Eating Disorders and Jews: A personal and communal reaction

There has been a lot of press in the past few months about Eating Disorders and the Orthodox Jewish  community, culminating with an article in the New York Times yesterday which was shared with me by numerous friends: In Orthodox Jewish Enclaves, an Alarm Sounds Over Eating Disorders.

I realized after reading that article, I could not put off this post (which I started in January, edited in March and am now finally finishing) any further.

Before I really say what I need to, I need to make a very important point which the NYT article touched on but many of its predeccsors (including in the Forward and Washington Post) did not: anorexia is the most lethal mental illness.  It has the highest death rate (at least as of the last time I looked at the data) because the disease itself can kill you.  We cannot treat it lightly and discuss it as though it is not a serious problem, not only for the communities which can be affected – but for every individual suffering through this horrible disease.  It is not only prevalent in Orthodox circles and we need to look at how Jewish traditions across the board affect someone who is struggling with anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over eating, disordered eating and/or body image issues.

  • Many Jewish celebrations, including Shabbat, holidays, and life cycle rituals are surrounded by food. We get together as community either eating large meals or fasting (and eating large meals before and after).
  • Jewish outreach events for teens and young adults are always centered around food. “Pizza in the Hut” at Sukkot is common on college campuses across the USA.  What youth group convention would be complete without a late night dessert party, or a young adult event with cocktails?
  • We eat apples and honey at Rosh Hashana, latkes and jelly doughnuts on Chanukah, four types of fruits on Tu B’Shvat, hamentaschen on Purim, and matzah for the entire week on Passover.
  • Not to mention kashrut. An entire set of complex laws about what we, as Jews, can and cannot eat.
  • And of course there are Jewish mothers and grandmothers who usher us to the table telling us to eat while kvelling over how thin we are.

Lets focus on kashrut for a moment because many of the articles published in mainstream media have chosen to. While they have addressed that the rigors of kashrut can be a launching point for some, I am here to tell you that it can also provide a structured way of eating which can actually be a benefit to those with disordered eating.  It can provide a healthy way to control one’s food intake, rather than unhealthy version.  I know this personally, as I am a recovered Anorexic (though I hate that phrase) and kashrut helped to save my life.

I was diagnosed with anorexia in the spring of my senior year of college, though I started my restrictive eating behaviors before I was the age of bat mitzvah. When I began my graduate social work education, I was on the way to recovery and a more observant lifestyle, so as I embraced kashrut it felt good.  I finally had a way to control my eating in a constructive way.  Rather than eating only a powerbar and a bottle of water with lemon all day, I could eat small but balanced meals according to halacha (Jewish law).  While recovery was still a huge battle and one I continue to fight every day of my life (including through the medical issues so many years of malnourishment left me with), having a strong community and a set of laws about food was instrumental in my success.

I think that while it is good to understand some of the nuances in our community which factor into the difficulties women may face, the better portion of our energy on this needs to be on removing the stigma and empowering women to get help to live a healthy life, to see our bodies as the sacred spaces they are, and to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies. We need more resources and more people willing to open up and step up. I hope this is just the beginning of the conversation, because there is still so much to be said and so much to learn as we struggle to shift our communal response.

Have you struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating? How can we help you, your loved ones, and/or your community? (Feel free to post anonymously or to email me directly if you aren’t yet ready to speak out publicly but are open to some support.)


13 thoughts on “Eating Disorders and Jews: A personal and communal reaction

  1. Melissa, kol-hakavod for sharing something so personal in the hopes it will be of help to others similarly struggling and/or recovering with anorexia.

    The very recognition that there are some battles in life that may have to be waged for as long as we live is already half the key to personal liberation.

    Day by day getting stronger from whatever challenges (i.e. opportunities for growth) life presents.

    Yetzias Mitzraim, leaving our own personal restraints, a daily process. This is a most timely Pesach post 🙂

  2. This really sticks out to me: “I know this personally, as I am a recovered Anorexic (though I hate that phrase) and kashrut helped to save my life.”

    There are so many better ways to say that, I agree, saying “a recovered Anorexic” really irks me. You are a survivor of anorexia, you have recovered from anorexia, you struggled with anorexia, so many other ways to say it. Anorexia is an illness, you are a person, a Jewish woman, a wife, a daughter, etc.

    Thank you for posting this 🙂 I just read the article today and it really struck a chord.

  3. Thank you so much for posting your story! I posted mine a few days ago and was overwhelmed with the responses I received, especially from my old High School friends. I definitely would be willing to join you in speaking about ED, especially to the young, Orthodox crowd. Kol HaKavod again!

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  5. Hi Melissa, I was forwarded this blog posting by a friend who knew I would be interested in the topic. Thank you for sharing your personal story and for bringing this subject the attention it deserves.

    I myself am not frum, but I have a lot of observant friends and I particpate in many spiritual events with them. As a person who struggles with disordered eating (compulsive overeating), I can clearly see how the current food culture of observant Jews could be, well, a nightmare for someone with an eating disorder. I have witnessed constant bombardment with highly addictive foods (sweets and animal based foods) and a serious lack of nutrient dense foods (greens like kale, collard, bok choy, lettuces of all variety, broccoli, cauliflower, all other vegetables, fruit of all variety and real, true whole grains). Challah is a form of cake. It should be called cake, “Here, have some cake before dinner.”

    Really, it’s no different than most Americans who are eating the Standard American Diet which is high in sugar, fat, salt and processed food and practically devoid of nutrients. It’s hard in these food environmnents to have a healthy relationship with food.

    Food can be celebrated. But, in my opinion, we should celebrate the foods that are worth celebrating.

    • Thanks Wendy, I really appreciate your feedback and couldn’t agree more with your last statement.
      (Oh, and stay tuned for the upcoming post with my Rosh Hashana drash, I think you’ll like some of the points I made!)

  6. Hi Melissa.
    I am recovering from anorexia and I am very pleased to have read your article. I have noticed a much higher proportion of us jewish girls suffering form eating disorders, especially anorexia, than non-jewish girls. I know so many who have struggled. I have always wondered why this is and your article given me a better idea of the causes of this in the jewish community. I totally agree with all you have said about the mixed messages especially. The whole eating and fasting thing in judaism could definitely be considered to play a part in this. I have always been intimidated by big saturday lunches and even Challah. Thank you for writing such an inspiring article about this issue.

    • Thank you for taking a moment to share your experience as well. I feel like we (as survivors of this horrible disease) must speak up in order for people to ever be willing to speak about their struggles.

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