Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Considering Kitniyot

Oh, Pesach. So many food rules, so many opportunities for obsessive thinking. Now, I love the holiday's theme of liberation and take seriously the idea of "freeing myself from my own personal Egypt." However, I do think there's an element of irony involved: this holiday, which focuses so much on freedom, also plays right into the food restrictions and regulations that enslave so many people with eating disorders.

For me, nowhere is this struggle more pronounced than around the question of kitniyot. Every year I revisit the same question: Do I eat them, or not? Here are the particulars: I am Ashkenazi; I'm a vegetarian; I'm also fiercely protective of my recovery from almost a decade of anorexia. Each time Pesach rolls around, I have to decide which takes precedence: an ancestral custom that is hundreds of years old, or my internal wisdom that the severely limited diet of a kitniyot-free Pesach might inadvertently reawaken the food-restrictive mentality that I've worked so hard to put to bed.

Aside from the very real halachic issues involved, this dilemma also cuts to the heart of my perfectionist tendencies. If I were to eat kitniyot, would I be doing a "good enough" job of keeping Pesach? Would people find reason to look down on my lenience and criticize my choice? I believe the answer to both questions is yes. Undoubtedly, the norm among observant Ashkenazi Jews is to avoid eating kitniyot on Pesach. The decision to break with this custom would likely meet with some resistance from many members of the observant community. However, there is also the case to be made that where health is involved, the ban on kitniyot is not as stringent as the ban on chametz, and so people are permitted to eat kitniyot if their health requires it. Furthermore, there are Orthodox rabbis who have ruled that Ashkenazi Jews within the land of Israel are allowed to eat kitniyot because the custom of eliminating those foods was unique to Europe and therefore is not binding in the Middle East. Conservative Rabbi David Golinkin takes it a step further in his responsa, which clearly argues that all Jews may consume kitniyot during Pesach "without fear of transgressing any prohibition." Again, I fully recognize that these opinions run counter to the prevailing custom among the observant Ashkenazi community. However, their arguments seem valid, especially when recovery is at stake. I would encourage Ashkenazi Jews who are trying to recover from any type of eating disorder to consider giving themselves permission to eat kitniyot on Pesach. I would also suggest that if a person DOES choose to eat kitniyot as a means of safeguarding his/her recovery during Pesach, that family members attempt to view this decision not as a rebellion or transgression, but rather as a way to protect that which is most precious: health and life.

If you do plan to incorporate kitniyot into your Pesach food repertoire, here are some recipes to get you started! It's possible to find KP versions of all the needed ingredients. Both feature quinoa...because, as a vegetarian, I am always looking for new ways to use quinoa on Pesach! The first comes courtesy of fabulous nutritionist Marci Anderson; the second, from Mark Bittman, author of one of my favorite cookbooks (How To Cook Everything Vegetarian...in case you were wondering.)

Bean Salad with Quinoa

Sweet Potato and Quinoa Salad (when I make this, I add a 15 oz. can of garbanzo beans for a little added protein)

Chag kasher v'sameach!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring Cleaning!

Although it's a small space, I'm always grateful to live in a studio apartment when the time comes to clean it. Now, I love for things to be clean and as germ-free as I can get them. I just am not wild about the actual process of cleaning, and the scrubbing and dusting tends to get old pretty quickly. Luckily, my living space consists of only three rooms...but even so, I take a lot of shortcuts: cleaning around things instead of under them; making neat piles instead of actually finding homes for everything, etc. This works relatively well most of the time, with one big exception: Pesach.

The pre-Pesach clean is no ordinary task. On Pesach we are forbidden not only to eat chametz, but also to have it anywhere in our possession. As a result, Jews all over the world engage in a thorough cleaning of their homes in the days leading up to Pesach, scouring every surface and searching every crevice for any sign of chametz. We have to get rid of all of it--not one crumb of edible chametz can remain behind. Clearly, this process is an intensive undertaking.

The annual Pesach cleaning reminds me a lot of the work that a real commitment to recovery requires. On Pesach, it is not acceptable to allow traces of chametz to remain in your home. The presence of even a tiny amount creates a halachic problem and prevents you from fulfilling the mitzvah of getting rid of chametz. Similarly, being fully on board with recovery requires a person to eradicate all traces of the eating disorder. As long as someone knowingly hangs onto small behaviors or thought patterns, he or she cannot fully participate in recovery. I definitely have found this to be true. There were plenty of times when I said I was committed to getting rid of my eating disorder, but I kept a little ritual or restrictive habit here and there in the hope that it wouldn't really matter, that I could enjoy recovery without having to get rid of everything. I have never found that to actually work. The only way I've been able to be wholly committed to recovery--and to fully experience it--is to actively search out the remnants of my eating disorder and tackle each one until I am ready to let go of it. There have been no shortcuts to this "soul cleaning"...leaving even a trace of the eating disorder behind would make all my efforts incomplete.

