When a rabbi struggles with food…

When rabbis and clergy share vulnerably about their own struggles and courage they model that for others and empower them to do the same. Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein shares her own struggles with weight and food. I haven’t met someone yet who doesn’t….

Weight Watcher Rabbi
When I was 15, I began to take control of my relationship with food through Weight Watchers. I have lost and maintained 40 pounds since then and attended meetings all throughout college and rabbinical school. And now I am a rabbi and the lessons and mantras that I have learned through my studies and my meetings have always swirled inside me in complimentary ways. So here I am, sharing my swirl with you. Stay tuned for Torah, food, and the human experience.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015

If I’m not for Myself…
“If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If I’m only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?”
-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Sages) 1:14

This teaching has followed me all week long, including at my weigh in. I went down 1.2 this week, and this is one of those times when I feel like I earned it. Sometimes, when I lose weight, I chalk it up to a good BM or some other reason that doesn’t actually give me any credit, you know…the one who actually did the work. We all need to own our successes more. But, this week I didn’t even try to make excuses. I knew I earned it and I’ll tell you why.

I stopped worrying about how my food choices would make others feel, and I focussed on how they would make me feel. This is easier said than done because everyone has something to say about what what we’re eating.

Do you remember what your mother used to say if you ever complained that your brother or sister didn’t finish their broccoli? “Keep your eyes on your own plate!” Unfortunately, people generally don’t do that, and what we eat seems to worry the people around us. Plug that natural human tendency into overt social settings, and everyone is a critic or a concerned party.

My work, like a lot of other folks, comes with a whole slew of free food including cookies, cake, challah, bagels, and sometimes even eggplant parm. Add a conference into the mix and I would have expected a weight gain this week. Conferences mean that I am sitting all day and survive at the whim of someone else’s menu. On top of that, there are tons of people around which means that either I am having a great time, which makes me want to eat, or I’m feeling very anxious, which also makes me want to eat.

But I remembered my teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I’ll give you an example of this in action- When I realized that there were no vegetarian options that would make me feel satisfied, instead of eating what was put in front of me, I went over to the cafeteria and bought a meal that would fill me up and make me smile. I wanted to enjoy my food. And when I got back to the table, my colleagues and friends nudged me and poked fun about being a picky eater (being a vegetarian wasn’t bad enough?). It was all good natured, but that kind of things stops us from making good choices.

I have come to learn that I cannot wait for someone to make healthy choices for me and if the options are not there, then I’ll forge them myself. Occasionally, that doesn’t sit well with others.

Let’s take family gatherings like Thanksgiving. Does Great Aunt Mildred (fictional family member) get upset if you don’t eat her famous pumpkin pie and say, “not even a sliver?” Do you ever feel the pressure to eat seconds of something so that your host/ess knows that the meal was delicious? How about when you’re out to dinner and you’re the only one who doesn’t want to share the wine or the appetizer? Last one, I promise: During my Passover shopping I came across those sour cream and onion chips that my father likes. I thought, “he’ll be disappointed if I don’t by them.” Guess what… he barely touched them and I almost finished half the bag before I threw them out.

I may ruffle some feathers, I may disappoint people, and I may make people uncomfortable with their own choices (or I may make that all up in my head), but if I am not for myself, no one will be for me! That is not to say that I go out of my way to make people squirm. Remember, the 2nd line of the teachings is: “If I am only for myself, what I am?” But there are other ways to connect with people and show our gratitude and love other than with food.

This principle applies to every corner of our lives, including our professions, and even within our families. Just a note on professions, there is a great book that I have been meaning to read called: Women Don’t Ask The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation.” We tend not to negotiate promotions and we tend not to negotiate eating or time to take care of ourselves.

It’s time to be our own best advocates because: “If not now, when?”

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I love it when people shatter expectations and break out of molds! Kudos to this young woman!

Great article in today’s New York Times.

17-Year-Old Makes the First-Ever Charge From an Orthodox Yeshiva to West Point

Rachelle David, 17, at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School. She was accepted at other top colleges, but chose West Point because she was enthralled by generals’ roles in shaping history. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
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GREAT NECK, N.Y. — When Rachelle David applied for admission to the yeshiva high school here, her interviewer wrote in his notes: “This girl is going to be a general in the army someday.”

Four years later, that prediction is still on track. Ms. David has accepted an offer of admission to West Point, which would, according to the military academy’s officials, make her the only graduate of an Orthodox yeshiva, male or female, to attend West Point in its 213-year history.

Why is that so unusual?

