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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Passover: Freedom for Women NOW—Not 3000 Years Ago

“Passover,” Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.   There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.   There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.   Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.   I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.   Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition not...

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