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EVER WONDER where the men sneak off to when the ‘maftir’ is read in synagogue on Shabbat morning? They’re in the rabbi’s study, or even the janitor’s closet, having a little schnapps..(Photo by: STEVEN DEPOLO/FLICKR)
A nation of teetotalers?
From ‘kiddush clubs’ to celebrations, navigating Judaism’s particular roadblocks to healthy drinking
Jews don’t drink.
They don’t have cocktail parties like the gentiles; now and forever, they’re much more focused on food.
Yeah, right.
Let’s start off with a few questions.
Do you ever drink more, or more often, than you intended?
Do you feel a little “off” if you can’t drink when you want to and how you want to?
At weddings or other joyous occasions, do you sometimes have trouble remembering what you did or said? (Or whether you might have gotten married without realizing it?)
When you attend a bar mitzvah, is the bar bigger than the mitzvah?
Do you consider it “alcohol abuse” if someone doesn’t finish her drink?
Do you make a second Seder, even though you aren’t obliged to, just so that you can have four more cups of wine?
Okay, all joking aside. In Alcoholics Anonymous, we say, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.” In other words, getting a person with a drinking problem to acknowledge that problem is huge. And denial is compounded by the utterly untrue belief that Jews don’t drink.
In fact, Jews have a long, imperfect history with drinking. King Solomon, the wisest man in the world, wrote in the book of Proverbs about how appealing wine looks at first. He also described the trouble we get into, often with members of the opposite sex, when we imbibe too much.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, we learn that the four cups of wine on Passover would cause Rabbi Yonah to have a headache until Shavuot.
In a way, they were the lucky ones, because they knew how much pain drinking caused them. Unfortunately, we modern Jews believe that we cannot have drinking problems. And yet, in many ways, our social and religious lives revolve around alcohol.
Ever wonder where the men sneak off to when the maftir is read in synagogue on Shabbat morning? They’re in the rabbi’s study, or even the janitor’s closet, having a little schnapps as part of the self-proclaimed “Ritual Committee” or “Kiddush Club.”
For those families that observe Shabbat to any degree, there is wine on Friday night, and Saturday morning. Not to mention seudat shlishit or the third Shabbat meal, and again at havdala.
Even at weekday morning minyanim, or prayer services, when an individual marks a yahrzeit, the common practice is to bring a bottle of scotch. Everybody gets a taste before going off to work, in order that the soul of the deceased should “have an aliyah,” or ascend higher in heaven. All the men partaking get a little upward jolt, too.
We even start with alcohol at a younger age than pretty much anyone else on the planet. On the eighth day of life, at their brit milah, little guys are introduced not just to the covenant of Abraham, but also to Manischewitz.
For all of us, observant or not, it’s hard to find a party… where alcohol is hard to find.
So what are Jewish problem drinkers supposed to do in a religious culture where booze flows freely?
I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with the Jewish life cycle or religious events because alcohol is involved. Nor am I suggesting that as a result, all Jews are alcoholics.
Instead, I’m making a case that some Jews are alcoholics, and that the prevalence of alcohol at these events normalizes drinking, even for those of us who can’t handle it.
I’m Jewish and a recovering alcoholic, sober 27 years. I have dozens of friends in recovery who are also Jews. So the question is this: How do you know if you are an alcoholic, Jewish or otherwise? And if you are, what do you do about it without violating social norms or, if it’s an issue in your life, Jewish law?
To put it simply, if you think you might have a drinking problem, you probably do. Non-alcoholics simply don’t wonder whether they’re alcoholics. It never crosses their minds. So the mere fact that you’re wrestling with the issue is a strong indication that you have the problem.
Alcoholism is progressive, which means that it inevitably gets worse over time, as the body conditions itself to process increasing amounts of alcohol. At the same time, the internal organs break down due to the increasing amounts of alcohol we take in, in order to get that same sense of release.
The good news is that alcoholism is a disease, like cancer or diabetes, not a disgrace or a moral issue. In AA, we say that we aren’t bad people getting good – we’re sick people getting well.
So what do you do if you think you might have an issue with alcohol?
Here are three suggestions:
First, get a grip. Learn more about the disease of alcoholism – what it is and what it’s not. See if the shoe fits. There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in English and Hebrew in most major cities in Israel, and with a quick Google search you can find English-speaking meetings pretty much everywhere.
Especially in Israel, you’ll be surprised by how many Jewish faces you see – soldiers, hassidim, kibbutzniks, students, rabbis, everybody.
Second, get a heter (a rabbinical leeway).
According to Halacha ( Jewish law), grape juice suffices in practically every situation where wine is required. So give yourself permission, or get permission from your rabbi, to “put the plug in the jug” and have grape juice at kiddush, the Seder, and wherever else alcohol is served.
By the way, the obligation in Halacha is not to drink wine – it’s to hear kiddush spoken. So if you are at a Shabbat table and you don’t feel comfortable asking for grape juice, you don’t have to drink wine to have fulfilled your kiddush obligation.
Finally, get a (sober) life.
The disease of alcoholism gets worse over time, never better. So if you don’t face your drinking problem now, then one day, your problems will be so great that you will be nostalgic for the way you felt today. An acquaintance of mine woke up one morning in jail, with no recollection of having struck and killed someone with his car the night before in an alcoholic blackout. He was facing 22 years in prison, and ultimately did 17. All for a homicide he still can’t recall.
For others, the consequences are not as shocking, but can be deeply painful. Educational and professional careers are destroyed, as are relationships, marriages, families and reputations.
Is your membership in the Kiddush Club on Shabbat mornings that important?
The good news is that two million people worldwide, members of Alcoholics Anonymous, are experiencing contented sobriety and are living amazing lives free of alcohol. Some of those people are Jews, and some of those people are observant Jews.
I am all of the above, and wherever you fall on the religious spectrum is immaterial here. Surrender means joining the winning side. If you think you might have a drinking problem, you probably have one. Wouldn’t it be great to get it handled now, rather than pay a bigger price later on?
Dare I say… L’chaim!

New York Times bestselling author “Michael Graubart” (a pseudonym) just published his latest book, Morning Coffee, and his CD, Sober Songs Vol. 1.
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