Jewish Women & Food (Eat, Eat, Diet, Diet)
On the first night of Sharon’s seventh Chanukah, her mother made her favorite food— potato latkes, and her father bought her the hottest doll on the market—Beach Babe Barbie. Now Sharon, a die-hard lover of both potato latkes and Barbie, wanted the food and the doll to love each other. So she threw a potato latkes party the next day, starring the leftovers in the refrigerator and Barbie as her special guest.
But only Sharon could actually eat the heavenly concoctions of potatoes, onions and grease. Barbie simply watched with serene blue eyes, and without so much as a rumble escaping from her ironing-board stomach, patiently waited for her human friend to finish stuffing her face.
Sharon tried to feed her doll friend, to mush the potatoes, and stuff them down her rosebud mouth. But Barbie refused ingestion, preferring undignified potato drool to drip down her voluptuous, silicone-inspired breasts. After several failed attempts at force-feeding, Sharon started to cry. Her dolls had never made her cry before. She always had food parties with her dolls and they ate the same way that Barbie did. After all, drooling was how dolls ate.
But Sharon expected more from Barbie, because she appeared more human. She had breasts, something that women had. If she could grow breasts then why couldn’t she eat? Breasts and food seemed related somehow, only Sharon didn’t know exactly how.
All Sharon could do was cry that her friend Barbie didn’t know how to eat. She wondered why she could no longer pretend that her dolls could eat. Maybe, Sharon thought in horror, this meant she was becoming a grown-up.
On the second day of her 11th Sukkot, Sharon sat in the sukkah, next to her well-meaning grandma, who had prepared tzimmis and honey cake, special for Sharon. “Eat mammele, eat. EAT!,” said Grandma to Sharon.
Sharon needed no such encouragement. Happily she gulped mouthfuls of carrots and sweet potatoes and devoured slice after slice of the moist, fragrant, raisin-speckled cake. And just to be fair, Sharon ate her mother’s beef stew and rice pilaf with much enthusiasm too.
In school, Sharon had learned that feasting on the festival of Sukkot was a mitzvah. Falling just after Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, Sukkot was a time for Jews to rejoice. And as Sharon understood it, Jews rejoiced not with kegs of beer but with mounds of tasty food. Christians drank; Jews ate. That was the way of the world.
Between mouthfuls, Sharon observed her family. Due to the incessant urgings of her mother and grandmother, her father had a plateful of goodies rivaling Sharon’s stockpile. But both her mother and grandma picked at their fly-sized portions of food. “You eat like a bird, dear,” said Grandma to her daughter.
Sharon’s mother smiled at the comment, which puzzled Sharon. Her mother’s smile meant that Grandma’s comment was a compliment. But Sharon, who wanted to be a zoologist when she grew up, knew that her mother did not eat like a bird. Birds ate twice their weight in food every day. If would be more correct to say that her mother looked like a bird—bony and delicate.
“I just take after you. Mom,” said Sharon’s mother to Grandma. “But our Sharon takes after her father. She’s got a healthy appetite and meat on her bones.”
Sharon’s grandma, beaming, reached over and pinched Sharon’s cheek in archetypal Jewish-grandma fashion. “Eat as much as you can now, mammele” she advised. “Because when you grow up you’ll have to watch what you eat so you can keep your figure pretty for your husband.”
“But Grandma, it’s a mitzvah to eat on Sukkot,” said Sharon. “Why don’t you eat some of your honey cake? It’s delicious.” “So you perform the mitzvah for me, mammele. God will understand,” said her grandma.
Sharon reached for some more beef stew, put some on her plate, but before she lifted her fork to her mouth, she thought about how the meat on her plate would become the meat on her body, on her thighs, stomach and buttocks. But then Sharon thought about the mitzvah, and of her grandmother’s and mother’s refusal to perform the good deed. For God to look kindly upon her family, Sharon told herself she must perform the mitzvah for all their sakes.
