The Conspiracy

the meaninglessness of my fast

There are no photos from those periods in my life, or the lives of my friends. The few photos come from before and after—the baby-fat and dimples proceeding, the still too-slender arms after. I’m under medical supervision while they root out an infection in my right lung, so fasting this year was a moot point. Weeks of agonizing about whether I’d try this year, what I’d do about, were no longer a concern when the oxygen mask was slid over my face.

It’s still a concern for others.

I was recently moved by the words of Harriet Brown, the author of Brave Girl Eating, which is a book in the genre of family memoir. Brown watched her daughter go down the rabbit hole of an eating disorder, and come back up. In one of her pieces of writing, regarding fasting on Yom Kippur, she said, “There’s far more virtue in learning to live with appetite and hunger than in shutting it down.” She says so much more than that, and you can read that archived piece in her blog:

Yom Kippur always makes me think about anorexia, bulimia, about disordered eating and my own difficult ‘road to recovery’ through treatment. I’ve relapsed three times. Outside of a medical context, for tests, my doctors prefer I do not fast at all. Each request to lose weight is carefully considered, long talks about my past history usually ensuing. Yom Kippur brings it all back to me.

I think about the pain and misery I went through with a disease I never asked for, and the pain my family went through watching me scrabble back up, trying to recover. You can gain weight back, but every time you fall down again, it gets harder. We don’t talk about these things in the Jewish community. About how our sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends, our teachers, mentors, friends—and not just those women, but men in our lives as well—have problems with food. I’ve taught religious school, worked for Jewish institutions, and never did I see us discuss it, on Yom Kippur or any other day of the year. It’s difficult, at best, to out yourself. To answer questions that hurt, deal with derisive comments. There’s a blame game, a shaming, in having this disease.

I’m not one of the best cases out there. I keep relapsing. I still have problems, problems that seem like they’ll drown me. When I talk to my friends, I know I’m not the only one who goes to Yom Kippur services and feels like a liar. I found the will to fast before. I fasted every day. Now I have to find the will to eat. Finding that will every day, so a lack of it won’t kill me. You couldn’t ‘tell’ if you looked at me; not when you hear me laugh or crack jokes, or talk about work, when I whine about college. Most of us are like that. Not all of us know how to tell you about all the fasts we’ve faced, but when you fast, remember us, in that uncomfortable silence.

Think about us too, in that period where you open yourself up to hunger and thinking about unpleasant, emotionally uncomfortable things. Please don’t stop thinking about us afterward. Because I live in that place, more than I ever want to admit. No matter how many other women I meet, who I know are there with me, that place is lonely and spirit breaking.

When you talk about those who can’t fast with you, think about us. Talk about us. The more you do, the more power we have to be brave in our Jewish communities, to talk about our experiences, to help create language and space where people can get away from this disease, where people can talk free of guilt and shame. Where we can all stop this, so my students and my friends and women like me can find the support to dig deeper, to find more courage to eat and talk and be alive.

May your fast be meaningful where mine were not. May your teshuvah be heartfelt, and your epiphanies true.

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One Older Response to “the meaninglessness of my fast”

  1. Linda
    September 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Lillian, what an incredibly brave and moving piece. Please know that you are not alone. May you be inscribed for blessing in the year to come.

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