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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.

Tova Cohen
April 01, 2014
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

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.

I gave myself the deadline of my 16th birthday, a milestone that appeared to hold magical properties in the secular world that inspired lavish parties, tender reminiscing, and an entire serial of Sweet Valley High books featuring peskily perfect twins who stayed eternally 16, no matter how many times they had summer vacation or danced at their junior prom. I cut down from a sleeve of Oreos to only five or six at a time and switched to diet soda—but these half-hearted efforts bought half-hearted results, and when I did not awaken on the designated day to find that I had miraculously blossomed into a six-foot Amazon with legs like a gazelle as I had fully expected, I was devastated. Concentrated studying didn’t bring me to the top of my class, and I lacked any significant talent that I could see. Was there nothing at all I could complete to perfection?

Just weeks after my birthday came Passover, a holiday during which religious Jews do not consume any leavened bread products. Already feeling bereft without pizza and bagels, I determined to use this time to further restrict my diet and ate only meats, fruits, and vegetables. Eight days later, I was four pounds thinner, and I discovered that diets really worked, as long as you actually followed them.

Buoyed by this discovery, I extended the initial challenge into a game of numbers. If x grams are divided by y servings, the number of calories equals z. If I lose 4 percent of my body weight in three weeks, I can reach my goal weight of x pounds by September, and so on. It would have come in handy when I took the SATs, but unfortunately, this remains the only time in my life that I showed a true propensity for mathematics. With each pound lost came a surge of intoxication, much like the highs that I imagine addicts chase to the exclusion of anything else in life, and I, too, began seeking this euphoric state whenever I could. My days became filled with ambitious baking sprees where I plied others with cakes and cookies but refused any for myself, and frequent trips to the supermarket where I’d stare longingly at cartons of ice cream behind frosted doors before summoning the will to leave empty-handed. I spent hours obsessively planning my meager meals while luxuriating in my virtuousness for abstaining from the elaborate feasts I envisioned in my head.

People’s initially admiring looks and praise took on undertones of concern and wariness as I persisted, but perhaps more than the praise, their obvious distress emboldened me further. I delighted in my father’s furrowed brow, my Bubbe’s insistence that I eat what she put before me, and my friends’ raised eyebrows at the shul kiddush when I declined the proffered stale cookie or greasy portion of cholent. Having felt like a problem child for so long in a family where terms of endearment were not freely circulated—perhaps one of the reasons I had once confused food with love?—and like a social barnacle tacked on to existing cliques of more extraordinary girls, to receive obvious and discernible validation of my worth and significance was exhilarating.

My downward spiral continued. The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I was sent home early from summer camp where, overwhelmed without my typical menu, I found it easier to subsist on apples and the warm cans of Diet Pepsi I stored under my bed. Back at home, with my friends away, I spent long and lonely evenings visually absorbing Joy of Cooking and other mammoth recipe tomes. I fingered the luscious photos of every decadent dish as I curled up in the fetal position to quiet the hunger pangs that gnawed at my empty stomach, stabbing me with their incessant demands.

Feed me, they said. Go away, I said.

I shivered in 80 degree weather. My face turned gray and pinched. By the time summer ended and my friends had returned, I had retreated further into a solitary world and noted their invitations to various social engagements with passive disinterest. I found it more romantic to waste away like some Victorian-era waif under an oversized blanket on the couch, comforted by the slow and steady hiss of the radiator and the warmth emanating to the cushions on which I lay. Every now and then, I’d glance at my skeletal fingers attached to bluish nail pads, or the prominent knob of my wrist, and sigh contentedly.

I wasn’t very good at being a compliant Orthodox girl, but I excelled in my newfound religion, the elements of which shared many similarities with traditional observance: elaborate dietary laws and fasting, lofty ideals about sin and salvation, and an emphasis on both externals and rituals. My new god demanded perfection and was difficult to appease, much like the angry being I had feared my entire childhood and who I was certain would assign me a horrible, fiery death if I didn’t manage to shed some tears during Yom Kippur davening. But the payoff of this new religion—an enviably slender body and some semblance of self-authority—seemed more immediately valuable to me than a secure place in the world to come. Perhaps most important, to risk my health seemed infinitely preferable than to risk further disappointing my parents or neighbors or whoever it was, exactly, that was holding me and every other religious youth to certain standards of behavior. I had already spouted enough liberal politics at the Shabbos table and waged an all-out war to attend a more moderate religious high school, and it was exhausting to feel like a black sheep when you were only trying to be authentic to yourself.

