I wrote a two-part series at Lilith Magazine about Jewish women who do not fast on Yom Kippur because of eating disorders and/or painful scars from abuse.
Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Naomi Malka was busy. The High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, she was preparing for a 6PM service for five thousand people and had no time to eat. For most people who observe this holiday – which, according to the Guttman Center, is the majority of Jews – the 25 hour fast is hard enough. But to start the fast already on an empty stomach and to be running around organizing and working, that is bordering on painful. But for Naomi, the challenge was even more extreme: she is also a recovering bulimic.
“My fast started without thinking about it, but by 4:30 or 5:00 the next day, I was in the room where we set up for the security guards and people not fasting, and I was in there stuffing my face,” she recalled painfully. “Imagine, it was Yom Kippur, and I was so embarrassed and humiliated and I was crying. It was a manifestation of so much stress. And then I went and threw up in the synagogue on Yom Kippur! It was just awful and I was so ashamed about it for weeks after. And that’s when I realized, I can’t fast. I can’t be healing from an eating disorder and fast as a Jew. Those two things just don’t work for me.”
Jews are taught that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. It is called in the Torah, “The Sabbath of the Sabbaths,” the day when Israelites connect with their Creator rebirth their souls through fasting and praying. But for some people, the day brings on swarms of difficult feelings – dread, trauma, shame and guilt – along with severe risk of self-harm. The idea of fasting for a whole day triggers symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating – not necessarily the same thing – and can send people into downward spirals and unraveling.
“Food’s distinct role in Orthodox Judaism makes it a prime vehicle for playing out unspoken conflicts and confusion,” Dr. Caryn Gorden, an expert in eating disorders in the Jewish community, writes in Psychology Today. “The religious regulations that demand strict observance can serve as scaffolding for the rigidity, control and deprivation characterizing restrictive anorectic eating,” as well as other disordered eating such as bulimia and compulsive eating.
Indeed, Naomi Malka is not alone. I spoke with a dozen women from different Jewish communities around the world, many of whom were not ready to go public with their stories, about their decisions not to fast on Yom Kippur. Although a 1995 study found that 1 in 19 Orthodox Jewish women suffer from eating disorders—twice the number as the American community generally—the topic is still shrouded in shame and secrecy, keeping precise statistics difficult to obtain.
“Shirley,” a 27-year-old formerly Orthodox woman living in Jerusalem, told me that she has chosen to stop fasting on Yom Kippur because it “reminds me of when I was trying to diet and trying to be thin to make myself accepted and I would starve myself. The feeling of starving on fasts can trigger me to possible suicide. That’s how strong my body image shameful past is.”
Many women struggling with traumas around food and body shaming have stopped fasting on Yom Kippur. Cognitive behavioral psychologist Aliza Levitt, a specialist in eating disorders, says that for many women food is like a drug. “Like with any other drug, you can’t just take food away. It is a matter of life and death. Eating disorders have a high mortality rate, and you have to take that into account.”
But it’s more than that. The trauma of food triggered by Yom Kippur reflects a deeper problem in Jewish culture when it comes to food. The overemphasis on food in excess in Jewish life—so often served by women—combined with family surroundings in which body commentary is the norm, can launch different painful relationships with food and body.
One key aspect of Jewish culture that disorders women’s relationships with their/our bodies is the expectation of feeding, serving, and managing everyone’s appetites. “As a mother and a wife. There is an expectation that I will put food on the table. And that is really hard for me. To be so engaged with food,” says Naomi Malka. Malka is High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. She is also a recovering bulimic.
Shabbat meals are often a place where many eating disorders take shape. “Lisa”, a woman interviewed for this article who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers: “All these meals, the abundance of food, you make tons of dishes, and then you sit around and eat all this food, and you just sit and grab, and the longer you sit the more you grab.” The emphasis on sitting around for hours on Shabbat and holidays, surrounded by copious amounts of food, is a risk factor for Jewish women, according to eating disorder specialist Tanya Berg. In an article for National Eating Disorders, she writes, “Preoccupations with food can exacerbate eating disorder issues for those who struggle. Eating disorder thoughts and pressures tend to be stronger during holiday times. The individual might ’save‘ her calories during the week in order to indulge at the Shabbat or holiday meal, however, this usually leads to either bingeing or further restricting, due to the intense fear of overeating. Those who struggle may begin to omit traditional Shabbat foods, or participate but purge later.”
“We don’t expect men who struggle with alcohol addiction to serve drinks for two hours every evening, but we give no thought to assigning at least two hours a night of food preparation (plus 17 holidays, 52 Shabbats and numerous life cycle events each year) to women who struggle with disordered eating behaviors and/or obesity,” eating-disorders consultant Dr. Marjorie Feinson said at a conference of the Renfrew Center on eating disorders in the Jewish community. The Renfrew Center has a program specifically designed for Orthodox Jewish girls.
The language of discipline, control and will power can forge unhealthy relationships with one’s body. In that sense, kosher rules can exacerbate the issue. As Kate Bigam writes at Jewish Women’s Archive, although many women are fine with kosher restrictions, “for others, orthodoxy offers the perfect guise under which to develop anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other serious disorders.” She explains that “because Orthodox Judaism enforces a litany of rigid food rules and restrictions – no mixing meat and dairy, a bevy of off-limits foods and brands – Orthodox women who keep strict kosher learn from an early age to resist temptation and adhere to stringent meal guidelines. For the sake of religiosity, they become experts at saying no to foods that might otherwise appeal to them – and in some cases, such as on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av, to saying no to food, period.”
What distinguishes eating disorders among religious women are factors such as, “the mixed and contradictory obligations embedded in the religion, the importance of food, the significance of family and the shidduch (matchmaking) phenomenon,” writes Dr. Caryn Gorden, an expert in eating disorders in the Jewish community, in Psychology Today, “as well as incompatible demands to observe a traditional, spiritual way of life, while functioning in a modern, secular world.”
Religious women have multiple expectations around them—to be thin yet covered, to have large families, with pregnancies in quick succession, to serve tons of food but not eat too much. Dr. Gorden writes, “There are laws dictating the modest clothing women are permitted to wear, married women must cover their hair when in public, and women are allowed only limited contact with men, including their husbands. The observant female’s attempt to reconcile these contradictory imperatives can catalyze the body shame and sexual discomfort that often underlie eating disorders.”
The Shabbat table was also a place of trauma for “Hannah,” a 42-year-old autistic mother of three who has severe food allergies. She told me that she is triggered by “memories of years of fasting.” She spent her childhood “being beaten at the family meal table for refusing to swallow and gagging basic foods.”