It’s been two years since I’ve experienced symptoms of an eating disorder, such as skipping meals or over-exercising, but I’ve thought about the disease every day since then. In our world, it’s hard not to.
I’m reminded of it when I see my friends who have eating disorders post on Facebook about the challenges that their eating disorders continue to present. I think about it when I hear girls in the Stern College cafeteria debating which foods have the fewest calories. And, most of all, I see it all around me — the Photoshopped actresses on magazine covers, the half-naked model in car dealership commercials, the emaciated women on the product billboards that line the highway.
In Elissa Strauss’ recent Sisterhood post “Should we Lighten Up About Weight?” she posits that in a perfect world the topic of gaining or losing weight wouldn’t send everyone into a tizzy, and I agree. But until we reach that perfect state of living, I can’t imagine most women or young girls taking too kindly to someone calling them “a little fat,” no matter the critic’s intent.
For now, sensitivity is required.
Tracey Gold played a significant role in my childhood. I found most of “Growing Pains” terribly boring and annoying, but Carol Seaver, the fictional family’s perfectly nerdy teenage daughter, fascinated me. When I saw pictures of an emaciated Gold on the cover of magazines in the supermarket, I thought they seemed completely incongruous with Carol’s sensibilities. I was terrified by her skinny arms and protruding clavicle. (At one point in 1992, Gold reportedly weighed 80 lbs.) But I didn’t understand what was happening to her — until many years later, when it was happening to women in my family and several of my friends.
If you tune in to Lifetime (you know, the so-called network for women) every Friday night at the peculiar hour of 11 p.m., you can see Gold again, older and earnest, in a new reality show called “Starving Secrets.” Each week, Gold goes on a mission to “help others battle their own eating disorders and to get them the treatment they need to save their lives.”
The opening sequence of the show is a litany of the emaciated, wasted bodies of folks with eating disorders. I feel like I’m about to watch a Holocaust documentary.
Despite my earlier post, it now appears that Rabbi Yizhak Silberstein did support the idea that a girl whose mother refused to buy her “religious clothes” should cut her legs in order to force the mother’s hand. An apparent recording of the rabbi’s discussion of this topic surfaced on the Internet today, in which he says that girl deserves the “highest praise” for sanctifying God’s name with her absolute dedication to Torah.
Contrary to the original publication in Ynet, Rabbi Silberstein did not receive the question from the girl about cutting her legs, but merely offered his opinion on the case, which was originally brought to Rabbi Eliezer Sorodskin, the leader of an organization called Lev La’Ahim, whose stated mission is to help secular Israelis become religious. (The organization is most recently renowned for bloating registration at Haredi educational institutions, as reported in Haaretz ). The conversation took place at a conference of Lev La’Ahim held in May in Bnei Brak.
Sorodskin talked about the girl in positively ebullient terms. She apparently loves being religious but her secular mother refuses to buy her “religious clothes” — i.e., long skirts. The girl’s willingness to cut her legs in order to preserve the sanctity of her female body, according to both Sorodskin and Silberstein, is a model of self-sacrifice for the sake of Torah, an act worthy of emulation.
I don’t know if these rabbis even realize how un-Jewish this entire discussion is.
Eating disorders are famously misunderstood.
Earlier this week, The New York Times shed some light on them in an article detailing the high rates of these illnesses among American Orthodox Jews. The writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, reports on the various pressures Orthodox girls face, and looks at whether eating disorders might be the result of these pressures. She writes that, in some cases, those disorders seem to be symptoms of their desire to stave off menstruation to postpone marriage, the hope of losing weight with the ultimate goal of reaching the chuppah, or of their lack of time to develop a sense of self in a home filled with many siblings.
It’s the topic that the Forward has written extensively about in recent years.
While Rabin’s piece focuses on the American Orthodox community (though she doesn’t make completely clear whether she is referring to the Modern Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox community or Orthodoxy’s entire spectrum), the consequences of control, power, socialization and media impact everyone. Attempts to avoid acknowledging important psychological issues run rampant in most societies. In order to promote healing, the therapeutic approach must be holistic, and must not ignore the religious context.
Aviva Braun, a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders in young women, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a pioneering Modern Orthodox spiritual leader at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, are teaming up for an event that will focus on body image from feminist, therapeutic and Torah perspectives. The event — aimed at bat mitzvah-age girls through college age women, and their parents — will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There will also be a screening of “Hungry to be Heard,” the Orthodox Union-produced documentary about Jewish adults struggling with eating disorders.
“Judaism supports the notion that our bodies are sacred,” Hurwitz told The Sisterhood. “Philo, a Jewish philosopher said, ‘The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of the house so that it will not fall into ruin?’ We have an obligation as a community to help foster a positive body image in our own selves and in our children.”
Braun spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the specific challenges of treating eating disorders in the Orthodox community, Braun’s use of a feminist therapeutic model and her forthcoming book that is part memoir, part recipes.
In the L.A. Jewish Journal, actress Annie Korzen writes about being too Jewish to play an “Annie Korzen type” in Hollywood.
The lesbian pop culture site After Ellen profiles four rising Jewish lesbian comediennes.
