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For Jews who struggle with eating disorders, Passover is a monumental challenge

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I remember the year I calculated the exact number. At 15 years old, using a combination of math and science skills, I determined that the Passover Seder would set me back 550 calories.

By eating and drinking only the amount of matzo and light grape juice that was mandated by Jewish law, as well as a small bit of boiled chicken and a bowl of soup during the night’s meal, the Seder would eat through 75% of my self-prescribed daily caloric allotment. 

When I realized that the late-night event would leave me with only 200 calories for the rest of the day, I cried. Increasing my daily intake wasn’t possible, and neither was I willing to forego the expectations of Orthodox Jewish law. It was an impossible situation. And for years, I approached the Seder night with a sense of complete dread.

For people like me, practicing Jews with disordered eating patterns, holidays and life-cycle events present a mix of complicated emotions. Celebrating a new life, remembering those who have passed, observing the mitzvot of a festival — all of these experiences invariably involve eating with and in front of others. 

Whether the behaviors we struggle with involve severe food restriction, scheduled eating and extreme exercise, chaotic eating and purging, or any other combination of practices, every Jewish event presents the inevitable struggle of what to do with food. 

For years, the focus of discussions related to Jewish holidays and eating disorders in Jewish media has been the necessary practice of eating on holy fast days, especially Yom Kippur. The view presented in these articles emphasizes the fact that for people with eating disorders to remain healthy, we often must eat even when we are obligated to fast. However, many of us chiefly struggle when food is present. These important conversations miss an uncomfortable reality: Not everyone with an eating disorder is ready to eat when a food-based ritual demands it. And, we need our loved ones to understand the stress caused by required meals, just as they are sensitive to the concerns of food deprivation.

There are countless ways that individual struggles — be they related to mental illness, substance abuse, personality and behavioral disorders, or any other challenge — can be exacerbated by Jewish religious practices, especially by the observance of the Shabbat and holidays.      

Many Jewish communities, especially the Orthodox community that I call home, have come to recognize that adaptations to help protect those who are struggling should be normalized. For people who struggle with alcohol dependency, for example, it is now common to often find non-alcoholic alternatives to wine at religious events, and some community events have even stopped serving alcohol. But people like myself, who struggle with disordered eating while strictly abiding by the halachic expectations of food consumption, are provided with no way out of the requirement to eat. 

Over the years, I searched for a rabbinic figure or even a learned member of my community who could alleviate me of the need to eat several full servings of matzo and complete measures of grape juice/wine. Yet, each time, when it was clear to them that my physical health wasn’t threatened by these food items, there seemed to be no available adaptation.

Some people who were aware of my disordered eating went even further in the wrong direction, assuring me that the Torah practice was in fact a gift and would somehow rescue me by forcing me to eat. “Shabbat and holidays heal the body and the soul,” they would tell me, suggesting that the severe mental illness I was deeply attached to would simply disappear because the shul kiddush was appealing and the homemade challah smelled delicious.      

But what many people, even those who clearly love and care for those who struggle with disordered eating, do not recognize is that this is an impossible ask. When you are still in the thick of the experience, you will simply cut out calories elsewhere. I spent years experiencing the first two days of Pesach in a daze, as I was almost completely fasting during the day so as to “save up” for the Seder night. At holiday lunch meals, I would conspicuously eat just the minimal matzo and a small plate of vegetables. Of course, this  caused me significant physical and psychological distress, and poorly prepared my stomach for that first cup of grape juice at the beginning of the Seder service. 

That is the irrational nature of a mental illness, especially the one with the highest mortality rate. It cannot be cured with a forceful halachic hand or an enticing piece of kugel. Healing happens slowly and gradually due to individual and structural changes. 

The theme of Passover is salvation. Yet if we continue to ignore the needs of the people who are often most enslaved — those struggling deeply with a severe mental illness — we are not actually committed to freedom for those who aren’t already free.      

Today, I am no longer entrenched in the stages of a mental illness that are most dangerous. But what I needed in those early years was an understanding Jewish community and halachic advisor, one willing to work within the boundaries of my body to find spaces of salvation. 

No one should have to dread the holiday of freedom, whether because of familial tensions, personal interests, or mental illness. This year, let’s make sure everyone can enjoy the Seder by being more mindful of the needs of people for whom food and the ritual practice of eating presents fear, anxiety, and sadness. 

To contact the author, email opinion@forward.com

The post For Jews who struggle with eating disorders, Passover is a monumental challenge appeared first on The Forward.

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