“I hate to say it, but it’s not a Jewish activity,” said Daniel J. Vitow, headmaster of the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, a 400-student modern Orthodox yeshiva, and the man who interviewed Ms. David for admission. “The military is not what Jewish mothers want for their children. The stereotypical Jewish mother wants a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, not an army general.”

Ms. David, 17, is the kind of stereotype-defying young woman who between classes the other day was carrying a balsa and string “Bridge on the River Kwai”-like model of a suspension bridge that she had built. The desktop photo on her laptop shows a West Point cadet wielding a rifle from a prone position.

“West Point has been on my mind for a long time,” she said.

Ms. David was accepted at other top colleges, including Wellesley, but chose West Point, she said, because growing up she was enthralled by the role of generals like Grant and Eisenhower, both West Point alumni, in shaping American history, and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir — “She wasn’t in the army but she was powerful” — in shaping the history of Israel, the other country she is devoted to.

Women were first admitted to West Point in 1976; they now make up 17.6 percent of the school, which has 1,100 cadets per class.

Ms. David found resonance in the biblical story of Deborah, the prophet and judge who led a successful counterattack against the Canaanites, one of the earliest scriptural examples of a female warrior. In her secular reading, Ms. David was taken with the tales of discipline, valor and resilience in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Those books were laced with horror and bloodshed, but in an application essay Ms. David wrote of them:

“At times, cadets and officers experience fear and manifest cowardice, but they also struggle with moral dilemmas in the context of courageous acts.”

Asked what impact the scenes of war’s reality had on her, she said, “They were disturbing, but I can’t let that deter me.”

As a West Pointer, Ms. David would graduate as a second lieutenant.

“I’ll be well-equipped and trained,” she said, already assuming the matter-of-fact demeanor of a seasoned soldier. “It’s not like I’m going in blind. I’ll be trained to know how to handle this and I’ll have a unit behind me. And it’s important anyway to face your fears.”

Ms. David was also influenced by the memories of her father, Ilan David, generally favorable recollections of his service as an officer in a tank support unit in the Israeli Army, including his tour during the 1982 Lebanon war.

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“It’s very important to serve the country in the military,” she said. “You protect the civilians here, people who are like me, and to protect people in other countries from oppression.”

Ms. David visited the West Point campus, on the Hudson River, with her mother, Beverly Silver, a lawyer, who saw the school as a place of empowerment.

Her father was more cautious, concerned about the low ratio of women and news accounts of abuse of women in the wider military. He also worried about how Ms. David would respond to the absence of freedom in the hierarchical environment, and that once she was in the Army she could be sent anywhere on the globe, in contrast to the closer-to-home service of an Israeli soldier.

But he warmed to the idea, he said, because he came to realize that his daughter would be watched over carefully.

“Nobody goes under the radar at West Point,” Mr. David said.

And to the dangers of a military career?

“What can I tell you? It’s life,” he said. “You take your chances. This is what people do who have a calling, and are motivated to do something.”

Personal discipline and fitness have always been important to Ms. David; she runs two miles every day and does 100 situps and 30 push-ups. She is the captain of the varsity softball team and a member of the yeshiva’s volleyball squad.

But she keeps kosher, and West Point does not have a kosher cafeteria (it does have vegetarian options at every meal, as well as kosher ready-to-eat meals for field exercises). Yet Ms. David, who is a Conservative Jew and not modern Orthodox like the yeshiva itself, decided she could avoid prohibited foods by sticking to a vegetarian diet, a discipline her parents both observe.

Ms. David’s favorite subjects are chemistry and mathematics. She likes West Point’s strength in engineering, but once in the military, she said, “I see myself in a lot of different positions; I can see myself leading a charge, making new weapons, in a technological area, decoding messages.”

To gain entrance, Ms. David, who lives in Syosset, on Long Island, had to obtain an endorsement from a member of Congress. She procured recommendations from her representative, Steve Israel, and both United States senators from New York. She also had to pass a series of physical tests, which included throwing a basketball from a kneeling position.

West Point was also no doubt impressed by the 10 advanced placement courses she had taken.

But what may have put Ms. David over the top at a college that prizes leadership was a résumé studded with executive positions. She founded and edited the yeshiva’s literary magazine, was captain of the traveling math team, has been head of the stock market game club, the sewing club and something called the Novel and Nosh Club, which discusses fiction over food.

“I like getting things done,” she said, “and someone has to be the one to get people to do things.”

