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Choosing Not to Fast: Eating Disorders and Yom Kippur

Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Naomi Malka was busy. The High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, she was preparing for a 6PM service for five thousand people and had no time to eat. For most people who observe this holiday – which, according to the Guttman Center, is the majority of Jews – the 25 hour fast is hard enough. But to start the fast already on an empty stomach and to be running around organizing and working, that is bordering on painful. But for Naomi, the challenge was even more extreme: she is also a recovering bulimic.

“My fast started without thinking about it, but by 4:30 or 5:00 the next day, I was in the room where we set up for the security guards and people not fasting, and I was in there stuffing my face,” she recalled painfully. “Imagine, it was Yom Kippur, and I was so embarrassed and humiliated and I was crying. It was a manifestation of so much stress. And then I went and threw up in the synagogue on Yom Kippur! It was just awful and I was so ashamed about it for weeks after. And that’s when I realized, I can’t fast. I can’t be healing from an eating disorder and fast as a Jew. Those two things just don’t work for me.”

Jews are taught that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. It is called in the Torah, “The Sabbath of the Sabbaths,” the day when Israelites connect with their Creator rebirth their souls through fasting and praying. But for some people, the day brings on swarms of difficult feelings – dread, trauma, shame and guilt – along with severe risk of self-harm. The idea of fasting for a whole day triggers symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating – not necessarily the same thing – and can send people into downward spirals and unraveling.

“Food’s distinct role in Orthodox Judaism makes it a prime vehicle for playing out unspoken conflicts and confusion,” Dr. Caryn Gorden, an expert in eating disorders in the Jewish community, writes in Psychology Today. “The religious regulations that demand strict observance can serve as scaffolding for the rigidity, control and deprivation characterizing restrictive anorectic eating,” as well as other disordered eating such as bulimia and compulsive eating.

Indeed, Naomi Malka is not alone. I spoke with a dozen women from different Jewish communities around the world, many of whom were not ready to go public with their stories, about their decisions not to fast on Yom Kippur. Although a 1995 study found that 1 in 19 Orthodox Jewish women suffer from eating disorders—twice the number as the American community generally—the topic is still shrouded in shame and secrecy, keeping precise statistics difficult to obtain.

“Shirley,” a 27-year-old formerly Orthodox woman living in Jerusalem, told me that she has chosen to stop fasting on Yom Kippur because it “reminds me of when I was trying to diet and trying to be thin to make myself accepted and I would starve myself. The feeling of starving on fasts can trigger me to possible suicide. That’s how strong my body image shameful past is.”

Shirley has been struggling with eating, food, and body acceptance for most of her adult life. “When I turned 18 I started to overeat and take my issues out on food,” she told me. “Eventually, I gained about 40 extra pounds and that’s when I began to suffer from a lot of body shaming.  My relatives, my friends and many people who were lacking boundaries would comment on how pretty I was and a shame that I was so overweight and chubby.”

Shopping for clothes for Shabbat went from a time of fun with her sisters to an experience of shaming. “I started to not enjoy going shopping with my skinnier sisters and always felt like I had to wait to lose weight. Some family members told me, ‘You better stop eating or you will need a large sheet to make a dress for Yom Tov’.”

“Lisa”’s troubling relationship with food began when she was 12 or 13 and went on a diet to lose 20 pounds. “It was a really rigorous diet,” she said. “I wound up losing the weight, but then I was at a party a year later and because I was so disciplined and using my so-called will-power, I was at a party and ate and ate and ate like there was no tomorrow. I was so bloated, I felt so sick the next day. So I would lose weight and then gain weight, up and down, always like a thing..”

Naomi Malka was also traumatized around body and food during adolescence. “When I was a teen, when I was 14-17, my bulimia was pretty severe,” she told me. “For a long time, right before my period, I would start a binge. It would be a like a 4-5 day bender, and eating everything, off the walls. I was so dissociated that I would get into like sleeping days where I would eat without thinking, without being present at all.” Yom Kippur brings all that back. “That’s what fast days trigger for me. The whole starvation thing would feed into a cycle. I would just, it would catapult me into a binge that could last a few days. I didn’t understand what was happening.”

