Nutrition for Life
Debbie Shapiro interviews Yaakov Levinson
I always wonder why so many tall and lanky people – you know the type; they never even had to think about over eating, after all, why would anyone eat if they're not hungry? – end up becoming either pastry chefs or nutritionists. As they sagaciously hand out food plans (that's the politically correct word for diet) they politely remind you that if you follow it exactly (how can anyone follow a diet exactly?) you're sure to lose weight. All very fine until three weeks later you come back for the WEIGH-IN! The day of judgment has arrived and no matter how hard you pull in your stomach, the scale knows the truth.
Reb Yaakov is a nutritionist, so of course he's tall and lanky. Yes, among his many professional responsibilities, he also designs individual food plans for weight loss. But as I learned from talking with Reb Yaakov, nutritionists do a lot more than just helping people lose weight, although, to tell you the truth, I wish they'd have more success in that aspect of their profession!
How did you become interested in nutrition?
My father's friend, who enjoyed reading about nutrition, lent me some of his books. I was fascinated that through eating properly we can actually prevent illness. I attended
where I majored in biology with the intention of becoming a nutritionist, but then the Vietnam War forced me to change my plans. Hamilton College
You fought in the Vietnam War?
No. Since medical students were given a deferment, I attended medical school in
. I didn't feel like getting killed in the jungles of Belgium . But there was another "higher" reason for my studying in Vietnam as that's where I became religious. Belgium
I went to school in
. Prior to the War, Louvain had a huge Jewish community, but when I was there it was basically non-existent. One day I entered a bookstore run by a little old lady who, much to my surprise, asked me if I was Jewish. I told her that I was and then asked her how she knew that I was a member of the tribe. Her response, "A Jew always recognizes another Jew. Never forget who you are -- a Jew." Louvain
A few days later I was walking along the street and passed a clothing store with racks of hanging coats lining the sidewalk outside. It reminded me of the
East Side, so I decided to stop in for a better look. The man there immediately asked me if I was Jewish. When I replied in the affirmative and asked him how he knew, he responded with the exact same words as the lady in the bookstore: "A Jew always recognizes another Jew. Never forget who you are – a Jew."
Not long after that, I saw a movie that contained a scene of Kristallnacht. The brutality, the broken glass, the flames, it was all so moving that I broke down crying right in the movie theater. But when I looked around, I saw that I was the only one to react that way. That forced me to realize that I am different, that I am a Jew.
Although I didn't know much, I did know that Jews cover their heads, so the following day I purchased a large knit skullcap and started wearing it. I was proud to be Jewish and wanted to show people that Hitler was not successful in destroying the Jewish people. I wanted to shout, "Am Yisrael chai! The Jewish people survives."
In the summer of 1973 I attended a Chabad yeshivah in the Catskills. It catered to boys with a limited background. In those days there were very few baalei teshuvah, and I know of only two yeshivahs that catered to them – Rabbi Friefeld ztz"l's Shor Yashuv and the Chabad yeshivah that I went to.
The following Fall, I returned to
to attend second year medical school. Every day I learned for an hour with Rabbi Azriel Chaiken, a Chabad rabbi and Belgium 's chief rabbi. On a side note, last time I was in Brussels , I stopped in to visit him. He was thrilled to see me after so many years. Crown Heights
Sometime during that year I dropped out of medical school to attend the Chabad yeshivah in
full time. After devoting a full year to intensive learning, I married my wife, Sara, a professional artist. At our yechidus prior to our wedding, the Rebbe gave me his bracha that I continue my studies in graduate school. Now that the war was over I was free to pursue my true interest -- nutrition. Crown Heights
So after earning a Master's degree in clinical nutrition from
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I found a job as a nutritionist at Memorial Hospital in . We were there for two years and baruch Hashem I was successful; I had a great job at the hospital, where, in addition to working with the patients, I designed the hospital nutrition manual. But spiritually we felt that something was lacking. My wife realized it was the kedusha of living in Eretz Yisrael. So she arranged that the Albany, New York in Tsfat offer me a job as Director of their Nutrition Department. Rebecca Sieff Hospital
In 1979, Tsfat was really different from today. Kiryat Chabad was newly opened, and the frum community was tiny. During the five years that we lived there, we moved at five different times. Professionally, however, I had a wonderful job. In addition to being Director of the Department, I taught dietetic interns from the Hebrew University of Rechovot and gave lectures on nutrition to both student nurses at the Tsefat school of nursing and hospital physicians.
