Jews Do Drink

The American Jewish Community is slowly coming to grips with alcohol and substance abuse.

alcoholic311 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
MANY JEWS GREW UP believing that Jews are not alcoholics. Some still believe it. Yet “Jeremy,” a funny, energetic, whitecollar professional and married father of three, is a recovering Jewish alcoholic in Atlanta, Georgia. He remembers his dad saying with conviction that “Jews are not drunkards,” even though his father would drink every day after work.
“I can remember him pouring Cutty Sark into a big glass of ice. And often, he’d fall asleep. We used to marvel that my father could sleep anywhere,” Jeremy, 41, recalls now.
Jeremy says his father thought he could deny his alcoholism for two reasons: He didn’t become drunk easily and he was Jewish. And Jews, of course, don’t drink, he insisted.
“I remember hearing that and putting it in my psyche for a very long time,” he says.
But some Jews not only qualify as alcoholics – Jews are addicts of every stripe. As Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) commemorates its 75th anniversary this year, Jews show up in meetings from Knoxville to New York to Los Angeles.
“As the Jewish community has been fully Americanized, it can no longer delude itself into believing that phenomena like alcoholism and drug addiction have not entered the community,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, an organization reaching out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, and author of several books on Jewish spirituality.
Olitzky defines an alcoholic as someone for whom drinking has become the most important thing in life. “The main issue of addiction is a hole we’re trying to fill by a particular poison of choice. We think it’s going to work, filling up that hole to make us whole again.”
As director of Jewish community programs for Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York (JFCS), Jonathan Katz is involved with an international support program, Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS). The network encourages Jews and their families from all parts of the globe to get on the road to recovery in a nurturing Jewish environment; promotes knowledge and understanding of the disease of alcoholism and chemical dependency in the Jewish community; and serves as a resource center and information clearinghouse.
Katz tells The Jerusalem Report that statistics about alcoholism and addiction in the Jewish community are hard to come by. JACS serves as a repository of anecdotal experience. A study by Susan Vex and Dr. Sheila Blume, published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases in 2001, underscores the point. Titled “Characteristics of a Population of Chemically Dependent Jewish Men and Women,” the study notes that “the prevalence of alcoholism among American Jews is not known. In some general population surveys, religion is not asked; in others, the number of Jewish subjects tends to be too small to make valid conclusions or comparisons to other groups.”
However, Katz says, the study shows that while there are twice as many male alcoholics as female in the general population, the numbers are almost equal in the Jewish population. The implications of this are unclear. “What this suggests is either JACS is particularly responsive or welcoming to women, or that perhaps Jewish women are as apt to become addicts as are Jewish men,” he says, adding, “Anecdotally, there are many situations with Jewish women that are not often recognized.”
THE MYTH THAT JEWS ARE NOT prone to get drunk goes back centuries, according to Vex and Blume. The two write, “The overwhelming impression in the Western world that Jews are essentially immune from alcoholism dates at least as far back as Immanuel Kant’s 1798 observation that Jews and women avoid the appearance of drunkenness. While it is generally accepted that Jews drink ritualistically and socially, drinking pathologies are thought to be rare. It seems that Sigmund Freud shared this belief, since he reassured a Jewish patient who expressed concern about his drinking by saying that alcohol would neither help nor harm him; alcohol was for the gentiles.”
Vex and Blume experienced firsthand how prevalent the myth is. The authors recount that while preparing their report, they were surprised by the incredulity of colleagues “who had to be reassured that Jewish alcoholics and other drug addicts exist in sufficient numbers to be studied quantitatively.”
The stereotype was reinforced by an old Yiddish saying about drunks not being Jewish. “I believe that this was really an ethnic slur against non-Jews as the community attempted to place parameters on the norms of Jewish behavior,” says Olitzky. “In other words, the statement was reflective of the fact that Jews, in fact, did drink and get drunk. And when they did, they were told that they were exhibiting behaviors contrary to Jewish standards for behavior.”
Rabbi Ilan Feldman, spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Orthodox synagogue Congregation Beth Jacob, has served as spiritual advisor to the JACS branch in Atlanta. He became involved with the program in the early 1980s when a Methodist minister who ran a halfway house in the city asked Feldman for assistance in providing help to the 10 Jews in his program. It was a new experience for the young rabbi. “I was fascinated by the convergence of psychology and Torah,” Feldman says. “I was naïve enough to not know that Jews drank.”
The rabbi would meet with Jews at Metropolitan Atlanta Recovery Residences once a week to talk from a Jewish perspective. “They felt I was speaking their language, that I must be a recovering alcoholic. I said, ‘No. I’m speaking Torah.’”
THE SEEDS FOR ALL 12-STEP programs, from Narcotics Anonymous to Overeaters Anonymous, were planted in 1935, with the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill W., once a golden boy of Wall Street, underwent what he described as a powerful spiritual experience while in a New York hospital for alcoholism treatment. On a business trip to Akron, Ohio, he was introduced to a fellow alcoholic and surgeon named Dr. Bob. They shared the same vision of sobriety, which included a connection to a Higher Power and service to other alcoholics to help keep them from drinking.
