Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Yom Kippur for the Disordered Eater
Let's start with this:

Jewish culture, especially in the United States, fosters eating disorders. That's right, I said it.

A few studies have been done that were fairly inconclusive but I'm not advocating more. It's enough that therapists and treatment centers are indicating that a higher percentage of their clients are Jewish. I don't think any more money needs to be spent on seeing how many more.

Reasons? Anyone? Bernbaum? Bergenfeld? Anyone?

First off, there is a disproportionate emphasis placed upon food in the Jewish community

Food is central in our celebrations of Pesach, Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Purim, Shavuot and on and on. Not to mention lifecycle events such as births, bnai mitzvot and sitting shiva.

For anyone with an eating disorder, these times, instead of being occasions for celebration, are painful reminders of the struggle going on within. Rather than being a happy tradition and symbolic of our relationship with Judaism, food is an instrument of self-destruction.

Then there are the fasts. The absence of food.

Contrary to popular belief, the point of fasting is not to make the entirety of the Jewish people suffer for a day in September.

However, a thread through the theme of Yom Kippur and the fasting ritual is purity. According to this logic, fasting brings us closer to spiritual and physical purity.

This is a dangerous road for those of us with an eating disorder because we believe this is true with every fiber of our being.

Therefore, if I feel "dirty", "bad" or "impure", the long tradition that Judaism has between purifying the soul and denying the body food, drink or any pleasure feeds the eating disordered brain.

Fasting is a relatively frequent ritual. There are two major fasts. Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av. Then there are 5 minor fast days on the Jewish calendar.

In some Jewish communities, it is customary for a bride and groom to fast on their wedding day before the ceremony. The additional fast days, plus family-instituted fasts and communal fasts to ward off impending danger or to ask for mercy and personal fasts for repentance makes for a good week of fasting and more (nothing compared to Ramadan, but I digress).

Judaism is mired in rules for eating and kashrut is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rules of when to eat and not eat, what foods are "safe" and "unsafe" are key components of an eating disorder. Keeping kosher can "feed" into this obsession.

This year a mob of articles has appeared on the internet warning about Yom Kippur and eating disorders.

Not one of them mentioned the core issue, in my eyes. This is the mixed message that Jewish girls get about food.

"Eat, eat! But don't get fat."

"Try Grandma's kugel - and aren't you looking a zaftig this year?"

"You look fabulous! How much weight have you lost? You've got to eat more. You're too skinny!"

Some of these messages are habit, traditions passed down from bubbe to bubbe. Others are envy from mothers to daughters and aunts to nieces.

As an adult, I'm much better at understanding where they originate. However, as a 12 year old, I wasn't. All I knew was that I had to be thin. I knew that in my families eyes, thin was lovable and fat wasn't.

After all, all of the women in my family hated themselves if they were the slightest bit over some ideal barely attainable weight. The fasting that went on (or was said to go on) following a holiday where brisket and honey soaked apples and schmaltz-laden matzah balls were consumed was epic.

"I'm not going to eat again today after this!"

"Again today? I'm not going to eat for a week!"

"I think I'm not going to be able to eat until next Chanukkah!"

Those who were Jewish sylphs were revered, envied and talked about behind their backs.

"She's starving herself. It won't last long."

I didn't starve. I did what I was supposed to. I ate. And ate. And ate.

And then I threw it all up to punish myself for the sin of gluttony I was committing. For the pain of feeling out of control. For the starvation of others I was trying to be mindful of. For ruining the body that was supposed to be perfect and easily maintained.

I don't fast anymore. I don't do a lot of things anymore. I am desperately trying to learn how not to punish my body for my so-called sins and how not to see food/fasting as punishment, reward, purity and spiritual superiority.

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Blogger MonkeyGurrrrrl said...

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Blogger MonkeyGurrrrrl said...

I dunno; that conclusion seems kinda annecdotal. I can tell you, the Catholic religion has a LOT of food issues as well (Body of christ, anyone? How 'bout some wine? Don't even get me started on Lent and self-flagellation.)

Also, do the clients self-identify as being Jewish? Are they observant? I think there may be more Jews in therapy because its more acceptable to go. Also, perhaps they're more in a position to afford it (y'know, cuz y'all are the Chosen People and everything.)

Whatever, if it helps you understand why *you* were affected a certain way, then cool.

Blogger Faith said...

MG - I'm definitely not saying that Judaism has the corner on EDs, nor am I saying that other cultures don't have an equally large percentage of eating disordered individuals. I'm saying that this particular cultural obsession with food, weight and competition can be really damaging - just as others can.


Blogger goodmamajama said...

The enmeshment that exists in many jewish families also perpetuates eating disorders. This enmeshment is not uncommon among disenfranchised, refugee and/or traumatized populations. The disordered eating, body image, control issues are nonverbal ways of establishing separateness from the family. Healthy goal, unhealthy path to that goal.

Blogger dale-harriet said...

