The Shrinking Jewish Body

shrinkingjewishbodies

A dark, life-threatening secret goes public.

by Rachel Ament

 

If you are an Orthodox Jewish teen and suffer from an eating disorder, there are not many venues for you to learn about your pain. You certainly can’t turn to Lifetime Original anorexia movies whose scenes featuring exposed whipcord thin legs and arms are too explicit for religious eyes. Luckily, Elisheva Diamond, a doctorate student in clinical psychology, finally filled the void by creating Hungry to Be Heard, a documentary about anorexia in the Orthodox world, which includes interviews with Orthodox Jewish patients, their parents, psychologists, psychiatrists, and rabbis.

The film reveals that eating disorders are not more prevalent in religious circles than secular ones, but that the religious world has to deal with some unique strains. There is the one-track fixation with marriage, the lasting stigma, the pressures by matchmakers to lose weight, and the Jewish focus on food. Indeed, many of the subjects in the film found religion at the shoreline of every step of their experience. “Malka” reveals that when she was a kid, she didn’t tell her mother when her shoes were broken because she didn’t want to add to her mother’s stress of taking care of such a large brood of children. When Malka developed an eating disorder, she refused to tell her mother for the same reason. The sole boy in the film, “Moshe,” speaks about the shame of having eating problems in such a food-centric culture. To his parents’ dismay, he played basketball on Shabbas just so that he could get away from all the food at the table.

Despite the intense subject matter, Diamond is no showy dramatist. She doesn’t need doom-and-gloom music or sharp close-ups to tell us how to feel; no, her subjects’ stories can pull tears out of our eyes and down our cheeks on their own right. The opening credits of the film feature “Rachel,” who is the most sympathetic subject of the film, perhaps because she seems the most inconsolable. “I think I can honestly say this has ruined my life,” Rachel says, chokingly. “There was nobody listening to me. There was no one seeing how much pain I was in.” Another heartbreaking figure is “Leah,” who admits she used to use a toothbrush to help her purge, and once felt such an urgent, crucial need to throw up that she lost grip of the toothbrush and swallowed it.

It might seem unpalatable to suggest that an anorexia documentary would need to have a gimmick. But the truth is that we’ve heard the body image saga all too many times and so the storyline did need a new angle (Orthodox Judaism) to give it an added curl of smoke. We, the American voyeurs, love hearing about secluded cultures, so when our own modern social woes seep into these roped-in communities, it makes for an absorbing mix. We keep watching, no matter how hard we attempt to shield our eyes.

This essay was reprinted with permission from Zeek.com.

See the trailer for Hungry to Be Heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk1cDOCM0Xk. If the film is being used for guided viewing for a group (i.e., parents, a classroom) or by a mental health professional, the film is free of cost. One can obtain the film by emailing community@ou.org.

About the Author

r_amentRachel Ament
Rachel Ament is currently pursuing her master’s degree in special education at the University of Virginia. She has contributed to 614, Oxygen, the Jerusalem Post, AOL, Moment magazine, and other publications. She has done web production for Nickelodeon Magazine, Quick & Simple magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and the Discovery Channel.

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