Happy Pesach, everybody!
Here in the good old Midwest, the sun’s currently dipping down behind the trees, which means that the first night of Passover has officially begun. Let me be perfectly straightforward about my relationship with the holiday, to start off with: I’m what I like to consider a religious foster child. I grew up in a family that didn’t give me a biological religion: my mother is Roman Catholic and my father a reformed Jew. They decided to raise me as nothing in particular, allowing me to choose my own path as I got older.
That said, I think of myself as culturally Catholic and Jewish at the same time, and non-denominationally spiritual. Passover, for me, is a time to reminisce on the aspects of my Jewish heritage that I love: spending time at my grandmother’s house searching for the afikoman, watching A Rugrats’ Passover or Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments,and discovering how many different dishes one could make out of potatoes. No six-hour seders in my house, but I still feel a connection to the holiday from my childhood.
I never kept Pesach as a child, even though I repeatedly asked my mom if she would let me. I don’t know where my fascination with restricting the food I was allowed to eat during this week came from; though my dad faithfully removed bread from his diet during the week, he never made it seem like the most fun he’d ever had. In fact, we always knew that the longer the week went on, the crankier he would get.
There’s even a word for it: hangry. That notorious combination of hungry and angry.
“Mom, can I keep Passover like Dad does?” I would ask once a year.
“No, I’m not cooking special meals for you too,” she would say. “Breakfast is just too hard.” Meaning: there’s three of you, I’m not making you all scrambled eggs every morning. Ain’t nobody got time for that. “Besides, why would you want to do it anyway? It’s no fun.”
Probably not, but that didn’t get rid of the association I had with keeping Pesach and some kind of badge of honor. It showed a kind of mental determination, a level of self-control that my non-Jewish friends had no reason to display. (For some reason, I never made the same links between self-discipline and Lent. Go figure.) Proving that I could go a full week without eating the most basic of all food groups felt tough, felt strong, felt gratifying. Though I never pulled it off, I always wanted to, in the back of my mind.
And then I went to college.
On my University’s campus, we have one of the largest ratios of Jewish-to-non-Jewish students in any institution of higher learning other than rabbinic schools. I no longer need to spell my last name here: there are enough Jews that they know how to say it. (Which is immensely gratifying, by the way.) I somehow ended up on our school’s Hillel mailing list. Solely by virtue of that Jewish last name, I’m sure, because I haven’t been in a synagogue since my cousin’s bar mitzvah. So when Passover rolls around, everybody knows it.
As I’ve written about on this blog and elsewhere, and as I’m sure I’ll write about more in the future, one of the driving factors in perpetuating eating disorders is that sense of competition. On campus, surrounded by beautiful young women who put in so many hours at the gym that it boggles my mind how they didn’t fail out of their classes, I was already laboring under the feeling that I was not thin enough, not pretty enough, not eating small enough meals, not working out enough. This is hardly an unknown phenomenon, when it’s estimated that 25% of college women have some kind of eating disorder.
Fast-forward to the 15th of Nisan, when probably about 1 in 3 of these women with whom I felt myself in silent competition, as one, swear off bread for a week.
I know, I know, this is not the point of Passover. For all those who are able to participate in this meaningful tradition with the spirituality, self-awareness, and reverence with which it is supposed to be enacted, more power to you. I respect that. All I’m saying is that I was not going about it the right way.
Passover is not the time to finally get a handle on one’s weight by going on a sudden no-carb diet.
When I was in a very different place with my eating disorder than I currently am now, one that was not quite so stable, I welcomed the arrival of Passover. It provided me a quick answer to that question of, “Why do you always eat such weird things?” or “Why won’t you eat this?”
It’s Passover. End of discussion. My last name served as a period to the sentence.
But why was I putting myself through this? Why was I looking with longing at all of my favorite carb-heavy foods and then moving on to make myself matzo pizza for the sixth day in a row?
Because it made me feel powerful. That lingering, nagging desire to prove that I was stronger than bread, that urge that had surfaced as early as the third grade, reared its ugly head the minute I was out of the house and able to make my own decisions. You wanna see what I’m made of? Let’s add a whole nother food group to the long list of things I already won’t eat.
Yeah. Because that makes me a great person.
What it did was make me a mental case.
Religious traditions should not be treated as diet plans.
If you are not in a healthy enough place to keep Pesach this season, don’t worry about it. God, or at least the God I’ve come to know and trust, loves you and wants you to take care of yourself, whatever that means for you, right now, in the body you’re in. What God does not want is for you to spend more time thinking about a grilled cheese sandwich (which is really not as satisfying on matzo. Sorry, but there it is) than about Him and His words. Trust me on that one. I don’t think anyone disagrees.
For anyone else facing Pesach with a different mindset than they might like, I highly recommend this article, by Jewish eating disorder recovery advocate Caroline Rothstein. It’s her article that got me thinking about my own journey through this minefield holiday.
So how will I be celebrating Passover this year, you ask? Well, in honor of the holiday beginning tonight at sundown, I went breadless for dinner. Charoses with yogurt, cinnamon, and honey might be the most delicious Passover food of all time (except my grandmother’s latkes!), and I recommend it to any and all, Jew and gentile.
But tomorrow? I might have a bowl of cereal. And this does not make me weak. This means that I know what’s good for me, I know what’s important, and I know where to draw the line.
I think my foster-father God would approve.