There are two reasons so many Jews go to therapy: either they're nuts (being the offspring of seriously-skillful guilt-vendors) OR...they're visiting Cousin Maurie because it looks so good if he has a lot of patients. You're right about the whole fasting thing, but as I understand it, any sidewise affect of health makes it a SIN to *fast*. (Pregnancy, illness, OLD AGE - and ent THAT open to interpretation!) Myself, I'm an ethnic Jewish pagan heathen of the slightly naturist pantheistic persuasion. I do almost NOTHING on Yom Kippur and I DO fast - when I worked I did it for the sheer dramatic effect on my goyesha colleagues; now I do it so that I don't hear a knock on the door and see my father (of blessed since 1963) standing on the doorstep saying "DaleHARRIET???"

Blogger CEM Guru said...

Seems like being a garden variety American is more loaded with issues than Judaism. Supersized this and that and ads for food everywhere. The new celebrity of Chefs and glamorization of food and cooking.
It is not unique to Judaism, Cristmas and Thanksgiving dinner?
Many cultures, religions and spiritual seekers fast from time to time.
Cultural obsessions with food?
Have you been to Europe? France, Italy, Greece?
They are all eatin' fools, God bless em!
The more important issue/question is what are we feeding when we eat?

Having gained and lost close to 40 pounds several times, I believe it is not what is "out there" that is the problem but my relationship to it was the problem.
Casting the blame on the culture seems kind of like some religious extremests (to me they are extreme)
who believe women should cover up so as not to tempt men's urges.
While dressing like hoochie is a bad move in my opinion unless that is all you want to be seen as, is it not the man's responsability to control his urges?
Kashrute (sp) well that is another story and I could never subscibe to it. Maybe it made some kind of sense before refridgeration. Maybe the "order" is like a meditation to theose who observe it.
That, I would agree with you is an obsession.

Blogger J. said...

Eating disorders are driven by societal crap like Vogue magazine. They don't have eating disorders in the Sudan! Or yeah, they do - they're hungry. So, ignore societal crap, stay away from your mean mixed messaged family, EAT FOODS THAT YOU LIKE and don't throw up. And tell your family that they're zaftig or whatever. Get them confused - svelte one week - zaftig the next. They will be eating sunflower seeds and then sometimes chocolate layer cake. And throwing up is really gross, come to that realization and don't do it. Misogyny is everywhere. You don't have to employ it against yourself.

Blogger Faith said...

Dear J. I hope you read this.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Contrary to popular belief among those outside of the mental health community, anorexia and bulimia are not attention seeking issues among petulant teenagers. Eating disorders have been around a lot longer than there was food to excess or Vogue or supermodels and they do exist in places with a scarcity of food.

As a feminist (and it sounds like you are one), I hope you will do a bit more research on eating disorders before commenting on another blog and giving advice.

Thank you.

Blogger J. said...

Nah, I don't see *present* day eating disorders(like anorexia and bulimia) as a mental illness, even if they make it into the DSM book. Or at least not an organic mental illness - where the brain is at fault. It's more of a manipulated illness by the societal forces at large. This society sucks for women and women buy into the idea of thinness(especially if you're in NYC or L.A. - I would imagine) as some sort of panacea for a better life, because basically you're told that subliminally and not so subliminally everywhere you look. Yeah, it can make you *crazy* after awhile if you are always trying for some unobtainable goal - but that's with everything - not only food.

Thanks for thinking I'm a feminist. I wish that I was one. That would be cool.

Blogger ksara said...

Some of your points are sooo true!
My family was like that.. eat! eat! eat! you're too skinny.. but wait.. now you've gone too far. Cut back a bit will ya?

I fast on yom kippur because I choose to. I don't have an eating disorder and I want to feel what it's like for others in the world who live in scarsity. Plus for me, fasting for over 25 hours is such a drastic thing to do that it separates this day for me from other days. It allows me to have one special day of deprivation which makes the rest of the year feel a little more rich. It's like a contrast thing. Like sweet tastes better with bitter coffee. or hot fudge tastes better on cold ice cream. Well eating for the rest of the year tastes better after fasting for a day.

Maybe this is just my way of justifying "wanting" to fast. It is actuyally a spiritual thing for me. even if I don't refrain from TV or phones.

But I agree. If you choose not to do it because you don't believe in it, that's great! Why would anyone do something unmeaningful or something that they felt was harmful to them in their specific circumstance.

I think the only reason I don't have an eating disorder is because my Jewish family was not so traditional and threw me out at a young age, therefore allowing me to develop a healthy relationship with food. Whereas my siblings were at the mercy of Bubby and she showed them love in her own special way. By feeding them insana amouts of food.

So you have a very valid point about the traditional jewish family's attitude towards food, however that is tradition and not the spiritual essence of Yom Kippur. I'm sure and logical spiritual person would completely forbid people with eating disorders from fasting... Absolutely..

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