Tag : Addiction

July 9, 2019 by

Women and Addiction: The Pop-Culture Parallels

Discussions about addiction among Jews—as with most cultural conversation—tend to center the experiences of men. But in recent history, from the buttoned-up 1950s to today’s opioid epidemic, Jewish women in the spotlight have spoken about the demons that plague them as well.


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.04.41 PMOn February 4, 1953, Lillian Roth, a former childhood starlet whose career was sidetracked by a lifestyle of excess, confessed to America on the hugely popular television program “This Is Your Life” that she had suffered for years with alcoholism and mental and emotional instability. Her auto-biography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, detailed the pressure her parents placed on her as a child, pushing her into performance at age six. Though Roth eventually converted to Catholicism, she never stopped identifying as a Jew. She was one of the first women to “go public about her alcoholism,” wrote Audrey Waxman in a piece on Jewish women and addiction, adding that Roth is “credited with helping Americans to view alcohol addiction as a disease, not a vice….”


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.07.15 PMMusician Cass Elliot (born Ellen Cohen to Jewish parents in Baltimore in 1941) found heroin after she found fame. As a member of the Mamas and the Papas, she was revered for her distinctive voice, and after the group dissolved, she tried to find her footing with solo work. During her first night headlining in Las Vegas with a solo show, the audience realized something was amiss—Cass Elliot was sick, barely rehearsed,and unable to get through her songs. The show closed after one night, and a few weeks later it came out that she had shot heroin just before going on stage. Acquaintances and biographers would eventually unravel years of drug use and abuse after she died of heart failure at 32, leaving an iconic catalog of work.


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.12.36 PMWhen Prozac Nation hit the shelves in 1994, its author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, was 26 years old. This memoir was instantly polarizing. Wurtzel grew up wealthy in New York City, the child of divorced Jewish parents who, by her own description, had little tolerance for emotional wavering. She attended Harvard while under a constant cloud of depression.

Prozac was her first chemical lifeline. Her second was Ritalin, which proved to be her on-ramp to a serious cocaine problem. She completed a second memoir, centered on addiction, in the wake of her recovery. In contrast to Cass Elliot or Lillian Roth—women suffering from addiction who happened to be Jewish—Wurtzel actively connected the dots between her privileged Jewish upbringing and her eventual downward spiral. Academic pressure, a commitment to keeping up appearances, and religious expectations colored her formative years, and left her wondering how much of her depression sprung from nurture rather than nature.


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In the last decade we’ve heard many voices of those struggling to break out of dangerous patterns of behavior, while“addiction memoirs” have found a wide audience. There is a desire, especially in the shadow of the opioid crisis, to find a single answer for the root causes of addiction. Jewish women have been part of the conversation.The 2011 death of singer Amy Winehouse brought substance abuse into the news cycle for weeks, as the world mourned and struggled to comprehend what had happened. Cat Marnell, a former editor for XoJane, chronicled her dependency on Adderall in How to Murder Your Life, which became a 2017 bestseller.

Fiction, too, has seen a rise in addiction as subject. Invisible as Air, a new novel by Zoe Fishman, set to be released in September 2019, tackles the “pressures of expectations” for a Jewish woman trying to support her family and maintain the right appearances.

And on television, Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll examines the cycle of addiction through a Talmudic lens, informed by her early years as both a student at an Orthodox academy and a heroin addict.

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September 20, 2018 by

When a flawed male with a lot of power shapes Jewish priorities.

You may be numb to #MeToo news, but bear with me for a few paragraphs, please.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against noted men in Jewish life are nothing new. One among them this past season is sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who appears to have acknowledged the veracity of such charges from women in his field. Cohen has now stepped down (or been asked to resign) from his many prestigious posts in the Jewish world, including as the head of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, which he founded, and the flagship academic institution of Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was on the faculty. Why focus on a situation that seems to stretch at least as far back in time as there have been women in academe?

Here’s why. Steve Cohen was not just some random randy professor with a faulty ethical compass. His considerable influence has included being the American Jewish community’s reigning demographic expert, the go-to guy for an opinion on where resources ought best to be deployed. And because reports that have emerged in the past few months suggest that women who did not yield to his advances were closed out of meaningful career advancement, the perspectives of these women social scientists have been lost.

There have been serious concerns that the damage goes beyond what was experienced by the individual women, and that policies built on Cohen’s many survey findings are flawed because their very questions—lines of investigation about the perils of intermarriage, say—don’t take into account the realities of Jewish women’s lives today. If women had been framing the questionnaires used to determine a community’s priorities, the data yielded might have been different. Maybe they would demonstrate that interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner is a woman are flourishing. Maybe they would demonstrate that if a Jew marries a non-Jew and the couple establishes a Jewish household there’s an advantage to the community as a whole. But without the talents of social scientists who are looking at a community through a gender lens, how can we know? Social science, as a locus of study, should be hypothesis-driven. Thus the researcher has to know what important questions to ask of the subject, needs to really understand clearly the human dimensions of a field in order to develop useful hypotheses. And if the hypotheses are based on faulty perceptions about the subject’s reality, the wrong questions are asked and fruitful data will stay beneath the surface.

A few examples from the Lilith annals.

Jewish women staying single.

In the 1990s, the magazine wanted to report on Jewish women’s expectations of becoming mothers. Since Jewish women then were rarely having children outside of marriage, we sought marriage statistics from the national Jewish population surveys then being commissioned. Lilith asked the late demographer Egon Mayer, who had shaped those surveys, to substantiate our hypothesis that Jewish women, for a variety of reasons, were more likely to remain single through their childbearing years than other women were. (The reasons included many years of higher education and a shrinking pool of eligible Jewish mates as more Jewish men were marrying “out.”) The common wisdom was that Jews were all interested in being fruitful and multiplying as part of a family-oriented religious practice. Professor Mayer, initially skeptical, sifted through the data for information that hadn’t yet surfaced because no one had asked the question from this particular perspective. It turned out that Jewish women at the time were exactly twice as likely to remain single through their childbearing years than their white American peers. If you follow a feminist hunch, the results may surprise you.

Women’s philanthropy.

When Lilith first investigated Jewish women’s philanthropic donations, women’s charitable giving to Jewish causes was viewed as “pin money”—unimportant in the general calculus of a community’s budget. No one had yet asked how heterosexual couples made these money decisions. The man usually got credit in public for the family’s “gift,” even when the woman determined the cause and the amount on the check. In fact, when professional fundraisers failed to recognize women’s role in the couple’s process, the donation was likely to shrink.

Male and female addicts.

Researchers have noted that addiction-cessation programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work well when the sufferer concedes that he needs to recognize a “higher power” and put himself into the hands of that power. Jewish men in these programs may find this process “too Jesus-y,” but in publishing one woman’s revised version of the famous twelve steps, Lilith learned that for many women there is a different impediment. For women who have been in the hands of more powerful others their whole lives, this step may be so counterproductive as to thrust them back into their dependencies. The Jewish universe loses out when women worthy of professional respect are driven from their academic positions by a flawed male with a lot of power. The harm done by Jewish leaders who are also sexual predators goes beyond the considerable damage to individual women; it also skews how the Jewish community will shape its present, and the Jewish future.


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