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A Look on The Light Side: September 28, 2011

The Year of Eating Dangerously

This is a dangerous time of year for me. Yes, it’s the Jewish New Year, a time to repent a year’s worth of transgressions. But I mean something even more dreadful. This is the time of year when I think about diets.

“How bad could it be,” I wonder out loud, “if I exercise just a little more and eat just a little less?”

That’s when my husband has to remind me: “Bad! Very bad! You promised you’d never diet again!” He says this because he remembers that once, we were both on a diet. For the longest year of our lives.

It began one Yom Kippur: the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s supposed to be a day of fasting and prayer, when you beg God’s forgiveness for your sins of the whole past year. The stakes are high — not only is God deciding “who shall live and who shall die,” but He gets specific: “who by flood and who by fire; who by plague and who by incredibly boring made-for-TV movie.” All of this, on an empty stomach.

Every year, I resolve to be a better person. But this particular year would be different. As I stood up for one of the prayers, the waist-band-button popped off my skirt and flew into someone’s coat two rows ahead. “That does it,” I whispered to my husband, trying to hold my skirt together as we sat back down. “This year, we diet.”

“What do you mean, ‘we’?” he whispered back.

But my mind was made up. It was now or never, Do or Diet. My roomiest skirt no longer fit; his belt was at its final notch; and we had just received reports back from the lab about our cholesterol scores. This would be the Year of Unflavored Yogurt. Besides, I had just been given the name of a specialist who had helped a friend lose weight.

I made the appointment and in we marched.

I couldn’t help noticing that this doctor had clearly never had a weight problem in his life. Some people complain about overweight doctors telling them to diet; but I’d rather have someone who at least respects the problem.

First, he weighed us. Then he pinched us, to see if we were ready to join Hansel and Gretel in the oven… I mean, to measure our body fat. Then he had Vampyra, his assistant, take a lot of blood. Four quarts, at least. “I feel lighter already,” said my husband, as he rolled his shirt sleeve back down.

After that, came The Chat. Dr. Diet cheerfully explained that the only way to really lose weight was (drum roll)… not to eat very much. Every day, all we could eat was a few rice cakes and a piece of meat or fish no bigger than our palm. (Not our actual palms, mind you, even if we were ravenous, just a piece of meat the same size as one.) Plus all the raw vegetables we could manage. In fact, the less processing a food had been through, the better. The idea was, your body should take as long as possible digesting it, to distract from the fact that there really wasn’t anything there.

“In other words,” my husband said, “the goal is to eat like a Third World peasant?”

“Exactly,” Dr. Diet beamed at us. “Ideally, you would live like one, too, if you could find some fields to cultivate all day.”

We were given a list of what we could eat. If it wasn’t on the list, we couldn’t eat it. It was a very short list.

We could have a spoonful of applesauce every morning, with some locust wings mixed in (okay, bran husks). Maybe some gefilte fish, a Jewish “delicacy” that looks, and feels, just like a sponge. If you added enough horseradish to that, at least it tasted like horseradish. Lunch was a tiny can of water-packed tuna, and two leaves of wilted lettuce from the back of the crisper. Dinner was tough. Some days, it was a diet dinner meal — with the cardboard it came in, for fiber. Some days, it was two.

Sometimes we went out. The local Chinese restaurant never quite got used to the two of us, bickering over where to draw the dividing line on the one entree we were allowed to share. “Excuse me, sweetheart, but I believe that is my piece of scallion.”

“Oh yes, darling? Then give me that water chestnut!”

“No way! I saw it first!” Eventually, when they saw us coming, the owners would pull out a plastic dish they usually saved for their own small children; at least it had a pattern across the middle we could use for a dotted line.

Six months into this regime, we could see some results, but I felt like Scarlett O’Hara, waving that potato and vowing to “Nevah be hungry again!” Except, if I had a perfectly edible tuber in my hand, I wouldn’t have wasted time talking. I’d even have nibbled on her curtains, by the time our eleventh month rolled around.

At last, the year was out. Another Jewish New Year had arrived. Having eaten so little for an entire year, I decided that this Yom Kippur fast would be a piece of… um, well, a cinch.

That was the year we were invited to the Rabbi’s house after services, for the Break Fast, a meal his wife served when the sun had finally gone down.

It was quite an honor. I was sunk. Even if I could have snuck out before the end of services, I had nowhere to go. So I sat through every last prayer. I hardly noticed the words; since early afternoon, I had been hallucinating food: turkeys with stuffing and cranberry sauce; ball-park hot dogs; ice cream sundaes...bacon cheeseburgers... key lime pie.

My hands were actually shaking as we drove to the Rabbi’s house. A small crowd was gathered in the living room, waiting for him to finish the blessings over the meal we were about to eat. It was all I could do to stand still. FINALLY, the starting bell rang and they allowed us at the buffet table.

In less than a minute I mowed down the appetizers, then paused to balance my plate before rounding the corner on the whitefish and lox. But someone was blocking my way. “Judy, my dear,” said the someone. It was the Rabbi. “I’m so glad I’ve run into you!”

“Um, likewise, Rabbi.” The man had chosen to stand in the single most dangerous place in the entire room: between me and the food.

“I haven’t had a chance to tell you,” he went on, “how wonderful you and your husband both look!”

“Thanks,” I tried to say, around a mouthful of raisin bread. I could fake to my left; but perhaps I’d do better reaching around him to the right. Lox was better than whitefish, anyway.

“But I want to ask you – how did you do it?”

“We didn’t eat. For a year. Now if you’ll excuse me...” And I dived with both hands for the table.

My husband and I made short work of putting all the weight back on. That diet did achieve one thing, though. It cured me of ever dieting again. Whenever my friends head for Weight Watchers and try to sign me up, I remember The Year of Eating Dangerously…and repent.

If Judy Epstein seems to be ignoring you, don’t worry; she’s just counting roast turkeys in her head. But she’s always happy to hear from you at alookonthelightside.com!