Handling the Jewish Holidays in Recovery

Author: Reva Schlanger, MS, RD

It’s that time of the year again where we start preparing for the Jewish holidays. My mom has already called me a couple times to discuss the Rosh Hashana menu … in July. A lot of these holidays are centered around food and can be especially difficult for those struggling from an eating disorder. Not only that, but do not get me started about Yom Kippur and fasting for 25 hours. While this is set in tradition, and to be honest my most favorite time of the year, it is also extremely stressful. A lot of my clients dread the Jewish holidays because we tend to gorge on food and have and large family gatherings, including at least one family member that will say several triggering comments at the table. So how do we prepare for this time, and maybe even enjoy it? After all, this is supposed to be about holiday and its meaning, and not necessarily the three-course meal mom made, followed by apple pie for a happy healthy new year.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I offer to clients (and I use this advice also) is to take a deep breath (or two or three)! To be frank, everyone has trouble with this string of holidays – I mean it comes one after the next: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and don’t get me started on Simchat Torah. We need to remember that while yes there happens to be an emphasis on food, there is also an emphasis on being with friends and family and taking a good look at ourselves and our goals for the upcoming year. Try to remember the meaning of these holidays as a celebration of life and family that only comes once a year before we go back to the day-by-day routine of our lives. My other piece of advice is that it is better to over prepare then under prepare. Meaning use your dietitian and therapist now! Be proactive in starting the conversations regarding your concerns of stress and anxiety surrounding the holiday meals. By talking about it, you might feel more prepared when it rolls around. If you have a good relationship with your parents/siblings, it might also help to go over some ground rules. They can also help you by controlling or running interference with your extended family members, who are less familiar or sensitive to the issues.

Now for the food part, remember, you do not have to eat everything at the table! Yes, there most likely will be a lot more food than needed, but that also does not mean you need to eat it. It also means that there is nothing wrong if you eat more than you usually do. Try to find that self-compassion here. If you are going to be at home, try to ask your parents for the menu ahead of time, so you can plan with you dietitian. If you are hosting the holidays, then remember to cook some of your favorite dishes as to bring some comfort. If you are going away, remember the basics: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. These three components should always be on your plate for a nutritious and satisfying meal. Not sure what those components are? Don’t sweat it! Instead of going to RD Google, try an actual registered dietitian who went to school for all this stuff.

If you have a grandmother like me, she will probably be commenting on the food itself, what everyone is eating, and trying to get people to eat more. Welcome to the typical Jewish family- we honestly could use a support group for it … but that is a whole other blog. Now just because your grandmother is trying to get you to have her homemade potato kugel does not mean you need to have it. You can politely say “thank you it looks delicious, but I am just too full. I will try some a different day!” If you have a tougher family, and that line won’t cut it, then take the piece and challenge yourself to have a bite or two of it. That will likely satisfy grandma into leaving you alone. Now listen up here, just because you take it does not mean you have to finish it all (unless you want to, which is fine too). This is where coping skills come in handy – do some grounding exercises and check those facts! Your ED might be screaming that having something or an extra serving will make you gain weight, but we know that is NOT the case. Instead of just “feeling fat” try to identify the feeling you are having – are you anxious, upset, disappointed or sad? Fat is not a feeling even though sometimes it feels like it is.

I can go on and on about the Jewish holidays and how to survive them, but this is a blog, so I need to try to keep it short and sweet. As you can see, I already failed on that, but hey life is about failures and learning from them! I do though want to quickly touch on Yom Kippur. This is a difficult one because most people in recovery or thinking about recovery want to fast and use this holiday to restrict. I am not your Rabbi or your treatment team so I cannot give you individual advice on whether to fast or not, but I will say this: be honest with yourself. You have done so much hard work already to get to this place, do not let one holiday derail all the progress. Meaning if your team says not to fast, please listen to them. You are not alone- many people do not fast for medical reasons. Also, if you know you are going to fast, please let your team know, and ask them how to handle it so as not revert to old habits. This means having a good meal prior to the fast and having a hearty meal for break fast. If there is a lot of shame in not fasting, listen I get it, and it is okay to feel your feelings. But remember that this is for your health and that trumps everything. I have told clients who are not allowed to fast to get a bunch of Boost and Pedialyte to drink on the fast day, so as to feel that it is a different eating day from usual. Drinking supplements is sometimes easier than eating food- just for the fast day!

In conclusion: this is a difficult but very special time of year. Remind yourself that it is okay to feel stressed, and to plan in detail with your team. Perhaps writing a list of useful coping skills or an entry on why you want recovery could be helpful to read when the meals or family time get difficult. You are a warrior inside and out- you can do this!



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