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Orthodox and Anorexic

As Orthodox Jews join the battle against eating disorders, one young woman shares her harrowing story

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Chaya Faigie Jundef holds a photo of herself from a time before she was in recovery from anorexia. (Claudio Papapietro)
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Jundef eventually escaped from the hospital by memorizing when certain doors were unlocked, and she contacted her family, who signed her out of the treatment program. Over the next few months, Jundef’s weight dropped precariously. “I was mad at the doctors,” she explained. “I used to get up in the middle of the night, because my parents wouldn’t let me go [during the day], and run from 3 to 6 a.m. It became a goal: how much weight I could lose.”

In August of that year, when her sister got married, Jundef was unable to stand outside for the chuppah because she was too cold. At 68 pounds, she enrolled in a treatment program in Toronto General. Jundef experienced a radical recovery; in six months she was close to 103 pounds. At 21, she began to date. But that move, so hopeful at first, eventually led to a new and even lower low.

***

In religious circles, dating is arranged through matchmakers. “The matchmaking world has led to overwhelming pressure,” said Sarah Bateman, a licensed clinical social worker at Renfrew. “Women’s statistics are kept on file by the matchmaker. … The No. 1 question is about women’s size and weight.”

Jundef received a heter, or permission from a rabbi, to wait until she hit a third date with the same young man before telling him about her eating disorder. At the time, Jundef had fully recovered and was pursuing her college degree and teaching full-time.

“It became a lovely cycle of going out with fine young people,” she said. But, “every time they heard about my eating disorder, that was the end of it. … With each ‘no,’ I lost more weight.”

Relapse rates are high for anorexia—between 4 and 27 percent, according to a study out of the University of Maryland. The final break for Jundef came after a series of promising dates with one young man whose parents forbade him from asking her to marry him because they were afraid Jundef’s eating disorder was genetic. “If people will think I’m sick, what difference does it matter if I’m sick or not?” she recalled thinking. “No matter what I do or how happy I am, I’ll always be anorexic to them. I might as well stop fighting so hard.”

But the lowest point for Jundef came when she went down to Miami by herself for three weeks. She rented an apartment and ran for 10 hours a day and swam hundreds of laps, frequently passing out in the pool. She says she can’t recall eating even 100 calories a day at that time. She was wait-listed for another treatment program. Her parents were told that patients frequently die on the waiting list. She was down to 52 pounds by the time a bed opened up in 2007; that’s where her heart stopped in the waiting room.

Jundef doesn’t remember much about the next few weeks, except being hooked up to machines and being wheeled in and out of hospital rooms. When she did make it to a therapy session, someone had to hold her head up. Jundef’s parents threw away most of the photographs from that time, but during our interview, Jundef slid a few photos from an envelope. Her face is a skull with tufts of hair. In one, a ghastly figure lights a menorah.

The hospital allowed Jundef to return home for weekends, but this made things even more difficult; Shabbat and holidays tend to be a struggle for many people recovering from eating disorders. “There are a lot more meals and a lot more courses of food being served,” explained Brodsky. “It’s like sitting down with a room of spiders. These times are particularly hard because they’re faced with their most feared thing at a very abundant level.”

Jundef recovered, but due to a loophole in the system, she was discharged when she gained back half of her weight. Because of how serious her condition was, Jundef was still seriously underweight. “Outpatient treatment doesn’t work with low-weight individuals,” said Brodsky. “There’s too much cognitive impairment.”

Some members of her Orthodox community rallied around her, but the school where she had worked for eight years fired her because, a representative told her, they believed she had a mental illness. Her rabbi called the school, and the school allowed Jundef to continue teaching as long as she didn’t talk with her students outside of the classroom. Almost immediately, she lost her motivation.

She moved in with an aunt in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. At 26, she was back down to 64 pounds. She taught in a Brooklyn girl’s school but quit when she was no longer able to climb the stairs or remember the names of her students.

As Jundef’s heart rate and blood pressure steadily declined, her doctor called Hatzola, the Jewish volunteer emergency services. Two burly members of the organization attempted to take her to the hospital but she fled and slipped into an alcove belonging to a museum. She found an empty office and crawled under a desk. Jundef envisioned spending the rest of her life there. Outside she heard security guards ask if anyone had seen a “little girl with brown hair.”

Her first thought was that she was not little—she was fat.

She came out with her hands up.