By meeting together regularly, they helped each other stay sober – and laid the groundwork for AA, which encourages alcoholics not to try to heal alone.
Similarly, AA’s 12 steps begin with admitting powerlessness over alcohol, coming to believe that a power greater than oneself could restore sanity, and making a decision to turn one’s will and lives over to the care of God. They also include taking a personal inventory, making amends as appropriate, seeking through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God, and doing service by carrying the message to other alcoholics.
AA’s origins can be traced to the Oxford Groups, a nondenominational Christian movement popular in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century, whose members practiced a formula of self-improvement by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation and carrying the message to others. Bill W., the New York stockbroker, was relieved of his drink obsession by a sudden spiritual experience after a meeting with an alcoholic friend who had been in contact with the Oxford Groups.
However, the seminal book “Alcoholics Anonymous” notes that “though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.” The early Oxford Groups link is one reason some Jews may not have fully embraced AA, which, in fact, does not affiliate with any religion.
In his efforts to provide support for the Jewish alcoholics that he met, Feldman called the national JACS office for help in connecting with Jewish alcoholics. “In those days there was a level of unawareness – otherwise known as denial – and there also was the assumption that the 12 steps were Christian. I probably attended 10 or 12 retreats over the years. They were fascinating, because they included Orthodox, Conservative and Reform participants.”
For years after, local JACS meetings were held at Atlanta’s Beth Jacob synagogue. Feldman also urged participants to go to 12- step meetings elsewhere to get recovery under their belt. As he explains, “The premise of JACS is you are not as unique a Jew as you think you are. Jews say, I can’t go to a regular meeting because ‘they’ don’t get it. We’d say you don’t need a uniquely Jewish setting. We will show you how Judaism reinforces this, how your faith can be useful.”
Furthermore, notes Feldman, JACS members were often embarrassed to come to a synagogue. They had built their spiritual muscle in nonsectarian 12-step programs; some didn’t know Hebrew, the prayer book or the choreography of services. Feldman would point out to them that they were making a contribution with their unique brand of spirituality from a 12-step perspective. “There’s a certain energy, a certain mode of expression, talking about God’s will, personal inventory, making amends, a power greater than myself: That’s a healthy conversation. That’s where we’re trying to go in Jewish life.”
Over the last two or three decades, other faiths have acknowledged that alcoholism exists in their communities. They do not regard it as sinful, and reach out to those in their midst with drinking problems, says Katz. The Jewish community, though, has been slower to respond.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a Hasidic psychiatrist and founder and medical director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania, uses his considerable clout to counter the denial. The descendant of distinguished Hasidic families from the Chernobyl and Sanz dynasties, Twerski traces his ancestry to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, and is the author of more than 60 books, which include “Compulsive Gambling” and “Substance- Abusing High Achievers.”
Twerski tells The Report, “Everybody comments that ‘Jews don’t drink.’ A shicker [a drunk] is a goy.’ There’s still that stereotype. The name of the game everywhere is denial. But when it comes to Jews, it’s denial to the 18th power.”
“We have this stereotype of an alcoholic as some sort of Bowery bum and of Jews as always productive good citizens,” says Feldman. “And we have this shonda [shame] factor. We’re always worried about how things look, so we keep things behind closed doors.”
Twerski agrees that the shonda factor is a problem. “Among Jews it’s not so much a stigma; it’s a shonda. A shonda stigmatizes the whole family.” Twerski explains that in the haredi community, problems are often concealed “because if anyone becomes aware there is alcoholism or drug addiction, it ruins the chances of a good shiddukh [marriage match].”
“Yet,” says Katz, “there’s been a lot of progress over the last eight to 10 years. Together we’ve managed to break through a lot of denial and also provide tools.”
Many treatment centers have reached out to the Jewish community and brought rabbis on board to provide spiritual counseling. JACS trains some 100 rabbis a year how to work with alcoholics and addicts, and Jewish treatment centers and halfway houses have sprouted up across America. Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, for example, has a residential program that combines Jewish spirituality, 12-step recovery and psychotherapy.
FELDMAN RECALLS ENCOUNtering ignorance about AA in the local Jewish community and from colleagues nationwide. Many Jews assumed, he says, that “any system that spoke so openly about God had to be Christian because they never heard such talk in Jewish venues. I considered that a tragic reflection of Jewish wandering from our source, and knew that simply teaching Jews about Jewish spirituality would be inspiring and liberating to them.”
Yet the 12-step programs have provided an opening for connecting many Jews to their own spiritual heritage, Feldman says.
Olitzky speculates that some Jews may believe the program is Christian because until 15 or 20 years ago, synagogues, unlike churches, did not welcome 12-step groups. “This placed the 12 steps in a Christian context even without Christian content,” he explains.
Olitzky’s early work, “Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning from Alcoholism and Other Addictions – Drugs, Food, Gambling, Sex...” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991, revised 2009), explains how the 12 steps of AA are relevant to Jews and how the Jewish understanding of the material can stand alongside the Christian understanding of it.
“I think the 12 steps are a neutral paradigm into which any religious philosophy can be woven,” Olitzky explains. “That was really the premise behind the ‘Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery.’ I took the vocabulary they already knew and put Jewish flesh on it.”
