... and I'm an alcoholic

Recovering alcoholics in Israel battling fallacy that there's 'no such thing as a Jewish drunk'.

whiskey 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
whiskey 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish alcoholics - a group that at one time might have been considered an oxymoron - who live in Israel say they are still struggling to combat myths prevalent in Israel about the disease of alcoholism and, well, Jewish alcoholics. The first myth, explains Jerry, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 20 years, is that there is no such thing as Jewish drunks. "Every shtetl in Europe had its town drunk," explained Jerry (he requested that his last name not be used) in an interview at a moshav near Nahariya. "There was also the town meshuggeneh, or crazy person, and sometimes he and the town drunk were the same person." He said that when he was growing up in the United States, the problem of alcoholism didn't seem to affect Jews. "If I saw a man with an open beer bottle, I could assume he wasn't Jewish," he said. "Today, here in Israel, drinking alcohol is becoming more socially acceptable, and with that comes the increase in alcohol consumption and the rise of alcoholism among Jews." In fact, the Academy of the Hebrew Language recently came up with the Hebrew word for hangover, hamarmoret - derived from the Hebrew word for fermentation - in response to the phenomenon. The second myth he confronts is a misunderstanding about alcoholism. "People can understand that drugs are addictive and someone can become addicted to drugs and just can't stop," Jerry says. "But people have a harder time understanding how someone who drinks too much just can't stop." Until Alcoholics Anonymous, a self-help group for alcoholics, began in the 1940s in the United States, most people assumed that an alcoholic simply didn't have the willpower to stop drinking. Over the years, alcoholics themselves, as well as professionals in the field, came to understand alcoholism as a progressive disease, like diabetes or cancer, and that if it is left untreated, it becomes progressively worse and might eventually lead to death. There are now more than a dozen Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Israel, from Nahariya to Eilat. (There are more than 100 Narcotics Anonymous meetings all over the country.) The Alcoholics Anonymous Israeli Web site (www.aa-israel.org) features an explanation of the disease from a doctor who worked with alcoholics. He said that the "action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy." The definition of an allergy is sensitivity to a substance that is harmless to most people. In other words, people who suffer from the disease of alcoholism develop a craving for alcohol that never occurs in the average temperate drinker. And how does one determine if one is an alcoholic? There are two basic questions, according to the Web site: "If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably an alcoholic." These days, Jerry says, he can spot an alcoholic at any bar mitzva or wedding he attends. "I can zero in on the alcoholic right away," he explains. "He's usually the person who doesn't go far from the bar. At his table there's a lot of laughter and a lot of booze or, on the contrary, he's the guy who's sitting by himself with a drink in his hand." Jerry said that he started drinking at age 15 because he was "short and fat and found it difficult to communicate with girls." After a few drinks, he said, he became "taller, thinner and more glib." He said that as his disease progressed, alcohol consumed his life, but he didn't want to acknowledge the problem. He had a house, a car and a family; he believed the myth that the only alcoholics were the ones who lived on Skid Row. But in 1987, he said, "I hit my rock bottom; I didn't have the strength to continue." He searched through phone books for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and finally got in touch with another alcoholic who spoke to him. Since that phone conversation, he hasn't touched a drink. "I had an illness known as alcoholism," he said. "Now I'm taking care of it. But I still shudder to think what I did when I was in the throes of my illness, and I'm still embarrassed about it." Retired social worker Sy Greenfeld - the first social worker in Israel to openly admit he was a recovering alcoholic - said that he had the opposite reaction after he got sober. "I went from everyone, including myself, being ashamed of me to everyone, including myself, being proud of me," Greenfeld said. Greenfeld, now semi-retired, founded HaDerech, the first rehabilitation center in Israel based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps. The center used to be based in Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, where Greenfeld lived, and now rents space in the Christian community of nearby Ness Amim. He said that as a substance abuse counselor and social worker he has struggled to educate other Israelis about how going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, reading other people's stories and simply talking to other alcoholics can get people to stop drinking. There's nothing scientific about it. "Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program and it's very difficult for social workers to accept [spirituality]," he said. "Fifteen years ago when we started HaDerech, the professional world thought we were nuts. They approached alcoholics as people who needed psychological help or were mentally deficient." Greenfeld said that he still doesn't understand how the AA program works, but it has cured millions of alcoholics around the world. The program, he said, doesn't teach someone how to stay away from alcohol. In fact, he said, of the 12 steps that form the basis of the program, "eleven steps talk about how to live your life and only one step talks about alcohol." The first step is admitting that one has a problem with alcohol and that one's life has become unmanageable. The step is deceptively simple, he said, but it often takes years for a person to take it. "It's a hard thing to say 'I'm an alcoholic' out loud and admit it to other people," said Sheila, who lives in Kfar Vradim. "I wasn't at all certain at my first meeting that I wanted to be there." She said she has just started going to meetings in the past few weeks, after noticing an notice in The Jerusalem Post. "I saw the ad a few times, but I wasn't ready to go," Sheila says. Jean Jacobson, a recovering alcoholic who lives in Karmiel, says that in the United States, "I'd walk out of my house and there was a different meeting I could go to every day. But in northern Israel, there are so few meetings. People would tell me, 'You can go to this meeting, it's 'only' 45 minutes away,' and I'd think, 'only' 45 minutes!" She said that having fewer meetings has presented a challenge to her sobriety. "Alcoholics need other alcoholics to talk to who understand what we're going through," she explained. "Israel feels like what it must have been like in America when the founding fathers of AA ran around looking for drunks." Jacobson was thrilled when an AA meeting opened this spring in Congregation Emet v'Shalom in Nahariya. "I needed to learn to adjust to what the country had to offer [rather] than trying to recreate what I had in America," she said. The synagogue's community director, Marcos Lion, said a few members of the group - who had been meeting in a private home - asked if they could hold meetings in the synagogue; the synagogue board reviewed the request and agreed unanimously. "Jewish tradition teaches us to help others, and I can't think of anything better than donating a room in our synagogue once a week to people who have a need for it," Lion said. He said that he'd like to attract other self-help groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous. Jerry says that it's important for people with a friend or relative who is drinking too much to understand that they "can't make an alcoholic stop drinking." He suggests that instead, a person seeks out another recovering alcoholic to speak to their loved one. "Above all, remember that you're not to blame for someone else's alcoholism," he said. "And they're not to blame, either."