As she began to clean her plate of beef stew, Sharon realized that the women in her family never did their own mitzvot. They never recited the Kiddush or led benching, and when in the synagogue, they could only watch the male members of their families receive the honor of an aliyah, of getting called up to the Torah. So it made sense that they would let others eat for them as well.
Until Sharon was about nine, she could go sit with her father in the men’s section of the synagogue. She loved that privilege, to sit near all the action. But the age of ten restricted her to the women’s section. At what age would she have to let others eat for her, and be restricted to those fly-sized portions?
Although full, Sharon began shoveling pieces of cake into her mouth as if she had starved for weeks. She did not want to grow up and did not know how else to defy the inevitable.
On her 13 th Yom Kippur, Sharon fasted the whole day for the first time. This accomplishment pleased her, not because she felt holier but because she felt thinner. Feeling slightly ashamed, Sharon tried to feel spiritually purified, even though she did not know what that entailed. But after this day of fasting, kneeling and standing, she could only take pride in her thighs. They felt thinner, after a day without food. Sharon had almost broken her fast on this day, but during the morning recitation of the Amidah, her eyes happened to fall upon the words, “For the sin we have committed of gluttony.”
Good at English, Sharon knew what gluttony meant. What she didn’t know until today was that God considered gluttons to be sinners.
Sins had never scared Sharon, because they had never had anything to do with her. She could pooh-pooh all the other sins mentioned in the Yom Kippur service, even the “thou shall nots” of the Ten Commandments. She had no desire to murder, rob, covet, and she certainly would never commit adultery, not at 13 years old, anyway.
But this gluttony sin made her see the divine lightening bolt threatening to strike. God knew of her guilt. He had seen her all those times, watched her take seconds and thirds, clamor for the largest slice of birthday cake and polish off entire pints of Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie Delight.
With fear in her heart, Sharon fasted. And when the fast ended and she felt pleasure at her hard-earned thinness, the fear refused to go away. It stayed with Sharon, accompanying her into the synagogue’s social hall, where the congregation would break their fast with a feast.
On Sharon’s 15th Purim, she dressed up as a gypsy. And accompanied by her friend Barbara, Sharon went to a party in her synagogue’s social hall, sponsored by her youth group.
Barbara dressed up as a prostitute, but told her youth group adviser and other “righteous” types that she was a realistic depiction of Queen Esther. Queen Esther, after all, had to live in a harem, and harem girls wore practically nothing.
Barbara wore a silver-sequined halter top, an electric blue tube skirt that barely covered her upper thighs, black fishnet stockings with red spangles and bright purple five-inch spike heels. This splash of bright color and exposed body parts gave Barbara exclusive “center attraction” status the instant she sauntered into the party. (Sauntering is the preferred form of movement in five-inch spike heels.)
The youth group adviser did not appreciate Barbara’s concern for historical accuracy. He told her that nice Jewish girls should not be attired in such a fashion. Reluctantly, he let her stay for the party. It was Purim, after all.
Sharon, on the other hand, wore a long, flowing flower-dotted skirt, a long black t-shirt and lots of scarves. Like everyone else at the party, she could not take her eyes off Barbara. On the one hand, she condemned her friend for wanton exhibitionism and kowtowing to male fantasies that objectify females. (At 15, Sharon had discovered feminism.) Yet, grudgingly, she also admired her friend’s body and wished she had the guts to parade around nearly naked, to feel sexy.
After several minutes of watching Barbara flit around the room, flirting with every boy who would pay homage, Sharon began to feel both miserably invisible and shamefully naked. So she glanced toward the table laden with food—fruit-filled hamentashen, platters of pita and humus, the classic chips and onion dip. Purim, like all the other joyous days on the Jewish calendar, meant a ton of food, to be eaten at various Purim parties and at the festive Purim meal.
Sharon approached the table, panther-like. She slowly circled its circumference, zoning in on her prey. Lightening-quick, her hand captured a hamentasch, strawberry- filled, and pitched it into the bottomless pit she called her body. Sharon devoured the hamentasch in one gulp, leaving the pastry no time to reflect upon its death. Sharon, however, failed to be appeased. It wasn’t enough to crave a mere second hamentasch, Sharon yearned for an entire plateful, maybe two platefuls. And she had been so good today, eating only an apple and one square of a Hershey chocolate bar.
