On Jews and Drinking

One of my favorite Jewish heroes of old is Judith, and though there are many versions of her tale, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hanukkah version.  Today is the last day of the eight days, and they’ve been filled with ritual, pageantry, and yes, stories.  Its struck me on this reading, though, how the Jewish relationship to alcohol is so cleverly woven in.

The story goes like this:

During the Maccabean revolt against Syrian-Greek oppression, the Jews found their forces waning against the power of one general Holofernes.  Notorious for his cruelty in dealing with rebellious commoners, when he did capture the town of Bethulia he showed zero mercy to even its smallest inhabitants. 

The little town stood sure in its faith in God, however, and quickly fortified itself against the onslaught.  Holofernes took a step back, surveyed the situation, and quickly decided that instead of continuing to actively fight he’d give his men a break to enjoy the spoils they’d already amassed, and simply starve the people out.

Well, it worked.  The city had fortified itself against attack, sure, but at the same time they had cut off all access to outside supplies.  They were quickly running out of food, and morale was at an all-time low, when a young widow, Yehudit, or Judith, asked permission to be seen by the commander of the town’s armed forces, Uzziah. 

Judith’s plan was simple.  The townspeople should gather themselves to pray for God’s merciful and powerful hand against Holofernes’ army, and Uzziah should allow her and her woman to breach the town’s wall to speak with Holofernes himself.

Uzziah was puzzled.  What could this young woman do that his army couldn’t?  He grew even more concerned when she asked to be allowed to take some of the oldest and finest wine and cheese from the town’s dwindling storehouses with her.  What would the people say, their children starving, their blessings going unsaid, about sharing these most precious of resources with the enemy?  Judith was firm in her resolve, though, and Uzziah eventually gave in.  She was escorted to the front lines, and he watched as she made her way to the perplexed enemy guards.

Judith’s plan was simple.  She told the guards that she had important information for their leader, about how to capture the town, and requested to be taken to him at once.  Holofernes, seeing the beautiful young woman heading his direction was filled with lust, and offered her a place at his table that very night.  Judith was taken to a private tent, where she beautified herself and prayed, and when dinnertime rolled around she took her pack with the fine aged cheeses and wine, and joined Holofernes in his tent.

The townspeople were reaching the end of their kosher supplies, she told him, offering up the old wine for proof.  Holofernes drank from the bladder greedily.  Soon there would be nothing left, she said, feeding him cheese from her very hand.  The people will be forced to eat the unclean animals amongst them, and then God would offer them up into his very hands in disgust.  Holofernes thought this was very good information, indeed, and ate and drank all that Judith lay before him.  Feeling sleepy from the feast he dismissed his men, preparing to have a little privacy with Judith, but she took so long preparing herself that he fell asleep waiting.

Judith’s heart raced.  Her plan was working exactly as she’d hoped.  Praying to God for strength, then, she removed Holofernes’ own sword from its sheath.  She held it, with both hands, over his drunken face, and then closing her own eyes against the horror she brought it down right upon his neck.  He never knew what hit him.  She knew she must work quickly, then.  She wrapped his head in rags and then placed it back into her bag, now empty of wine and cheese, and quickly made her way back to the town’s gate, where she was quickly ushered in and taken to Uzziah.

Uzziah looked on in wonder, as Judith rolled Holofernes’ head out upon the table in front of him.  “Attack at sunrise,” she said.  “His men are reveling in the drink and games, and will be headless without their leader.”

In the end, it was as she said.  The Syrian army ran for their lives, leaving all of their spoils behind for the townspeople to feast upon and trade, and God’s name and Judith’s both were revered among the people forever after.

The message regarding alcohol in the story is clear: it’s not only an important part of Jewish community, but it’s a weakness to gentiles, and those who may bring their oppressive forces against us. And it’s true that alcohol, especially wine, is ubiquitous in the Jewish community.  My youngest son, for example, had his first taste at eight days old, as is tradition, during a blessing over his ritual bris. For my part, I finished off the better part of the several bottles of expensive kosher wine I’d bought for the occasion. It’s a celebration, right? And there’s very much a feeling among the Jewish people that it’s not a celebration until someone says the blessing over the wine. There’s even an old Jewish proverb that says, basically, that Jews can’t be drunks. Uh uh, no way. That’s a gentile thing. And while studies do show that the rates of alcoholism are slightly lower in the community (and Jewish stereotypes of “the alcoholic” more negative than in others) there are still a lot of Jews in need of help who find themselves put off of recovery by the attitudes the encounter when seeking help.

The role of AA in contemporary society can also alienate Jewish drunks who want to go sober. Who wants to stand around saying the “Lord’s prayer,” in a dark Baptist church basement when you believe that Jesus was a heretic, at best? Can you say crusades and blood libel three times fast? While AA isn’t officially a Christian organization, and those living in bigger cities may be able to find Jewish, or secular, groups, it does tend to take that tint. Especially in smaller towns across the US and Europe.

So if you can’t find a sober community within your tribe, and you don’t fit
in on the outside, what do you do when your drinking becomes problematic?

Start a blog, of course!

Seriously, though. I don’t have a good answer for that except to remember that the internet is a big place, and there’s probably a home for everyone, in some dark corner or another.  I’ve heard it said that we recovering alcoholics need to focus on the similarities, not the differences, when hearing others’ stories. This means that instead of thinking, “well I’m not that bad,” we should be thinking, “ok, yeah, I’ve been there,” whenever possible. But maybe the philosophy can be expanded to include our identities, as well. It seems to go without saying, in most situations we encounter on a daily basis, that we’ll get further by working together for the common good than we will sitting around disagreeing with one another. So why does it seem so difficult to do in this area of our lives? Could it be that we’re more skilled at finding excuses to not get healthy than we like to admit? Or that it makes us feel superior to not be like “those” people? Those gentiles? Those drunks? Maybe sometimes, yeah. Is it also possible that admitting that we can’t handle our drinking any better than anyone else who struggles is a path to freedom?  I think it must be.

Before I go, let me be clear: this isn’t a problem faced solely by Jews. Muslims, atheists, members of the LGBTQ community, and younger teetotallers are just a few other groups who find it difficult to build sober relationships that affirm, rather than merely tolerate (or actively disdain) their identities. I will say that for all its faults, Reddit has some great, inclusive, sober communities, and I add additional resources as I run across them, here. And as always, let me know if there’s anything great out there that I’ve missed!

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