Being an orthodox Jew and having an eating disorder doesn't easily come hand in hand. To give you a bit of background, I was born and bred in a modern orthodox Jewish home, filled with the scent of freshly baked challah and bubbling chicken soup, delightfully made by my adoring mother every Friday. We didn't keep to every Jewish law but sort of worked our life around them whilst growing up in the multi-cultural and vibrant city of London. Becoming more frum (orthodox) in recent years, my 'fussy eating' that transpired into anorexia became entwined and tangled with the strict laws that one has to abide by in Judaism. This often left professionals and those in high rabbinic positions often confused as to how they should best approach my recovery.
My anorexic brain told me that by keeping strictly kosher, I should therefore eliminate nearly every food product 'just in case it wasn't kosher'. I now realize this was my anorexia and not my desire to be the 'perfect' Jew. I would often be seen walking for miles on end to burn calories on Shabbat, ironically our day of rest. Saturday's which is our Shabbat (Sabbath), I would set myself walking targets, trying to get to destinations miles away, blaming my walks on having to be at a certain synagogue. I have found that both my eating disorder and religion have unhealthily grown together, each one egging the other on to provide more restrictions in my life.
Something I am not proud of is that when I was 16 after going on a trip to Poland to visit Auschwitz and other harrowing sites of the Holocaust, I decided I was a terrible person for having been blessed with so much food and it was unfair of me to enjoy any meals. How could I possibly indulge in food when so many innocent victims perished, many of starvation? That's what I told myself....
As my mission continued to self-destruct, I soon realized how selfish and ungrateful I was, denying myself food and destroying my body when really I should be so grateful at the fact that I was born in a time when simple food items are not such a luxury. However, my anorexia grew rampant and took such control over me that even my small healthy part of me wasn't able to conquer those evil, unhealthy thoughts. My anorexia jumped in joy at my new found 'religious obsession' and I decided to adopt every such restriction on my life as possible, convincing myself that it was simply all down to me being a 'perfect Jew'.
I can now safely say that I was anything but a perfect Jew. I was wrecking my body, often allowing it to collapse from sheer weakness in public. Despite the body being considered such a sacred vessel in Judaism, I pushed myself to stay up hours on end at night, going through every line of our Torah, analyzing, then giving myself breaks of sit-ups that 'had to be done in a multiples of 10.' I decided at 18 to go on a gap year to Israel to study further. Although there was a huge part of me, healthy, that desperately wanted to further my knowledge in Judaism, my year was overtaken by my eating disorder.
Once ending up in full-time treatment, over the past year, I have had to re-build my Jewish identity. I was forced not to keep kosher, and Shabbat's were not spent surrounded by candles and singing songs, rather the monotonous hum of an eating disorder unit, with many weeks spent in tears. I am finally learning to appreciate life, and everything I have been blessed with, including the amazing Jewish identity my parents have given me. Although extremely difficult and I still need a lot of ongoing help, I am managing to start keeping the Jewish laws for what they are - for healthy reasons - rather than to manipulate them into allowing myself to lose weight.
I see how amazing and rewarding life can be, and although I have grown as a person from my experiences, I am upset at the amount of time my illness has made me waste. During these months of the year, when there are festivals after festival, surrounded by many a mealtime, I am trying my best to enjoy and acknowledge the beauty and root of these joyous times. As always, my journey does still continue, but for now, I am going to try my hardest to ensure my Jewish identity allows me to grow as a person, rather than see Judaism as one big restriction.
Useful websites and helplines:
Beat, call 0845 634 7650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393