I wish I’d drunk the Jewish way

By Damian Thompson, June 14, 2012
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Maybe if I'd been born Jewish I wouldn't have become a drunk. Please don't take that as a flippant remark. It's been claimed that, while seven per cent of Americans are alcoholics, less than one per cent of American Jews suffer from the condition.

Take those figures with a pinch of salt - there's no agreed definition of alcoholism, and in my new book about addiction, I question the whole notion of overconsumption as a "disease". Even so, there's overwhelming evidence that, although Jews are less likely to be teetotal than non-Jews, they are also less likely to be drunks.

The interesting question is, why? And the answer, I believe, tells us a lot about human appetites and how they spin out of control.

Some Jewish people, in common with many east Asians, may carry a gene that protects them against excessive drinking. But, if so, it's not enough to account for the disparity between Jews and non-Jews.

The best explanation is the simplest. Jewish tradition discourages drunkenness: it's a source of shame. Conversely, the community's relaxed relationship with alcohol is a source of pride. In the Bible, wine brings joy and banishes sorrow, so Jews who extract moderate pleasure from it are following a divine injunction; also, the Prophets are loud in their condemnation of drunkards.

None of this surprises me. Environment is the prime determinant of addiction. The more "available" a drug is - and I'm including the notion of cultural availability - the more people will develop a problem with it.

We live in a world in which science delivers us more and more refined sources of pleasure. It has become expert at producing substances and experiences that we like too much for our own good. Separating the good and bad effects of progress is especially tricky when it comes to addiction. The pharmacology that patents cancer drugs also invents painkillers so potent we become dependent on them; worse, rogue chemists make new recreational drugs so fast that governments struggle to make them illegal before they sweep through the clubbing scene. Food technology, meanwhile, cooks up combinations of sugar and fat that we find irresistible - irrespective of their effect on our arteries.

As for booze, you won't necessarily find that students drink more heavily than they did 20 years ago. But the pattern has changed. Binge drinking has become the default mode for celebrations. Admittedly, my friends and I were binge drinkers back in the 1980s, but it made us stand out. As a university psychiatrist told me the other day: "You wouldn't stand out now, I'm afraid."

Society's fragmentation accelerates these changes: the phenomenon of addiction is the progressive replacement of people by things - substances and experiences that conceal our loneliness. The bottle was my "thing" of choice. I put it down 18 years ago but I still miss it.

You can see the danger that this presents for Jewish people. The connectedness of the community, born of persecution as well as religious principle, has served as a safeguard against many forms of addiction, not just alcoholism. But the more integrated Jews become, the less effective is that safeguard. And there is anxiety in Israel that young people are as hedonistic as their counterparts in other countries. (In Catholic southern Europe, where drunkenness is also traditionally discouraged, drinking patterns among the young are converging with those of northern Europe.)

"At the last it bites like a serpent, 
and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, 
and your heart will utter perverse things." That is the Book of Proverbs on the subject of drinking too much wine. The challenge for the Jewish community is to teach that lesson to the next generation before they learn it the hard way, as I did.

Damian Thompson is the author of 'The Fix' (Collins £20)

    Last updated: 11:25am, June 14 2012