Alcoholism and the Jewish Community

By: Rabbi Nahum Simon, PhD, CAP, ICADC

The Jewish community has institutionalized the concept of denial with regard to alcoholism and addiction. Having worked in the field for nearly 30 years, it has been an uphill battle to convince both the leaders and the members of the community that there is a very real problem that needs to be addressed.

Problem drinking was already identified in early scripture. The Book of Genesis tells of two serious drinkers and the consequences that befell them. First, there was Noah, who after being saved from destruction in the flood, proceeds to plant a vineyard, cultivating the grapes and producing wine. He then consumes so much wine that he passes out. Jewish tradition is replete with the explanation of the serious consequences that Noah suffered. Several chapters later, we are introduced to the story of Lot, who after being rescued by the angels from the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom, was enticed into incestuous relationships with his daughters.

Many of us, who come from the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish tradition, recall a song in Yiddish that proclaimed, “Shikkor is a Goy,” meaning that if one were a drunkard, he must be a gentile. In my years in the field of addiction treatment, I have encountered many Jewish families who were more comfortable with believing that their loved one was mentally ill, rather than to deal with the possibility that their loved ones were addicts.

Several years ago, I recall hearing a tape where the speaker said that there were four categories of people who had a risk of becoming alcoholic: children of alcoholics; intergenerational skip, where the alcoholic was the grandchild or great-grandchild of an alcoholic; a child who grows up in a family with a mentally ill parent; and spontaneous alcoholism in communities that seem immune to the disease. In illustrating the fourth group, the author cited the Jews as an example of a community that, until recent times, seemed immune.

This compelled me to conduct my own research, as I believe there have always been Jewish alcoholics. One must study the flow of Jewish history to comprehend the full story. The Jews’ position in society was very precarious; many Jews were small minorities within countries and populations that were hostile to them. This reality necessitated strong cohesiveness within the community. Alcoholism represented a loss of personal control that could threaten the security of the entire community, therefore, the alcoholic would not find support or acceptance within the community. One of two things would occur: either the alcoholic would stop the behavior, in which case communal support would be provided; or the alcoholic would leave the community. This second choice often led to the alcoholic’s ultimate assimilation into the non-Jewish population.

We know that one of the obstacles that a person seeking recovery must deal with is to avoid transferring addictions by stopping one addiction only to find solace in another form of the disease. Historically, I believe, the Jewish addict was able to transfer the addiction into a form that was less threatening and more acceptable to the community. I further believe that the fact that both Gamblers Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous were founded by a disproportionate number of Jews is not a coincidence. Gambling and food were acceptable addictions within the community, to the extent that obesity was equated with prosperity and wealth.

Another interesting phenomenon is that while alcoholism was unacceptable to the Jewish community, no such prohibition existed with regard to the use of other drugs. As drug experimentation became the thing to do in the 1960s and 1970s, young Jews, who would never think of public intoxication, had no taboo against drug use. The normal progression of the disease that we see in treatment, when taking a drug history, is to find that the individual first began to drink alcohol, progressed to marijuana, and then on to other chemicals. In Jewish addicts, very often, the history begins with other drugs, and then, in later stages, may turn to alcohol.

 

In the early 1960s, I had the opportunity to work with recent immigrants to the State of Israel. In the immigrant communities, alcoholism was a major issue.

 

Coming from my sociological training, I understood that the primary factors contributing to this were the feelings that developed among the mature population. The male immigrant was faced with feelings of displacement in a new country. This applied mainly to the male head of household, struggling to speak a new language, dealing with a foreign culture and, frequently, the inability to find employment. The feelings became unbearable, and solace was sought in alcohol. The proud man now had to rely on his children for assistance. In those years, it never occurred to us to consider that the problem was one of alcoholism rather than a societal issue.

 

The fact is that there is no reason to believe that Jews differ from the general population in the occurrence of alcoholism and addiction. The percentage of Jews participating in recovery programs or seeking treatment will generally parallel the percentage of Jews living among the general population. What may be unique within the Jewish community is that, due to denial and shame, more Jewish individuals may seek treatment in distant cities rather than closer to home. This may be a factor to consider in discharge planning and continuing treatment when the patient returns to home, family and his environment.

When dealing with Jewish clients in treatment, some very basic problems may be presented. Most, if not all, of these are extensions of the denial phenomenon. Many recovery meetings are held in churches, and many Jews find this uncomfortable. The 12-Step program grew out of a fundamentalist Christian philosophy, the Oxford Group and the phraseology of the steps “sounds” un-Jewish. Holding hands at the end of the meeting and reciting the Lord’s Prayer is foreign to Jewish practice. In fact, many of us were raised with the notion that the Lord’s Prayer is not to be said by Jews.

The concept of spirituality is strange to many addicts, who confuse spirituality with religion, and is totally alien to the average Jew whose religious training, at best, was limited to two to four hours a week between the ages of eight and thirteen. And, as with many others at the onset of the spiritual journey of recovery, the loss of community contact, self-identification and definition is a major stumbling block. Although we are told to find a “God of our understanding”, what does one do if there is no true point of reference to a Higher Power?

Many of these issues are common to all newcomers to the recovery process; some may be unique to Jews and others coming from some culture or community outside the mainstream. The challenge for us, as professionals in the addiction field, is to assist the individual to find and define a spiritual path that is meaningful and productive.