Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

About a decade ago, a short time after I arrived in Oak Park, I found a new doctor to manage my thyroid condition (which I've had since college). I already knew the drill. He'd come in, examine me carefully, draw blood and then adjust my medicine based on the results. And that's pretty much what happened: examination, blood test - everything was going fine until he said, "Oh, and if you don't lose weight, in ten years you'll have type-2 diabetes."
Whoa. He could have slapped me in the face. Here I was, sitting comfortably in the doctor's office, minding my own business, and he has the gall to tell me true things that I really don't want to hear. But then he adds,
"You Orthodox eat too much," he being a secular Jew. Orthodox? Why's he picking on us? And then I thought about it, and it's probably because he's right.
Think about a typical Shabbat:
Friday night begins with a big meal: appetizer, soups, main course, a ton of bread (challah), dessert. Then you go out for a Shalom Zachar: some beer, a couple pieces of cake. Drag yourself home and conk out.
Shabbat morning: Piece of cake and cup of coffee before davening. (For now I'll ignore the halachic issues of eating before prayer.) After davening, which can often end at noon or later, you head for kiddush, which is now a mainstay at shuls looking to attract and retain members. At the very least, you're looking at a few pieces of Entemann's (which really aren't that good), some chips and soda. At the worst, you've loaded up on cholent, kugel, maybe some herring - without a doubt a full meal on any other day of the week. And then you go home and do what? That's right - eat another meal - and a large one at that, again with a nice slice of bread, maybe some chicken, cold cuts, and dessert. More sleep.
After minchah, of course comes...Seudah Shlishit. (Shalashudes in the American vernacular). At most shuls this is a simple affair, but it's a meal: maybe a roll, some tuna fish, and a piece of now stale cake leftover from kiddush. (I've seen sheet cakes last longer than some Hostess foods. Scary.) Were we hungry for Shaleshudes? Often we were not, but it's a social thing, everyone's eating, and hey - it's a mitzvah!
Motzei Shabbat: (let's assume it's a early Shabbat, around Thanksgiving time) Whether you call it a Melave Malka or not, what's Saturday night without a slice of pizza (or two or three)? A movie, some popcorn too perhaps?
Objectively, this is a ton of food. But it's also a very typical Orthodox Shabbat - and we haven't touched Sunday yet. All of this points to the very obvious question: Is Orthodoxy unhealthy?
Obviously, there's nothing in Orthodoxy that demands overeating and unhealthy living. But, especially in America, Orthodox lifestyle has clearly led Jews into a dangerous cycle of overeating and indulgence. (A rabbi I know once came to a conference having lost a great deal of weight. When I asked him how he did it he said simply, "I decided that at simchas I was only going to eat one meal, either at the shmorg or at the sit-down dinner." Think about how right he was: How many functions do we attend at which we eat more than one meal? How many bar mitzvahs, school dinners, weddings?)
I've been thinking about this issue for two reasons: Yesterday I received the latest OU Jewish Action, which featured an article about the challenges of healthy eating at kiddush. Asked what to eat at a shul kiddush, the author had a hard time coming up with anything.
This article reminded me of a conundrum we had at YIOP. When the Kollel Torah Mitzion would visit for a shabbaton, I wanted to have them give short shiurim after shul. But we couldn't ask people to stay around for a short class without first giving them something to eat. At the same time, money was quite tight. So we came up with the idea of the DunkinKiddush, at which we'd serve only coffee and donuts - cheap and quick. There was only one problem: I and any diabetic, dieter or simply healthy person, had nothing to eat. So we added baby carrots and hummus, so everyone had something to munch.
With the issue at the back of my mind, I opened up an email from a relative, who sent a couple of pictures from a recent wedding. The pictures are of total strangers, who I don't know at all. Yet, looking at them, I was struck by the fact that they're all overweight - and not by a little.
This is something that you notice coming from Israel immediately when you walk into an American shul. Sure, there are people here that are overweight (and I by no means exclude myself from this category. Far from it.) But in general, people there weigh much more than people here.
I remember when we waged the battle to open the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Oak Park (for reasons I still cannot fathom, the parent company was giving the franchisee trouble about going kosher.) After the battle had been won and the kosher store opened, I got a call from a local columnist at the Free Press. When he asked me how I felt about the victory I said, "I'm not sure that we've struck a blow for the waistlines of Orthodox Jews, but it's a great win for our community. I only hope we can bring the same energy to more important issues down the road."
People used to ask me whether we celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving. I've got nothing against a good turkey dinner, but I personally did not, only because I felt that a huge meal on Thursday would negatively impact my Shabbat meal. (and it wasn't my family minhag). But with many Orthodox Americans stuffed with turkey and the latkes of Chanukah on the way, I wonder about a community full devoted to the gastronomic customs of both secular America and traditional Judaism.
I worry about the long-term health of Orthodox Jews, especially in America. I fear an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes, and of course, unnecessary deaths resulting from complications of obesity. Our community rightly protects the value of life. We'll fight for the right to cling to every last second, devoted to the notion that every moment is precious and holy.
And yet, at the very same time, under the banner of frumkeit we've adopted a lifestyle that's literally going to cut years and perhaps decades from our collective lives.
I call on the OU undertake a study of the collective health of Orthodox people, and especially men between the ages of 35 and 65. The OU's done great work helping Torah Jews put more into our mouths. Now it's time for the O.U. to take the lead in helping us put a little less in as well.