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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

A Day of Fasting and Food

Like most Jewish holidays, it is tradition that Yom Kippur begins and end at sundown. However, I am on Senegalese time, and here in Senegal (at least in my experience), we eat dinner well past 10 o’clock. Last night—the eve of Yom Kippur—knowing full well that I would have to fast for a complete twenty-four hours, I joined my sisters for dinner at exactly that time.

So today—Yom Kippur morning—I awoke well rested, slightly hungry, and far-too-well aware of the long fast ahead. My day begins in a room on the second floor of one of the buildings in my family’s compound. It is one building of several, all surrounding the central outdoor common area where my family and I spend most of our time. Before 10 AM, I exit the compound via a long, narrow courtyard and find myself within the depths of Dakar’s largest market. With a backpack weighed down by Yom Kippur machzors and a shofar in hand, I start the short walk to our BY program house, situated halfway across Yoff. Zandra arrives soon after I do, and the Yom Kippur services commence.

We pray standing up, surrounded by the sounds of Dakar—the other BY participants in the next room working on their updates, Isatou mopping the floor in the bathroom, a round of laundry on the tiny program house balcony, a prayer call from the mosque across the street. And us, singing in Hebrew amid a beautifully-chaotic city. And I remember why I’m Jewish, how prayer makes me feel, how prayer makes me think. I read my torah portion off a folded piece of paper, the same one I’ve read for the past five years in my synagogue in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I play my shofar off the side of our balcony, my own call to prayer adding to the spontaneous sounds of this city I have not yet gotten to know.

Heading back to my home and my family, the wobbly, sand-covered streets of Dakar are alive with Tamxarit preparations. The women of my family, who run a restaurant at night, are already buzzing in the common-area-turned-kitchen with the smell of Tamxarit cere. My mother invites me to sit, so I do. And now I’m here, observing the magical workings of my five sisters and my mom from a plastic chair, literally surrounded by gigantic vats of cere steaming over gas burners and even larger vats of cere sauce boiling and bubbling over as my sister drops in bowls of cassava, carrots, cabbage, other vegetables I can’t remember the names of, large chunks of meat, and the ever-present Maggi. The sauce is dark red and oily, and my mother makes sure I come over to see how good it smells, how pretty its color is (rafet na?). And I sit and watch and smell and hear the cere (my nephew is off to the side, playing one of his favorite Wolof songs. The repeated lyrics are may ma cere, which literally translates to “offer me couscous”). I live the cere.

We finish past 7 o’clock, and I am tired and hungry and amazed. The food my family spent all day preparing disappears in large platters, making its way throughout Yoff in the hands of my sisters. Other families will celebrate Tamxarit with dinner from our kitchen. Still with several hours before I can eat, I sit on the mat with my family as they enjoy an early dinner. Although hungry, I am satisfied.

At 10 o’clock, my sister helps me prepare a plate of my own, and I finally get to share in the cere I watched cooking for over six hours. It is just as filling and delicious as I had hoped—even more so, having seen it cooked. And hopefully, an ocean away, in the Pennsylvania home where my family congregates every Yom Kippur to break our fasts together, my family broke their fasts as happily and as hungrily as I did.