Episode 86: Fat Torah with Minna Bromberg
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[theme music plays]
Jen: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
Minna Bromberg has been involved in the world of fat activism for decades, in organizations like NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. She’s also been a rabbi for twelve years. But until recently, she’d never really brought the two strands of her work together.
Minna: And then, almost three years ago now, I was at my daughter's Hanukkah party for her preschool, and we were in a synagogue, and there were dozens and dozens of families and their young kids there. We were dancing, and then we took a break from dancing and we were eating sufganiyot, the fried—Hanukkah foods, all fried—and then the young man who had been hired to lead the singing and dancing said, “All right, let's all get back to dancing, unless you've gotten too fat from those sufganiyot.”
Jen: Minna had a few reactions to this comment.
Minna: There's the piece of it that's the personal pain, that it doesn't feel good to have bodies like mine degraded in public. But then there's also this, just, real concern of what does it mean to say this in front of kids who are three to five years old, when we know that kids that age are already making judgments about their own bodies and other people's bodies, and that those kinds of judgements can be a contributing factor to eating disorders and other really dangerous behaviors. There's the piece of it that's about the way that fatphobia interrupts our relationship with our own tradition. What does it mean to tell people that they're somehow doing something bad by enjoying their own culture?
The other thing that arose in me was this sense of, like, wait, doesn't this guy know that this holiday is a celebration of fat? Like, that's actually what we're doing here, is celebrating this miracle of fat as a symbol of our people's endurance in the face of hardship. And so, that combination of realizing that no one else there was gonna say anything about this if I didn't, and that it was something that I wanted to confront, and also realizing just the richness of my perspective on the tradition itself as something that can be so much more liberatory to bodies of all sizes, really just catalyzed me.
[theme music plays]
Jen: Minna started writing and talking about weight stigma in Jewish communal life. In 2020, she founded Fat Torah, a project to end this stigma. In this episode of Can We Talk?, Judith Rosenbaum speaks with Minna in her home in Jerusalem about how fatphobia plays out in the US versus Israel, the ways it intersects with gender, and how Jewish tradition can teach us to be more body positive.
Judith: So let's talk a little bit about terms, because I think sometimes people are even surprised by use of the word fat, and certainly don't expect it to be paired with Torah. So, can you say a little bit about using the word fat and then what you mean by Fat Torah together?
Minna: Yeah. So using the word fat is really a way of claiming the fact that fat can be a perfectly morally neutral descriptor of a type of body. In some ways it's a similar reclamation effort to many other terms, including the term Jew, that have been used as slurs that we reclaim as neutral-to-positive ways of describing ourselves.
So, that's why I use the term fat to describe myself. It's the least euphemistic descriptor of the kind of body that I have. You know, if people have other terms that they prefer for their bodies, I'm not gonna tell them not to use them. But for me, the other alternatives are either overly medicalized—so what we sometimes call “the o-words,” like overweight and obese, assume that fatness itself is a disease, which is not really in line with science and is itself a way that stigma is baked into the ways that we talk about bodies.
In some ways, one of the things that I love best about Fat Torah, just as a phrase, is exactly that it is something of a radical act, just to say those words together, and to think that there could be something that fatness has to say about Torah and that Torah has to say about fatness.
And so, when I use the term Torah, I'm talking about the best that Judaism has to offer to us and to the world, this idea of what would it mean to look at our own sources and to look at our own tradition as a place where we could find support and empowerment for body liberation.
Judith: I was also thinking about how there's so many ways that we have in our tradition to talk about Torah as being abundant, and, like, why shouldn't fat Torah be part of that, right? Like the idea that Torah is just like bursting with itself, you know?
Minna: Absolutely. So I think, you know, when we think about the idea of fat as a blessing, which shows up more than once in the text of Torah itself. So what does it mean to sort of imagine a Torah that is fat in that sense of abundant and juicy?
Judith And what about a term like fatphobia, can you say a bit about what you mean by that?
Minna: I think when we think about fatphobia, we’re most often thinking about what I would usually call “interpersonal fatphobia,” right? Mean things that people say about one another's bodies. I think, just as when we think about sexism or racism or homophobia as mostly about “mean things that people say about one another,” we're missing both the systemic level, and we're also missing that internal level, the way we talk to ourselves and the way we act based on our experience of oppression.
