Jewfem Blog

Women choosing not to fast on Yom Kippur

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.  Part 1:  Choosing Not to Fast: Eating Disorders and Yom Kippur   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...

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My feminist struggles with Yom Kippur

“I always say I’m sorry when I’ve hurt someone,” a man told me proudly in a recent conversation, a reflection that seemed appropriate in advance of Yom Kippur, which is so focused on repentance. “It’s the most important thing,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye with a mixture of impassioned education and nuanced reprimand. He is right, of course. And this is the season, I suppose, for all that — for remorse, apologies and open hearts. There is something beautiful and tender about all this, as members of the Jewish community engage in genuine and sincere introspection. Still, I looked at this man, an Orthodox leader who is esteemed in his community and has a regular spot on the podium and the bima to speak or lead services, and thought to myself, “You never apologized to me.” Like all Orthodox men who are so easily counted and heeded, who have a voice and a place and are free to participate in the community practically any way that their hearts desire, he has never asked for forgiveness from the women and girls in his community, the ones who sit upstairs behind glass, or in the back behind the curtain, desperate for even a glimpse of the activity in the sanctuary. I have never heard an apology like that from an Orthodox man. I have never heard of a rabbi get up in shul and say, “On behalf of all the privileged men, I’m sorry to all the women for all the silent suffering that you have endured for so many generations as the community stripped you of your voice and your power.” I realize that this is a very un-Yom Kippur-like thought for me to have; so much ego, so much wanting, so much self-centeredness. A proper Yom Kippur reaction would have been more self-effacing, and magnanimous, more embracing and accepting, more gracious and grateful. That’s what women — especially Orthodox women — are so well-trained in doing, not only on Yom Kippur but all year round. We are taught to put our own egos aside for the sake of the collective, to ask for little if anything for ourselves, to not want so much but to just do for others. To even think that perhaps men should apologize to women sounds so, well, unfeminine, doesn’t it?  READ MORE AT THE JEWISH WEEK      

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We don't do forgiveness well

The High Holidays don’t work for me. I know that Yom Kippur is supposed to be the holiest day of the year, and I’ve read and listened to many great ideas about how Yom Kippur is supposed to work on supreme spiritual issues and in sanctifying relationships and community. And I’ve been trying it out for a few decades now. But it just doesn’t work, and I think I finally figured out why. The Jewish people would like to have a special day for forgiveness, but the fact is, we really don’t do forgiveness well at all. Our entire calendar is dedicated to not forgiving. Every holiday is filled with rituals and practices and texts that urge us to remember the sins that others have committed against us since time immemorial. We remember what the Egyptians did to us over three millennia ago, what the Persians did to us over two millennia ago, what the Romans did to us beforeJesus created a new religion. One of the top six commandments of memory is aimed at the Amalakites a nation that doesn’t even exist anymore and attacked us before we even knew what “Israelite” meant. We remember what the Christians, the Spanish, and of course the Germans did to our ancestors (heck, 70 years isn’t even that long ago). This is what Jews do best: we remember, and we do not forgive. We create elaborate mechanisms with special foods and blessings and hundreds of pages of text in order to remember. We are the masters of remembering what others have done to us. In fact, the most recent moment of ingrained remembering was just last week. Yes, Rosh Hashana is called “Yom Hazikaron”, the day of memory, and one of the pinnacles of the five-hour service is the afternoon amidah with its blessing of “zikaron” which reminds us of things that have happened in the world since the time of Adam. Seriously. And now, ten days later, we’re supposed to let it all go? How the heck are we supposed to know how to do that? For 364 days of the year, we have no mechanisms at all for letting go of anything. In fact, the opposite is true. We invest all our resources and energies on insuring that people don’t let go. A person makes a personal choice to let go, to not be bothered by acts of Jewish memory, is considered detached from his Jewish identity. The Jews spend millions of collective dollars on programs for “Jewish memory”, a hot catch-phrase in Jewish education, based on the idea that to forget means to lose a piece of who you are as a Jew, to stop belonging to the Jewish people. In fact, the entire existence of the State of Israel is based on the fact that for 2,000 years, the Jewish people collectively remembered a place that few had actually been to during that time and looked nothing like what our ancestors experienced. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/163365/we-dont-do-forgiveness-well/#ixzz28j7yvlR9

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