Zoe Strimpel

My ironic Jewish holiday at an Austrian 'starvation camp'

A stay at 'a medical health resort' with a severely restricted diet proves to be a mentally as well as physically challenging test

June 08, 2023 11:19

There are several prongs on the Jewish relationship to food that mark it out from that of other groups.

One is that there is simply no way of conducting the daily rituals of Judaism, let alone celebrating the biggies, without it, from the spreads of Rosh Hashanah and Pesach to the multi-course cosyfest of a Friday night dinner, beginning with communal kiddush.

Jews actively require food to conduct their religion. Yom Kippur is so powerful precisely because it divides us from our go-to for, well, everything, and forces us to think, be bored, and think again — the polar opposite, really, to a table packed with bagels, lox and rugelach.

Then there’s the prong that is closer to my experience. That is the inherited sense of “I must eat”.

After all, I grew up with a mother unable to accept food left on a plate.
This did nothing to deter me in later life from an equally intense, if different, relationship to food.

This refracts in various ways: most troublesomely, “I must eat whatever is vaguely nice and in close proximity in order to feel maximal comfort and pleasure” and “I must eat whatever someone offers me because if it was their idea, it doesn’t count and anyway, only killjoys say no”.

Perhaps the kernel of this extremely problematic relationship is the anxious fear of, “just in case there’s no more coming”. For the granddaughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, this has clear antecedents.

But if I’m being completely honest, the truth is that — Jew or not — I just love food. And especially cake. And biscuits. And wine.

And everything nice. And I’ve never really understood moderation; why, if something confers pleasure, would you only want some?

My natural inclination is to go till you no longer want any more. None of this “stop before you’re full” malarkey for me.

All of which is why I now find myself in the immensely privileged, immensely comic and, I suspect, immensely useful position of being a guest at the legendary VivaMayr (soon to become MayrLife) resort on the stunning Austrian lake of Altaussee.

The rudest way of describing this place is “fat camp” for rich people. The nicer, and perhaps more accurate, way is “a medical health resort” for those looking to reduce inflammation and fat, and therefore to live longer.

In a nutshell: you don’t eat much, you spend a lot of time in a range of treatments, from massage to nasal aromatherapy — of which more later — and at the end you leave a few kilos lighter.

There’s far more nuance to the programme than this, of course, and I was seriously impressed by the food intolerance test conducted by a doctor of imposing stature, with the brilliant name of Maximilian Schubert, who tested my leg muscle strength multiple times after popping a different powder representing a food group on my tongue.

The muscles genuinely went slack in some cases, signalling intolerance — typically, in mine, these didn’t include cheese, chocolate, bread, wheat or caffeine. Just potatoes, milk, corn and tomatoes — none of which I care much about (though my night-time snack of popcorn will have to be shelved).

Schubert also prescribed a range of treatments, such as nasal reflexology, intended to help with my hay fever (so far, so good, oddly); supplements; and horrible-tasting salts and powders to be downed at various times of the day.

I had “hypoxytherapy”, which involved an oxygen mask and blasts of high-altitude-style air. This treatment sent me into a kind of dreamy half-sleep, and is meant to be good for my organs and pep up my sluggish metabolism (yes, sluggish — not simply suffering from too many biscuits).

Schubert heard me loud and clear when I said I wanted to lose weight this week and showed me he meant business. No dinner for two nights running; just herbal teas to keep me going between meagre lunch and meagre breakfast.

I trust him, and am glad for the ordeal. No pain, no pounds shed, right?

I can’t help but think how odd a place this is for a food-mad Jew to wind up. It’s not just that our identity is encoded in food. It’s also that nervous sense of needing to fill one’s boots, that sense of amped-up enjoyment of life’s pleasures and the way food links through to all forms of security, family, friends, religious ritual.

Every now and then, I think of other circumstances in which Jews went without food in Nazi-controlled lands less than a century ago.

I note both the irony of my current quest for managed — but still savage — hunger in Austria, but also the incredible improvement in circumstances of later generations of European Jews, signalled by me being handed delicate bowls of broth and gently massaged by those paid to make me feel and look my best.

And, as I remind myself, it’s a different world now. If food has always been a comfort and friend to Jews, a spiritual necessity and community glue, now we’re lucky enough to be in the position where it can also be our foe.

June 08, 2023 11:19

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