Medical terms racked up: Bradycardia. Osteopenia. When my period ceased to make its monthly appearance, I felt relieved. The whole thing had seemed like an embarrassingly messy affair anyway, and its absence relieved some of my increasing disgust with any signs of normal bodily functions. But my doctor’s worried tone, and the name she gave it—amenorrhea—piqued a voice of reason that was struggling mightily to make itself heard amid the din of my anorexic brain. It was the same voice that gave me a moment’s pause when I studied pictures of gaunt concentration camp victims for thinspiration, or when I ate an extra egg white and would not leave my house for the next two days until I starved sufficiently in mortified penance.

This faint intonation of logic, usually so swiftly overpowered by my sickness, had a rare moment to shine. I wanted to have children one day, and not merely because it was one of the things expected of me, either. Logically, I knew I’d have to eat to restore any hope of fertility. But I found that I couldn’t bring myself to abdicate control. I felt helpless at the thought of losing what had become my singular, all-consuming focus in life; if I let it go, I would have to face all the fears that had led me straight to it in the first place and confront them head on. It was easier to continue starving. And having failed to achieve impeccable adherence and happiness in the Orthodox faith modeled for me, I found I still needed to cling desperately to a set of exacting rules, for without a carefully outlined path to anchor me, I felt simply unmoored.

I wanted to be a mother in the future, but I needed my anorexia now.

Over the months, my friends became helpless strangers on the outskirts of my life, and my best friend, in whose home across from mine I had spent countless hours and in whose company I once shared the most intimate secrets, watched me with wounded eyes as I evaded her in class and on our street. “I see you in there!” she called angrily through the mail slot as I frantically hissed at my mother to get away from the door. “Why won’t you let me in? Why won’t you talk to me?” And as I raced to the peephole to watch her trudge away, lonely and confused, how could I tell her the truth: that I had no energy for anything or anyone other than this reduced version of myself?

For by this time, I was no longer the outgoing, eager girl with dreams aplenty and a smile at the ready, but a half-starved creature with hard eyes and heightened senses, not unlike a feral alley cat that lurks in the shadows as it lies in wait for scraps of food. I hunted for the forgotten vestiges from disregarded plates of others, and, once I made sure no one was watching, I snatched a pizza crust or the crumbling remains of a muffin and fled to a place where I could be alone. There, hunched over in the corner of my bedroom, I’d dissect these scraps into more minute slivers before ingesting them slowly while keeping a watchful eye on the door for any interlopers who might accidentally stumble across this scene of forbidden indulgence.

At night, I dreamed in food—anything my Bubbe had ever made me, the ice cream sundaes dripping with hot fudge my friend Miri and I used to get on Kings Highway on our walks home from school—and when I woke, it took me a minute or two to orient myself, the metallic tinge of starvation on my tongue jerking me back into my new austere reality. My days were minefields that stretched out in seemingly endless hours challenging me to do something, anything, but eat. As I cried myself to sleep one night, a salty tear made its way to my parched lips, and I sucked it in hungrily before cold shock set in and propelled me from the bed to the floor to complete a furious set of sit ups and leg lifts. I had already met my daily allowance of food, you see, and I couldn’t afford the calorie I suspected a teardrop might possess.

This is what my existence had been reduced to. I had certainly accomplished what I had set out to do, for anorexia had given me the sleek limbs I yearned for. It had superseded the real fears I was afraid to face, and it had become my entire life.

But oh, what a life.

By the time I lay crumpled in a heap on the basement floor just shy of 17, concentrating on each breath until my heartbeat resumed a more normal pattern and wishing for the release that death would bring me, I was just as quickly overcome with a desperate desire to live a more normal life again. A life that was uncertain and rife with potential to disappoint others as it might have been. And through the years of hospital stays and therapy and personal revelations that followed, I realized this: I lost a lot of things to anorexia, including 30-some pounds, my best friend, and no small degree of physical and mental health. But all I had done was exchange the confines of one religion in which I felt imprisoned for another, entirely of my own creation. And I had gotten nowhere.

This essay is adapted from a memoir-in-progress.


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Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post, and she is also a contributing blogger to She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter @tovamos

Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.