Idealizing the Greek Body


We know the story: the Greeks tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.

But wait—the story of Chanukah is different. Because they didn’t try to kill us. They tried to kill our souls. We should still eat, because sufganiyot and latkes are awesome, but therein lies the problem. Because when I say “sufganiyot” and “latkes”, I know what you ladies are thinking. Diets, weight gain, and bodies.

So who won the battle of Chanukah? The Jews or the Greeks?

Officially, the Jews won. We rededicated the Bais Hamikdash and say Hallel and light our menorahs. But the battle for sovereignty and the battle for ideas was just a foreshadowing of things to come. The great Maccabee family was reduced to one survivor—Miriam—who married and was murdered by Herod. Several hundred years after the miracle of Chanukah, the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, and we still await its rebuilding.

What about the world of ideas? Whose ideas have triumphed? Jewish ideas of G-d-consciousness? Of soul over body? Of monotheism and fidelity to Torah, despite peer pressure? Or Greek ideas of body-perfection and physical pleasure?

Chochmah ba-goyim ta’amin”—we are to accept wisdom from non-Jewish cultures. The Greeks gave us some precious gifts, such as democracy, compulsory education, advanced mathematics, and poetry. But they also gave us strong beliefs about body-perfection and external beauty. Beauty contests were commonplace. A perfect female physique had strict rules: kohl-rimmed eyes, cheeks with tattoos of suns, pale skin (toxic lead was applied to assist), hair shaven and styled in snake rolls. Wide hips and white arms were favored. Redheads won the day. Beauty—often a competitive sport—was linked to character and divine favor.

So now, let’s look at the Jewish world today. And let’s ask ourselves if the Greeks are still winning.

Have we transcended body-idealization? What does a beautiful young marriage-minded woman look like in frum culture? Expertly—and sometimes professionally—applied makeup, potentially with lash extensions. Slim-waisted, not too busty. Tall, but not too tall (for shidduchim concerns). Hair expertly—and sometimes professionally—styled, potentially with hair extensions. Expensive clothing, potentially out of budget.

How about women my age (44)? After years of bearing children, we are to starve ourselves, sometimes with expensive programs, to get down to our pre-pregnancy selves. For me, this means looking like I’m 19. We are to have beautifully styled sheitels, also potentially out of budget. We need groomed eyebrows and upper lips, and costly simcha clothing—formerly the realm of the wealthy. We are to work out regularly by joining expensive gyms. We are to bake beautiful things that no one may eat.

I say this partially in jest and partially in earnest. We can all opt out of any of these at any time. But I think we all feel it: the seductive pull of Greek culture on our lives. Ladies: this is not Jewish. This focus on “bodiness” is not soulful. Our image-driven culture is getting in our way. The bar keeps rising, and no one is stopping it. Girls back from seminary are spending a small fortune to look marriageable. What’s wrong with this picture?

For the first 27 years of my life, I did not have to worry about my body. I had babies, BH, and though it took time (longer than my friends and sister-in-law, not that I was comparing, ahem), the weight came off. But 27 changed something. My body started changing, and for the first time, I “had to” watch what I ate. I didn’t even know how to diet because I had no experience. I remember sitting in the hospital bed after the birth of our fourth child, trying to decide which was the bigger enemy: jelly or butter. I worried more about choosing condiments than about choosing my baby’s name.

I dieted on and off over the years, but much to my dismay, despite counting calories, cutting carbs, and working out, my weight continued to climb. Like a good Greek, I linked this—in the dim corners of my mind—with divine favor and character. I tried harder and harder to be “good” (note the language of morality) and eat “clean”, but I denied the power of genetics and aging. Likewise, I am not proud to confess that in the privacy of my head, I engaged in the ancient Greek sport of competitive beauty as I looked around at others. The rise of social media and before-and-after pictures made it easy. Before and fat = bad. After and slim = good.

Maybe the sun tattoos have changed, but Greek culture has firmly rooted itself in the female Jewish mind.

About a year ago, I got off the train. I stopped dieting.

I can’t describe how utterly counter-cultural this is. Go to any simcha, any buffet, any food-oriented event at all, such as Shabbos, Yom Tov, or a shiur, and you will hear nice, frum women making Greek statements about weight, exercise, calories, and food. If you, like me, have consciously chosen to opt out of this competitive sport, you will find yourself with no one to talk to and nothing to talk about.

Ten pounds later, I feel free from the Greek chokehold. I am free of competitive beauty. Free of fighting with food. Free of one idealized vision of what the female form must be. And yet, as I pass a mirror, I suck in my stomach. Hello, Greece. Welcome back to my brain. I still have work to do.

This Chanukah, I will recommit to it. I will fight the Hellenistic fight all over again. And this time, I will win.

Happy Chanukah!

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Ruchi Koval is the co-founder and Associate Director of Congregation JFX, an innovative kiruv community in Cleveland, Ohio. She has been a Jewish educator for two decades, leading self-development mussar groups for adults and teens, and mentoring educators around the world. Ruchi is a certified parenting coach, motivational speaker, musician, author, and mother of seven. She is a Trip Leader for the JWRP, inspiring hundreds of women on their journeys in Israel. She is also a columnist for the Cleveland Jewish News, and her first book, Conversations with G-d, was released in 2016, with a second book on the way. Find Ruchi on Facebook and Instagram, her blog and her podcast on iTunes or Spotify.