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April 12, 2011

Dangerous Eating Disorders And Haredi And Orthodox Jews

Eating-disorder “It’s too much,” said a 23-year-old woman from the New York area who is recovering from an eating disorder and asked not to be identified by name to protect her privacy. She is married and a full-time student, but has postponed having a baby. “A lot of my friends are going to work and support their husbands,” she continued, “but part of my recovery is to say that I can’t do everything — I’m not superwoman.”

 

Rabbis Sound an Alarm Over Eating Disorders
By RONI CARYN RABIN • New York Times

In the large and growing Orthodox Jewish communities around New York and elsewhere, rabbinic leaders are sounding an alarm about an unexpected problem: a wave of anorexia and other eating disorders among teenage girls.

While no one knows whether such disorders are more prevalent among Orthodox Jews than in society at large, they may be more baffling to outsiders. Orthodox women are famously expected to dress modestly, yet matchmakers feel no qualms in asking about a prospective bride’s dress size — and her mother’s — and the preferred answer is 0 to 4, extra small.

Rabbis say the problem is especially hard to treat because of the shame that has long surrounded mental illness among Orthodox Jews.

“There is an amazing stigma attached to eating disorders — this is the real problem,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, educational director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, or O.U., the organization that issues the all-important kashrut stamp for food. “But hiding it is not going to make it go away. If we don’t confront it, it’s going to get worse.”

Referring to the high risk of death from heart problems and suicide in patients with anorexia, he said: “This isn’t a luxury type of disease, where, O.K., someone is a little underweight. People die.”

As a teenager, Naomi Feigenbaum developed bizarre eating habits that had nothing to do with Jewish dietary laws: Cocoa Puffs and milk in the morning, when she figured she had all day to burn off the calories, and nothing but Crystal Light and chewing gum the rest of the day.

At the kosher dinner table in her home near Cleveland, she said she would start arguments with her parents so she could stomp off and avoid eating. She lost weight so rapidly in high school that she used safety pins to cinch her long skirts around her waist.

By the time her rabbi came to visit her, she was emaciated. He told her that she must attend a treatment program that met on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, even if she had to violate religious rules by riding in a car to get there. She could even eat food that wasn’t kosher.

“That’s when I realized it was a matter of life and death,” Ms. Feigenbaum said in an interview. “My rabbi does not take Jewish law lightly. But he told me the Jewish laws are things God wanted us to live by, not die by, and that saving a life takes precedence over all of them.”

Now 24, she has written a memoir, “One Life” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), about her recovery from anorexia after treatment at the Florida branch of the Renfrew Center, the nationwide eating-disorders clinic.

There is little research to indicate how many women are in a similar position. Israeli studies consistently find high rates of disordered eating among Jewish adolescents but not Arab ones, and Israel’s rate of dieting is among the highest in the world — more than one woman in four — though obesity rates are relatively low.

Data about American Jews is limited, but two small studies have reported high rates of disordered eating in certain communities. One of those, a 1996 study of an Orthodox high school in Brooklyn, found 1 in 19 girls had an eating disorder — about 50 percent higher than in the general population at the time. The 1996 study was done with the agreement that it would not be published. The other study, done in 2008, looked at 868 Jewish and non-Jewish high school students in Toronto and found that 25 percent of the Jewish girls suffered from eating disorders that merited treatment, compared with 18 percent of the non-Jewish girls.

Demand for treatment programs that accommodate Orthodox teenagers prompted the Renfrew Center to start offering kosher food at its clinics in Philadelphia, New York, Dallas and Florida, while a new residential facility catering to young women from the United States opened last year in Jerusalem. It is not affiliated with Renfrew.

Relief Resources, a mental health referral agency that serves Orthodox communities, runs an eating disorders hot line, and last year the O.U. teamed with a social worker to make “Hungry to be Heard,” a documentary about eating disorders among the Orthodox.

Most of the young women interviewed for this article said they did not blame the culture for their health problems and said they derived support from their religious faith. But they spoke openly about the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families , and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers who prepare elaborate Sabbath meals.

Experts say that eating disorders usually emerge during adolescence and other times of transition. And in large Orthodox families, the girls are often expected to help care for their younger siblings, leaving them little time to pursue their own interests. Experts suspect that anorexia may provide a way to stall adult responsibilities by literally stopping the biological clock: the drastic weight loss can halt menstruation.

Young Orthodox women are also expected to conform to a rigorous code of conduct, with few outlets for rebellion. They are expected to be chaste until marriage and do not date until they start looking for a husband. Even gossip is considered a sin.

