Redux: Jewish TMI

[It seems a good time to re-run this piece because, once again, my gut is being a real bitch. Damn you, Jewish Gut!]

In my family, we talk an awful lot about bowel movements. If. When. Consistency. Pain level.

I call my Aunt Judy. “How are you?” I ask. “Terrible,” she says. “All I do is schlep back and forth to the bathroom. Sometimes I sit on the toilet and cry.”

I call my Dad and his lady friend, Ann. “How are things?” I ask. “Terrible,”Dad says. “Ann has a miserable stomach, terrible constipation. She’s been moaning and groaning all day.”

My mom used to tell me why she rarely called her sister. “All she wants to talk about is her diarrhea,” she said.

I’m not kidding. This is how it goes. Poop (or lack of) dominates every conversation.

It’s the same the other way around, except I refuse to participate. My dad calls me: “How’s your stomach?” he truly wants to know. First thing. Every time.

“Same as always.” I say, before swerving to an unrelated subject.

What is it about so many women and their guts? I’ve had digestive problems myself since I was a teenager. The nature has changed, but there’s been no relief. It’s always something.

Let me adjust my previous question. What is it about Jewish women and their guts? My Methodist mother-in-law doesn’t seem to have issues. My non-Jewish female friends don’t complain about stomachaches. And certainly no men I know are obsessed with digestive comings and goings, except the occasional boast about size. (Men boast about the size of everything.)

(To be fair, the stomach has borne the brunt of complaints for years when really that organ may not be where the pain lies. But whining that you have a “digestive system ache” or “lower intestine burn” just doesn’t have the same impact. So, stomachache it is.)

Maybe that’s the key, though. It’s not so much that others don’t have problems. It’s that the goyim, thankfully, don’t talk about them.

Elder Jewish women, in particular, seem happy to share their bowel woes with others. They are not ashamed. It’s almost a pride thing. Who is suffering the most? And in truth, gut problems have a long history among the Jewish people. (So does competitive suffering, but that’s a subject for another time.) Studies have shown that Ashkenazi Jews, for example, are significantly more likely than the general European population to have particular genetic mutations associated with IBD—inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease).

Regardless of origins, some studies suggest Jews are four to five times more likely to suffer one of the big three (the above diseases plus irritable bowel syndrome). Jewish people also tend toward sensitivity to dairy products and gluten. Celiac disease, the inability to digest gluten (a real thing that seems to have become a sometimes-unhealthy fad in recent years), is much more common among Jews than non-Jews. (People who turn to “gluten free” products because they think they’re healthier may actually be adding more fat and sugar to their diets, and may also end up deficient in important nutrients. Just FYI.)

And milk: Don’t get me started. It’s the enemy of many a Jew. An old theory about dairy is that, back in the day, Jews in the Holy Land got plenty of vitamin D from the sun, so they didn’t need it from milk. Their bodies, therefore, never adapted to absorb dairy products. It’s a nice, tidy explanation, but it’s unlikely to be true. [As one astute reader of this post on its first run pointed out: “Milk in the U.S. and elsewhere is fortified with Vitamin D. Naturally, milk fat contains only trace amounts of it,” and “Worldwide, most people experience some form of lactose intolerance after infancy.” Meaning lactose “tolerance” in the Western world is what should confound us, not the opposite. Tidy explanations aren’t always the right ones, obviously.]

Whatever the truth is, it’s a thing with Jews.

If it turns out these problems are heavily genetic in nature, it makes sense that they’ve stuck around. Jewish people, at least historically, have married other Jewish people. It’s just what Jews do.

Such ingredient sensitivities may have served a purpose way back when, according to Wayne State University professor Ernest Abel, who wrote a book about “Jewish diseases.” Because at various times in history Jews were forced to live in tightly packed, unsanitary conditions, he theorizes, a pissed-off gut might have been a selective advantage, keeping bad food and thus bad bacteria, etc., from reaching the stomach lining.

But these issues must be partly in the head and heart, too. The Jewish people are, let’s say, extra sensitive. Intense emotional states are built right into the culture. Related fun fact: A Yiddish term for worries, woes, or distress is tsuris, which lacks a true singular form because, according to one rabbi I know, “Jews don’t do trouble in the singular.”

Meanwhile, the gut-brain connection is a vast and complex tangle of nerves whose importance is becoming more and more clear. It’s no wonder that a people on whom the world is perpetually crashing down would have a gut that’s constantly ducking for cover.

For this text I won’t claim to have done more than a light brushing over of the theories about Jewish guts. Most of what I know comes from experience—myself or a family member doubled over in pain after a meal. Or before it. Or in the middle of the night. Or first thing in the morning. In public places, a Jewish woman looks for the Restroom sign first thing. We carry tissue in our purses. We caress and shield our bellies as if there were twins in there. We avoid greasy food, spicy food, sometimes delicious food. We’ll suck on a hard candy covered in lint from the bottom of a purse rather than enjoy the chocolate dessert everyone else is sharing. Or, more likely, we’ll say we’re going to abstain and then grab a spoon and dig in—“just a bite won’t hurt me”— knowing we’re going to pay for it later.

And later, we’ll complain about it. If we’re over 50, we’ll complain loudly.

I fear I’m on my way to becoming one of those ladies, forever petting my bloated gut and whining that it hurts. But I hope I will stop myself from sharing my digestive news with others. I’ve told my husband I will try very hard to at the very least keep it in the family. My side of the family. If he hears me mention the C word or the D word at a bar, party, or a church wedding, he is instructed to pull me outside and kick me in the tuches.


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