Anorexia, Judaism and Me
Growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community, full of family, friends and constant festivals, it’s pretty safe to say that food is an integral part of our lives. As a religion, big meals full of lots of guests is a regular occurrence. However, for someone who has lived with an eating disorder for a long time, it has had its difficulties.
In a way, I am used to the life we lead. I absolutely adore my community, the unique qualities and traditions we uphold, and the special history we share. Yet, beneath these customs lies a path that is difficult to navigate for those with eating disorders.
From a superficial standpoint, our weekly Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. This means large meals every Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. There is no break from these meals, and, whilst they are a lovely way to connect with our friends, neighbours, grandparents, and cousins (I have a lot of them), it sometimes feels like a never-ending occasion. Both these meals begin with blessings made over our customary bread, Challah, some wine, and then the meal begins: bowls filled to the brim with chicken soup, various meats, side dishes, and I can’t forget the abundance of desserts to end with.
Then come the numerous festivals we celebrate along the way. According to my calculations, there are 27 festival days a year. Out of the 12 months in a year, there is only one Jewish month, which occurs around November time, that there isn’t any special festival. During these special days, again we have lots of meals and guests round, yet also there seems to always be different traditional foods eaten at each of them. These range from honey to doughnuts, fried potato latkes to cheesecakes; the list goes on. Some of these festivals are fast days. Despite having a medical exemption from them, I find it incredibly hard. To walk into synagogue whilst everyone is starving, I feel like a fraud. How can I partake properly in the holiest day of the year if I am not fully observing?
In more religious circles, where matchmaking is more of a custom, the 'label' of mental illness is like the mark of the plague
It is also worth mentioning that, during most of these festivals and the Sabbath, one is not allowed to get in a car. This means walking to your synagogue, friends, and family. Usually these won’t be long distances, but for someone who is meant to be gaining weight, it can be hard.
All year round we also follow a strict code of dietary regulations known as Kashrut, meaning we can only eat food that is Kosher. Yet again we see the constant attention being paid to food. In most of the world, in areas where there is not a large Jewish population, kosher food can be hard to come by. For someone with an eating disorder, not having access to suitable food can be terrifying.
These rules are especially difficult for those, like me, who have a 'black or white' thought process. It is all too easy to become obsessed with keeping commandments to the letter, something that only adds to the anxiety. I spend my time worrying about what will happen if I don't do something right; I see it as a 'sin' or a 'transgression.' It is not a healthy mindset.
Living in the Jewish 'bubble' means that everyone knows everything about each other; and the worry is that someone is always watching. Privacy is hard to come by. It can be common to overhear mothers in the local kosher bakeries chattering away if the other had ‘found the perfect dress to wear to her nephew’s bar mitzvah’ or if they knew any ‘suitable boy for their beautiful daughter’.
I had, and still have, a fear of people talking about my eating disorder. All too often were boys warned away from me because I was anorexic. In more religious circles, where matchmaking is more of a custom, the 'label' of mental illness is like the mark of the plague, and can be extremely damaging a person, their dating prospects, and their families. I have been through this and lived to tell the tale, but it breaks my heart to know that there are people out there suffering discrimination for no reason other than pure ignorance and unnecessary stigma.
I wanted to give you a brief snapshot into the life of a Jewish girl with anorexia. I could write a lot more about this but for now, I’ll leave you with this.
I am proud to be Jewish, proud of my ancestry and I look forward to hopefully continuing the line of descent
Despite having difficulties, I cherish every moment celebrating these times of the year. I am proud to be Jewish, proud of my ancestry and I look forward to hopefully continuing the Jewish line of descent. The love and charity we are so fortunate to give out, is instilled in us from a young age and is amazing. My only message to those in my community is to continue to learn about mental health, as the more messages shared means the stigma is just that one little bit less.
Lizzie is 25, lives in London, and is in recovery from an eating disorder. She has recently started writing a blog called 'Holding The Key', which you can read here.