Good Roman Catholics go to confession, owning up to their sins and seeking forgiveness, at regular intervals. We Jews do it differently. Every year, we observe Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar), by fasting for 25 hours and spending that entire time in contemplation of our sins. This is the climax of a 10-day period of repentance which begins with the Jewish New Year.
I think I am allowed to say that this is a typically Jewish approach to the question of right and wrong: we even like to get our repentance wholesale. Yom Kippur starts at nightfall this Friday and while I am not in the least religious - actually, I am barely Jew-ish (itals) - I like to think I have a spiritual dimension, and, for the first time since I was 13, I am going to observe the strictures of Yom Kippur and will use the time for a little self-reflection. I don't know whether I'll be able to squeeze all my atonement into a day, but I'm prepared to give it a go.
Curiously, the Talmud, the prescriptive text of Jewish law, says that Yom Kippur is a day to lift the spirits. This idea recognises the sense of achievement that the day engenders - the honesty required to confront our demons, the bravery needed to change our ways, and the resolution we must show to abstain from eating for a day.
In truth, it wouldn't do any of us any harm to fast completely for a day - maybe it could start a new trend: the J-Plan Diet - and, in any case, the rigour of Yom Kippur is ended with a celebratory dinner. It's less a case of stick and carrot, more stick and chopped liver, chicken soup and roast chicken. The idea of denial and reward is something I, a non-smoker and non-drinker, have been thinking about recently, and this concept was further brought to the fore by one of my great heroes, Leonard Cohen (the clue's in the name).
Currently in Britain in the midst of a seemingly never-ending world tour, Cohen, 79 years old, told his audience in Birmingham that he intends to take up smoking again when he hits his 80th birthday. "It's been a long, barren time. I think it's the right age to recommence," he said. "A nurse would come on to the stage with a silver tray. On that tray would be an open pack of cigarettes - the little cylinders gleaming like the pillars of a great temple." Oh, Leonard. You can even be poetic when you're talking about 20 Marlboro Lights. "Then I'd take my first drag," he continued, "and I'd feel extremely relaxed and I'd be able to review some of the disasters of my shabby past, especially my relationship with a certain woman I regret having disappointed."
Cohen, evidently, doesn't need the Jewish calendar to prescribe when he should seek atonement. And good luck to him when he takes up the fags again. Will he actually do it? I've got a feeling he might put it off until he's, say, 85. You can't look forward to the carrot if you eat it.