He contends that the first step – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable” – is the only one that can be completed. The other 11 steps are ongoing. For example, the second step says, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The next step advises, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
“Torah is read the same way,” says Olitkzy. “We read it year after year. We read it as if we don’t know what comes next, and yet we read it fully aware of what else happens in the narrative of the story of the Jewish people.”
And Olitzky draws another parallel. In the 12-step programs, members speak of needing to hit bottom before being ready to recover.This, he says, is similar to the story of the Israelites as they attempted to cross the Red Sea. At first they refused to enter the water. Finally, when Nachshon took the first leap, God parted the waters just as they threatened to take his life.
Twerski finds parallels in the Talmud. He tells The Report that he has attended many AA meetings and finds they exude a brand of sincere, selfless feeling among members that is often missing at synagogues. He is touched that men and women would willingly be awakened during the night to go out and help fellow alcoholics.“I was always amazed how (AA cofounder) Bill Wilson got all these ideas, which are basically Talmudic,” he says, noting that the 12-step program, directed toward character refinement, is similar to mussar, Jewish ethical teaching and provides the the hands-on steps for implementing the plan.
JEREMY, THE RECOVERING ALCOholic, agrees and notes that Twerski has written that the Jewish people “had to be beaten down in Egypt. We wouldn’t be in a position to be the nation we are if we hadn’t gone through that. You have to hit some type of bottom in order to say, ‘I have to do something different.’ So great nations and great people come from their pain.”
Jeremy tells The Report that he had his first beer in first grade at a party with his cousins. Even at that age, he says, he felt different, as if he didn’t fit in with his peers. “I remember drinking the beer and being really funny. I felt like everybody liked me. That was in the back of my psyche.”
But Jeremy did not have access to alcohol again until eighth grade, when he was hanging out with the ‘cool crowd.’ He also tried smoking marijuana and enjoyed it. “As soon as I started doing that with them, I felt great,” he recalls. “I felt like I finally fit in.I’d get high and go to class. Thursday became the beginning of the weekend. With marijuana, I could function throughout school the entire day, and nobody would know, whereas with alcohol you have a hard time thinking.”
In Jeremy’s later teenage years, his father left home to attend a treatment program for alcoholics. During “family week,” when loved ones came to the facility to learn about addiction and family systems, Jeremy just stood in a corner with his arms crossed. The counselor took his mother aside. “You need to keep an eye on that one,” she warned her.
Jeremy surmises that he was probably angry at everything in the room: his family, life situation, and even the thoughts in his head. “I was still actively smoking marijuana and drinking. I hadn’t gone through any resolve myself,” he admits. “It was nice for my dad, and they were having this big breakthrough. But just because we were there at family week, didn’t mean the previous 17 years were all good now.”
A month later, a high-school senior, Jeremy found himself in a 40-day in-patient treatment program, thanks, in part, to seeing how it helped his dad. “I knew I had a problem,” Jeremy admits now. “Most of my drinking and drugging in 11th grade was out of anger. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I certainly thought about suicide quite a bit.”
Jeremy came out of treatment in 1987 when he was 18, and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. NA uses the same 12- step format as AA. Today, he remains clean and sober, and happily recalls how many friends he made in the program. However, he warns, “If you don’t work the steps of a 12-step program, you don’t get any results. Abstinence is mentioned one time in this book. This is not a ‘don’t drink’ program. It’s a ‘steps’ program.There’s got to be a psychic change, and the psychic change takes place through step work,” he emphasizes, thumbing through “Alcoholics Anonymous” – known in the program as the “Big Book,” which contains the history of AA, stories of sobriety, advice to the family, and the 12 steps and 12 traditions of the program.
Jeremy continues to attend three meetings a week. “I go to meetings to find new guys, to help the newcomer, and to reaffirm that the steps work. I get really squirrelly if I don’t go to meetings,” he says. He also is a regular at Atlanta meetings of JACS. “These JACS conventions are as close to a Temple as we’ve had in 2,000 years, because there’s a singlemindedness of purpose: to help others achieve sobriety,” he asserts.
Jeremy believes the 12-step program has led him to Torah observance; he and his wife keep a kosher, Sabbath-observant home and send their children to an Orthodox day school.Jeremy wears tzitzit (ritual fringed garment) and prays daily. To him, the fourth and fifth steps of recovery are reminiscent of the personal accounting and teshuva (repentance) Jews must undergo during the High Holidays. Indeed, these fourth and fifth steps call for a personal moral inventory, fearlessly probed.And then admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
Twerski tells The Report that he recently counseled a 19-year-old yeshiva student, whose peers had become worried about the student’s heavy drinking. He asked the young man if he had seen “Lechaim?” – a video ( about a prominent physician’s son, Yehuda Mond, who died from excessive drinking. Through dramatization and interviews, the video shows how drinking for fun at joyous occasions can have tragic consequences.
The young man retorted, “That doesn’t apply to me.”
Twerski laments, “What people cover up is a disaster.”
The website lists international Jewish recovery meetings. The next JACS retreat takes place November 5-7 in Stamford, Connecticut.