Soul food: Eating to sate a spiritual hunger
I am lucky to say I had my great-grandmother until I was 21. “Bubby” was one of the most important influences in my life. The great lessons she taught me still inform the way I live today. She taught me the lessons of immigrating to America. She taught me the ethics of grit, determination, resilience, and survival.
And, looking back, she also taught me how to eat with the same determination with which she taught me to survive. In fact, for her, eating was survival. My great-grandmother came to this country poor, deprived, and bone-thin. Decades later, when she would visit our family, the first thing she would do is make my very skinny brother a sandwich of white bread with gobs of butter. She would forcibly — but with all good intentions — put the sandwich in his mouth and say, “Yussele, eat, it is not healthy for you to be such skin and bones.” My brother eventually learned the unspoken lesson that eating was a form of love — and food itself was comfort. All three of my siblings and I learned that food was the same as well-being. In fact, food morphed into all kinds of emotions, way beyond physical nutrition.
I speak and write about all kinds of important subjects as a rabbi. I try as diligently as possible to teach my sacred tradition in relevant ways to help make the lives of others as meaningful as possible. Interesting enough, however, I have never written about what might be most challenging to me and to so many others: the issue of eating. Superficially, I may have stayed away from the subject because I convinced myself that there was nothing “spiritual” about eating, overeating, diet, and health. But of course, so much about eating is “spiritual” or “religious.” Everything, from our sense of gratitude to our sense of how we treat the gift of our bodies, is connected to spirituality.
But I think the real reason I have avoided speaking on the subject is because of my own personal embarrassment around issues of food. My challenges around eating go back generations. They are personal and deep. And yet, I know they are not my struggles alone. Perhaps, as important, there is something wise and unique our respective traditions can teach us about how we balance our struggles with nutrition.
There is a nexus of body and soul, a spiritual yearning and physical sustenance. When we feel emotionally hollow or generally unfulfilled, we often turn to food, cramming the empty spaces inside us with French fries or a pint of ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s have become our gurus. How did we make the connection between food and love, and what keeps that confused connection going? Who taught us that our intrinsic worth should be measured by numbers on a scale or the size of our waists?
And — most importantly — what is our life potential when we are finally able to fill in the missing pieces of ourselves with a spiritual solution instead of a culinary one?
So, I begin a journey, with my dear friend and renowned nutritionist, Shari Boockvar (see sidebar). Shari and I have explored the inner, spiritual mechanisms that cause us to become obsessed with food and overeating. While our behavioral habits are planted in childhood, the roots extend back hundreds or even thousands of years — we are the product of family traditions; religious and ethnic struggles and traditions; and the weight, metaphorical and actual, of our ancestors. For some individuals who overeat, there is a link to a deep, underlying source of spiritual or familial pain. We believe that if we can heal that historical pain, present-day negative eating patterns may disappear.
We somehow believe that by filling our bodies with food, we feel better. But I have found through our work that by satisfying our spiritual yearning, we are rewarded with a more joyous self, better relationships with others, and the kind of deeper transformation that allows our physical selves to become what they were meant to be.