Some Notes on Jewish Women and Eating Disorders

By: Karen L. Smith, MSS, LSW

The story of the Jewish American woman’s relationship to food, body, and hunger itself, is a classic story of the dance with assimilation. Like all cultures within a culture, Jewish American women must find ways to accept and/or reject two frequently competing value systems.


Food is a central means by which families, traditionally mothers, pass on the legacy of cultural heritage. Even without the religious significance of food and food-based holidays in Judaism, food itself is a way of separating/distinguishing communities from the surrounding culture. It is with pride that the southern American woman feeds her family cornbread in Pittsburg, that the Italian American family serves lasagna at thanksgiving dinner, that the Lebanese American woman shows her daughter the family technique for rolling grape leaves. So with the Jewish family. Despite the difference in the foods of Ashkenazi (Eastern European decent) and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern decent) Jews, both use food not only to transmit nutrition to their family, but family history as well.

The rejection of food by the anorexic woman, the bingeing and purging of family meals by the bulimic woman, the overeating and resulting self-hatred of the compulsive over-eating woman, are often theorized to be an embodiment of conflict with mother’s milk, metaphorically mother’s nourishment/teachings/love. The centrality of food in the transmission of culture can make the conflict with food an additional conflict with heritage itself.


Jewish girl’s and women’s bodies are rarely genetically predisposed to fit the current beauty ideal. It has been a long time since the Yiddish word “Zaftig” was a complementary reference to a juicy, plumb, strong, vibrant, solid woman. It is now associated with the overbearing Jewish mother forcing unwanted nourishment/advice/love into her children.

Despite the continued desire among Jewish women to feed their children the richness of their heritage, there is as strong a desire to help them fit in the mainstream world. Many a Jewish mother spent mornings straightening her daughters “kinky” hair. Many a Jewish mother allowed her 16 year old daughter to get a nose job. Many a Jewish mother not only allowed, but even encouraged or praised her daughters endless dieting.


When a woman walks into a room and says she was “so good today”, we immediately know what she means: she dominated her hunger all day, didn’t “give in” to the desire for the pleasure of a cookie, and “controlled” all longings for satiation. The beauty ideal of the emaciated women is reflective of current society’s pressure on women to need/want/hunger for little, or at least be able to demonstrated dominance over their longings/passions/hungers.

This just isn’t Jewish. Quite the opposite, our Kiddush cup should be overflowing with the sweet, richness of life and blessing. Extending the metaphor beyond food, the Jewish woman is expected to be strong, resourceful, and full of education and skills. It is not just the legacy of the holocaust, but every pogrom before it, that have inspired Jewish women to be rich in internal and external resources, capably of holding her family and community together least danger necessitate it.

Beyond the struggle to integrate the fullness expected by Judaism, and the emptiness of the Barbie Doll world, Jews have conflict about satiation within our own legacy. Being on the heels of the holocaust, with most Jews alive today having a personal family history of loss associated with concentration camps, Jews also struggle with what it means to want, to take in the nourishment of the world, in the face of family who were so deprived.


Judaism holds within its culture, biblical and rabbinic texts, ritual and blessings, sources for healing the distress of food, body and hunger/longing. The solution to cultural ambivalence, and to Eating Disorders themselves, is in the ability to take in what nourishes from mother/culture. Fortunately for us as Jews, the land that G-d promises us is a land of milk and honey; not only of nourishment, but sweetness as well.

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  • Karen L. Smith, MSS, LSW is a Clinical Social Worker and Director/Founder of Full Living: Resources for Celebrating Body/Self, which offers national consulting services to organizations/schools/clinics. She speaks nationally on the topics of Eating Disorders, Body Image, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation and Gender, and maintains a private outpatient practice in Philadelphia.
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