MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the men's pro-basketball season is jumping off this week, and the Barbershop guys will talk about their pics and if anybody has got what it takes to stop the Miami Heat from a three-peat. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.
And today, in our leftover Halloween candy sugar haze, we decided to look ahead to the big holidays coming u -, which usually mean big meals. Now, the holidays can be challenging times for many people for many reasons, and particularly for people who struggle with weight. But our next guest has been focusing his attention on people of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Eli Glaser is the founder of Soveya. That's a nonprofit that helps Jewish people tackle issues of obesity and weight loss. And he's with us now. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us.
ELI GLASER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And I do want to mention that we are speaking in advance of the Sabbath. So tell us your own story. How did you get interested in these issues?
GLASER: Sure. So I struggled with eating and weight gain for much of my life. And about 11 years ago, I made a decision to really change my relationship with food. I had, you know, gone through many diet and weight-loss programs - the yo-yo, the roller coaster of gaining pounds, losing pounds. And so I realized that I didn't necessarily have a weight problem, but I had a food problem. I had a very unhealthy relationship with food.
I knew how to indulge myself with food, reward myself with food, kind of comfort myself with food. But I didn't really know, at the age of 38, how to nourish myself with food. And the consequence of that - well, for me - significant weight gain. I was actually morbidly obese, at 300 pounds. And through - my wife also struggled with this much of her life. And between the two of us, we kind of transformed our relationship with eating; engaged in, actually, recovery programs for compulsive overeating, and have lost and maintained - thankfully - a 250-pound weight loss for that amount of time.
MARTIN: Between the two of you?
MARTIN: You've lost a whole person.
GLASER: Two people, depends on...
MARTIN: Two people.
GLASER: ...How big they are.
MARTIN: Two people, depending on your point of view. Exactly.
MARTIN: Exactly. You know, I think it's well-known now that many people around the world, in fact, at this point in our history and particularly in the United States, struggle with issues of food, you know, diet and weight. But are there aspects, you think, of your particular lifestyle as observant Jews that play into this for you?
GLASER: So I don't think on an individual basis, but certainly on a communal basis. Like we say, it's very appropriate this time of the year that we - the Sabbath is like a Thanksgiving every weekend, as well as the holidays. You know, we say that the eating season in the broader world begins with Halloween and ends with Super Bowl Sunday. For - in the Jewish community, it's really from the beginning of the High Holidays through the end of the High Holidays - a 21 day period.
So there are lot of - there's a lot of emphasis on food and on eating and the way it should be. But, however, the need and the obligation that we have as Torah-observant Jews to maintain proper boundaries and proper guidelines with the food and with our eating and maintaining our health is just as important. So it's kind of marrying those two priorities. I didn't do a good job of that initially, and it's something that I was able to adjust to. And that's one of the main focuses of our message in our community, to - not to shy away from using food as a festive as to elevate us, but to realize to put to boundaries and guidelines in our eating and the choices that we make.
MARTIN: I want - I do want to talk about the spiritual aspects of this, as well. But before we get to that, I wanted to ask, though, is it a - you know, gosh, food is so intrinsic to every culture really. I mean, I can't think of one. There might be one, but I just can't think of it at the moment. And food is so tied into the Jewish experience. I mean, so many of the observances are home-based, and food is so much a part of that. I also wonder if you think that, culturally, at least among some people of Jewish origin, is there just a sense of comfort around food that makes it hard to change your thinking about it?
GLASER: Sure. Actually, it's an important point that you're raising. There's a Yiddish expression that says ess, ess mein kind - means eat, eat my child. And that was definitely something that Jewish mothers would, you know, impart to their children back in Europe, you know, in the last century because being thin was a sign of being very ill. And therefore, eating was a sign of health. But that phrase has kind of developed - or that idea has developed now where eat, eat is not just more to be healthy, but just to indulge and to take advantage of the bounty that we have. Therefore, it's kind of counterproductive to the initial purpose that it was created for or developed for. Another thing, in kind of in a joking way, whether it's Hanukkah that's coming up, where we were attacked by the Greeks or Passover by the Egyptians or Purim by the Babylonians, we say they attacked us, we won, let's eat. That's basically, you know...
MARTIN: That's the...
GLASER: ...The concise idea of a Jewish holiday. So certainly food is around that, But, nevertheless, still, it's important for us to use it. The bottom line, though, is that it's important for us to use it as an elevating experience, to emphasize the spirituality, not to override it and not to cause our physicality to be one that's the focus and the spirituality's one that's more recessive.