During that time I became very close with Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Biderman ztz"l the late Lelover rebbe. He advised us to speak Yiddish at home, which we did. But it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to do that in Tsfat, since in those days there were no Yiddish speaking schools for our children. So we ended up moving to
, where we've been ever since. Jerusalem
Baruch Hashem in
Jerusalem I was zocheh to learn in Kollel for five years before going back to work as a nutritionist at . There I worked in several capacities – nutritionist for the Surgery and Orthopedics Departments at Hadassah Ein Kerem; nutritionist for the Radiology Department of the Sharett Cancer Institute and Head Dietitian at Hadassah Hospital, Mt. Scopus. In addition, I was, and still am the nutrition consultant at the Hadassah Hospital Neve Simchah Geriatric Hospital, the Tamir Geriatric Hospital as well as a nutritionist for two of 's four HMOs. Israel
As a religious Jew, we are obligated to guard our health. Our guf, our bodies, are holy because they house our neshomos, our souls. I understand that part of your unique counseling involves integrating the spiritual aspects of eating with the physical. Could you tell our readers about that?
Yes, of course. First of all, a mainstream publisher is presently publishing an expanded version of my book, The Jewish Guide to Natural Nutrition, which, hopefully, will hit the shelves in the very near future. The publisher is hoping to use it as a sourcebook for an accredited nutrition course. In addition to the normal material that one would find in any college-level book on nutrition – there are ten chapters solely devoted to the spiritual aspects of eating.
Well, could you at least give us a taste (no pun intended)?
In these chapters on the spiritual aspects of eating, I start out by discussing nutrition in Gan Eden, where Adam and Chava were nourished solely by the fruits and cakes that grew on all the trees and then I go on to speak about the manna in the desert, the seven species, the kedusha of our Shabbos seudos.
When Man sinned by partaking of the Eitz Hadas, good and evil became intertwined. This entanglement exists in every aspect of the world, including our food. The nutrients are parallel to sparks of kedushah, whereas the body wastes are parallel to the klipot. Through taking the energy that we receive from those nutrients and using it toward avodas Hashem, we are elevating those sparks of kedushah, bringing them back to their Source.
Although these concepts sound lofty and not at all down to earth, just by knowing of their existence, our eating is on a totally different level. And then if we think about this as we eat, we are on our way to eating l'shem Shemayim!
After we pass away, our physical bodies – except the Luz bone that is situated in the back of the neck – disintegrate. Why does this bone remain? Because it is nourished from the food we eat at melavah malka, and for most people, melavah malkah is one meal that is really eaten "l'shem Shemayim." After all, who's hungry after Shabbos?
In Tanna D'Eliyahu the prophet Eliyahu writes that most people die from improper eating! Those words really made an impression on me and reinforced my own appreciation of what I am doing.
Most of my patients, however, are just interested in getting a good diet and then going on with their lives. Some, however, find these concepts really interesting. It gives them the encouragement they need to work on changing their erroneous eating behavior.
What about all the many different diet groups?
There are so many different approaches and each one has both its advantages as well as disadvantages. However -- and this I really want to emphasize -- only qualified dieticians should give nutritional advice to people who have any medical problem. Some of the advice out there is absolutely dangerous.
You mentioned that you're involved in developing a nutritional supplement formula. Could you tell us about that?