The Purim feast had begun. But by her ninth hamentasch, the familiar, debilitating fear descended upon Sharon. Fat, fat, fat. Fatter, fatter, fatter . . . Sharon felt the hamentaschen commiserating within her digestive system, loaded with fat and calories, plotting to blow up her body. Only she would remain blown up, like a massive balloon, forbidden to mercifully explode, to disintegrate into unrecognizable bits.
Trying not to run, Sharon made her way to the bathroom. She carefully locked herself in an end stall, held her hair away from her face with one hand and leaned over the toilet bowl. With a first-timer’s timidity, Sharon stuck a finger down her throat. But she could accomplish nothing past gagging.
Defeated, but no less desperate, Sharon opened her stall and climbed on the bathroom counter in order to see her whole body in the mirror. The terror of her reflection overwhelmed her to the point where she didn’t care that she stood on top of a fixture in a public restroom. Like any good masochist, she took off her t-shirt and stared at her naked midriff, horrified. The truth was, despite her binges, her rib cage protruded like that of any average girl—although Sharon could not see that. Fat globules, big and lumpy, a mushy, round mass of breast and stomach—that’s what Sharon saw. Fat, fat, fat. Fatter, fatter, fatter.,.
Sharon punched herself in the stomach, hoping she would pop, or at least reduce to the dimensions of a completely flat surface. But her three-dimensionality held firm. “It’s not fair,” thought Sharon. “I want to disappear.”
Sharon felt guilty for having so much unhappiness on such a happy occasion. Had God now put her in the “bad Jew” category, for defiling the joyous spirit of Purim, for not loving the beautiful Queen Esther who saved the Jewish people from Haman’s most murderous plan?
Yes, she did not love Queen Esther. Because Sharon knew that Queen Esther never had a weight problem in her entire life. No way would a king like Ahasuerus fall head over heels for a chubby, cellulite- plagued queen. Queen Esther was every man’s ideal—obedient and thin.
But then there was Vashti, the queen before Esther, who met her demise after refusing to display her beauty before the king and all his party guests. In the story, Vashti became the symbol throughout the Persian Empire of what happens when wives don’t listen to their husbands. But maybe there was more to the story, thought Sharon. Maybe Vashti had once been beautiful, but after days of presiding at the banquet for the women, overeating to oblivion, she porked out. Maybe that’s why Vashti did not want to appear in front of the men. Maybe King Ahasuerus had her killed for getting fat.
Sharon went back into the toilet stall, just to sit for a while. She did not want to return to the festivities. Like Vashti, she did not want to be in full view of others.
On the second night of Sharon’s 17th Passover, her cousin Jolene sat across from her at the seder table. Sharon did not care much for Jolene as a human being, but she greatly admired her bones. She liked Jolene’s jutting collarbone, liked the fact that her ribs stuck out from the thin fabric of her tight-fitting dress. Sharon knew she could never compete with Jolene. Sharon got better grades in school, had feature roles in school plays and received myriad acceptances to universities. Jolene, however, had the supreme gift—visible bones.
Sharon stared at the coloring book-like pictures in her new and improved Maxwell House Haggadah. In one picture, a group of slaves toiled near some pyramids. Sharon thought the female slave in the drawing, with a languid, emaciated body, resembled Jolene. It delighted her that Jolene looked like a slave. But upon second glance, Sharon thought the female slave seemed sexy—something Jolene was not. Or was she?
Sharon wondered what had happened to this slave in the picture, once she crossed the Red Sea into freedom. Had liberation destroyed her sexiness? Sharon had no idea; she simply felt ashamed of her longing to look like a slave.