For Lisa, the cycle of eating and self-loathing continued for her throughout adulthood, especially around pregnancy, when she was hungry and ate – a lot. But that only brought on more body shaming. “I like big meals, that’s how I am. So I gained 40 pounds when I was pregnant with my son. And I remember going to the doctors and they weigh you, and the doctor said that I if I continued to eat the way I eat, I will become a porker. In those words. I will never forget that. So every time I would go there to be weighed, I would always cringe after that.”

Oh, that sounded so familiar to me, too. During my first pregnancy, my doctor talked about my weight and nothing else. He kept putting me on diets – even though, by all measures, I was beautiful and healthy then, though I never got that message. I will never forget the way he said to me, “Eat melba toast,” as if that was the key to a healthy pregnancy. Every time I see melba toast in the supermarket, I shudder.

Girls get the deleterious impact of diets and body-shaming from all directions. Naomi Malka’s mother put her on a diet when she was nine. “I was on a restrictive diet when my body and metabolism were supposed to be getting set up for the rest of my life. So I have a really messed up metabolism.” I can relate. My mother bought me my first girdle when I was 14 and weighed 100 pounds, to keep my stomach the desirable flat.  “When I was growing up, it felt wrong to have a body, to be short,” she said. “I was supposed to be a certain weight on the scale. All of that made me overeat.”

Like Naomi, the experience of being put on a diet when she was young sent Lisa on a life-long path of struggling with food and body acceptance.  “When I was working at a camp, Like Naomi, the experience of being put on a diet when she was young sent Lisa on a life-long path of struggling with food and body acceptance.  “When I was working at a camp, when I was 16-17, and I was always big-chested, nothing you can do about the size of your boobs, and I remember being teased about that, and it was very, very painful and very hurtful to me. And I remember covering up with a t-shirt after that for a very long time. I never really appreciated how I looked.”

These women now struggle with many aspects of Jewish life, especially around Yom Kippur. “Fasting can be a horrible trigger to restart things,” explains cognitive behavioral psychologist Aliza Levitt who specializes in eating disorders, “going back to that cycle of starvation, control. Bulimics will also starve themselves, and then will get so hungry that they will binge. And it can be thousands of calories. And then if you’re vomiting that can destroy other parts of your body. It is a life and death situation.”

Getting permission

Women who choose not to fast can face judgmental reactions in the community – not necessarily from rabbis, but from lay people who are concerned about the way the decision is taken.  Thus, for example, even though many Orthodox rabbis rule to exempt people for whom fasting is life threatening – such as recovering anorexics and bulimics – Sarah Tuttle-Singer still received some tough pushback. The criticism was not that she didn’t fast, but that she didn’t ask a rabbi.

In the comments section of her essay, many posters – almost all men – criticized her for not getting rabbinic permission. One guy wrote: “One cannot simply ‘decide’ on their own not to fast on YK, even with medical issues. She should have gone to a Rav who, if they’re in the LEAST competent, would have told her not to fast…and then, she’d have been OBLIGATED to eat.”

This idea that women’s great violation of Judaism is deciding for themselves runs pretty deep. I had a similar experience on my Facebook wall a few weeks ago when I announced that I was writing this article and was seeking interviewees. The first comment was a link to a halakhic document talking about women who are excused from fasting due to breastfeeding. I responded that I’m not writing a halakhic treatise, that I am a sociologist and not an expert in Jewish law, and that I wasn’t looking for rabbinic opinions. The pushback was swift and sharp.  “How can you write about this without a mention of the Halachot? It’s Yom Kippur,” wrote one commenter, which led to a thread about what the halakhah actually says. I’m not going into it because, as I said there, I’m not all that interested in Orthodox readings of halakha, which reflects a corpus of Jewish law written exclusively by men. I am interested in women’s lived experiences. And anyway, eating disorders are not something that was discussed in the Talmud.