Feminism has no doubt transformed Orthodoxy over the past three decades. Women have gone from begging to hold a Torah on Simchat Torah to holding their own services, to creating partnership synagogues in which women take active roles alongside men in running the service. It’s not only about women learning Talmud, but also about being acknowledged with proper titles for the roles — from religious leaders who argue cases in the rabbinical courts to the most recent breakthrough of calling women (almost) rabbis. Gender roles in Orthodoxy are rapidly being redefined in homes, communities and synagogues, where men and women share the tasks of preparing for Shabbat and educating children, leading prayer and giving a D’var Torah. The list of changes goes on, and it’s all quite exciting.
Yet, remarkably, these changes have failed to find parallel expression in the Orthodox school system. Notwithstanding tremendous efforts by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and other groups to address these issues, the fact remains that from preschool on, schools continue to send the message that women are predominantly charged with the home, and men are in charge of prayer and ritual. School books show men as active and women as passive — a message compounded by school decors that have walls plastered with pictures of men/rabbis and women’s pictures few and far between, if at all. The issues surrounding how teachers relate to gender in the classroom, how girls are treated in math and sciences and how boys are treated in art and literature — issues that blasted open in America with the 1992 AAUW report “How Schools Shortchange Girls” and have since contributed to a complete evolution of gender in education in America — have barely been noted in the Orthodox day school system.
Humor is a great way to begin tough conversations — ones that might lead to healing and understanding identity. As Jews, we know this as well as anyone; just look at our long tradition of conspicuously Jewish comedians who joke about identity.
That is why, at first glance, the “Murray Hill” YouTube parody video seems like any other sort of Jewish comedy; it’s critical and hella funny. The video, which accompanies the acoustic-campy tune by one DJ Lubel, describes in detail the cultural milieu that is Murray Hill — a heavily Jewish, Long Island-infused Manhattan neighborhood that is popular with recent college grads.
At first, the lyrics seem to mention, rather innocuously, the Jewish summer camps so many Murray Hill residents went to — as well as the top-tier universities they attended, and bars they now frequent.
However, there was a point in the video when I stopped laughing: And that’s when DJ Lubel begins singing about the Murray Hill’s so-called JAPS — spoiled Jewish girls with low self-esteem, gold-digging ambitions, poor sexual health and consumerist obsessions. Not to mention serious eating disorders: “Girl, I know you want that real estate lawyer/But there’s no need for an eating disorder/Because tasti D lite for breakfast lunch and dinner is not healthy … You need more calories,” DJ Lubel raps.
And while Lubel talks about the avaricious-investment banker dude stereotype of Murray Hill, it was the portrayal of the Jewish women really hit home for me. Perhaps, that’s because many of the characterizations seem so accurate.
I had a similar gut-reaction to Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan” song and video when it came out several years ago. Like DJ Lubel, Kanye speaks to a specific (female) population that wants to, “pull a rapper, a NBA player man, at least a dude wit’ a car,” and to do so, must get her “body right.” He raps: “Tuck your tummy tight and do your crunches like this… Give head, stop breathe, get up, check your weave.”
So I find myself moving between loving and hating these videos — between laughing at them and reproaching myself for doing so.
While they use humor to address issues of priorities that women should examine, is Kanye the person to do that in the case of the women portrayed in “The New Workout Plan”? And is DJ Lubel the person to expose many of Murray Hill’s Jewish women for what they are — even if it involves some creative hyperbole?
Observant Jews seeking help for anorexia or bulimia have long had the added burden of finding treatment programs that will accommodate their religious practices, such as adherence to the laws of kashrut and Sabbath observance. But now a nationwide network of eating disorders treatment facilities has launched a track specifically for observant Jewish women.
The Renfrew Center, which has facilities in eight states, will introduce the new program June 7 at a daylong conference, “Food, Body Image and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community.” A news release about the conference, to be held at New York’s Ramaz school, states:
Renfrew staff members are receiving training in the cultural aspects of Judaism that may affect treatment. This training is designed to educate clinicians about specific traditions, rituals and beliefs which can be incorporated into treatment.
“Working with the traditions and values of the Orthodox Jewish Community empowers patients to overcome eating disorders,” said Cindy Shore, Assistant Vice President of Northeast Operations for The Renfrew Center. “We are pleased to provide a program that offers women treatment while continuing to fulfill their spiritual needs.”
To understand the Jewish communal demand for such targeted treatment programs, check out this article by psychologist and eating disorders specialist Esther Altmann. In it, she explores the pervasiveness of such disorders in the Orthodox community, writing:
There are several theories about why eating disorders have become prevalent amongst ultra-Orthodox adolescent girls. One commonly cited cause is that young ultra-Orthodox men are seeking thin brides, thereby heightening the worries of teenage girls, along with their mothers, that they need to be slim to marry.
The expectation and pressure to marry and start a family at a young age may exacerbate the problem. Girls approaching marital age may feel they are not ready to assume responsibilities of rearing their own children, or may fear becoming sexual with a marital partner. Feeling that they cannot challenge parental expectations, they may instead rebel by trying to control their bodies.