The holiday of Purim is often associated with excessive use of alcohol, when we are told to drink until we cannot recognize the difference between Mordecai and Haman. Yet, Jews are not supposed to drink a lot, or so the assumption goes.
What assumption? There are various beliefs about Jews and the use of alcohol: Jews drink less than other groups, Jews are less likely to become alcoholics, or non-Jewish women want to marry Jewish men because they are less likely to abuse alcohol.
Many of today's college students, however, have never heard of these ideas. Some think that their Jewish friends do indeed drink less, but most concede that they never gave the issue much thought. Nevertheless, it was prevalent in older generations and has had an impact on the way both Jews and non-Jews view the Jewish community.
In most cases, the view that Jews drink less or are less likely to abuse alcohol was tied to its ritual and symbolic use in Judaism. Rabbi Ilene Bogosian, the Hillel Director at Wellesley College, said that the use of wine for kiddush "supposedly gave Jews an understanding of how to use alcohol wisely, tying it to the sanctification of special occasions."
Alex Kohl, a junior at Boston University, commented that because alcohol is used for rituals, it is not viewed as just a way to "lose yourself." Instead, there is basis of spirituality behind it.
Commenting on the effect that ritual use would have on drinking patterns, Alison Goldberg, Hillel President at Wellesley College, said, "having experience with it (alcohol) with their parents' supervision I think would make someone more responsible with it."
Similarly, Debby Schriber, the advisor to the regional student Hillel board in Boston, said that it might "make it not so taboo to drink." Ritual use can help make alcohol less of a "forbidden fruit," thus making Jewish college students less likely to use alcohol as a means of rebellion.
Whatever one believes, drinking remains a standard part of college life and one in which Jewish students' participation is widespread. When questioned, some students said that Jews consume less alcohol and drink on a less frequent basis than other students. Sasha Krashenny, a senior at Babson College, said that among the students in Hillel at Babson, "they donąt have the typical American mentality of just getting drunk every weekend."
Students at other schools, however, did not notice a difference in drinking patterns. Jennie Bell, a sophomore at Tufts, said that she thought that the drinking patterns of Jewish students were pretty similar to everyone else's. Sam Harris, who has attended fraternity parties at both Jewish and non-Jewish houses at the University of Georgia, said, "I don't think there is much of a difference." He thinks that alcohol is part of the standard image of college life so that "whenever they (Jewish students) go to parties or social gatherings, everyone is always drinking and they want to fit in just like everyone else."
None of the students who were interviewed asserted that Jews drink more than other groups. The most common response from students, however, was that they never thought about the difference in drinking habits between their Jewish and non-Jewish friends. The stereotype of the "sober Jew" was not a defining aspect of their Jewish identities.
So is there any truth to this assumption that Jews drink less or are less likely to abuse alcohol? Two sociological studies, one published in 1980 and one in 1987, have data that support the idea. Barry Glassner and Bruce Berg wrote an article for the American Sociological Review in 1980 titled "How Jews Avoid Alcohol Problems." It states, "If there has been a single well-documented and replicated finding in the sociology of deviance, it is the low rate of alcohol problems among Jews in comparison to other ethnic groups. Jews present high percentages of adult drinkers, but low alcoholism and alcohol problem rates." However, the study does indicate that among the Jews who did drink frequently at one point in their life, it often occurred during their college years.
When these studies attempted to find the cause of the difference, they returned to the ritual and symbolic place of alcohol in Judaism. Connecting Jewish sobriety to religious observance would suggest that Orthodox Jews would be the least likely to abuse alcohol. There appears to be some truth in this. Yaron Koren, a sophomore at MIT, said that "secular Jewish teenagers drink way more alcohol than Orthodox Jews do." Other students felt that Jews at religious schools drank less than their counterparts in secular settings.
A study published in 1987 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion entitled "Parental Religion and Alcohol Use Problems as Intergenerational Predictors of Problem Drinking Among College Youth," found that students with a stronger faith in any religion are less likely to drink heavily. Jews who only weakly identified as religious showed significantly higher rates for heavy social drinking and frequent intoxication than more religious Jews.
Older studies predicted that as Jews moved away from Orthodoxy, the rate of alcoholism would increase. This has not been entirely true, however, since many Jews still maintain practices that incorporate the controlled use of alcohol in religious ceremonies, such as the Passover Seder. The sociological research shows that Jews have adapted their practice over time and have maintained similar attitudes toward alcohol despite the drift away from Orthodoxy.
Another factor contributing to Jewish sobriety is the identification of alcoholism and alcohol abuse as a Gentile problem. This makes it more difficult for Jews to view alcohol as a means of escaping the stress in their own lives; alcohol is something "they", non-Jews, use and abuse.
As Jews have become more assimilated, the distinction between "us" and "them" has faded, and weakened this deterrent to alcoholism. Furthermore, since the association of excessive drinking with non-Jews has not been completely passed down to this generation, as evidenced by many students' lack of knowledge of the issue, it should not influence student drinking patterns.
Whether or not the assumption is true, it has had an impact on the way Jews treat alcohol and alcoholism. For Jewish alcoholics it has made it more difficult for them to come out and get help. "I think it helps the typical alcoholic retain denial," said Rabbi Illan Feldman of Atlanta who runs a program for Jews in Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. Joanne, an Orthodox woman in JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) in Boston, said that when she was in college, if Jews drank it "stayed in the closet" or "wasnąt talked about." JACS and other similar organizations help those in standard recovery programs connect the spirituality from in those programs to their Judaism.
In order to lessen this stigma, Rabbi Feldman stresses that alcoholism is a disease that can affect anyone. Indeed, many of the students interviewed said they knew Jews who were alcoholics or alcohol abusers.
Joanne also disagrees with the assumption that ritual use helps educate Jews about the proper use of alcohol. She believes that children who are allowed to drink wine will only want more as they get older.
The issues surrounding Jews and the use of alcohol are complex. Alcohol has a specific place in Judaism that is very different from its place in the general American culture. So the next time you raise your glass, instead of saying "Cheers!" shout out an emphatic "L'Chaim!"
Stacie Garnett is a sophomore at Wellesley College.