By Rabbi Susan Berman

Separating, Judaism and Jewishness

For the moment we need to set Judaism and Jewishness apart.

Judaism is more than simply a religion. We often hear it called a way of life. That part of it, which is cultural, culinary, linguistic, and attitudinal is "Jewishness." Jewishness is expressed in bagels and lox, Yiddish and ladino, Jewish Family Service Associations, and Jewish orphanages. A person can do Jewish things without ever participating 

This is important for discussing the barricade of denial, the belief that no Jew could be alcoholic, that's prevalent in the Jewish community.

The Stigma of the Chemically Dependent Jew

Many of us grew up hearing that Shikker is a Goy - a drunk is a non-Jew. To be chemically dependent implied that one's Jewish status was questionable. Just as we believed that Jewish men did not beat their wives or that there was no such thing as a Jewish homosexual or lesbian, our communities (through their assumptions) taught us that to be a Jew seemingly granted a person immunity to alcoholism or other drug addiction. 

The feeling among Jewish alcoholics and addicts was one of intense shame. To be chemically dependent meant to be less than a full Jew.

No Jewish teaching equates abuse of alcohol and other drugs with sin. Alcoholism and drug addiction is an illness. We've all heard that. But maybe it hasn't really sunk in yet. If someone should get diabetes we are sorry to hear it, but we don't blame the person. It is not his or her fault. Addiction is the same thing. True, people can't be addicts if they never use, but drinking and using other drugs are not sins.

Our Spirituality

To find Jewish spirituality we must find a way to reach beyond ourselves in a Jewish context. For some of us, that will be available in existing temples, shuls, synagogues, buildings, and programs. For others, we have to go out and create the community we crave. What I have attempted to present here are the possibilities. Prayer can play a part. So can history, peoplehood, and God. All are there for reclamation. There is a national organization called JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemical Dependent Persons and Significant Others Foundation, Inc., 197 East Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003; (212) 473-4747). It teaches, informs, enhances, and provides spiritual outlets for recovering Jews and their loved ones. Truly, there is much where once there was nothing.

Through our days and years of alcohol and other drug abuse, we estranged ourselves from the world, our friends, our families, and ultimately ourselves. For most of us, our Judaism also became alien to us. And even if we were involved, the feelings and joy were gone. 

Now that we are recovering, the option of rejoining the people is a real one. This is the goal of sobriety itself - the living of a sane and useful life as a part of, not apart from, the human race.

THE JACS JOURNAL Vol:3, No-l, 1992.

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