It was a Saturday afternoon in July, and according to the police report, the young man was driving drunk. So drunk, in fact, that he drove into the oncoming lane, rolled his car, crashed into a cottage and then tried to flee the scene on foot. It's a sad but not surprising story—except for the details: the driver was an Orthodox Jew, vacationing in the Catskills. It was Sabbath, and he was wasted. Milton Berle was echoing the generations-old conventional wisdom when he quipped that "Jews don't drink much because it interferes with their suffering." Except, of course, they do. Orthodox Jews especially have started to wrestle with what some say is a growing problem of alcohol abuse in their communities. Editorialists in Jewish papers and blogs wring their hands over the college students who wind up in the emergency room after over-imbibing on Purim or the men who leave Saturday services en masse to tipple in the cloakroom before returning, rowdy and indecorous, to the sanctuary in time for the sermon. In 2005, the Orthodox Union (which oversees the nation's Orthodox synagogues) issued a strong statement against these "kiddush clubs." "They were drinking not only the [ceremonial] kiddush wine, but fine single-malt whiskey with a sumptuous smorgasbord," says Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. "It's not only drinking, it's idealized drinking, which is a very, very bad message for the kids." Many synagogues have since curtailed the clubs, he says.
Alcohol problems always carry a stigma, but in Orthodox circles that stigma is particularly constraining. "Everybody's looking at each other and thinking, 'Is this a family I want my son or daughter to marry into?' " explains Jonathan Katz, director of a New York City-based group for Jewish alcoholics and addicts called JACS. That's why, Rabbi Weinreb says, some Orthodox drinkers go to Alcoholics Anonymous groups in church basements, where they won't see anyone they know. But other Jewish drinkers like to deal with their problem among their own. JACS offers 12-step groups, and a Jewish-only rehab center in Los Angeles called Beit T'shuva includes Jewish spirituality in its recovery program. Young men in rabbinical training at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and elsewhere take alcohol-awareness seminars, and in November, JACS published a book of confessional essays about alcohol by Jewish women.
The truth is, though, that Jews don't drink—much. Historically, Jews have not had alcohol problems to the extent as some other religious groups—only 11 percent of Jewish men have problems with alcohol abuse and dependence, compared with 28 percent of non-Jewish men. Researchers aren't sure why, but point to a possible combination of factors. It could be that Jews, who for generations have lived as guests in a host country, feel pressure to be "on our best behavior," as Katz puts it. It could be that rigorous religious observance inoculates people against drunkenness—shown to be true across religions. Or it could be genetic: some Jews do have a form of a gene, also common in Asians, which can protect against alcohol abuse.
Weinreb says he sees drunkenness much more often these days, especially among younger people who think nothing of bringing a six-pack to a party. New research is beginning to support the rabbi's worries: young Jews do seem to be more vulnerable to alcohol than their parents. A 2007 study showed that Israelis younger than 33, especially those without the protective gene, are much more likely to engage in excessive drinking than those who are older. Small studies on recent Russian immigrants in Israel and Jewish college students in the United States show that under the right kind of environmental circumstances, some Jews do engage in heavy drinking. For anyone who's ever been to a bar or a college campus, that's hardly a headline.