So absolutely, I experience interpersonal fat phobia. At this point in my life, I've sort of curated my friends and family so that, I'm, thank God, not usually in the position of encountering interpersonal fatphobia there, but I am in a body that's a size that—both in Israel and in the United States, which is an interesting thing—strangers on the street feel perfectly comfortable making comments about my body to me, giving me unsolicited advice or just saying nasty things.
On a systemic level, when we're talking about fatphobia, we're talking about how fat people as a group are discriminated against in education and healthcare and public accommodation and employment, certainly. We do know that just as there's a wage gap between men and women, there's a wage gap between fat people and their thin counterparts, meaning that we get paid less for the same work. We know that doctors themselves report spending less time with their fat patients and also perceiving their fat patients as non-compliant, regardless of their actual “compliance.” Um, and we also know, there was a horrible study that came out a couple of years ago—you know, a great study design in the sense that it gave the same, I think it was seventh- or eighth-grade essay to a number of graders, but attached different pictures to the essays. And the essays that the grader thought were written by a fat student were consistently graded lower than the very same words that the grader was told were written by a thin student.
And so, we can also imagine just the way this then plays out, um, in ripple effects, if you're automatically sort of having points taken off, essentially, for being fat.
I think also one of the ways that systemic fatphobia plays out in the medical world, um, is with equipment that doesn't actually work for fat bodies. And so even in the ways that systemic things get built into literal physical objects, um, really plays out in important ways.
Judith: Right. I've noticed all these conversations happening around this, since the fall of Roe, around Plan B, and recognizing the weight limit at which it works, and people just being shocked, like, how could it be that plan B, which is touted as this, like, amazing thing, only works if you're under 160 pounds or whatever, which is, like, not a very high weight? You know, it's like, that's a lot of people who can't use this.
Minna: Right. But I think it's, I mean, that's a great and horrible example of the ways that fatphobia and sexism are interacting there, right? Because there's sort of this assumption that, like, who do you provide emergency contraception for? People who you assume will be sexually active. Who do you test it on? People who you assume will be sexually active, heterosexually. So this assumption that, like, you don't need to test on a wider range of human bodies because you're assuming that fat women don't have sex.
The intersection between fat activism and feminism feels really important. Anti-fat bias impacts people of all genders, sad to say, but of course it impacts us differently, because of the ways that it interacts with our ideas about gender. The fat liberation movement in an organizational sense was actually founded in 1969 by a group of relatively thin white heterosexual men who were concerned about the treatment of their fat female partners. Which I think has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, but the thing that I love about that is that for me, it allows fat activism to have at its roots, this sense of what it means to love fat people. [emotional pause] What it means to root our activism in love and desire. Um, so I actually honor that, and at the same time, one of the earliest sort of splits, um, from NAAFA was a group called the Fat Underground, which was a group of women who were much more interested in a radical feminist approach to fat activism.
And they wrote, uh, in 1973, the Fat Liberation Manifesto, which was something that, you know, the folks who had founded NAAFA were certainly not ready for. Um, and it feels really powerful to me that that was rooted in feminist work and in anti-racist work.
So, of course, you know, fat liberation also had, and has, work to do around the ways that feminists organizations and movements have perpetuated fatphobia. But it feels really important to me in my own life and in my own activism, um, to have that connection between fat liberation and feminism be acknowledged and be central to the work.
Judith: Yeah. Um, and I feel like there were a lot of Jewish women who were involved.
Minna: So it was a collective, but the two women—two or three, I'm forgetting—who are named as the authors of the Fat Liberation Manifesto were all Jewish women.
Judith: So, you gave the example of your experience with the Hanukkah party, but I know you've also talked a lot about weight loss being sort of enshrined as a Jewish value. So can you talk a little bit about where you see that systemically in Judaism?
Minna: My mother and I actually wrote an article about the way that our own Ashkenazi immigrant experience over four generations, that part of becoming white Americans was about adopting diet culture, and some of that has to do with the ways that dieting and whiteness play out in American culture, and obviously some of it has to do with what it means to be able to sort of “achieve whiteness” as an immigrant.
