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Why Having Anorexia as a Reform Jew Meant a World Filled With Contradictions

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

When I was 14, I was told there was no way I could have an eating disorder because “Jewish people love food too much.”

I thought to myself, “how could I have an eating disorder when food is the centerpiece of every holiday’s table?”

“They tried to kill us, but we survived, so let’s eat” was our mantra, yet all I felt was that I was struggling to survive, I didn’t know why, and my brain was still telling me not to eat even though it would kill me and alienate me from the community.

I was told to remember that my ancestors suffered; I couldn’t even comprehend it because I was suffering so badly myself. I was told, though, that it was not bad enough and I should feel guilty because I had ancestors who died of starvation and here I was with access to food and I couldn’t get myself to eat.

At that moment, I felt as if my identity was being split in half. I came to terms that I would have to live in two different worlds forever. I had my Jewish world and my eating disorder, and the two could never collide. I felt too much shame to tell my Jewish community I had an eating disorder because then, what would they think? Self-harm is a sin according to the Torah, but starvation is willpower on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. So, how could I explain anorexia nervosa to my congregation?

My worlds crashed eventually. I had to tell my Rabbi I was leaving confirmation class to enter treatment and leave behind the youth group into which I put so much time and effort, even though I could barely concentrate on the event itself. When I entered treatment, I realized it was complicated to be a Jewish person in treatment — especially a progressive, Reform Jewish person — because I felt different than everyone else. I was a minority but not “Jewish enough.” I was told “just don’t keep the Passover” (which means not eating any leavened bread) by my doctor, and then told “keeping the Passover is a Mitzvah” and it demonstrates “willpower” by my family.

My world was filled with contradictions. My eating disorder would quickly hijack Judaism into seeing not eating as a Mitzvah. Eating carbs is frowned upon at all parts of the year, and this one week of cutting out bread turned into seeing bread and crying for months because my brain convinced me it was still a sin. It was the continual conflict of every holiday. Every holiday brought the shame of not being able to celebrate the holidays “correctly” because I had an eating disorder. I was exempt from the “fasting” traditions but felt pressured to it anyway because I was so scared of not being “Jewish enough.”

Just as my eating disorder convinced me I was not “thin enough” or “sick enough,” being Reform meant other Jewish clients convincing me I wasn’t “Jewish enough,” and in turn, my eating disorder telling me I had to prove my Judaism exactly like my sickness: by restricting and exercising. I thought if I just “used” my eating disorder enough, I would not be ridden with the guilt that comes from the different sects of Judaism.

I discovered I couldn’t run away from this feeling and would not be ridden from the guilt, even if I was given exemption from the rabbi because it wasn’t about that. In fact, it had to do with my self-esteem and less to do about Judaism. In treatment, I met someone who was Orthodox Jewish, and she was considered the “Jewish one” and more “Jewish” by other clients and staff because she refused to eat the shrimp meal when I was OK with it, and because I didn’t wear a skirt over my leggings. I felt obligated to keep kosher like her, not even because I believed in it but because our eating disorders found common ground to compete over some form of restriction. I had to avoid the feeling of being “less than” at any cost and that meant proving my Judaism. The thing about eating disorders is, it makes me do things I normally wouldn’t do and do things I don’t even believe in, whether that is lying to my friends and family, sacrificing my own health due to the immense pressure I felt from myself, and my eating disorder‘s values and diet culture’s values of Judaism, which intensifies the urges to cut out carbs and glorifies fasting.

Fasting wasn’t Judaism to me until I had an eating disorder. I never resonated with the idea of fitting in with a “tribe,” per se. Growing up, I was not raised believing that being Jewish was restricting food for the kosher laws and dressing a different way. Judaism was singing the bedtime prayer at overnight camp with my friends. Judaism was learning a new Hebrew word. Judaism was fun and being part of a community. Judaism was where I felt safe to be myself. That is until I had an eating disorder. It hijacked every Jewish law and took it for its own advantage. All of a sudden, I found myself fasting for holidays I had never fasted for before because it was another excuse not to eat. My eating disorder somehow convinced me today I would gain more weight than any other day if I ate, since I was violating my “heritage” because there were people who are more Jewish than I am.

Eventually, I got so far away from my Jewish values that I missed out on the joy of youth group and eating s’mores at night with my campers on Shabbat because I was afraid of food and convinced myself I was doing it for my Judaism.

However, I found my way back. This year, I realized the freedom of Passover was not really about restricting bread and remembering the suffering. It was listening to my body and truly making this year different from all other years. It was celebrating freedom because my ancestors did not get the opportunity to. It was the complete opposite of everything that my eating disorder said Judaism was. The youth group was not supposed to be spent crying over food instead of saying goodbye to my friends. I used Yom Kippur to apologize to everyone I hurt during my eating disorder, as Yom Kippur is about atonement and writing a new narrative, not starvation. I used Passover to have the freedom to eat food I normally wouldn’t eat instead of cutting out food. I strove for food freedom, not food removal.

I wrote this piece to describe a community within the recovery community: the complications of being Jewish and having an eating disorder. The conundrum of not being able to celebrate the holiday the way my Jewish friends celebrate it, the recovery community telling me to prioritize my recovery and the Jewish community telling me fasting makes me part of some “tribe.” This is when I realized I had to use my Judaism and write my own version of what the holidays mean to me. I had to realize on my own that Judaism is about picking and choosing and whatever I wanted to make it. I know this is an extremely controversial opinion, but that’s what Judaism means to me. Reform Judaism is about writing your own path, discovering who I am and what religion means outside of all these laws.

Photo by Vadym Lebedych on Unsplash

Originally published: April 14, 2020
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