Hunger point

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In my inaugural post on “Grub first,” I wrote about Rosh Hashanah, my favorite holiday of the year. The Jewish New Year begins this year at sundown on Wednesday, September 8th, on my second day of classes. I did not discuss at length in that first post the holiday that follows Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, perhaps for the obvious reason that Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement, is defined by an absence of food. No food, no “Grub.” Right?

Not quite.

Yom Kippur is a hugely significant holiday in the Jewish faith, but it is not one that most secular-but-selectively-observant Jews like myself look forward to. A day of starvation and lengthy synagogue services do not a joyous people make, after all. Even the anticipation of the lavish break-fast to come seems incapable of tempering the austerity of the holiday, and so I have come to consider Yom Kippur the “less fun and more painful” twin of Rosh Hashanah, sweet and vivacious as she is.

As a 10- or 11-year-old, my Hebrew school friends and I decided to join our parents in the annual fast of Yom Kippur. A day without food seemed to us a fun challenge, a feat to later brag about to our goyish friends. We wouldn’t be attending school anyways (score!), so why not test our capability to do without that which was so readily available the other 364 days of the year?

In the years since my struggles with eating first began, Yom Kippur has taken on new meaning for me. Yom Kippur is no longer the day in which I starve and am miserable, but has become the day in which I starve and am miserable, as well as an emotional wreck.

The first year I fasted for Yom Kippur post-E.D. drama, I felt a deep sadness that could only be attributed to such a blatant reminder of what restricting my food intake as an anorexic had felt like. Lying in the bath tub, conscious of my gnawing hunger and empty stomach, I felt as though my emotions had dressed themselves in gaudy costume jewelry and put on an extravagant show for a reluctant audience of one– myself.

I also felt, to my surprise, lonely and alone. No matter that my family was fighting the same hunger pangs just downstairs, my empty stomach had reduced my surroundings to mere white noise. All that mattered was the ridiculous performance my feelings had worked up, sadness trailing loneliness across the stage.

I can’t blame Yom Kippur for the Mardi Gras celebration my emotions so kindly put on, but that incident and the Yom Kippurs since have reminded me that hunger remains a personal and emotional experience for me, regardless if it is sanctioned by the religion I was born into.

Hunger reminds me that I once ceded control of a need so instinctual I have been doing it since birth to disordered thinking. That, sometime after my 16th birthday, I lost the ability to eat without attaching emotion to the act. Hunger is a mournful reminder that I am still, despite greater insight and growth, a card-carrying member of the “eating disordered.” That, despite my current ability to eat dessert without guilt and butter without fear, I can never reverse the hyperawareness of food and body that pre-adolescent Sarah did not have.

There exist myriad opinions on the question of ritual fasting for people who have struggled with eating disorders; I have my own as well. I have in the past year or so come to the conclusion that doing without for Yom Kippur is too much too soon for me. I can’t fast without getting caught up in the heady and emotional nature of controlled starvation.

At least not yet.

I do not believe that I will ever forget that one serving of skim milk has 90 calories, and a slice of bread 70-100. But I do believe in recovery, although it is often elusive to me.

With enough stability in my recovery and years behind me, I have faith that abstaining from food for Yom Kippur, or for, say, a fasting glucose test, will be no different than it would for anyone else.

Until that time, though, I will eat on Yom Kippur as I do the rest of the year, and know that my atonement means as much as any else’s.

Shana Tova Umetukah. A good and sweet year!


Famiglia e il cibo


No, I don’t speak Italian. But I couldn’t think of a more fitting language to use for this post, titled, for the English speakers among us, “Family and food.”

Family and food. What two subjects could be more inextricably intertwined than food, il cibo, and family, famiglia?

I am not Italian, but I am Jewish, and for us Chosen-But-Not-Special folks, food is as much a part of the culture as the religion itself.

Food receives star billing in Jewish culture both in its mention in Kashrut, the section of the Torah dedicated to distinguishing acceptable food items from their treyf counterparts, and in the role it plays in bringing families together for religious holidays and other such gatherings.

I grew up in a largely secular Jewish family, in which Hebrew school was a dreaded weekly commitment, but for whom a dinner of scallops and shrimp was also commonplace.

My father, on the other hand, grew up in a fairly religious family in a very Jewish area of Baltimore. His family kept strict kosher, and lit candles every Friday for Shabbat.