And so that's sort of the historical view, but I think also, especially in Jewish communal life, when we just look at the ways that weight loss as something that's valued, and weight gain is something that's denigrated, definitely when we're at sort of the schmoozing level, right? That often in Jewish community, when we're gathering in informal contexts, we're trying to find ways to connect with each other, and unfortunately, diet culture and talking especially about one's own body, but sometimes about other people's bodies as well, is just part of our vocabulary that we've adopted and fostered.
So, um, a favorite example of this was, there was a beautiful, beautiful spread for kiddush. And, uh, my father and this other man approached the table and this other man said to my father,”You know what they say: Eat the protein and leave the carbs for the goyim.” And I was like, wow.
Judith: [laughs] So that's our approach now.
Minna: It's just an amazing—like, I never imagined that, like, diet culture and xenophobic Borscht Belt humor could be connected in that way.
Judith: What about some of the cultural differences? Like, how do you see these things playing out differently in the US versus Israel?
Minna: Um, I think some of it is that in the US, fatphobia and diet culture are completely wrapped up with the puritanical aspects of American culture. And so, there's this sense not only that you're sort of going about having a body the wrong way, but that that's a moral failure.
Um, so that's one difference. I think that the ways that medical fatphobia play out are different, partly just because Israel has socialized medicine, and so, you aren't constantly in this position that I was in the US of, you know, trying to negotiate with my doctor about, like, what tests I need and could I afford those tests and were they really tests that I needed? Or were they tests that you were assuming that I needed based solely by looking at my body, rather than using other measures of health. But I think also another piece that I wasn't expecting, because it isn't part of my own family story, is the way that fatphobia plays out in interaction with multigenerational trauma from the Holocaust, that plays out more prominently here than it does in the US.
So, it may be that there are families who feel like it's wonderful that you're eating, you're eating because of the deprivation that our family experienced, but also many horrible stories of, you know, people saying things to their children, like, “Well, there wouldn't have been room for you in our hiding place.” Right? So just really, really tremendous. And you can hear the way that that's totally trauma speaking.
Judith: So how are some of the ways that you see Judaism and Jewish tradition as being able to be a kind of guide for fat liberation?
Minna: So, one piece is just the way that I would say, fatness in terms of human bodies or animal bodies is not discussed a lot in the text of the Bible itself. Um, one thing I love actually, though, is that the biblical Hebrew term for a fat person or a fat animal is “baree.”
Judith: Mmm, healthy, right?
Minna: Which, right, exactly. And so, partly just knowing that there was a time when fatness was considered a sign of health. Not to sort of make a claim that fatness is automatically healthy, but just as that counterexample to our contemporary assumptions that fatness equals disease.
I think also, I really take a lot of inspiration and learning from the ways that Torah and Jewish tradition have been used in liberatory ways by feminists and by queer activists and by disability justice folks, and by folks who are doing anti-racism work. Which is to say that it's our tradition, and that we get to delve into it and deploy it in the ways that are most helpful to us, right? So that sense that Torah is something that you can turn and turn, because everything is in it. I'm not saying that Jewish tradition is inherently fat liberatory—because it’s not—but certainly, that sense of Torah as available to us to grab onto, and that sense of Torah as a Tree of Life and as something that ought to be life- giving, um, leads me to approach it in ways that I find the most life- giving.
Judith: And what are some of the ways that Fat Torah is working on that?
Minna: So, um, I've been able to do workshops with congregations and Hillels and, uh, Jewish women's groups, really all across North America and Europe and the former Soviet Union. I have a book that I'm working on called Every Body Beloved and also we have a wonderful Facebook group that is really a gathering place for people to seek empowerment and support and encouragement and education around these issues.
My primary focus right now is really for Fat Torah to be that space where we're nurturing and empowering and offering support and learning for this really growing body of Jewish fat liberation activists who haven't even necessarily had a chance before to name that that's who they were. Just being on a zoom call with other fat Jews who haven't had a chance to be together as fat Jews before has been just incredible.
