Women and Food

by Sheina Medwed


In Hebrew, the word for bread is lechem. This root is closely related to lacham, which means to wage war.... Eating is seen as the battleground between the physical and the spiritual. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Made in Heaven, p. 84.

When I eat chocolate, it has to be in a certain way. It has to be in little, tiny pieces that sit in my mouth and slowly increase their sweetness. This is best done when the house is quiet and I am also reading a good book.

A few years ago I found out how this peculiarity came about. Discussing family eating patterns with my mother, she said, "You know, sweetheart, when you were nine months old I would sit you in your crib and take one fudgie, cut it up into little tiny pieces, and leave you in your room. I could do my housework and stick my head in, saying `Hello, bubbale.' It was wonderful. You were a mess but the fudgies kept you busy and quiet."


This anorexic woman hates herself. She thinks she's fat. She's too thin, and carries herself with an ethereal elegance that, G-d forbid, could result in early death. She's locked inside of herself in a world of food obsession without proper help. She may never come out.

This woman is fat and hates herself for it. She may be always "on a diet," poring over beauty magazines, dreaming of the day when she's thin and organized, efficient, beautiful, successful, kind, the best wife, the best mother, the best daughterbut until she's thin, she can take refuge behind her self-hate and stay home with her magazines.

This woman looks normal. She seems to be a normal eater, seems to have a normal life. She has a deep dark secret. When everyone is gone she gorges herself on huge quantities of anything available, goes to the bathroom, locks the door, turns on the water and throws up. Because of this she feels like a fraud, leading a dual life.

Eating disorders are epidemic and rampant. They especially affect bright, well-educated Jewish women. The religious community is unfortunately not exempt from these problems. What is going on?

Some of us have made our bodies battlegrounds in a vicious war that is funded by a multibillion-dollar industry in America. The health, beauty and diet industries are our contemporary avodah zarah. How much precious energy do we spend longing to mold ourselves to values that are sugar-coated poison?

How can those of us who are at war learn to make peace with our bodies, with feeding ourselves? How can we move away from a twisted, distorted perception—not just move away from it, but formulate attitudes that are rooted in emes?

We must begin to realize that women's bodies are in constant change. Like the tides of the ocean and the cycles of the moon. Accept this. We are round and sometimes oddly shaped, often pregnant with new life. Think of freshly ripe fruit, of melons and eggplant, the gracious pear, mangoes and pomegranates. We are not made to look like adolescent boys.

We want to be and look like who Hashem wants us to be, not the Western media. It takes a willingness to wrestle with constant voices in our minds, to break away from our "not-good-enough" messages. It takes an inner courage to accept yourself the way you are. And it takes a confrontation with the present moment which can drop us right into the void—that place within ourselves that is cleared of distractions and external rubbish.

Entering this void feels a bit like falling through space. What we put into the void to fill it: food, magazines, novels, keeping busy, trying so hard to always please, overtaxing ourselves with projects and social obligationsthe list is endless. To be able to enter the void and sit there is one of the first steps towards moving away from destructive eating and the values that accompany it. What we usually have to confront here is pain.


At this moment, my house is, baruch Hashem, quiet. I am sitting in a comfortable chair, close to the porch. I hear the birds and I hear the buses. There is a hot, humming breeze. I feel gratitude and mild anxiety because the baby will return from "bye-bye" in maybe twenty minutes. Right now, I feel somewhat out of shape and a bit uncomfortable in my body. Not fat, but full and round. I am aware of my breathing and my weight against the chair. If I follow in through the void, to my deepest center point, there is always a longing to be close to Hashem.

For years I ate myself away from the pain of this longing, trying to fill it with food and frantic activities. It is always there, beneath every surface. It can motivate a person to obsession or to greatness.

Eating is holy work. G-d tells us this. Can we believe it? Can something that for so many women is fraught with struggle and despair become sanctified?

When we sit at the Shabbos table, at the Pesach seder, in the sukkah, when we eat on erev Yom Kippur, can we learn to recognize the spiritual root of our hunger?

This is our own task. When we sit down to break bread, our table will be either a battleground or an altar. Every time we eat, we have the privilege of making this choice.



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