Jundef went to three treatment programs after that, including Cornell, Columbia, and finally Renfrew, where she still attends a therapy group. She is considered to be in recovery. “I understood I had an illness and there had to be better treatment than I had experienced,” she said. “I wanted a different life.”

She now speaks frequently about anorexia inside the Orthodox community; her number is often passed around to worried parents and those suffering from eating disorders. (When our interview ended she checked her phone and found a message from one of the people who’d been passed her number: a 29-year-old who suffered from anorexia but couldn’t attend a treatment program because it was co-ed.) She is also teaching full-time again and is considering pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. And she is dating, though these days she’s more immediately open with what she’s been through. She still lives in Brooklyn but now shares a house with her grandmother. She attends a weekly support group at Renfrew for recovered professionals and works with a nutritionist and a social worker.

And for the first time since she was 15, Jundef has finally stopped exercising.

“I think I enjoy life more than most people, because I lost it,” Jundef said. “How beautiful life is when you’re better.”

***

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I’d like to see research that investigates a possible link between eating disorders in the Jewish community and adherence to dietary restrictions. It seems there’s an automatic cultural and spiritual reward for monitoring food intake in strange ways.

Then Orthodox men would have anorexia too, right?

THere is a twelve group that works for Food Addiction, and there are some Orthodox (born and raised not just Baal Tshuvah) in it. Why wasn’t that addressed int his article?

Perhaps it did not apply to this individual. It sounds to me, especially with the traditional match-making “requirements” – that a twelve or other alternatively contrived methodology/organization may have been completely out of the question for her, since it seems that everything was contained within her ultra-orthodox family (the decisions of steps).

She looks beautiful in the picture above – stunning eyes – so much to offer the world – I hope that she continues to flourish – healthy and positively.

Very good article – very poignant.

Perhaps it did not apply to this individual. It sounds to me, especially with the traditional match-making “requirements” – that a twelve or other alternatively contrived methodology/organization may have been completely out of the question for her, since it seems that everything was contained within her ultra-orthodox family (the decisions of steps).

She looks beautiful in the picture above – stunning eyes – so much to offer the world – I hope that she continues to flourish – healthy and positively.

Very good article – very poignant.

I have often wondered of the stereotyped stigmas that Jews suffer outside the cultural influences – such as the latent propaganda of over-eating.

I know that I was kidded a lot as a child for my constant want for bread – and that this was an affectionate joke that it was because of my “Jewishness” – “Better keep an eye on the dinner rolls, or with Robert, the little Jew around, there won’t be enough to make it around the table!” Of course these were not Jews joking like this, nor did they mean any harm or malice at all. This was the late 60′s and 70′s in Cal, and often references to my “Jewishness” were made more as a respectful recognition of my heritage (by hicks mostly).

They do, yes, just not in the numbers of Ortho women, because of the American Barbie Doll programming put forth by the media as well as other outside-cultural influences.

I can accept that Orth. women are anorexic because of the shidduch issue. I can accept it might be because of influence of the outside world. But to think that adhering to kashrut causes eating disorders is quite a stretch.

You know, it very well might be in fact that it is just one of those things, like Bi-polar or other illnesses and really has nothing to do with with Orth. influence at all.

Debra says:

Anorexia is about control. Could it be that anorexia in the Orthodox community is a personal statement? When there are guidelines/rules that essentially structure one’s life (no judgment implied; we all live by rules), could anorexia be an expression of autonomy? ” *I* will decide what and how much I will eat!”

Debra says:

I suspect the reason food addiction wasn’t addressed is because anorexia isn’t about addiction to food. It’s an “addiction” to control. The only thing food addiction and anorexia share is food. The former abuses it, the latter refuses it.

mouskatel says:

Stranger than vegans? Stranger than vegetarians? Stranger than Atkins-dieters? Please define the meaning of “strange ways”.

You are correct. Most ultra – orthodox families would not consider alternative methods of treatment.

This article is well written. I shared it with several friends, and they were touched. I was especially amazed that Miss Jundef was able to go on with her life after such a traumatizing experience, and I give her credit for going public. I know many Orthodox girls who are too embarrassed to seek treatment or share their experiences. I think that any individual that overcomes an eating disorder should be complimented for her/his efforts rather than shamed.

Nhkobrin says:

The other thing that is rarely taken into consideration or at least discussed openly is the impact of the history of forced starvation during the Holocaust and an identification with the victims which becomes intwoven with the control issue of anorexia. The female bares the brunt of the unconscious rage within the community. Power and control by the males.