On the first night of Sharon’s 18th Shavuot, she sat at the dinner table, next to her mother who had made chocolate chip cheesecake, special for Sharon. “Have a piece, dear,” said her mother. “You’ve gotten so thin since you went to college.”Sharon loved cheesecake the way good parents love their children— unconditionally, fiercely, eternally. She had always liked Shavuot, the holiday commemorating God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people, because of the custom to eat dairy products. For Sharon, Shavuot had less to do with going to synagogue and learning Torah all night and much more to do with blintzes loaded with sour cream, noodle kugels filled with fruit and cheese, and cheesecake of all delectable flavors. When Sharon ate cheesecake, she not only tasted crust and filling; she tasted olam habah, the Jewish notion of the paradisaical world to come.
Eyes huge, mouth dripping with saliva, Sharon focused on that chocolate chip cheesecake. She licked her lips slowly and said, “No thanks. Mom, I’m not hungry.” “Honey, you eat like a bird,” said Sharon’s mother, concerned. “Ever since you started college, you seem to have lost your appetite. Is anything wrong?”
No, Mom, I just take after you, Sharon wanted to say. “I have a heavy class schedule, so I’m a bit stressed, but there’s nothing wrong,” she lied instead.
“But I’ve never seen you look so thin,” persisted her mother.
Oh, don’t worry. Mom, I’ll never be as thin as you. I take after Dad, right? I’ve got this damn meat all over my bones, Sharon wanted to say. “I eat plenty. Mom,” she lied instead.
Painfully, Sharon watched her mother and father enjoy their cheesecake, watched them sample the delights of the world to come. Such delights had become off limits for her. Because while a slice meant tasting heaven, consuming a whole cake meant immersion into hell. And Sharon had lost the ability to eat only a slice.
On the first day of her 20 th Rosh Hashanah, Sharon performed the ceremony of tashlich— the casting away of one’s sins over a body of water. Leaning over the gleaming toilet bowl in her just-cleaned-for-the-occasion bathroom, Sharon purged herself of the year’s sins.
Sharon knew her interpretation of tashlich did not exactly conform to custom. Traditionally, tashlich observers used pieces of bread that symbolized their sins, and threw them over an outside, moving body of water.
But she had used bread, justified Sharon, as she expelled more sin from her body. A whole loaf, in fact. And now, she was throwing the bread over a body of water. Sharon’s unconventionality came from thinking that the bread only represented sin when eaten, when lodged in her stomach.
Finished with purging, Sharon stared at the contents in the toilet. Her throat burned, as if she had swallowed fire. She felt the sadistic pounding of numerous hammers within her head, threatening to split open her skull. With tears in her eyes, Sharon forced herself to admit that the toilet’s contents represented not sin but something more terrifying— sickness.
Although tempted to faint, Sharon flushed the toilet several times, to remove all traces of vomit. She then walked into her kitchen, retrieved an apple from the refrigerator and a pot of honey from the cupboard. “It is not a sin to be sick. It is not a sin to be sick,” she softly muttered.
Sharon cut a slice from the apple and dipped it into the pot of honey. She said the blessing for eating fruit and with a deep breath took a small bite. Sharon tasted the tartness of the apple, but more intensely, she tasted the sweetness of the honey; she felt its smooth thickness covering her wounded throat, stroking it the way a mother cuddles her child to sleep.
Over this apple and honey, Sharon toasted herself— to a happy and sweet new year. For that’s how Jews toasted themselves on their New Year, with food. “It seems we Jews love food more than any other people in the world,” thought Sharon. “How did I, a Jew, come to do battle with the thing I love most?”
Sharon licked her fingers clean of honey, then forced herself to put the honey back into the cupboard. She prayed that one day, she would be able to look at a pot of honey and not feel compelled to consume the entire quantity in one ferocious gulp.
It was on this day, on her 20th Rosh Hashanah, that Sharon decided to stop the burning in her throat, to do something about the fire raging in her soul. She wanted peace, not war, and knew she must learn anew how to eat if she wanted to live out the new year.
Susan Josephs is a staff writer at The Jewish Week in New York, and is currently working on her first novel.