By Yaakov Mark for COLlive.com
Becoming a Baal Teshuva in a Yeshivah in Crown Heights was the best decision I ever made.
I am learning more and more about Yiddishkeit every day and I have grown so much. Sure, I learned a lot about myself in a 12-step recovery, and 4.5 years of sobriety is a major accomplishment for me, but let me tell you it is nothing compared to the 24 hours a day of spiritual immersion I get here at Hadar Hatorah.
Oh, and the Farbrenghens, and Shalom Zachars, Bris Milas, Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Holidays! They are so wonderful! Everyone is so consumed with joy and festiveness, and amazing inspiration, and everyone cares so much that you are also having a good time.
Even if a person is not so social or perhaps they are a bit shy, they are pulled in to the dancing and singing of niggunim. Quite often the introvert is singing at the top of his lungs along with the crowd. It is really a beautiful thing to be part of and it makes a person feel like they have finally made a home.
Oh, and the L’Chaims as well! No Jewish gathering would be complete without Mashke. Everyone toasts together and even those that would perhaps go a little slower end up letting loose with a few shots under their belt.
So what does a person do that doesn’t drink?
This is a difficult situation.
Folks don’t often get a glimpse of what it looks like from the vantage of the non-drinker. Certainly everything that goes on at these events is straight out of Ahavas Yisrael. You can feel the love around you just being around other Frum Jews.
Yet for some reason, Jews often don’t realize the dangerous boundaries they cross in the name of fellowship. Here are some of my own personal experience that will shed a bit of light on the challenges of a non drinker.
First of all it is important to realize that for me to drink is to return to a really messed up life. If I was to drink, more than likely, I would be sucked away from Yiddishkeit and probably end up in a jail, a hospital or a graveyard.
It is that serious and so I don’t even touch a drop and haven’t for nearly 5 years. I have found that there is constant encouragement everywhere you go to drink, whether it is making Kiddish or going to a Farbrenghen.
Baruch Hashem, that I have the strength to follow through with my commitment to serve Hashem the best I can. Yet I find it very difficult at times to hold back my resentments on this issue.
On the one hand, it is a great annoyance for me. On the other hand, I cannot help thinking of how many Jews may have been turned away because of good intentions of trying to make me feel like one of the boys.
I often get comments from folks when they find out I am Sober and Frum. One kid said I picked the wrong religion to be sober in. (More recently he confided in me that till he became Frum, he didn’t drink that often.)
A rabbi recently offered me many spiritual reasons why I should consider drinking again. He told me how I have become so much more mature and I have so much more self control, that I should test the waters. He spent 30 minutes trying to corner me on the topic. (He got quiet when I told him sarcastically that the first time I decide to test the waters will be at his house on Shabbos in front of his family.)
Often I have heard that it is important to drink Mashka (Vodka) at a Farbrenghen in order to subdue the animal soul and to be able to open up to each other. Yet I think about when the rabbis that wrote these ideas that perhaps they hadn’t heard about the 12 steps. Maybe, just maybe, the peace and tranquility I get from practicing the steps actually produce the same or better effect above and beyond that of Mashka.
One time I went to a Shabbos dinner where the grape juice bottle and the wine bottle which were from the same company got switched, which caused a slight accident for me during Kiddush. I was disgusted that even with all of my efforts to avoid, that wine had gotten past my lips and down my throat. Even if it was only a few drops it was enough to make me feel as if I had been violated. That even through my best efforts to prevent such a thing, it had become beyond my control one more time.
This is a terrifying thought for an Alcoholic like me. Yet I was reminded of what the AA Big Book said about cringing from alcohol as if it were a hot flame. My friend said it was proof of my spiritual fitness and of working a good program.
Another time I went to a Shalom Zachar, and one of the hosts was adamant that I drink with him. I said no thank you, and he said: “Oh, but this is a great event! A Jewish baby was born today and you must drink!” He hands me a Corona and I said push it away. He insisted more, so I grabbed it and put it on the table and asked my friend to take care of it. Of course he misunderstands and opens it, pours a glass and places it by me.
Then the host pours a shot of whiskey and there I am staring an ice cold Corona and a shot of whisky. Inside I was fuming mad, but I decided that I could leave it on the table and be nice, but get out of there quickly. I should have loudly said “No means no!” because it felt like the type of controlling behavior one would get from a rapist. I had to expose my alcoholism in order to get him to stop, and of course then came the jokes all night.
Recently I went to a Jewish Recovery meeting in Crown Heights, and there was a Jew that actually left Yeshiva and stopped being frum because he didn’t want to drink anymore. It wasn’t wearing a black hat, davening 3 times a day or wrapping Tefillin that scared him away from Yiddishkeit. It wasn’t any of these. It was the loving attempt of a Yid trying to make another Yid feel like one of the crowd, and this type of thing happens every weekend to many Jews in Recovery.
So what is it that can be done this problem? Why aren’t people more sensitive to the non-drinker? A person should be able to say no thank you and not have to expose why they don’t drink. It is a real problem and an embarrassing one at that.
Many people obnoxiously push alcohol making it extremely uncomfortable for those of us who don’t drink to live in the community and stay sober. I believe potential baal tshuvahs are turned away from Judaism all together.
Perhaps I might suggest a few ideas. Newspapers should print education on how to treat the non drinker in a sensitive manner. Shluchim could give a sermon on Shabbos. Perhaps there should be some sober Farbrenghens. Maybe educational flyers could be given out amongst the Yeshivos and shuls and the bochurim could be encouraged to teach this value to eachother as well.
This article is being published in a collaboration between COLlive.com and JewishRecovery.org, a network of Shluchim who are servicing Jewish recovering addicts.
If you are interesting in participating or supporting sober farbrengens in Crown Heights, contact Yaakov Mark at email@example.com