Eating disorders and religion? Bulimia, anorexia and other such maladies are growing among Orthodox Jews, according to a recent "Food, Body Image and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community" workshop I attended in Bethesda, Md.
The Jewish culture is centered on food. Matzo ball soup, hamentaschen, gefilte fish, latkes, challah, you name it. Passover is built around a meal, as are the weekly Sabbath repasts.
The major Christian holidays usually include feasting, but the actual holiday rituals don't require that one eat.
"The emphasis on food in the Jewish culture is relentless," said Julie Dorfman, director of nutrition services at the Renfrew Center in Bethesda, which treats eating disorders. "Holiday tables are groaning with food. People are told to "eat, eat, eat," but not to get fat. The Jewish mother says, 'Show me you love me by eating my food.'
"At family gatherings, comments about food are incessant. People aren't talking about current events or music, they're focused on the food."
Staff members at Renfrew, where 12 percent of the patients are Jewish, said they noticed an uptick in Orthodox clients in recent years.
The main pressure, they said, is on the Jewish mother, who is responsible for keeping a kosher kitchen (a mammoth amount of work), providing a generous Sabbath dinner and dessert for not only her household, but various guests who wander in at any point during a Friday evening.
Jewish holidays are the worst, they said, as the amounts of food required take weeks to prepare. A woman's worth often rests on the quality of her cuisine.
My mind flashed back to such a dinner I attended in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section, where I was invited to a home where the table was groaning with huge amounts of food. Each course had about 10 dishes. Stacks of desserts sat in the kitchen, waiting for all the drop-in guests, who wandered in after services at the synagogue.
And the woman who oversaw it all was the mother of several children who had a sylph-like figure and a sparkling clean home. I could see what these panelists meant by the standards of perfection expected for these Orthodox women.
"Within the Orthodox community, there's matchmaking, so there's pressure on the bride to be fit," said Dr. David Hahn, who works out of Renfrew's Philadelphia center. "There's early marriage, having multiple children and the pressures of running a huge home."
Some of these women cannot deal with the pressure, and so turn on their own bodies, giving up food until they become dangerously thin. The Orthodox Union got so concerned with this trend that it produced a film, "Hungry to be Heard," warning viewers to watch for signs of these afflictions, particularly among teenage girls who feel their looks aren't good enough.
In Orthodoxy, I was told by Adrienne Ressler, one of the panelists, the Orthodox girl wants to be chosen "by the best groom and by the best groom's family."
"So the pressure is to be very thin."
In some cases, the prospective groom's family not only wants to know the girl's dress size, but that of her mother, so they can project what the potential bride will look like in 18 years.
"Sometimes, they put a girl's health records online," she said. "It's like buying a horse. I think women can be silenced in that community. The eating disorder is the red flag."
- Contact Julia Duin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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