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Each one is a name. A beautiful testimony to the individuality and uniqueness of each and every one of the 23,085 lives given for the Jewish people and the state of Israel

A beautiful piece by Rabbi Seth Kirshner from his blog for the Times of Israel.
That is the number of lives we remember on this day of Yom HaZikaron – The Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel.

Each a name.
Each a person.
Each a beating heart that was stilled.
Each the product of a mother and father.

Almost all with siblings and many with spouses or girlfriends and boyfriends.
Too many bicycles are left with no one to run alongside while the training wheels are removed.
Too many cry over one less to bandage a skinned knee or heal the broken heart of a teen-age crush.
Aisles walked down with only one parent escorting a bittersweet bride and groom to their beloved with their own set of fears.

Each name, tear drop and rose that grows from their resting place represents a shattered piece of a nation that will never be whole and never perfect in realization of the sacrifice given to make this small dream of thousands of years the reality of beauty, splendor, innovation and hope that it is today.

Hope is an important word for lovers of Israel. Hope is the blood that flows through our veins and pumps to all of our arteries. Hope is what keeps us alive. Without hope, we are lifeless.

Fillip Muller – one of the only survivors of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz’s gas chambers who had the gruesome task for three years of herding fellow Jews to their death, explained through a prism we should never know of again, that when thousands of people vanished into smoke, we learned as a people the value and fragility of human life more than ever before. At the same time, hope was underscored as the fuel that kept him and the other survivors breathing.

“Hope lingers in man as long as he lives. Where there is life – hope can never be relinquished.”

Muller was a prisoner of hope.

The memory of our soldiers makes us all locked in that very same cell, hoping for a better day, a brighter day.

A day where memories are meaningful but the pain of loss is distant.

Where freshness is smelled of flowers and newly picked fruits and sweet pastries baked in the market places, not on turned soil and uprooted plants over graves.

This is why, on these juxtaposing days of Remembrance and Celebration, we turn as the Psalmist writes – from dark to light, from despair to triumph, from sorrow and worry to a boundless hope –we turn from the memory of our loss to the miracle of our founding – we are reminded of the anthem of our country.

Od Loh Avdah – Tikvateinu. We have not lost our hope. We never will. LeHiyot Am Hofshi, BeArtzeinu. To be a free people, in our nation, living alongside our neighbors in peace and making the world a better place. In our homeland – Eretz Yisrael.

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Is there truth to the stereo type that Jews are anxious and neurotic? Does it affect one’s happiness or not? Either way, Elad Nehorai’s article is definitely thought provoking.

I’ve Never Met A Happy JewI’ve Never Met A Happy Jew

So, there I was… scrolling my newsfeed. And I ran into this Humans of New York post:

I remember having this distinct feeling of, “I hate you so much.” This feeling like, “How could you?”

What was this poor man’s sin, that he was so happy, so content?

Well that was exactly it, wasn’t it? That he was so happy and content.

My wife and I have talked quite a bit about how we’d like to leave New York City, get the hell out of this place that makes you use all your money so you can live in a shoebox packed inside of a big closet full of other shoeboxes.

Vermont… man… that bastard.

But that wasn’t the reason I was angry with him. It was just that he was happy. And I know I never will be.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m referring to this guy’s happiness. Like, life is perfect, and I’m content, and I need nothing else and the world is a good place.

(Edited to be bold for all you folks who are unhappy with how I used the word happy. You unhappy Jews, you, what am I gonna do with you?)

So if me and my wife ship off to Vermont, I’m still going to be unhappy.

I’d find the reasons. There won’t be enough other religious Jews. There won’t be kosher restaurants. The people are too liberal. I don’t know, there’d be something about Vermont that would make me uncomfortable, unhappy, uncontent.

I’m sure I’d love it too. Much more than New York City. But I wouldn’t be content. I’d always be looking around, like a rat looking for cheese, for something else, something more.

Since that fateful moment on the net, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it is that I’m convinced that I wouldn’t be happy in Vermont, or anywhere, or any time.

And I think I finally figured it out: it’s because I’m a Jew.

Why do I think this?

Simple: every other Jew I’ve met is the same.

When I was growing up in secular Highland Park, Illinois, that’s something like 120% Jewish, no one was happy. I mean, they had happy moments. But they were all trying to achieve something. Or fix something. The high school kids were dying to get into good schools. And I don’t mean in the normal way, but in some sort of pathologically insane way, a way that made the entire school’s energy be focused on that goal.

The adults, they were always trying to reach higher, you could see it. It was one of those upper-middle-class Jewish places. Everyone was trying to reach the “top”. I’m sure they all still are, God bless ‘em.

