By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement. Along with my family, I used to fast, on this holy day, to expiate my sins, to assure that God would mercifully grant me yet one more year, during which, along with my family, I might sit every night before the TV, eating enough fruit and cookies to feed the whole block.
God was merciful. I lived, to sin again, and to eat again, and soon, like the rest of my family, I was fat. Not husky, or heavy set. None of the sympathetic adjectives, unguent for the ego’s tender skin, evoke the same awful associations as that incredibly lean and specific description. Fat. Which is to say unwholesome. Which is to say ugly. Which is to say profoundly, ridiculously, and irrevocably alienated from the rest of the crowd.
But enough. No need, now, to recall those bitter years, the round of dieting and gorging,the depressingly predictable yin and yang of self-congratulation and self-loathing. I am at home in the crowd. I am fat no more. And without appetite for such memories.
But today is Yom Kippur. And the flesh that clings to these bones is Jewish still. Not in any formal sense. I don’t go to synagogue. Or study the Law. But the God of the Old Testament, the God of vengeance and swift retribution, I still watch from the corner of my eye. Tonight, as I walked into Dunkin Donuts, I imagined he was looking over my shoulder, frowning. I count calories no more, but vitamins instead, and worry myself to death over my health: to follow the nutritionists who say, No sugar, or, by indulging my sweet tooth, so betray my body? To refuse meat, under any circumstances, or, on the premise that everything is alive, anyway, accept what is lovingly offered? Brown rice,the mucusless diet, fruit juice fasts — in this karmic arena, for each lion slayed, ten leap up, each hungering for my immortal soul. And still the nagging notion that the perfect diet exists, and if only I were perfect enough, I might discover it.
Of course, God help me, I don’t for a moment truly believe it.
Because the perfect diet, like all our fictions — the perfect government, the perfect romance, the perfect Me — is gloriously impossible and, in fact, gloriously unnecessary. If God (not the patriarchal monarch, ruling from the throne, but the God that writes, as well as reads, these words) is equally present in everything, then whatever we eat is as holy as anything else. And health becomes as much a measure of a mind unpoisoned by sanctimoniousness as a body unpoisoned by chemicals, meat, and white sugar. Everything is alive; so whatever we eat is a living sacrifice, plants no less than animals.
J. D. Salinger, describing a youngster drinking milk, said it was like pouring God into God. Certainly we may, intelligently and compassionately, choose one food rather than another. It’s up to everyone to weigh his taste for flesh against the right of animals (other animals) to share this earth with us. But, as a friend reminds me, it’s better to eat meat than to tell someone else not to.
Perhaps the greatest sin, notwithstanding the horrors of the slaughterhouse, is that moral carnivorousness that draws lines, sets unflinching standards, and stands in judgement of imperfectly perfect human beings. Such a mean and frugal banquet — of diets and miracle prescriptions, impossible do’s and don’t’s, and of the rudest self-punishment, advertised as discipline.
Let’s push away from this sorry table, friends. My Yom Kippur prayer: that we learn to shut our minds, along with our mouths, and eat goodly of that which is good, which is everything.