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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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