When I moved to Arizona, there weren’t many Jews, but I remember being able to pick them out. They tried to blend in, the ones there. But you could tell who they were by their twitchiness. I remember my friend Jenny, she dated a Jewish guy, and he was never happy with the relationship. Poor Jenny, she didn’t know what we’re like. He complained and complained.

Then I moved to Israel, land of the Jews, and homeland of the unhappy. Everyone’s scraping over there. Scraping to live, scraping to get by. But it’s not just that. It’s this general shiftiness, this general lack of being able to just stop and love life. For example, if I ever see a line in Israel that isn’t being cut by someone I will faint and might have another near death experience.

And then I came to New York, the other land of the Jews, and my gosh, over here they don’t even hide how unhappy they are. They talk so fast, like they think the world might explode soon, and they just want want to make sure to finish their thought before it happens. They seem to always have this pressure on them too, like the entire city is weighing itself down on their backs, and they walk around with depression, anger, heartache, that they don’t ever seem to hide (except in Crown Heights, everyone’s happy here).

So, no, I don’t think if I moved anywhere, I’d be happy. And I don’t think any Jew would be either. Because Jews are unhappy people.

There’s actually a dirty lie going around. For years now, there have been these polls and studies coming out that say Jews are happy, and especially religious Jews. That Jews are the most happy people in the world. And religious Jews the happiest of the most happy.

So, who am I to argue with science?

Well, it’s because I’m right and science is wrong.

Let’s look at the criteria these polls used: in the most famous Gallup study, they wanted to know who was diagnosed the most with depression.

Apparently Jews are diagnosed the least.

Well, besides the fact that orthodox Jews largely think going to a psychologist is the equivalent of admitting that they are horrible people who will never get married or their children will never get married or something…

Besides all that, someone not being depressed doesn’t mean they are happy. They aren’t that guy in the Humans of New York photo.

In fact, I’d argue that part of the reason we are less depressed (assuming that’s actually true) is because we are unhappy. We aren’t content. But we’ll get to that later, at the end, when I get all inspirational on you.

No Jew is content, I think, because we are inherent perfectionists. Not necessarily only within ourselves, but with everything. It drives us crazy to live in an unjust world, which is why so many Jews have led revolutions and civil rights movements and still think that Occupy Wall Street actually changed something. It drives us nuts that we don’t understand freaking anything about the world, in terms of all its secrets, which is why we’ve been so successful in the sciences, winning 22% of all Nobel prizes, despite being .25% of the world’s freaking population. We changed show biz and made it what it is in so many ways because we were like, “Show biz right now sucks, let’s make it awesome.”

And so those are the more refined, higher expressions of our lack of contentment. But they’re really just part of our overall mindset, just a revelation of who we are.

To be a Jew is to be unhappy. To be a Jew, no matter how hard we try, is to want things improved. Improved until there are no problems anymore and everyone’s happy. Because unless the world is perfect, unless the world is completely just, unless we understand it completely, unless we make it the most rockin’ rollickin’ exciting place to be on the universe (there’s probably some planet out there that has better Netflix shows), we will be completely uncontent.

Sometimes that unhappiness gets directed in the weird ways I described up top. The need to achieve or the talking like the world is ending. But it’s from that core of wanting every single little thing to be absolutely perfect that makes us act like this, think like this, be like this.

And that’s why we’re the least depressed people in the world. Because if we’re being true to ourselves, we’re trying in some way to perfect reality. And that effort, those revolutions, those peace marches, those Nobel Prizes, those comedy shows, those have forced us to live lives of meaning.

And as we know, living a meaningful life is far more important (and healthier) than living a happy one. And my guess would be that lack of contentment, which leads to trying to live a meaningful life, which leads to hopefully living a meaningful life… then leads to less depression.

Perhaps the reason orthodox Jews are less depressed is because they wouldn’t touch a psychologist with a ten foot pole, but perhaps it’s also because the structure of religion makes it slightly easier for them to find the meaning that every Jew is dying within to experience and live out. I’m guessing it’s the pole.

And so now we’re at the inspirational part: being unhappy, not being content, is not a negative thing. In fact, it can be a great thing. It can lead to the world being changed, to life on earth improving drastically, to major discoveries, to funny shows. It can even lead to Facebook, where you probably heard about this blog post.

And more than anything, it can lead to us finding meaning in our lives and helping others find their’s.

A Jew is a perfectionist because he’s a Jew. He’s never content because he’s a Jew. He won’t even be happy in Vermont, simply because he’s a Jew.

Thank God.

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