In 1996 I presented original research at the 12th International Congress of Dietetics in
, on a nutritional formula for geriatric patients. Four years later, in 2000, I traveled to Manilla, Philippines to present additional research at the 13th International Congress of Dietetics. In addition I have published two research studies about my formula that was published in prestigious Edinburgh, Scotland medical journals. U.S.
I'm impressed. But could you please explain what you're talking about?
On a practical level, I've designed a nutritional supplement for people who are malnourished, or have reduced appetites and/or increased nutritional needs. At 355 calories per serving, it's easy to eat; a complete meal in a container. It will be marketed under the name Provi.
Malnourished? But who's malnourished these days? I think most people have the opposite problem.
Many geriatric or surgery patients are unable to get enough nutrients through regular food, so they eat these in addition to, or in place of, their regular meals. Sometimes, however, people are only able to swallow liquids, in which case this is an excellent substitute to regular food. There is also a pudding supplement for people with choking problems or swallowing difficulties.
Oh, are they similar to the liquid meals-in-a-can that my son ate after his jaw was broken in a terrorist attack?
Exactly. But my formula is different, and in my opinion with superior protein quality. What really excites my patients is the fact that it's chalav Yisrael. I find it so tragic when I see these tzaddikim – ehrlicher, frum Yidden -- who were always so careful never to touch chalav akum, and then, in their old age, they have no choice but to drink these canned meals which, although kosher, are not chalav Yisrael. Yes, of course there's a heter, especially since for many of the people who need it – especially the elderly -- proper nutrition is a matter of life and death. But if there's an alternative, then of course that's preferable.
How did you become a Belzer Chassid?
As a bachur studying in
Belgium, one time when a friend of mine traveled to to purchase chalav Yisrael, a very nice erlicher Yid invited him for Shabbos. That man's chavrusa, a Belzer Chassid, heard about my friend and also invited him for Shabbos. My friend told the Belzer Chassid about me, so he also invited me for Shabbos. Years later, when I moved to Antwerp , this same man sent us to his close friend in Yerushalayim, a dayan in the Belzer Bais Din. The Dayan invited my wife and I, with our three children, for Shabbos, and later insisted that we spend Pesach with him and his wonderful family in Yerushalayim. As a result of that relationship, we ended up sending our children to Belz, so it was just natural that after the Lelover Rebbe passed away, we strengthened our ties to Belz. Israel
You're background is so different from that of the typical Belzer chassid. Does that ever create problems for you?
No. I'm completely accepted into the community. The Rebbe is very supportive of my work. In general, the chassidus is able to stay connected to the secular world while retaining their purity. The Rebbe urges his Chassidim to make a Kiddush Hashem while working in the world. B"H I've developed a personal relationship with the Rebbe and my wife has become close with the Rebbetzin. I'm always amazed at the extent of their general knowledge as well as their understanding of human nature.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to spend a lot more time learning Torah, but I feel a big responsibility to help people attain proper nutrition. Three rebbes gave me brachos that I should work in this profession. It's my way of helping klal Yisrael. I also hope to devote a lot of energy to promoting our line of nutritional formula products, which could, potentially, help large numbers of people, as well as in promoting my book.
The Lelover Rebbe and Sabbath Nourishment
"You need to know that everything one eats on the Sabbath, not only is it not harmful… it is healing." These holy words, which the late Rebbe of Lelov (Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Biderman, of blessed memory) spoke to me during his Sabbath evening meal in
, made a lasting impression on me. The Rebbe was often heard commenting, "A taste of the Garden of Eden," after sampling his Sabbath food. After each Friday night meal, the Hassidim danced with the Rebbe to the song, "Mi-ain-olam-haba," "Like the World-to-Come, Sabbath the day of rest…" From practically every moment of the Rebbe's tish, one could sense the spirituality invested in the Sabbath nourishment as the Rebbe tasted the foods and then distributed them to his disciples. From these experiences I was inspired to explore the spirituality of eating, and in particular to examine the spirituality invested in the Sabbath foods. Tiberius, Israel
From The Jewish Guide to Natural Nutrition by Yaakov Levinson