I think that's the other piece of this that people really don't get, is that there's joy in being able to be together in liberatory ways. You know, because fatness is framed in such disease terms that often, even in our activism, we're sort of spending so much time kind of battling that, that it can be sometimes hard to remember.
Judith: So what has the response been? I've seen, certainly, lots of positive response. I'm sure you're also getting some trolls. How is your work being received?
Minna: Yeah, the trolling piece is people just acknowledging out loud that they don't like looking at or being around fat people. And so it gets couched in these terms of attractiveness. Which is such an interesting thing, when we think about sort of how one human being might attack another right to sort of attack one's desirability or acceptability—and lovability, really. Because we have this piece about presumptive concern about fat people's health, the much more common piece is to say, “Well, of course, I think that you're beautiful and you're gorgeous, but I'm concerned by the whole—” I'm concerned about your health, which, when we think about how we actually approach people, when we genuinely care about them, is very different than using “I'm concerned about your health” as a way to silence them. Right? If you really cared about my health, then maybe you would inquire in ways that are more open-ended.
There's a wonderful piece in Gemara, in Talmud. These stories of Rabbi Yohanan, who's known as this amazing healer, going to visit his sick students. And when he first approaches them, the first thing that he asks them is, “Is your suffering welcome to you?” Do you want me to help you with what you're dealing with? And waiting for them to actually answer before he, you know, works his miracle.
And so, some of it is just this question of consent. That when we're concerned for another person's health, genuinely, we ought to be asking their consent to express what our concerns are or to offer advice. I've never been asked whether I would prefer to have someone offer me advice, right? The advice is always unsolicited.
[Clip of Minna singing plays]
Judith: So, um, you're also a singer-songwriter and a vocal coach. Um, so I'd love to hear a little bit about whether and/or how you see your music and fat activism as being related.
Minna: Yeah. So I think that for many, many years, you know, I was talking about my activism as showing up in public without apology. And absolutely that was true for me as a performer, right? Especially because I was often performing solo. And so, simply the act of allowing myself to be heard as a fat woman, regardless of the content of what I was singing, I always experienced as a part of my activism, whether it was perceived that way or not.
Um, in terms of my songwriting, I have one song that's explicitly a fat activist song called “The Bathing Suit Song”, that's all about the ways that the personal and political connect around fatness.
And so for me, it's always been part of what does it mean to be willing to be with the body that we have, and to be willing to be heard as we are. And, obviously in voice teaching, there are then aesthetic choices that we're making, but you can't make those aesthetic choices effectively, if you don't have the ability to come back to what is the voice as it is, what is the body as it is? What am I working with?
[Opening chords of “The Bathing Suit Song” play]
I’ve for many years now described myself as a voice finder, in the sense that my use of my own voice is all about empowering others to find their voice. And that feels very, you know, consonant with a lot of feminist thought, you know, what does it mean to listen each other into speech and into song?
[verse from “The Bathing Suit Song” plays]
The world is ready to see my face and the world is ready to hear my name
The world is ready to see my face and the world is ready to hear my name
It’s so easy to be paralyzed
Til we’re thinking global but we’re just not acting at all
To learn more about Fat Torah, visit fattorah.org. You can also find Fat Torah on Instagram and Facebook. Minna’s book, Every Body Beloved, will be out in 2024.
Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Nahanni Rous and Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You’re listening to “The Bathing Suit Song” by Minna Bromberg.
But you can have a little uprising
From wherever you’re put down
And so I start my revolution in my bathing suit
And I make my politics very, very personal
If you love listening to Can We Talk? and want to make sure we continue telling stories at the intersection of gender, history, and Jewish culture, please remember the Jewish Women’s Archive when you make your year end donations. To contribute, go to jwa.org/donate—and thanks.
That’s a wrap on our fall season. We'll be back with more in the spring. In the meantime, you can catch up on episodes you’ve missed at jwa.org/canwetalk, or on your favorite podcast app, and share the podcast with your friends. And don’t forget to fill out our listener survey at jwa.org/podcastsurvey
I’m Jen Richler. Until next time!
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 86: Fat Torah with Minna Bromberg." (Viewed on March 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-86-fat-torah-minna-bromberg>.