MARTIN: What are some of the things that you and your wife, Zakah, share with people that you think is particularly helpful, particularly within the context of the Jewish tradition? Are you - have you found that there are certain messages or guidance that you find helpful?
GLASER: There are 613 commandments in the Torah - in the Bible - that Jews are obligated to fulfill in addition to a myriad of rabbinical commandments. And one of the commandments is (Hebrew spoken), which means that you shall surely guard your health. And that means, you know, wear a jacket in the winter, but don't go out, you know, in the freezing rain with wet hair. If someone, God forbid - is ill - to go to a doctor, to take the normative steps within nature to take care of ourselves.
But applying that concept on our daily relationship with food is one that doesn't necessarily come to mind off the top of our head. What we do is realize that that obligation, not just to keep kosher, not just to make the appropriate blessings on our food before and after we eat, but to have the appropriate qualitative and quantitative choices that ensure our health in our daily eating. And our daily relationship with food is just as much of a fulfillment of that commandment to keep ourselves healthy as any other manifestation of that commandment.
MARTIN: You know, with a lot of foods that people associate with certain ethnic groups - like soul food, for example, right - it arises in certain situations, but it's not for every day. Similarly, you know, there are a lot of, like, traditional meals that people associate with the Jewish culture, particularly coming from Europe, that can be prepared in a really fatty, you know, way. And I'm thinking about latkes, of course, you know, traditionally cooked in chicken fat. What do you tell people to do about this? Do you just tell them to eat less of what they love or to prepare it differently? You know, what do you encourage people to do if they say, I don't want to give up the things that I associate with my mother's cooking? I don't want to.
GLASER: Right, sure. So actually we - my wife wrote a cookbook addressing that specific issue - how to have the traditional Jewish foods, but to prepare them with recipes that don't have as much fat, don't have as much sugar, don't have as much simple carbohydrates, don't have as much flour - to have substitute ingredients that can create the same taste, but certainly, on a health level, are much higher and much, you know, healthier for you. In the end of the day, you feel better as opposed to just enjoying, you know, indulging for those few minutes. But after the fact, you feel better off, not worse off.
MARTIN: How about exercise? I mean, I think that there's a sense that - you know, there have been some great Jewish athletes, obviously, in the history of this country - that that isn't necessarily a priority, right, of Jewish families. That sports - it's really more the life of the mind.
GLASER: Right, it's a great question. So Maimonides, who's one of the, you know, great Jewish thinkers and arbitrators of Jewish law in our history, speaks pretty extensively to the importance of exercise and taking care of our bodies. Now our goal in exercising is not to be a world-class athlete. Our goal in exercising is in that our bodies can best fulfill our obligation to perform our role in this world, you know, and to fulfill the mitzvot, to fulfill the commandments. So exercise is very, very important in that context.
MARTIN: OK, now I have to out you. I understand that you are training for the Marine Corps Marathon...
MARTIN: ...Which was held in Washington, D.C. How did it go?
GLASER: It was great. It was - it was great. Really, you know, I ran in the marathon. I wanted to do it for a personal goal, for a personal challenge. I started running a couple years ago. I always played basketball and ultimate frisbee, and I love those type of sports. But running for the sake of running - distance running - wasn't really on my agenda. But for a serious of circumstances, I started running two years ago, and I got the bug. I love it and I - my mileage increased - 3 miles, 6 miles, 8 miles, 10 miles - to the point where I did a half marathon and thought, wow, maybe I could do this. And I started training, and I actually entered and trained and ran in the Marine Corps Marathon this past Sunday. And my goal was to finish in 5 hours and 30 minutes - no speed burner here. And I finished in 5 hours and 26 minutes and 11 seconds, so...
GLASER: ...I beat my...
MARTIN: That's wonderful.
GLASER: Yeah, it was great. It was one of the most invigorating, exhilarating, awesome and physically challenging things I've ever done.
MARTIN: If so, is mazel tov appropriate here?
MARTIN: All right, well, mazel tov.
GLASER: Thank you.
MARTIN: That was Rabbi Eli Glaser. He is the founder of Soveya. That's a nonprofit to help educate Jewish people about the issues of obesity and weight loss. He was with us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thank you so much, rabbi.
GLASER: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.