By Mitali Desai
Originally published on Jewish Women's Archive, October 2, 2016
The idea of community is of central importance to Jews, especially in light of historical persecution and geographic isolation. As Jews, we pray together, rejoice together, and mourn together. We have survived together. Community offers an innate sense of kinship, belonging, and support.
When do we prioritize individual liberties and when do we prioritize the common good? What does the individual owe the community, and vice versa? Rabbinic texts consider many different scenarios where the individual and the communal must be negotiated. These scenarios often involve property, marriage, and religious observance; one issue that is not brought to light, given the antiquity of these texts, is mental health. While there are many stereotypes(and some studies) about the prevalence of anxiety and neuroticism among Jews, the most deadly mental illness often goes undiscussed. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and other eating disorders like bulimia are also often fatal. Currently, doctors screen for eating disorders by asking the following questions:
Eating disorders occur across cultures, but the last question holds special relevance when thinking about this mental-health epidemic in relation to Jewish life, especially when one considers our emphasis on community. Culturally, food holds special meaning to Jewish communities. Life cycle events such as birth, b’nai mitzvot, marriage, and death are all acknowledged with an abundance of food. We can all summon an image of the over-zealous mother or bubbe pleading with us to take another piece, finish what’s on our plate, and of course asking, “is that reallyyyy all you’re going to eat?” This intense (and public) pressure to regularly stuff your face may be tied to the historic food insecurity of the Jewish people, particularly during the Holocaust, but it can be deeply uncomfortable for someone who is struggling to gain control over their eating.
The laws of Kashrut create a certain fastidiousness around food that can mask or enable an eating disorder. Certain foods relate to spirituality and values: apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, the Seder plate offerings, challah on Shabbat. The absence of food, too, is deeply meaningful. During fast days, we abstain from food to mourn, to purify ourselves and, during Yom Kippur, to absolve ourselves of wrongdoing. Attaching moral gravity to food-related rituals as justification for not eating, or bingeing and purging, is a difficult behavior to unlearn on its own and becomes all the more difficult when reinforced by religious practice.
The ritual and cultural weight placed on food and eating is coupled with societal expectations about female thinness and for some ultra-Orthodox women, extra pressure from a young age to look appealing to suitors. Not all of the reasons people develop eating disorders have to do with Jewish social standards; the omnipresent body talk that exists for people of all backgrounds can exacerbate dissatisfaction with one’s body.
The holiday season is often especially emotionally strenuous for people with eating disorders, and can be extremely triggering. Pressure to eat or fast communally can make you feel trapped, while receiving unsolicited feedback about your body from family members. Recovery from an eating disorder requires a level of quiet introspection and the cultivation of self-acceptance, both of which can be extra difficult to achieve when our inner voices are being drowned out by the din and clatter of communal life. Practicing self-care during times of togetherness can be particularly challenging for women, who in general are responsible for domestic labor during holidays and are not unfamiliar with self-sacrifice for the sake of their families.
While stigma surrounding mental health is slowly but surely decreasing, coming forward and getting help with an eating disorder can still feel terrifying. This fall, when we greet family members we have not seen in a long time–especially our female relatives–let us comment not on their physiques, but on their accomplishments at work or school. Let us make a collective effort to refrain from commenting on other people’s food choices when we sit down for dinner. Let us respect each other’s decisions when it comes to fasting. Even as we come together as a united community, let us remember that everyone has a unique relationship with their body and food and thus, everyone has unique needs. As we go to our synagogues to reflect and rejoice, let us know that all of our bodies are temples in their own right, and let us help each other nurture them.
Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community
Kosher Diets and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community
Hungry to Be Heard