Day Three: Should I Fast For Yom Kippur?

“I could eat all the time” is a favorite expression among the women in my family. It’s an exaggeration, yes, but not by much. We’re second- and third-helping kinds of eaters, the types who always eat dessert and apologize for … Read More

By / September 18, 2007

“I could eat all the time” is a favorite expression among the women in my family. It’s an exaggeration, yes, but not by much. We’re second- and third-helping kinds of eaters, the types who always eat dessert and apologize for bad moods by mumbling, “I was hungry.” But despite a seemingly unabashed pride in our appetites, none of us are particularly thrilled with our bodies. Though I’ve never dieted or been diagnosed with an eating disorder, I have made—and inevitably broken—absurd promises to myself about food. I’ve sworn I wouldn’t eat dessert for a whole week, or that I’d go easy on bread, or even abstain from eating until 1:00 p.m. I feel guilty when I have Doritos, ice cream, and fries—all foods I’d like to eat every day. If this sounds strange to you, chances are you’ve never had an honest conversation with a woman about her relationship to her body and food. How could I separate a holiday that sanctions not eating in order to feel holy from the everyday pressures of not eating in order to be thin? I took this question to Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, the director of Eating Disorders Education and Prevention at McLain Hospital in Boston. She disagreed with the idea that Yom Kippur contributes to dominant body neuroses. Judaism, she suggested, can actually counter unhealthy choices. Paraphrasing the Torah, Steiner-Adair offered the old body-is-the-temple-of-your-soul adage, insisting that Judaism actually promotes a healthy psychological and physical connection to your body. It’s nice to think that the Torah discourages unhealthy behavior, but the ethics of Judaism can easily slip into obsessive behaviors. Indeed, Lori Hope Lefkovitz, a women’s studies professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (and the wife of Rabbi Gordon), pointed out that some kosher cookbooks, with their strict hygienic guidelines and separation of foods, read like a prescription for an eating disorder. Whether you’re doing it for obsolete sanitary purposes or for ritual purity, keeping kosher requires you to be vigilantly aware of everything that goes in your mouth. This can easily contribute to being freaked out about food in general.
Though Steiner-Adair does not believe that keeping kosher contributes to eating disorders—she thinks eating disorders are a contemporary neurosis—she agreed that Jewish women are especially susceptible to the cultural pressure to be thin. Anorexia clinics, she told me, actually house a disproportionate number of Jewish girls. From her time spent working with women who suffer from eating disorders, Steiner-Adair thinks Jewish women grow up with the impression that to assimilate into American standards of beauty, you must be thin. While Steiner-Adair’s optimism in the Torah as a way to help women get over body issues struck me as naïve, I did like her suggestion that the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be a time to remove yourself from the strange dialogue women have about food. In fact, Steiner-Adair sometimes tells her anorexic Jewish patients to eat a little more on Yom Kippur as an alternative way of observing the holiday. Flipping the rules this way helps undermine the idea that eating is bad. Similarly, those who decide to fast need to stop thinking about food as sin. “Don’t worry if you can’t hold the fast,” Dr. Steiner-Adair told me. “You’re not a bad Jew and you’re not a bad person and you’re just not bad.” Instead of using Yom Kippur as an excuse to not eat, Dr. Steiner-Adair says, you should use it as a time to think about who you want to be in the world. This is a simple enough suggestion, but I’ve never connected the holiday with personal reflection. I certainly spend enough time during the rest of the year thinking about what matters, but typically in a list-making, goal-oriented kind of way. Whatever my ambiguous relationship toward spirituality in general and Judaism in particular, I liked the idea of using the fast as a designated way of taking stock. Having spent the last three days hearing the various opinions of officialdom, for my last interview I wanted to get a personal take on the fast. Tomorrow I’m going to forget doctors and rabbis and instead talk to a regular Jewish girl, the author of a memoir about body image who has plenty of reservations about both religion and dieting but fasts nevertheless. Next page: Lunching about fasting.

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