My father recalls an episode in which he first tested the boundaries of Kashrut. At age ten or so, on an evening when his parents were out of the house, he decided to experiment with mixing meat and milk. Plopping a slice of roast beef into the sink, he held a carton of milk at arm’s length over the beef. Facing away from the sink, with eyes clenched shut, he poured a bit of milk over the meat, bracing himself for the wrath of Hashem.

Needless to say, my father was not struck down with a bolt of lightning, and it might not surprise you that, after removing the evidence of such an experiment, he began to doubt the presence of this God he had been hearing about for the past ten years.

God aside, my parents decided that they would raise their children with an understanding and appreciation for their Jewish heritage, and so committed my younger sister and myself to six years of Hebrew school, with the occasional shellfish meal thrown in for good measure.

While slightly isolated in the overwhelmingly goyish state of Vermont, my parents did not let the Jewish holidays pass without celebration. Rosh Hashanah, breaking the fast on Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover; all were occasion to break bread (or, in Passover’s case, matzoh) with friends and family.

Growing up, Rosh Hashanah was my undisputed favorite holiday. Perhaps it had something to do with the time of year at which it fell. In the throes of fall, with crisp leaves falling all around, I loved the smell of the air that would for me define the Jewish New Year.

My love for Rosh Hashanah could also in part be attributed to the foods tied to my favorite High Holy Day. To ensure a sweet year to come, we would of course share bowls of sliced apples dipped in honey, moist apple cakes and noodle kugels sweetened with raisins and an abundance of sweet ricotta. An aromatic brisket would round out the picture of a perfect holiday meal.

Of course there was the excessive bagel-and-lox dinner to end the day-long fast for Yom Kippur, and the matzoh ball soup and flourless chocolate cakes for Passover, but for whatever particular reason, Rosh Hashanah still bested its peers.

What, might you ask, does family have to do with all this?

The link between the two pillars of my Jewish upbringing, food and family, is one that to me is almost self-explanatory. While a kugel need not be enjoyed in the company of others, it is the togetherness of the corresponding holiday that makes the dish so sweet. Simply put, the saccharine bliss of the holiday cannot exist without the loving presence of friends and family.

Food and family do not, of course, always exist in such perfect harmony. I am reminded of a reading I did for a course last semester on the psychology of women and gender. The topic of the article in question had to do with the manner in which immigrant families and ethnic minorities in the U.S. convey messages of acceptable body size to their daughters. While retaining sentimental ties to Old World cuisines and customs, these same families often press their young women to adhere to mainstream American body ideals. A young woman’s body, the piece continued, becomes the stage upon which an immigrant family’s anxieties about assimilation and “passing” play out.

My own Eastern European Jewish family is no exception. Fêting holidays with expansive spreads of rich foods, both sides of my family have managed to simultaneously absorb and subscribe to popular notions of what it means to be a “proper” American girl. A poor Ashkenazi Jew who has recently emigrated to the U.S. might not be able to disguise her beautiful if characteristic “Jewish nose,” but she is capable of hiding with some difficulty her accent and, more disturbingly, her ruddy immigrant physique. If only she is to attain the lithe proportions of a Gibson Girl, then might she pass for an acceptable and desirable American woman.

I think of my maternal grandmother’s family, who have perfected what I call the “Brin bite.” From great-grandmother to grandmother to mother and then regrettably to myself, we Brin women have learned to take “only a tiny bit,” to relegate our hunger and physical needs to a proverbial back burner. We have learned that full plates are for the men of the family, and that we women are to deny the extent and volume of our hunger. Containing our portions as we do ourselves, such is the sacrifice of the New American– always striving to “pass.”

I think of female relatives on both sides of my family who struggle with disordered eating. A great-aunt maintains that she has no taste for sweets, but her refrigerator says otherwise. Two aunts have disclosed past and present struggles with anorexia. The list goes on. Is it any wonder that eating disorders are as common as they are in the U.S., in this frenetic melting pot of Old World cultures?

Italian-Americans, Russian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans; we hyphenated Americans celebrate our ties to the culture and heritage that define us with spaghetti, borscht, brisket and soda bread. Simultaneously, however, we cope with the ongoing desire and need to assimilate by denying our appetites and the “otherness” therein.