An Image of God
When I was eight, I decided that I no longer believed in God. I had been going to Catholic mass with my Irish-born nanny my whole life, praying that He’d speak to me, but I had heard nothing. One cloudy afternoon, while walking to my best friend’s house, I simply made the decision to cut the cord, and that is the only way I can think to describe how I felt from that moment forward: untethered.
At thirteen, I converted to a new religion. My deity was food and self-control. My God was a vengeful one, hell-bent on the eradication of my Self, wanting only complacency and utter devotion. I gaveth all of myself to him, wanting so much to believe that in disappearing beneath a mass of fabric, I would find the Truth. By the time I was fifteen, I was only allowed to eat seven things –– the number sounded perfect, to me –– and two years later, I found myself in a psychiatric hospital. Located in Long Island just a short drive from the city, it treated the ailing Orthodox population from the outer boroughs, and it was there that I was formally introduced to Judaism.
Truth be told, I hadn’t realized before that observant Jews existed –– in my sheltered hometown, I hadn’t known a one, and in my one semester at college I had been too busy climbing stairs to notice them –– and these exotic creatures from my own backyard captured my attention immediately. I befriended a thimble-sized twelve-year-old named Faige’le and a boy, Avram, eighteen like me, whose diet had consisted of naught but chicken breasts for almost a year before his admission. Their families would come to visit them often, and they would greet each other by saying “Good Shabbos” on Friday afternoons. They knew me, as there weren’t many of us there, and were cordial, but I sensed a distance there, which made me want their attention and approval all the more. At night, after visiting hours were over and the unit was silent except for the beeping of heart monitors, Avram and Faige’le would tell me stories of how their grandparents had evaded the Nazis during World War II. In the mornings, they would dejectedly stab their kosher breakfasts with plastic knives, and balk at the mandatory one hour we spent after meals in the dayroom, safely in sight of the staff and away from the toilets and sharp objects.
I relished in learning the rules of their religion, the dietary restrictions and sartorial limits. A woman was admitted, Deborah. She was twenty and married but her body was so shrunken and awkward she looked maybe fourteen. Deborah showed us pictures from her wedding, just a few months before she came to the hospital. In the pictures, her round, healthy face glowed, but now she was swimming in her long skirts and loose sweaters, her face drawn, thick cheekbones visible beneath her pale skin. She told me one day that she was wearing a wig, which explained the incongruously lustrous quality of her russet hair. When she confessed this, she giggled in a flippant, almost embarrassed way. Thinking it wasn’t so serious to her, I went with my finger to poke her hairline.
“Let me see!” I said.
“No!” She laughed, recoiling from my touch. “Only my husband can see my real hair.”
I thought about this husband of hers, probably just twenty, too. I thought about the way she spoke about him, not at all like my friends spoke of their boyfriends, all gooey-voiced and lustful. I thought about what it meant for him that she was sick –– no sex with his new bride, no babies –– and for her –– the disgust she felt when he put a hand on her, the rising panic at any move he made to be intimate. I had unceremoniously cut my long-term boyfriend loose a few months earlier after one too many tearful breakdowns when he tried to kiss me. His touch left me nauseated, his presence interfered with the solitude I needed to adhere to my rules and contemplate my fate. I was meditating, in my own way, on yichud, on being alone with my god.
When I returned to college after the hospital, I constructed more rules to follow regarding food, private habit, and social conduct. Certain clothing was okay to wear because it emphasized certain bones or covered certain monstrosities, certain food I deemed “clean” based on a system that evaluated color, nutritional content, and number of ingredients. Ziplocs became the ultimate fetish object; I delighted in seeing different foods –– cereal, nuts, apricots –– confined to different sized clear containers. The act of separating the alimentation, all amounts neatly determined by white measuring cups, was worship for me. I believed there was metaphysical meaning in these rituals of mine. What exactly it was, I wasn’t sure, but I thought if I just kept following the rules, one day I would understand.
