Life & Culture

Hunger, appetite and the joy of denial

American writer Melissa Broder's work is very personal, sometimes shocking - and extremely Jewish


Melissa Broder has an agreement with her parents not to read her work. It’s probably wise, given she leans towards graphic, eyebrow-raising sex scenes.

Her memoir, So Sad Today, documented both her mental health struggles and her bedroom encounters (including a chapter devoted to sexts between her and a stranger); her first novel, The Pisces, told of a woman’s physical relationship with a mermaid. Disney, it wasn’t.

Milk Fed, her latest novel, is equally boundary-pushing, following an anorexic secular Jew called Rachel with a monotonous Hollywood job, who falls head over heels for Miriam, an overweight, Strictly Orthodox woman who works in a frozen yoghurt shop. Into that heady mix Broder weaves the golem story, an imaginary rabbi-therapist, and Rachel’s mother issues, and contemplates the connection between physical and spiritual lust and desire, food, and faith. It’s typically explicit; “I sucked it like a fat piece of liver she was kind enough to feed me” is one of the more reprintable lines suitable for a family newspaper.

Broder established her career as a poet. Her parents would read her work then. “That’s the nice thing about poetry, no one really knows what’s going on so you can get away with being filthy.” For her novels, though, it’s about “mutually agreed denial”. Her aunt is reading Milk Fed now; Broder nervously wondering where she’s up to. “I’m like has she got to the mother fantasy [a particularly uninhibited scene]? I feel bad, she shouldn’t be reading it.”

When we Zoom, Broder’s father is in hospital after an accident, back on the east coast (she was raised in a Reform household in Philadelphia; “more Chanel bag Jew than Talmud Jew.”). Not being able to spend time with him while he recovers, due to coronavirus restrictions, has been tough; otherwise her life in LA hasn’t changed much. She and her husband, who has chronic health issues, aren’t sociable, and as a writer she was used to working from bed anyway.

Having recounted her disordered eating in So Sad Today, it’s clear Broder is writing from experience with Rachel, who counts the calories in her nicotine gum. “I definitely have a PhD in eating disorders,” she says wryly. Bringing Miriam’s world to life involved drawing less on her own experience, but the seed of the character came from a weekend spent through her synagogue with a Borough Park family when she was 12.

“I was really nervous, but I found the family so loving, so warm, so open, pretty much the opposite of what I was expecting,” she says. “I felt really included by these people who were virtual strangers, and a real sense of unconditional love, but as I got older I started to reflect on the experience. I’d think about whether if I wasn’t Jewish would I have been so welcome. But it was very impactful.”

Miriam’s life isn’t as closeted as, say, Esty’s in Unorthodox, but a passionate lesbian affair with a secular Jew isn’t part of her life plan. Without ruining the ending, it’s fair to say that while Rachel’s path is altered, Miriam gets back on track. Was free-thinking Broder tempted to give her a different ending? She says not, although she is writing a pilot screen version of Milk Fed in which the character will have more agency.

“Rachel perceives Miriam as free because Miriam is free in a way Rachel is not free,” says Broder, nodding to the former’s refusal to deny herself the sensual pleasure of food. “But who among us is completely free? Anything we love, like a family, comes with certain ties. I don’t know that Miriam sacrificing her family would necessarily be a happy ending for her. Who among us gets everything we want? I don’t judge Miriam for not leaving. It takes bravery to leave, but it’s also an acceptance of a certain kind of loss, and Miriam is not willing to take that on.”

Broder first attempted this story in college, but it was a disaster. “It’s probably why I set out writing poetry for the next ten years,” she laughs. “But I always knew it was a story I wanted to tell — of a disordered eater who falls in love with a woman who is more liberated about food and her body.”

The Jewish element, she explains, came out of growing nostalgia for the cultural Judaism of Broder’s childhood and the “of the innocence I felt in those moments”. She speaks longingly of visiting New York staples like the Second Avenue Deli or Gus’s Pickles with her grandparents. And for a story about pleasure and denial, and the intersection between spiritual appetite, hunger and sexual desire, it’s perhaps an obvious place to start.

For Broder, food and Judaism are closely linked; she would eat gefilte fish “every day” if she could, and her dog is named Pickle. “One of my earliest memories of my Jewish education is being at Hebrew school and making a succah using graham crackers and frosting, and stealing the ingredients and binge-eating the succah.”

She still feels culturally very Jewish, and will light a menorah or a yahrzeit candle, if not attend synagogue. “I walk into a deli and feel like I’m home,” she says. “I probably reference my own Jewiness multiple times a day,” something she think is encouraged by her Italian-American husband not being Jewish. “I’m not religiously devout but I feel very aligned with my Jewish roots.”

In the book, Rachel spends Shabbat with Miriam’s family, and finds herself at odds with the matriarch over her unequivocal support for Israel. Broder herself has never visited (her books have not been published in Hebrew) and says that she too is torn.

“As an American Jew, in 2021 I have a lot of confusion and a lot of questions, and I don’t know that I have a concrete stance. I wanted to explore various perspectives,” she says. “I’m definitely more aligned with Rachel, but then sometimes I will have this primal response, feeling at once intellectually critical, and at the same time wishing that it could just be this land of milk and honey. I think that conflict can exist between the head and the heart. I wanted to elucidate some of that.”

Rachel’s search for meaning sees her fantasising about the simple lives of Jews in days gone by, but Broder is clear Rachel’s shtetl fantasy is just that, “it’s a fantasy” — after all, there are no pogroms. “She is longing for a world that perhaps has never existed, maybe could never exist.”

The world she actually lives in is far from simple, and some of Milk Fed’s funniest scenes involve Rachel’s day job, at a talent management office full of predictably vapid Hollywood types. Broder has done some screenwriting and an adaptation of The Pisces starring Claire Foy has just been announced; it’s a world she knows. Was she deliberately seeking to contrast Miriam’s supposedly spiritual world with the superficiality of Hollywood?

“Definitely,” she says, pointing out that in Hollywood, “celebrities really are our contemporary gods” and the worship of them is often far from holy. “There’s a lot to make fun of.”

If some books try to speak to all readers, Milk Fed is full of incredibly specific experiences. But Broder says there are certain universal feelings readers can still connect with. Not everyone has been an anorexic, or an Orthodox Jew, or worked in Hollywood “but everyone has experienced feelings of envy, shame, everyone has experienced feelings of ambition or desire.”

And of course, for those after a good sex scene, there’s plenty of that. Given that Broder admits Rachel shares at least some of her DNA, and given her past openness, does she ever worry she goes too far?

“Everything is intentional, but that being said there are certain readers who I don’t want looking at it,” she says. “We don’t want our 70-something aunt to know everything about us, or our former boss, there’s a reason we have boundaries.”

But, she says, that doesn’t mean she’s not going to write and publish her stories. “It just means I’m going to pretend it’s not happening. Denial can be a beautiful thing.”

Milk Fed is published this week by Bloomsbury Circus

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