Yes yes – great piece. I am at work so I don’t have a lot of time – but I did try to find the email address of the author so that I could “personally” thank them for doing this piece.

laurel says:

very interesting and well written, my only source of contention is that it mentions numbers and weights – anyone can have an eating disorder at any weight, although anorexia nervosa is characterized by an abnoromally low weight. i think it was irresponsible of the author to include the subject’s low weights – eating disorders are competitive diseases, and it only reinforces the notions that all anorexics are completely emaciated <70lbs.

you’ve been reading too many novels. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Do your research before making such a bold statement.

Issues of Holocaust I agree with. Also stress of achieving in a market defined beauty and femme couvert culture entraps 20- 21C female.

marjorie ingall says:

I wish this piece weren’t merely a profile, and a limited profile at that. It desperately needs a lot more WHY. Not just more self-reflection from the subject (who seems like a lovely person and I wish her continued health) but perspective from experts beyond “anorexia isn’t more common among Orthodox Jews.” Commenters are hypothesizing about why Jundef had this disease, and of course they would anyway, but there’s nothing in the piece to latch onto. In reality, there’s a lot of research both on the disease’s prevalence (why was it on the rise for so long, and why do the numbers seem to have leveled off in recent years, while bulimia is still increasing in prevalence?) and on which treatment protocols work and which do more harm than good. The latter, especially, would have added nuance to this story.

Indeed. I think it’s also about (perceived) mind over body control. You deny your body’s needs and desires. It serves as a weird kind of purity/cleanliness to deny yourself food. The weaker you physically become, the stronger and more mentally determined you feel. I agree with Nhkobrin’s holocaust comment in that it may be in part a desire for a defiant victim aesthetic: to be frail and yet persevere. To be strong in your weakness. (But in this case perseverance means death not life.)

Wigmore says:

I paused when I read the words:”I met Jundef last month at the only Starbucks in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn; she looked like every other young woman who wandered in and out of the store. She wore a patterned, ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeved T-shirt despite the humid July heat.”

First, there is no Starbucks in Borough Park.

Second, at the Starbucks closest to Borough Park, most of the young women do not look like that at all.

While you might think these are small details, if the writer cannot get them correct, it makes me wonder what else he has gotten wrong.

NaturaLee says:

This piece is a little disingenuous. It’s dishonest to suggest that there is nothing in the yeshivish/Chasidic lifestyle that makes eating disorders more prevalent than in the general community. The religious attitude to one’s body is repressive; sexuality is denied and physical desire considered sinful. The idea of having physical intimacy, even pleasuring oneself, is unacceptable and worse, sexual education even for brides is virtually non-existent. While the public stance of the Orthodox is that intimacy among married couples is enhanced by the laws of tahara, the real message conveyed throughout children’s lives is that sex and physical pleasure are sinful.
For more on the subject of anorexia among the Orthodox, see this from last April’s NY Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/health/12orthodox.html?pagewanted=all

Aviva Braun says:

As a psychotherapist working in this field who also happens to be from that background I must say that I found this article really disappointing. It is not necessary every time someone decides to write an article about Jewish women and eating disorders to consult with the same source (mainly Dr. Ira Sacker and Dovid Goldwasser). There are others who work in this field who are highly respected that can be consulted on this issue. I happened to not work within that community but can tell you that the reasoning given in this article behind why women in the Orthodox world develop eating disorders is faulty and lacking.
I think the main point is being missed in this and just about every article I read about eating disorders and the Orthodox. It is so much deeper than what is being portrayed. Orthodox women are struggling with the same issues relating to their body image that women in the general population are. They are expected to have it all. They are paining their bodies just as any woman is in this culture in order to fit into the narrowly defined beauty ideal that is placed on us by the media, fashion industry, and from within our own cultures.
In the real world a woman would not hit 52lbs before seeking treatment. I tend to hear of these extreme cases all the time specifically in the Orthodox world. Why should it get to that point. If people would take care to ensure that their daughter gets the necessary treatment before their child is almost dealthy ill then maybe we wouldn’t have a “battle against eating disorders”.
I think it’s high time that we take a look at the Orthodox community and realize that these eating disorders are being perpetrated from within. The pressure is coming from the outside (because as much as people don’t want to admit Orthodox women are equally exposed to media) but also highly from within. Mothers, matchmakers, and men are pressuring women to fit into this culturally defined very narrow idea of beauty.
Maybe if mothers and matchmakers would stop ensuring women are a size 0 before going on a date they wouldn’t feel the need to starve themselves almost literally to death. If mothers would stop dieting and start embracing their bodies and not make their daughters feel ashamed and help them diet at 11 or 12 this battle might be won.

