Last week, my eldest daughter called me from Israel, where she is studying for a year in seminary, crying and terribly distraught. A girl she was friendly with from another seminary had died of anorexia. She was 17 years old.
Hearing my daughter wail on the phone, and not being there to comfort her, was indescribably painful, but incomparable to the pain of the poor parents who had sent their daughter to Israel from the United States to study in a hassidic seminary, never to see her again.
I asked my daughter how this could happen? Did no one notice that the girl was super-thin, that her life was in danger? My daughter told me that the girl appeared to her to be very small. She could not discern that the girl's life was at risk.
When I discussed the tragedy with my two other daughters who go to an ultra-Orthodox high school in New Jersey, they told me that there are several girls in their school who, no doubt, suffer from anorexia, and that the disease is everywhere, even among very religious girls whom one would think were immune to such low body-image, given the supposedly more wholesome values with which they are raised.
I spent last week filming one of the most difficult episodes of Shalom in the Home ever. A 15-year-old girl who has been hospitalized for anorexia and is endangering her vital organs and her very life was our subject. I came face to face with just how catastrophic, devastating and intractable the illness can be. Indeed, anorexia kills one out of every 10 girls who suffer from it. In this case, the young girl we worked with explained that she had a voice inside her which she referred to as ED, for Eating Disorder, which constantly whispered to her that if only she would lose a few more pounds, she would be beautiful. People would love her. Other girls would want to be like her. Getting more attention all depended on losing just a few more pounds. But losing just 10 more pounds for this girl would, God forbid, bring her to death's door. And still the voice whispered.
THERE COULD be no question that her eating disorder was the direct product of catastrophically low self-esteem and a determination, based on the culture in which she was raised, that she was all body and no soul. The world did not care for what she had on the inside, only the outside. She also desperately wanted to be famous. She spoke to me constantly about wanting to be a movie star, and could I get her on Oprah? In my book, Hating Women, I make the case that the values and mores of our secular culture are slowly killing our young girls as they get the message that to be attractive is the only way to get attention. The world will never appreciate them for anything but their body. To be fat is to be repulsive and ugly. Anorexia is where young girls internalize all the misogyny that men show for women, as they reduce them to an assemblage of inadequate body parts.
But the fact that anorexia is becoming so pronounced in Orthodox circles is the ultimate proof of the tragic failure of Jewish education in our time to cultivate a healthy self-image among young girls that is based on Torah, rather than secular values.
The religious seminaries in Israel and the United States are filled with girls who are obsessively self-conscious about their looks. They know that as they approach marriageable age the famous teaching of the Eishet Hayil (Woman of Valor) prayer, written by King Solomon, that "charm is deceptive and beauty is naught; a God-fearing woman is the one to be praised," has been utterly rejected by the yeshiva students of our time, as they preoccupy themselves primarily with a young woman's looks, just as much any secular guy.
Indeed, one wonders what the rabbis in the poor dead-girl's seminary were doing as she slowly wasted away? Were they only teaching laws of Shabbat and Pessah? Did they utterly forget that one of their first obligations in educating young women is to give them a healthy self-image that will render them immune to the misogynistic mores of our time?
And where are all the yeshiva heads in both Israel and the United States who should be educating their male students, as they get ready to marry, that real beauty is internal and to stop being so dismissive of girls who may have a few extra pounds? The Bible says that when a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. But in our time, even the Orthodox are waging war against flesh itself, as more and more girls are encouraged to become an unhealthy bag of bones to cater to the vulgar and grotesque values of shallow men, however religious they profess themselves to be.
When I was in Israel a few weeks ago for Succot, I went to Mahaneh Yehuda where it was a wonder to watch the Orthodox men using rulers to measure their etrogim and lulavim to make sure they were perfectly kosher. And it is a praiseworthy thing to take one's religion so seriously. But even as they did so, many of their young daughters were taking a ruler to their thighs and hips, hating themselves for being too large, and swearing that they would lose just a few more pounds.
And our blindness continues even as our innocent little girls die.
The writer's latest book is Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Family with Passion and Inspiration.