Letter to the Editor:
Jewish United Fund of Chicago: Volume
41: No. 10 September 2011
From: Abigail Natenshon,
psychotherapist and author
believe that Judaism and Jewish family life have gotten an unfair shake in
Cheryl Jacobs’ recent article (July JUF News) about eating disorders and
Jewish women. The article was misleading in its implication that the
incidence of eating disorders may be disproportionally higher among Jewish
woman, and that the culture of Judaism itself may be at the root of disease
onset in eating disordered women who are Jewish.
In fact, healthy values intrinsic in Judaism may act as a
deterrent to the onset of these
disorders and can potentially become enhancements to their recovery.
New York and Philadelphia-based Renfrew Center in recent years cited
statistics leading some to believe that there is a disproportionate number
of Jews suffering from eating disorders. The
Center reported that 12 percent of its inpatient eating disorder population
was Jewish, though Jews make up only two percent of the general population,
and that lately there has been a 500% increase in the number of Jewish women
they treat. This statistic fails to
take into account the centers’ proximity to one of the world’s largest
reality is that eating disorders are on the rise amongst
all upwardly mobile populations.
Jacobs’ article cites a survey of Jewish women in Israel that found “15.2%
of the total population in that country suffers from an eating disorder of
some kind,” with similar estimates for Jewish women in the U.S.
Countering the theory that Jewish women are uniquely vulnerable, a
2008 study in the U.S. performed by SELF Magazine and the University of
North Carolina shows evidence that 75% of American women have struggled with
an eating disorder or experienced symptoms of an eating disorder, their
behaviors cutting across racial and ethnic lines and status. It should also
be noted that if not Jewish disorders, eating disorders are also not women’s
disorders, as is seen in the increasing incidence of disease among males.
Within the Jewish tradition, Shabbat and holidays are typically celebrated
through family and community-based observance and sanctified by food and
eating-related rituals, causing some to believe that Jews may become more
prone to developing eating-related disorders.
In fact, eating disorders are neuropsychiatric, biological
disorders, with origins rooted in gene clusters and brain chemistries.
Environmental triggers (“Ess mein
kinde”) do not the cause these disorders, though they could possibly be
responsible for igniting pre-existing conditions within a genetically
susceptible individual. The article’s
reference to “l’dor v’dor” has less to do with parental role modeling and
more to do with genes that are passed to the child at the moment of
Eating disorders are curable in 80% of cases where treated in an effective
and timely manner. In fact, the culture of Judaism may enhance the potential
for healing and/or prevention. One study provides evidence that a higher
level of religious observance may serve to
protect individuals from the development of body dissatisfaction and
overall eating pathology; with a diminished focus on the secular values of
beauty and thinness, a greater emphasis on morality and religious
identification resulted in a lower incidence of mental health problems,
stronger social networks and higher self esteem.
Eating disorders are disorders of connection, dissociating victims from
themselves, their family, and from a healthy relationship with food.
In countering this sense of radical isolation, historically,
culturally, traditionally, Talmudically, in courts of law and on psychiatric
couches, Judaism offers a tradition of profound self-searching and fearless
self-awareness. Jews are problem solvers with a profound sense of the value
of human existence and inter-generational ties. Torah sanctifies food and
the act of eating, the body as the house of the soul, and the family unit as
a mitigating force against society’s corrupting values. In understanding
eating disorders and the forces behind their onset, it is important that we
not shoot the messenger.