Last year while pregnant with my third child, I felt unusually tired. I reasoned that taking care of my two sons and growing a third was more than my body could handle. But then I noticed something else—my exhaustion peaked just after meal times. If I ate pizza, pasta, or a bagel, not only did I feel drowsy, but I felt like I had weights attached to my body. Every movement was sluggish, almost impossible. I couldn’t keep up with my daily routine, and my kids were spending time in front of the TV instead of with me. I went from one doctor to the next and did one blood test after another. I finally received a diagnosis from an endocrinologist at a clinic for high-risk pregnancies in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Tal was small and bald. He sat beside a giant poster featuring the female reproductive system, and while he read through my test results on his computer, I stared at the poster. Pretty soon the diagram began to resemble the Longhorn, Bevo, the University of Texas mascot. His head was a perfect uterus, and those long and angled horns fallopian tubes anyone would be proud to sport. Gynecological Bevo led me right back to my Texas childhood. In my daydream my grandmother Bashy appeared, dressed in a bright pink beaded sweater. She said, “Eat, Snookie. Eat and you’ll feel better.” Food was her all-purpose cure. In reality, Dr. Tal was saying the exact opposite. He told me I had type 1 diabetes.
Formerly known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes, type 1 is an autoimmune disorder that destroys beta cells, the insulin producing cells of the pancreas. Beta cells release insulin into the bloodstream when sugar goes up, as it does after a meal. Insulin’s most important job is to carry nutrients, particularly sugar, from the blood and into the body’s cells. The more sugar you eat, the more insulin your body needs to move it out of your bloodstream and into your cells.
Dr. Tal began to list foods I should no longer eat, which—of course—included not just anything with sugar, but most carbohydrates, including all of my favorites: pasta, pizza, pita, burekas, and cereal. To make it even more depressing, it was Hanukkah season, so Dr. Tal said potato latkes, jelly doughnuts, and the traditional chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil were all out of the question too. I was somewhat horrified at the idea of Hanukkah without latkes, and I knew Bashy would have been horrified too. I also knew exactly what she’d have said had she been beside me: “Whoever heard of a doctor that tells you not to eat?”
A few days later in a Tel Aviv supermarket I was eye-to-eye with a long tray of fresh Hanukkah doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar. As I instinctively reached for them, Dr. Tal’s words ran through my mind. “Be afraid of sugar,” he’d said. My first thought was that it was impossible to view a doughnut as a threat, but then I realized this was not the first time in my life I’d needed to be afraid of a snack. I began to understand that my upbringing, my entire childhood, had prepared me for exactly this moment. I grew up keeping kosher in Texas. I’ve always known how to be afraid of food.
I came from a city where people ate pork chops, ham steaks, and sausages for breakfast, but from a family where the word pork was synonymous with danger. Bashy never specified what would happen to me if I ate something that wasn’t kosher, but I imagined all sorts of consequences, from vomiting to choking to being struck by the lightening bolt of God’s wrath. And in the supermarket where Bashy and I were regulars, I had to be especially careful. Non-kosher products were everywhere. Bashy knew I was interested in them. I’d trail behind her as slowly as I could and linger around the Twinkies, which I believed every kid (even every Jewish kid) except for me was allowed to eat. This was in the days before partially hydrogenated vegetable oil took over the universe, and all good junk food was made with animal fat. In my opinion, lard was by far the worst four letter word in the English language.
If I was lucky, Bashy would stop to talk to someone in the store, giving me a chance to fondle a box of Oreo cookies. I knew Bashy didn’t approve, but I took the risk. She always caught me. When I eyed Hostess cupcakes or ran my fingers over a package of Kraft cheese and crackers, she’d shout “traif,” the Yiddish word for non-kosher food. Humiliated and fearful, I’d follow her straight to the Empire kosher frozen chickens.
A few decades later, the guilt and fear I felt when I thought about buying the ‘dangerous’ Hanukkah doughnuts ran far deeper than any childhood mortification. There was a baby in my womb and I knew that if I did not control my blood sugar, I’d harm not only myself, but him too. Unlike the consequences of eating non-kosher, the consequences of diabetes are very clear cut. And while memories of Bashy’s supermarket antics have always made me smiley and nostalgic, until last Hanukkah, I hadn’t understood that there was a life lesson in self control coded for me within them. As a modern woman in the 21st century, however, I hope I’ll be able to resist food with grace, and never feel the need to publicly disparage baked goods. If I do, however, I won’t shout out traif. I’ll take Dr. Tal’s advice, and quietly tell myself to be afraid of sugar.