Once matchmaking starts, they may be expected to choose a life partner after only a brief courtship. Known mental illness in a family can affect the chances of a successful match, not just for the individual but for siblings as well, so young women may well avoid psychiatric treatment.

In addition to fulfilling the traditional roles of caregiver and homemaker, many Orthodox women also assume the role of primary breadwinner so their husbands can pursue religious studies full time.

“It’s too much,” said a 23-year-old woman from the New York area who is recovering from an eating disorder and asked not to be identified by name to protect her privacy. She is married and a full-time student, but has postponed having a baby.

“A lot of my friends are going to work and support their husbands,” she continued, “but part of my recovery is to say that I can’t do everything — I’m not superwoman.”

Food plays a central role in Jewish family and religious life, and both the Friday night dinner and the midday Sabbath meal, as well as holiday meals, can be multicourse affairs. But fast days — when no food or water is consumed for 25 hours — are also sprinkled throughout the year, often preceded or followed by a large meal.

Next week’s Passover Seders, which traditionally include matzo and four cups of wine, along with soup, gefilte fish, brisket and potato kugel, are a particular challenge, experts say. For women who struggle with eating disorders, they can be an invitation to purging.

“There are a lot of mixed messages,” said a 27-year-old woman from a strict Orthodox community in Brooklyn, who once carried less than 100 pounds on her 5-foot-6 frame. “My grandmother would see me and say, ‘You look so good, you’re so skinny — come eat, eat.’ ”

Many rabbis find themselves being asked to resolve conflicts between religious obligations — like the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — and doctors’ orders that patients not restrict food intake under any circumstances.

“A patient will call and tell me their weight is down to 82 pounds, and they have weaknesses in their body, and I’ll tell them there is no question they must eat during a fast — not that they can eat, but that they must eat,” said Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser of the Bais Yitzchak Synagogue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who has become known in the Orthodox world as an expert on eating disorders and counsels women from all over the world.

“They have great difficulty with that,” Rabbi Goldwasser went on, “and they say to me, ‘But isn’t it true that by fasting you get atonement for your sins?’

“I try to answer the spiritual conflict and say that no, God wants you to eat. Your eating on that day is considered as if you fasted.”

Comments

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Sad to say but Orthodox Judaism is pretty much geared towards neurotics and obsessive compulsive disorders.

Before your readers blame Jewish Law for anorexia, they should be reminded that the Torah itself requires a man to support his wife, and not the reverse. The wedding contract (Kethubah) also gives the woman a right to force her husband to support her, or else the courts can force him to give a writ of divorce, along with a sum of money. The real problem is lack of enforcement of these Torah laws. In the Shulchan Aruch HaRav of the Hasidim, it is explicity stated that a father MUST teach his son a trade (Orah Hayim, 156:2). As for marrying early: Childbirths are much easier for women who are still young and strong. My own mother went to work full after I was grown, and my little sister could take care of the small children. Going on Materna after 3 months of breast-feeding is also a problem, since many young mothers can't handle having children every year. Haredim don't use birth-control; but American Law lets women "express milk" in a special covert at the workplace, and lactation is also mentioned in the Talmud as preventing pregnancy. A space of 2 years between pregnancies would take a lot of stress from Hareidi women (and men as well!)

There are 3 main types of eating disorder:

anorexia - extreme food reduction

bulimia nervosa - periods of uncontrollable binge eating, followed by purging.

binge-eating disorder - less known to the public, but the one that reaches the biggest number of women: uncontrollable compulsive eating followed by fasts and emergency unhealthy diets to compensate. it is usually carried as means of deriving comfort.

"But they spoke openly about the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families , and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers who prepare elaborate Sabbath meals"

Pressure. That's the word.

"Sad to say but Orthodox Judaism is pretty much geared towards neurotics and obsessive compulsive disorders."

it's not true at all!

non-religious jewish girls and non-jewish girls also suffer an enormous amount of pressure to be "skinny-pretty-mildred-girls". many die in search of this "goal".

women in general, specially when in a young age, receive all sort of negative influences from the media in order to reach this size 0 clothes.

while the reason for the pressure is different (orthodox girls and mathmakers, non-jewish girls and vogue magazine) the consequences are sadly the same.


ps: mildred is what the media has called skinny-teenage looking-sexy yet childish girls. things like what britney spears was in the beginning of her career. for young girls today, it's TOTALLY ok to be seen as a sexy object. mildreds are cute, immature, their bodies are their temples and this temple must be small.

i teach classes full of mildreds... "neurotic and obsessive compulsive disorders" are just their daily routine.

sad to say that such eating disorder diseases have reached the jewish people, orthodox or not.