Yet while I worked to get my world as small as a teaspoon, I found myself eyeing with greater fascination a world outside of mine. At school, I openly ogled the Jewish kids mingling outside the Chabad house. On subways, I’d find myself quietly inching toward a burly Chasid, clad in a black coat and reading a prayer book, and trying to read his lips. In a class on the Bible and English Literature, I made endless notes in micrographic script about the tenuous connections between dietary laws dictated by the Old Testament and all the typical mandates of anorexia. The similarity in rhetoric astounded me. Perhaps food was the path to God after all, and the Jews and I were the only ones who knew it.
When I was ultimately admitted again to another hospital –– this one upstate, and considered a last resort for non-compliant patients –– I was greeted at the door by a young Hasidic girl from Monsey who, in an attempt to avoid consuming her dinner, was letting Ensure dribble over her hands and chin and then meticulously smearing the droplets of liquid all over the Styrofoam cup as if she were finger-painting. At ten, she was maybe too young to be thinking about obedience or modesty because in the mornings she would clumsily race around her room stark naked and slap her hands at her doughy belly.
“I’m so hot!” she shrieked. “It’s all this fat on my body!”
I tried to endear myself to this girl, whose name I learned was Beila, mainly by playing hand-clapping games while waiting in line for the bathroom. She smelled like shit, literally, but I didn’t let that deter me. Even now, I am not completely capable of verbalizing why I moved toward her and observed her so carefully. Oftentimes I find myself going over my disparate memories of her and wondering if perhaps I can determine which of her movements contained the magic, which moment was the one I became hopelessly infatuated with her not really as an individual but as an emblem of her faith. I recall her hopping into the dining room one evening –– she wasn’t allowed to sit with the rest of us because she was consistently disruptive during mealtimes –– and conspiratorially badgering another young Hasidic patient. “Hust getrinken? Hust getrinken?” The other patient, whose name was Shifra, turned her eyes nervously toward the floor. I think of Beila telling me about the necklace she wore, a small vial with a miniature prayer scroll inside, a gift from her grandfather.
“Do your brothers and sisters have one, too?” I asked. I knew she was one of eight.
“No, just me,” she said proudly.
“Why just you?”
Her eyebrows furrowed, and she looked at me as if I were dense. “Because I am the one in the hospital.”
I think of her davening in the morning, moving her body rhythmically toward the wall. We patients were forbidden to stand when we could be seated or to walk aimlessly around the unit –– anything that could be seen as a ploy to exercise was met with quick scolding. But no one said boo to Beila’s praying.
Davening definitely burns calories, I thought.
Sometimes I wondered about whether she knew, in those moments, which god she was praying to. Was she thinking, like a good Hasid, of Hashem, or like a good anorectic, of the intake she was managing to purge?
“Boruch atoh Adonoi… hamachzir neshamos lifgorim meisim.” One, two, three, four, five, six… one elohai n’shama equals five carrots.
In the end, it comes down to the sin of envy. I envied Beila for her ability to lose herself in both her religions, for being capable of such blind devotion. Even when it came to my own illness, I felt like a Wicked Daughter –– always doubting my path, entertaining the possibility of another way to salvation, always buckling beneath the pressures of my conscience and my hunger and gulping down my allotted Ensure so as to stay in the good graces of the doctors. I sacrificed hardly anything for my worship, and I saw this as weakness. Beila’s piety, by comparison, was fierce and unrelenting. She rebelled enough against the rules of the institution that finally one day the staff decided she had to have a feeding tube. The nurses ushered her into a back room, where she remained, screaming, for hours. Finally she emerged, her nostril caked in blood, an NG tube dangling down on top of her lip. She was quiet and vacant-eyed for days, until one morning she ripped the tube out in the shower.
It’s been eight years since I’ve seen Beila, and almost as many since my last hospitalization. My belief in anorexia as my own path to truth has all but disintegrated, leaving me almost –– but not as desperately –– untethered in the universe once again. My interest in Hasidim, however, who from the outside seem comfortably myopic in their mysterious world, has swelled inside me so greatly that some days I worry it has become its own consuming obsession. It feels like a deep, conflicted yearning, an unrequited love. When I pass Hasidim on the streets of Brooklyn, where I now live, I silently beg them to look me in the eye, to talk to me, but they never do. They just walk right by, as if I don’t exist.Printable Version