From One Altar to Another: A Story of Worship, From Orthodoxy to Anorexia
I spent my teenage years in rebellious pursuit of an unattainable body. It almost cost me everything.
My adolescent quest for glamour and a more self-determined life began with a simple diet and ended with my cheek pressed to the cold concrete of my basement floor surrounded by pools of vomit, a direct result of the ipecac I swallowed after submitting to the appetite I had denied for weeks. My heart beat fast and furious as if attempting to jump out of my chest, and it occurred to me—almost as if in casual passing—that perhaps I would die. But I was too humiliated to call weakly for my parents, whose footsteps I heard puttering on the floor above me as they finished up Shabbos dinner, a Friday night ritual from which I had summarily excused myself months earlier. The vomit, proof of the kugel and cookies I had snuck into the basement and consumed in a ravenous blur, laid bare for all to see my shameful weakness: I was only human after all, and I would have taken death over that.
Like other Jewish children who descended from Hungarian grandmothers, Auschwitz survivors, and mothers who never left the house without a bag of snacks lest someone suffer a hunger pang during the ride to the pizzeria, some of my earliest, most visceral childhood memories are of food. My Bubbe’s weathered fingers expertly slicing paper-thin segments of cucumbers, which she would douse with sugar and paprika; her shlishkes, potato dumplings dripping with steam that my siblings and I impatiently snatched straight from the stovetop; her roast chicken so moist the skin slid off when you touched your fork to it. On holidays, her special rugelach, stuffed with jelly and nuts and dusted liberally with powdered sugar that melted in clumps in my sweaty hands.
Naturally, I associated food with love—and as my love of food kept growing, naturally, I followed suit.
Until I was 9 or 10 years old, frenetic activity and the rapid-fire metabolism of a young child counteracted my culinary adoration, but like clockwork, a preteen’s developing body and more time devoted to homework than the outdoors converged to make me, well, chunkier. Not in the realm of fat, and just barely bordering on chubby, but I no longer had the angular, carelessly lanky body of a child. I had rolls; when I pressed my finger to my abdomen, it felt squishy. I yanked the zipper up my uniform skirt one morning to discover that it wouldn’t fully close.
Around this same time, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, I began a subtle and unwilling induction into a society of women who viewed food as the enemy. Teen magazines doled out copious advice on how to tone our thighs and whittle our waists. At the mall, my friends and I would gaze longingly at the impossibly slender models splashed across stores’ window banners and sigh, second-guessing cups of cookie dough ice cream that we had happily devoured five minutes earlier. We began using words like diet and low-fat, and trips to the pizza place took on tense undertones as we surreptitiously gauged each other’s plates. I took careful note in the communal dressing room at Loehmann’s as women shot dismayed looks at their reflections, viciously pinching at their midsections and upper arms.
It became very clear that it appeared to be my female duty to rein in my childhood love of eating and begin carving my body into a more palatable shape and size.
But more than merely falling prey to distorted cultural ideas on beauty—another hapless victim in a long history of subliminal influence—I toyed with dieting as a way to address the dissatisfaction I felt in my ordered Orthodox Jewish world. It rested only on the outskirts of a more zealous community in Brooklyn, and I had many happy childhood memories, but I recall vividly my early panic at the preconceived expectations placed on me about what to believe and how my life would play out. It was a beautiful world if you had no qualms about the role you were expected to fulfill, but it often made for an agitated existence if you were disappointed with the answers to your questions and felt a burgeoning desire to search outside clear confines.
Yet though I had long suspected that my parents’ and community’s brand of religious devotion was not for me, I could not contemplate rebelling so obviously and risk being summarily dismissed as a problem child, one of those troublesome rebels who inspired worried articles in the Jewish media and task forces composed of tearful parents who met regularly at some communal leader’s Flatbush mansion. “It’s secular music and movies!” moaned one rabbi. “It’s poor parenting!” thundered another. I wondered why there was no less dramatic realization that perhaps an Orthodox lifestyle simply doesn’t suit some people; surely, no single way of life could be right for everyone, could it?
But no, it seemed there always had to be some horribly destructive reason why children drifted from Orthodoxy, like drugs or alcohol or promiscuity, and I had no interest in any of these things. I had only a deep longing to chart my own path and explore what I thought were simple desires: finagle a boyfriend who would slip his yeshiva varsity jacket across my shoulders and who might one day—after we got to know each other really well, of course—dare to hold my hand; attend college in a lovely New England town and study wildly impractical subjects that had no bearing on my future career; and prick a hole in the Brooklyn bubble and travel the world.
I struggled to reconcile how to fulfill these dreams without garnering the disappointment of others for wanting something different than what was expected of me. It seemed impossible, and I was racked with anxiety during much of my adolescence. Dieting seemed like a perfect way—perhaps the only way—to exert full authority over something in my life and avoid incurring anyone’s wrath, and, sad and scared about where my suppressed desires might one day lead me, I inadvertently bought into one of the greatest shams our society sells us like some sleazy snake oil salesman: If you are thin and beautiful, all your troubles will simply melt away. Adrift in a vast and baffling sea of unrealized ambition and communal expectations, I grabbed onto this promise like a lifeline.
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