Jewish Health

Jewish identity, rituals and observances

We asked people whether or not they thought being Jewish influenced how they experienced and managed their own or their child’s health condition. Some people were slightly surprised or even taken aback by this question. One man with multiple myeloma responded, “I don’t think it’s anything to do with chicken soup!” A few others were intrigued and said they had not really thought about this before.
 
However, those who belonged to orthodox communities or strived to be ‘frum’ (adhere to religious laws) in most aspects of their lives had a great deal to say about how their faith and cultural practices had affected how they dealt with the condition and its treatment. They had numerous stories to tell about how Jewish rituals and observances had at times proved challenging to integrate with the demands of looking after their own or their child’s health.
For example, the liquid diet (‘milk’) occasionally prescribed for people with Crohn’s disease would not be considered ‘kosher’, and some foods supposed to be eaten during festivals such as Passover might cause or worsen a flare-up of the disease. Similarly, religious laws not to travel, carry objects or use electronics during the Sabbath could cause considerable complications when having to apply treatments or attend hospital appointments. Observant Jews talked about how they had found imaginative solutions to these challenges. Several of them also talked very positively about how their religious needs had been met with respect and support by hospital staff and others outside the Jewish community.
 
Several people talked about Jewish festivals and Jewish diet in relation to their health. One mother described how several important celebrations and family events coincided with her son being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, meaning he was unable to eat any of the traditional dishes.
A few people with Crohn’s disease had been told by health professionals that the high fat content of a traditional Jewish diet might be one reason why the condition is particularly common among Jewish people (see Food and diet). One man with Crohn’s had a different idea about the connection - he felt that Crohn’s was related to high levels of anxiety and therefore likely to be more common among Jewish people.
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Several people had considered the connection between their Jewish background and their condition mainly in terms of genetics – they were aware that their condition was particularly common amongst Ashkenazi Jews and that there was a genetic cause or component to it (see Genetics and Inheritance 1 and 2). Others had only learned about this connection at diagnosis and were very surprised when they were told that theirs was ‘a Jewish condition’. Many people we spoke to made reference to the cultural practice of intermarriage as a possible cause for the high prevalence of genetically-based health conditions amongst the Jewish population.
Several people had sought Rabbinic support, both for practical guidance and also for counselling to help them come to terms with their own or their child’s condition on a spiritual level (see Support and support groups). Most of them had very positive experiences, though one woman talked about how she felt let down by her synagogue after she went through a divorce.
Another important aspect of Jewish culture and identity mentioned by several people as positive influences on their health and well-being were strong family ties and good community support (see Support and support groups). Even a couple of people who were not particularly active or engaged in their community described how they had received emotional support and practical acts of kindness from other community members after being diagnosed or returning home from hospital.
The flipside of living in a caring community was that keeping the condition private could be difficult. As one woman put it, “People talk, and when they talk they usually get it wrong”. Gossip and stigma were a particular concern for families who were hoping that their children would find partners from within their own community and have a marriage introduction. They worried that knowledge about something ‘running in the family’ might put off potential marriage candidates for their children. However, two families with a Tay Sachs gene thought that the practice of marriage introductions in combination with anonymous carrier testing was a valuable safe-guard to avoid new babies being born with the disease.


Last reviewed September 2015.

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