Ilana Garon says:

I’d have liked to hear from more experts in the field of eating disorders and treatment, particularly women. The only woman quoted here is the LCSW at Renfrew who makes the observation that the shidduch scene compounds eating disorders. Why must it be exclusively male “experts”–Goldwasser and Sacker–commenting on the pathology and treatment of eating disorders, while women are relegated solely to the status of victims, despite the pioneering efforts of many female clinicians in this field? A more balanced perspective is needed, and more research to boot.

Hilary Brodsky is also quoted, and her quotes are good. But I agree that the article should focus more on how she recovered and what it was like to be Orthodox in treatment.

michaelh613 says:

Yeh secular women are never anorexic. Thats why this is an exclusively
Orthodox problem. Secular men never judge women by their weight only
their intellect which is why the most famous women are PHD’s not
underweight models.

College of course is a time where women get the highest respect. Only
about 25% of young women at a secular colleges are raped. Not
surprising how low it is given the fact the Fraternity system is based
on teaching young men to respect and love women as people not sex
objects.

The media in particular pushes the idea for respect for the inner woman. The physical attractiveness of a woman is never a part of women getting jobs as an actress. Overweight women are as likely to be hired in Hollywood as regular women and ultra thin women never get hired because of the bad message it would give. They are all intellectual geniuses with great skill in acting. Of course they are also all known for their great activities in charity as well, because America’s secular culture loves the inner woman not the naked one.

michaelh613 says:

If people are looking for a book on the subject of eating disorders by a Orthodox Jewish woman check out
One Life: Hope, Healing and Inspiration on the Path to Recovery from Eating Disordershttp://www.amazon.com/One-Life-Inspiration-Recovery-Disorders/dp/1843109123

Its not a frum book or even a frum publisher. So if you want the artscroll treatment you will be disappointed. But if you want to really learn about eating disorders this is a good place to start

Hilary Brodsky I know professionally and is a horrible, unstable and inappropriate therapist. I’d think a better source would be used and I completely agree about the overuse of Rabbi Goldwasser and Ira Sacker. And yes, there are so many complex reasons why someone develops an eating disorder and it is NOT the norm for someone to get to 52 pounds. In fact, the majority of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell an anorexic woman from any other “thin” woman.

Starbucks on 18th Avenue is probably what is being referred to. And most of the frum girls do look like that! The writer didn’t mention seamed tights blazer over shirt; a long skirt and long sleeved tee is common for frum girls.

“Anorexia is about control.” That is an over simplified and incorrect statement. Eating disorders are very complex mental illnesses with many reasons as to why someone may develop an ED and ONE reason for it MAY be about control.

Wigmore says:

Uh, no. Starbucks at 6423 18th Avenue is most assuredly NOT in Borough
Park as anyone with even a vague idea about Brooklyn knows. It’s firmly
in Bensonhurst.

And he didn’t say she looked like “most of the frum girls.” What he said was, “she
looked like every other young woman who wandered in and out of the
store,” clearly nonsense. As someone who goes there at least six times a
week, I would say that no more than 10 per cent of the women fit this
description. The rest are mostly Asian, Italian and Russian with a few
of the other demographic groups making up the rest. Those women do not look “frum” and the few frum women stand out.

Again, if a writer doesn’t seem to know where he is and mischaracterizes
both the venue and the customers, I question the rest of the piece no
matter how plausible it sounded.

avigial says:

This is a really inspiring article. Jundef is extremely courageous for coming out and speaking about such an important issue. I feel that this article will really help others suffering from the disease. Thank you!!!!

