Oftentimes, when I am interviewed regarding eating disorder in the Jewish community, the question of “why” arises. Why are eating disorders so prominent within this population? Is there some reason that our community has been hit with this rising epidemic?
There are many theories and speculations, though little research and evidence. Some people believe it relates to our history; the history of suffering, the messages passed down after the Holocaust regarding appreciating food and vicarious trauma. Others note that this may relate to the traditions surrounding food, or perhaps the way food plays such a large role in our culture. Perhaps it is because everyone seems to know the latest news about individuals in the community, and an eating disorder is a more “secretive” ego-dystonic way of coping with pain and difficulty. There are many hypotheses and hopefully soon there will be research to further understand this tragic and dangerous trend.
It is far too easy to get lost in root causes and the reasons that eating disorders strike so prevalently. While it is important to understand the “whys” and to use this understanding for prevention and proper treatment, it is also important to examine the role that the Jewish community, or Jewish identity, can have in fostering strength during the recovery process.
When people hear about my history with Anorexia they may ask how my religious identity was impacted, and whether my position as a “rabbi’s daughter” led to my disorder. There are some, but not enough, who ask whether Judaism helped me. Was my religious/spiritual identity a source of strength? Did it aid in my recovery?
My experience is only one of many and each person in recovery—whether it be from an eating disorder, addiction, or simply a difficult time in life—has different needs and outlooks. This being said, I find that sharing this one perspective can provide a sliver of insight as to how my journey was enhanced.
I grew up in a home where Halacha was given immense value and taught to me from a young age. I always considered myself “observant,” and while I went through the expected phases of questioning certain practices and beliefs, I never swayed from my faith. When I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and depression, I lost interest in all areas of life. I no longer interacted socially, discontinued my interest in school and learning, and while I continued religious practices, they all but lost complete meaning to me. I “checked out” from life experiences and one could generally find me staring off, pondering whether the joys of life could be worth the risks, whether I could be happy again.
I began residential treatment some five months after I was initially diagnosed. I was the only Orthodox Jew at the facility and my suitcase was packed with a special lamp for Shabbat, cloves for Havdalah, and Jewish philosophy books. I could be found each morning, afternoon, and evening praying in the corner of my room, though the words held little meaning for me. The other young women in the facility asked why my food was different, what kosher truly meant, why I muttered under my breath before and after meals.
It was during my second week at the program that I attended a therapy group that raised the notion of spirituality or religion becoming an aid in the process of recovery. I kept this topic at the forefront of my mind the following few days, and processed how this could be done.
From there it was as if a light-bulb had gone off. By acknowledging my religious identity, I allowed myself the understanding that perhaps this identity, that had always been a part of me, that in some instances had set me apart, could be a source of strength during such a difficult time.
So I began to try. I davened with intention each day from there on, praying for the women in treatment with me; praying for my family; for the nation; for a future when I could be stronger. At the time I resented eating and those around me who “forced” me to eat. Blessing the food was a challenge as I did not feel appreciative. So I redefined what the blessings meant to me. In my mind, blessing the food was about a hope for my future that I could at some point enjoy the taste. Blessing the food was about appreciating that until that point my body had continued to fight hard for me, and I was giving an audible expression of gratitude to HaShem for allowing it to do so.
Shabbat was one of the most difficult times during my recovery. It gave me too much time to think, too much food, too many people. And so I redefined Shabbat as a day of rest from one unhealthy behavior. I actively worked on using this concept of rest to “rest” from the eating disordered thoughts and habits that consumed me.
I had so many fears and doubts, so much grief that presented itself in an energy that took me away from a normal, productive life. And so I began to use that energy for hope. I prayed to God. I began to partake in acts of charity to step outside my own suffering. I started to learn again, both in a Chavruta and on my own. I attempted to actualize the “Three Things on Which the World Stands.”
There were many components to my recovery process: support, treatment, challenges, and for me, religion. Spirituality or religion may be defined differently depending on the individual, and some people may not access this strength. As mentioned above, this is one person’s story of how integrating religion into my recovery, into my personal challenges, therapy, and understanding of life and myself led to freedom from Anorexia.
There is a disturbing rise in eating disorders among the Jewish community. Rather than allocate any blame, it is important to have a true understanding. This will hopefully allow us to foster a sense of awareness and will allow us to lean on Judaism and the Jewish community as beacons of strength during the process toward recovery.
Temimah Zucker is a graduate student at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Temimah works in the field of eating disorders as a counselor, public speaker, writer, and mentor.
By Temimah Zucker