I stared at the bacon. I had never seen such a fatty piece of meat before. It stared back at me. Oink. Under normal circumstances, I would have flat-out refused to eat it. But the rules were different in the eating disorder treatment facility where I had spent the last two months. I looked across the table at my dietician, weighing my options. The punishment for not completing a meal was a loss of privileges and a lukewarm glass of Ensure.
“I can’t eat pork products,” I said. “For religious reasons.” Fattening, greasy, salty pork products. I had been using a variation of this line since the onset of my eating disorder years previously: I can’t eat that. I’m allergic/sick/full/ethically opposed/skeptical of its whereabouts. All the patients seated at my table knew every trick there was, and I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me. The staff at the facility didn’t have much exposure to Jews. I once had someone ask me if that’s the one where you can’t drink alcohol. But in 2014, the post-PC era, nobody was going to argue with me. My dietician offered me a veggie patty instead.
A little over a month after my discharge from the hospital, here I am again, in a face-off with the proverbial bacon. For the past few years, Passover has marked an annual decline in my health, serving as fuel for the eating disorder. With its institutionally condoned limit on carbohydrates, Passover is an anorexic’s dream. The lessons about redemption and freedom bypassed my underfed brain completely, replaced by an adherence to and obsession with custom. If there was one thing I excelled at, it was restrictive rituals. No peanut butter, no corn, no rice, no bread, and why stop there?
This Passover, I am in recovery, and I have decided to maintain a non-Passover diet for the duration of the holiday. Having been discharged from the hospital only recently, my health, physical and emotional, is precarious. I drank enough weight gain supplements, gave enough blood, spent enough hours doing nothing in the constant presence of medical professionals to learn I never wanted to come back. We weren’t allowed to be alone at all, not even in the bathroom. If food fell on the floor, we had to eat it. My IV drip prevented me from bending my arm for hours at a time. To put it lightly, it was an unpleasant experience—and one that my Judaism had contributed to.
In many ways, it’s Judaism, and not just Passover, that’s difficult for me. Year-round, there are good and bad and pure and impure foods, a hierarchy of sustenance. No animals with these feet, no wine handled by these people, bless the foods in order, don’t eat this after that or that with this. (On my list of rules: no crunchy foods, no sugar, no white foods on Tuesdays or Thursdays, no crusts, no eating with strangers.) In the hospital, they taught us that there was no good food or bad food. Food is nourishment and we need it to live, end of story.
I was the girl who cried kosher. Kashrut had been less a method of connecting with Judaism and more a convenient weight loss tool. Didn’t see the meat being cooked? There’s probably butter. Better not eat it. My conservative upbringing was more kosher-style than kosher, but I capitalized on my Judaism as a way to cut more foods out of my diet.
Consequently, I find my religion at odds with my health. The religious practices are, for me, a gateway to personal rituals, which are a gateway to starvation, a sure way back to the hospital. I will participate in the seders, and eat the matzah and gefilte fish and charoset during communal meals, but this year—bread and pasta on Passover.
I feel justified in my decision, but I struggle with how I will make the holidays meaningful without observing the customs. My family has been accepting—even encouraging—of my choice, as have my friends. Any judgment on the spaghetti I ate for lunch on the first day came from myself. This year, why is this night different from other nights? What makes Passover Passover in 2014? What makes me Jewish? By dismissing myself from the food rituals, I am also excluding myself from the social element of holidays, and of religion.
As is often the case when I pose questions to myself about Judaism, I don’t have anything resembling an answer. I have a friend who maintains that I am looking for a metaphysical solution that isn’t there, and I’m inclined to believe he is right. Nothing is going to feel satisfying or complete, but sometimes—at least for me—just looking is the answer.
This year, the haggadah is the center of my observance. When I turn to the text itself, I find a fragment of validation: We read that when the Israelites approach the Red Sea with Pharaoh close behind, they fear the worst. God parts the seas, and the only way out is through. The Israelites safely make the crossing to freedom, their demons far behind them, but they have a long way to travel. They stop and survey what has just happened. A hurdle is cleared, and the next is ahead. They are free but not unbound.
Once we were slaves, now we are free. In my small way, I have been redeemed, offered a reprieve from a low weight and a low potassium count and low energy. I am reluctant to use the vocabulary of Exodus, because I was never a slave, and in the important ways, my life has been peaceful and good. But in the microcosm of my life, I have finally been offered a taste of freedom from a disease that grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. Now, even with hurdles ahead, I am running in the opposite direction.
Elyse Pitock is a junior at Barnard College whose work has also appeared in the New York Times.