stories so well last week.”

Tamar had hoped to just concentrate on fasting. She hadn’t planned on chasing little kids today. Already her stomach was gurgling, but what could she say? Her dad was beaming at her.

By the time the tot service had ended, Tamar was tired. She had sung Hebrew songs and played games with the children. She read stories. Giving them snacks was the hardest part. These, the very youngest children, received juice and cookies. By snack time, Tamar was pretty hungry, but she resisted the temptation.

The afternoon dragged on. A headache that started during the tot service got steadily worse, making the afternoon seem endless. Tamar would glance at the sun in the sky, but it barely seemed to move. She had to last until sundown before she could eat. By the time her family was ready to return for Neilah, the concluding service, Tamar had a blinding headache. The ark would be open throughout most of the Neilah service, which meant the congregation had to stand. She was determined to make it, but when her dad came to get her to go to Neilah, Tamar stumbled. Her dad caught her.

“You’ve got to eat something before we leave,” he offered.

“I won’t. I’m not a baby. I want to finish the fast,” she insisted.

“You can barely stand up. The Torah doesn’t ask people to hurt their health. You’ve done a great fast. Anyway, Yom Kippur is about much more than fasting. It is about thinking about your actions and how you can be a better person. I think you’ve shown more responsibility through your mitzvahs these holidays than any fast.” he said.

“You and mom fast the whole time. I can do it too,” she still insisted.

“Mom and I know when enough is enough. This is your first fast. You’ll have plenty more,” said her dad.

Tamar’s mom walked in. “Here is an aspirin. Take this. It’s medicine, which is allowed,” she said.

When the final shofar blew, signaling the end of Yom Kippur, Tamar was standing with the other adults, thanks to the aspirin, which she considered cheating no matter what her mother said. The whole congregation moved into the social hall and ended the fast with a delicious buffet: bagels and cream cheese, lox, kugel, and brownies. People were congratulating Tamar for helping with the tot service, for rescuing the babysitting during Rosh Hashanah, and for davening and fasting like an adult. But Tamar was disappointed in herself. She hadn’t really completed the full fast. Maybe I’m not really ready to be an adult, she thought.

She was standing around with her friends when her mom and dad walked up. “You know that black dress you wanted? Your father and I think you are grown up enough to wear it,” her mom said. “If you still want it, we can go get it tomorrow.”