By the time her rabbi came to visit her, she was emaciated. He told her that she must attend a treatment program that met on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, even if she had to violate religious rules by riding in a car to get there. She could even eat food that wasn’t kosher.

Hats off to the rabbi!

‘You look so good, you’re so skinny — come eat, eat.’ ”

This woman was anorexic but how many times do normal weight or even over weight women hear eat eat eat? You could have just finished dinner and they are still trying to push food down you. I had a girlfriend who would do that to me. I would come over so we could go see a movie, anxious to leave to be on time, and I would be subjected to 15 minutes of her trying to force food on to me. 30 years old and she acted like my grandma. It's obnoxious.

ops! i say "mildred" because of my mother language but the right word to define the 21th century archetypal girl in english 'middriff'.

Pressure. That's the word.

"Sad to say but Orthodox Judaism is pretty much geared towards neurotics and obsessive compulsive disorders."

it's not true at all!

Esther, don't you see the contradiction in what you're saying? You've just done a complete 180 in the span of four lines.

"Sad to say but Orthodox Judaism is pretty much geared towards neurotics and obsessive compulsive disorders."

its very very true no doubt about it too much of anything is not good too much religion too much food too little food the truth really hurts and this the truth.

, and lactation is also mentioned in the Talmud as preventing pregnancy.


Good for the Talmud, but lactation does NOT have any effect in preventing pregnancy after six months and is not 100% sure before that either.

I think it is the pressure of conformity that is the problem. These girls are not able to develop their own unique likes, dislikes, interests, talents and goals, which would give them a sense of their unique self. The only options available to them are to conform to become carbon copies of each other which, I guess, now means emaciated.

Conformity is the watchword in orthodox Judaism.

One of my rabbonim told me that as long as I dressed, spoke and acted the part I could think and do whatever I wanted to privately.

Marris ayin. Even if it's OK you still can't openly do anything that might make us look bad.

Oh, well.

I really don't have the time or energy to waste on a community that, like the one I grew up in, told each other: We, the Torah True Jews, are It. The rest are ignorant (or worse).

Who are we kidding?

Surely not HaShem.

rochel- youre a genious you described it perfectrly carbon copies of each other .

I disagree with Esther. I don't think eating disorders can be blamed on "media images" and other such nonsense. It is a complex psychological disorder, and its origins are unknown. To play a pop-shrink and assign blame to the media for a medical condition is just silly.

jeff - my point is that this problem happens to secular jewish girls too and i don't see people talking about them. the source for the pressure of being skinny and beautiful is the same for religious and non religious women: pressure. blaming orthodoxy only is not right.

danny - according to the National Eating Disorder Information Center "The media does not cause eating disorders but they send out the clear message that you should be thin (...) They keep showing certain lies such: If you are thin you will feel confident, successfull, healthy and happy. You can't and shouldn't be happy with yourself unless your body look exactly like the thin ideal."

some of my students repeat once in a while, proudly, that sad phrase said by a super top model (don't remember her name now...) "nothing tastes better than being skinny."

the fiji example: fijian women were known as happy ones, natural and respecting the natural shape of a womans body. nobody even knew what eating disorder was.

then, in 1995, tv arrives in fiji island.

3 years after tv arrival, 74% of fijian girls did not like their body image anymore, saying they were too fat.

15% of these girls admited to have started bulimia, in order to control weight...

tv did not say directly they should lose weight, but showed that skinnier girls like the ones in melrose place (very popular among fijian girls) were considered very attractive...

Nowhere in the world does the culture of thinness and the subculture of eating collide as in Orthodox Judaism. It's no wonder our women are stressed out from the mixed signals being sent to them. The girls' seminaries in Israel that the subculture compels us to send our daughters to keep the girls on lockdown and forced feeding. When they come back home and feel compelled to start looking for shiduchim they face demands from boys who expect men's magazine figures.

mass production of clothing has also had a recent effect on promoting the idea of a standard number (dress size) and standard shape to be conformed to. maybe robotics will allow us one day to go back to custom made clothes again.

"my point is that this problem happens to secular jewish girls too and i don't see people talking about them. the source for the pressure of being skinny and beautiful is the same for religious and non religious women: pressure. blaming orthodoxy only is not right."

actually people do talk about eating disorders within the jewish community more generally, afaik (I would have to go check on materials from the local jewish social service agency or even JCC to be sure) its just that FM here is not as interested in that.

i am a little confused here-she says she cant do everything, sheisnt superwoman, so she doesnt work, she doesnt have kids, and apparently she doesnt eat, and my gut tells me that their time in the bedroom is limited-so, what the hell does she do that she doesnt have time for?

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