This is a wonderful article and I wish Jundef all the best. I totally understand her. Iwas her and in many ways I still am. I became anorexic at 14 stealing my mothers diet pills , starving myself and running at all hours of the day and night in cold snowy NJ. My parents wouldnt recognize the fact that Iwas ill, and it wasnt until I was an 18 year old college student trying to commit suicide because it was better than living that they finally put me ina hospital to get better. But they told everyone also that I had mono. They couldnt face the fact that “their daughter”had mental problems Of course itdidnt come from them nor were they to blame. It was all my fault and I did it to myself. They have never admitted that I was ill or had an eating disorder because that kind of thing doesnt happen “to us”
I am now 62 years old and have suffered all my life. It has been a huge struggle and I have tried most of my life to get better. I have had some good years and I have had whole years where I was so sick in my disease that I that Idont even remember living. I have had numerous suicide attempts that put me in hospital for months on end. A great deal of 2010 and 2011 I was hospitalized and given ect treatments which added to huge memory loss and wanting to die even more. SInce the beginning of 2012 I have been on a road to recovery which is rocky at times but I am doing my best. I have a wonderful ad supportive husband and daughter that I love very much. I strongly feel that I need to give back to all those young women out there who are struggling and suffering and need to know that they are worthy and deserve a good life. Life is worth living and I welcome anyone who would want to reach out to me. I know there is hope and health out there and Iwant to share my message. My name is KAren andmy email address is w2wkaren@hotmail.com. Thank you for letting me share.

As a fellow classmate of Chaya Faigy, I am so deeply saddened. The orthodox community, and the school that fired her, should be ashamed. And why can’t the 29 year old attend a co-ed program if there is no all girls program accessible to her? Is it better she die than share her fears with *gasp* a boy sitting across the room? Kuddos to you Chaya Faigy, for speaking about your experience and continued recovery.

As a fellow classmate of Chaya Faigy, I am so deeply saddened. The orthodox community, and the school that fired her, should be ashamed. And why can’t the 29 year old attend a co-ed program if there is no all girls program accessible to her? Is it better she die than share her fears with *gasp* a boy sitting across the room? Kuddos to you Chaya Faigy, for speaking about your experience and continued recovery.

I second your comments (as another former classmate of 12 years..)

As a former classmate of Chaya Faigie of 12 yrs..I was deeply saddened to read of all the pain, rejection and challenges that occured repeatedly. I was also glad to read that you finally found a center that suited and catered to you, and that you are well into recovery. It takes a lot of courage and bravery to come out and reveal your struggles, your secrets, your journey. Kol Hakavod to you!! I wish you complete recovery and hope that your story will give strength and motivation to others who are also in need of help.

Haily says:

I wasn’t born Jewish. I converted when I was 10. Before I was Jewish, I had gone to a co-ed Jewish day-school for less religious kids, but in middle school, I transferred to a very religious all girl’s school. I was much taller than the other girls, and by sixth grade, I had started developing whereas not a single girl in my school (5th to 8th grades) had developed at all. They didn’t talk to me, but they talked about me, how it’s not RIGHT to have the body I had, how “untznius” I was because I had developed certain body-parts. By eighth grade it got worse. I had filled out even more and everyone was still in their pre-pubescent bodies. There were no exceptions, everyone in my class was small and underweight. Most of them complained about being fat though. They were all skinny, but were all dieting and saying “I wish I was SKINNY!” and “the only way I’ll get a good shidduch is if I’m under 100 pounds” and such. I started eating less and less until I stopped eating entirely. I went from being 130 pounds (at 5″4) to 115 in a couple months. I was still bigger than everyone else, though. They were all 90 pounds or less, and I got so frustrated. I was considered “overweight” and I completely lost it when one of my jewish “friends” told me that if I don’t lose 10 pounds then I’ll have to settle for a guy who has a fetish for fat girls. I became very depressed and stopped going to school. I dropped out completely when I was 17 – after transferring to a zillion different schools where the girls were all exactly the same. I prayed to god every night. I prayed that I would stop thinking about food and weight and all that eating disorder garble in my mind. The thoughts never went away. I stopped caring about being jewish, and I broke all the rules, without caring at all. I feel nothing now, as I turn on and off the lights during shabbos. I think nothing when I binge on bacon and macaroni and cheese within much LESS than six hours of each other. I feel nothing when someone I care about dies or is diagnosed with cancer. I whore myself out to any guy that doesn’t mind that I’m not a twig. I wouldn’t feel anything if I shot a toddler right now. Fuck being jewish. There is no such thing as god, and I can’t help but look down on people who believe in god and follow stupid rules.

guest says:

hi im kinda new to this but wanna say one thing. people u are missing the point of this article. its not about where starbuks is or what cfj wore its about the corage she has to fight somting she couldnt control. and that she posted it. its hard enough to write but its emotianly draining to disscuss it. i met chaya f. this past summer and she is the most special person i ever met.

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Orthodox and Anorexic

As Orthodox Jews join the battle against eating disorders, one young woman shares her harrowing story

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