The Sages instructed us to physically destroy all of our chametz before Pesach because they knew that if we allowed it to remain in our possession, we might end up consuming it...or, we would just think about consuming it all the time! I've found this to be true in recovery, as well: getting rid of the concrete remains of the eating disorder (not just the emotional ones) is often a valuable and cathartic experience. At various points in my journey, I gave away my "sick" clothes, threw out diet food, ditched the bathroom scale, and recycled so-called "health" magazines, because I knew that hanging onto any of those things was going to keep me from fully living in recovery. Physically ridding my environment of those eating disorder symbols was hugely significant...and, let's be honest, it felt glorioiusly empowering! I would encourage anyone in the process of fighting an eating disorder to consider doing the same.

This year, as I prepare to tackle the Pesach cleaning, I am reminded of the importance of looking inward to see what internal "chametz" I need to get rid of. Are there any thought patterns, habits, or belief systems that are keeping me stuck in an uncomfortable space? Are there things I am hanging onto simply because they are familiar, even if they have outlived their usefulness? Now is the time to get rid of them. I hope we can all take this opportunity to clean not only our homes, but also our selves, so that we may enter into Pesach with our hearts and minds pure and shining.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Untying the Tangles

One of my "projects" during the past year has been integrating more daily prayer into my life. I find that taking time to "talk" to Hashem when I begin and end my day helps me to feel more grounded and centered...and, not surprisingly, I love the structure of the ritual. I've been fortunate to have the guidance of some gifted rabbis, and of some friends who have doubled as passionate teachers. I'll be truthful and admit that not EVERY prayer resonates with me. But, there are a few to which I feel deeply connected, and I would like to focus this post on one of them: Ana B'koach.

Ana B'koach is one of my favorite parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. I'm aware that it is loaded with deep kabbalistic meaning, but that's not why I love it (I don't really "get" kabbalah, to be honest). No, the main reason why I'm drawn to this prayer is its beginning:

Ana b'koach gedulat yemincha, tatir tzerurah.
I've heard this translated several ways, but my favorite is: We beg You, with the strength of Your right hand, untie our tangles. I just LOVE that image. There have been many times in my life, particularly in my recovery journey, when I have felt that my soul is all tied up in knots. When I was in treatment, a therapist asked me to draw how I envisioned myself and my eating disorder. I remember drawing a little red stick figure surrounded by a tangled mess of black scribbles. In recovery, I have found freedom from that hopelessness. However, there are still times when I feel bound up by life, pulled in different directions and unsure how to unwind. In those moments, I yearn for Hashem to reach down and gently help me untie myself.

The other theme of this prayer that resonates with me is that Hashem treats gently and mercifully those who acknowledge His "oneness." Part of my work in recovery has been realizing that, ultimately, life is in Hashem's control--not in mine. It has been a tough concept to accept, because if there's one thing I love, it's being in control. That's a big part of what my eating disorder was all about: micromanaging my surroundings, my intake, and my body in an effort to avoid all discomfort. In recovery, I'm having to realize that I'm just not as powerful as I might sometimes wish I was. I can take initiative, I can put my best effort into things, and I can make educated choices...but the truth is that I do not see the whole picture, and I might not know what ultimately is best for me. The only one who sees how all the pieces fit together is Hashem, and I have to trust that all the experiences He brings me are going to lead me to positive growth. When I internalize this belief, I open myself to Hashem's love and mercy.

When I say Ana B'koach, I close my eyes and turn my focus inward to a conversation that is between just Hashem and me. As my mouth recites the traditional Hebrew, here is what my soul is saying:

Please, Hashem, help me untangle myself. As I try to live my life in a way that makes You proud of me, please protect me and bless me. Guide me to bring goodness to my community and light to the people whose lives I touch. Help me to keep my eye on the ball and to see my way out of confusion. Please, Hashem, know that I am trying. Show me what is right for me to do.
Recently, I came across this version of Ana B'koach sung by a choir from a girls' school in Israel. I can't get enough of it...I find it absolutely beautiful and want to share it with you!

My wish for us all is that we continue to merit Hashem's help in untangling ourselves from the knots in which we find ourselves.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Faith in Purpose

I'll be honest: Purim is not my favorite holiday. It's very noisy; there's a lot of alcohol involved; things are supposed to be mixed up and out of order. None of that meshes well with my aforementioned penchant for rules.

Still, Megillat Esther is some fabulous drama. One of my favorite moments occurs in chapter 4. Mordechai has just told Esther about Haman's plot to annihilate the Jews, and he calls upon Esther to go to the king and plead with him to save the Jewish people. Esther is doubtful that she could pull this off--who is she, to think that she could hold such power with the king? But Mordechai insists. He says, "...who knows? Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis" (Book of Esther 4:14).

What I love about this part is the message that each of us is created to fulfill a unique purpose and that we should not doubt our ability to effect change. Initially, Esther does not present as a particularly self-confident or empowered woman. The text often refers to her in the passive voice: she "was taken," or she "would be summoned," etc. She is quiet, obedient, and eager to please. And yet...within her she has a spark, of which she is all but unaware. It is she who is best positioned to save the Jewish people, and this is not an accident. Esther has inside of her more power than she ever thought possible.

When I read this section of Megillat Esther, I am reminded that I, too, have a purpose in life that only I can serve. The same is true for each of us. The eating disorder has made us very good at believing that we are nothing special...when the truth is that Hashem created each of us to fulfill a need of the world. I'm reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes, by Marianne Williamson:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

I think Esther would agree.