For the record, Aliza Levitt says that all the Jewish women she has worked with in Israel received permission to eat on Yom Kippur, in order to save their lives. Meanwhile, Shirley, who was on that thread, messaged me about how difficult that conversation was, thanking me for shutting it down.

The thread about halakha raised a much more interesting conversation to me, which is the way women  — especially Orthodox women – are told that they are not allowed to make decisions for themselves.

Still, despite all the pressure on religious Jewish women to be blindly obedient and to repress their own feelings, ideas and experiences, there are still women who are deciding for themselves not to fast on Yom Kippur. “Without the ‘did you ask an effing shayla [query to the rabbi]”, Shirley said. “No one asked a shayla when body shaming me.”

But even when women get permission, the stigma can be sticky. An Orthodox woman named Yocheved, for example, who commented on Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s blog post, described her own experience of not fasting.  My doctor advised me against [fasting], and I called my Rabbi in tears, telling him, “Call my doctor, tell him how important it is [to fast]! It’s not life and death!” Instead of telling my doctor how important fasting was, my Rabbi told ME how important EATING was. I told him I would feel guilty for eating on Yom Kippur. He responded that the only thing there was to feel guilty about was feeling guilty. [But] what G-d wants from us first and foremost is to care for ourselves. It was a mitzvah for you to eat on Yom Kippur, as it was for me. And, like you, I have a much harder time justifying my non-fasting to my family and friends than I do to G-d.”

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the act of not fasting arouses so much shame in people. Professor Rabbi Rachel Adler shared with me the following story. “Years ago I was a social worker in a nursing home. People were devastated when informed that they could not fast. The medical staff told them, ‘Because of your condition you don’t have to fast’ and then were surprised that the patients were not delighted. But those people felt that after a lifetime of fasting, they were now being told that they were no longer part of the Jewish people. Some would refuse to eat anyway and get sick. Others were ashamed to go to services. They just stayed in bed, faces turned to the wall. The halakhah proved valuable here. I would bring in my husband, an Orthodox rabbi, not only to explain why they were obligated to eat, but to tell them exactly how to do it and give them texts of Yom Kippur blessings after meals. We also created a kavanah to recite before eating. Feeling obligated, connected to God and included in community made a huge difference. I now know several rabbis who cannot fast. You should ask them what they do.”

Healing and self-care

The act of choosing not to fast on Yom Kippur is, in this setting, a brave and compassionate act of self-care, even if it comes with a price of shame and stigma. The women I interviewed are grappling with different elements of healing and recovery.

One woman, “Hannah”, is healing through parenting, by breaking the cycle of abuse through food that she experienced as a child. “I changed how I parented my children, and cooked different meals for each child according to their preferences,” she said. “I learned to accept mine (and their needs) and not berate myself for my sensitivities. I also grew to despise fasting as a way of augmenting my pain and suffering. Hunger began to be the symbol of what I endured as a child. I haven’t fasted in many years and have found other ways to induce a spiritual state.” She also issued a challenge to educators. “I wonder how educators can help students better understand their individual connection to the tradition and what it is truly intended to accomplish for the body/soul.”

Naomi Malka has made spiritual healing around body part of her life’s mission. Through her work at the Adas Israel Community Mikveh, the only progressive mikveh in DC, she has created educational programs that teach body love and body acceptance to groups of all ages.

Ultimately, my conclusion from all this is that the reason why so many women are choosing not to fast on Yom Kippur is not really about eating disorders. In fact, I would say that eating disorders and not-fasting are two expressions of a deeper problem in the community. This problem is that the way many Jewish practices are kept communally are unhealthy. The women I talked to are struggling with in varying forms. And not-fasting is just one of many acts of self-care along the way to healing.