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Tag : Addiction

The Lilith Blog

March 31, 2020 by

A Memoirist on Making Tragedy Meaningful

When Eilene Zimmerman’s teen-aged children told her about their father—and her ex’s—increasingly erratic behavior, she made a spontaneous trip to his house to find out what was going on. Once inside, she found him dead and even more shocking, learned he’d been a serious drug addict.
 
She talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her new memoir, Smacked: A Story of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy (Random House) and what compelled her to write it. 

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January 16, 2020 by

Beauty Parlor Seder

Beauty Parlor Seder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A swirl of aromas fills my nose the minute I start climbing the rickety spiral staircase: oniony chicken paprikash, dill-infused matzo ball soup, and vinegary cucumber salad propel me up to the second-floor landing of the Brooklyn tenement, where I also detect the distinct perfume of hairspray.

It is 1963, I am five years old, and my mother and I have just arrived at the apartment of her beloved Hungarian aunt and uncle, Margaret and El, who I know as Mutzah néni (‘nay-knee’) and Uncle El. A beautician, Mutzah operates a full-service beauty parlor in her highceilinged living room. We come here almost every week to visit, and so she can do Mom’s hair and give me a manicure.

Today is different.

In the middle of the hulking, black hair-washing sinks, swivel chairs, and hair dryers that encircle the room is a long dining table exquisitely set with a lace cloth, bone china, and crystal goblets.

It is the first night of Passover, and we are here for Seder.

It is as unconventional as a Seder setting can be. But then, there is nothing conventional about the way my mother and I are Jewish.

By blood we are Jewish. Religiously we aren’t and culturally, barely. We don’t belong to a synagogue, have mezuzot inside our doorframes, or kosher dishes in our kitchen. We serve dairy with meat, eat deep-fried scallops on Friday nights, bacon on Sunday mornings, and Wonder Bread French toast throughout Passover. During the High Holy Days, when even fair-weather Jews spend a few hours in synagogue, my mother makes a halfhearted attempt at tradition; she cooks lavishly, lights candles, prays, lets me wear my Star of David, and still makes me go to school. We light the menorah on all eight nights of Chanukah, while a few days before Christmas we go to Alexander’s department store so I can visit Santa. I receive no Chanukah presents but on Christmas morning I find one under a “tree” that my brother makes out of newspaper.

These mixed-up rituals confuse me. But what confuses me most is the disconnect between my image of what being Jewish means and my reality as the daughter of a single, alcoholic, and emotionally erratic mother whose gradual unraveling lands us on welfare. My life, especially as I get older, looks nothing like that of the Jewish kids I know. It defies every stereotypical notion I associate with being Jewish: having an intact family, material wealth, Jewish learning, and becoming a Bat Mitzvah. In my friends’ homes, Friday night dinner welcomes Shabbat but in mine it is like any other, with the clink of ice in my mother’s cocktail breaking the silence. Alienated and ashamed, I conclude that being Jewish is everything I am not.

Especially at Passover.

All I know about this holiday is that it’s the one day a year when I must sit quietly at dinnertime—before eating—while my great Uncle El, a white-haired pipecleaner of a man with a phlegmy voice, recites the entire Haggadah in Hebrew.

Like the rest of my mother’s Hungarian-born family, Uncle El emigrated with Mutzah to Brooklyn in the early 1920s to escape Jewish persecution. A religious man, he attends shul twice a day, on his way to and from his small tailor shop. Typically gentle and softspoken, Uncle El turns tyrannical during Seder, permitting no questions or discussion, and aiming his punishing glare at anyone who dares to utter the slightest sound, yawn, cough, or shift in a chair. That is usually me.

The only child at a table with a bunch of elderly Hungarian relatives, I am hungry and bored. As Uncle El begins the service, I lean back to see if I can reach the neck-rest in the hair-washing sink, inviting his evil eye and a swat from my mother. “When do we get to EAT?” I whisper to Mom. Uncle El, glowering, clears his throat. Like a medic administering first aid, my mother springs into action. She grabs the Manischewitz wine, pours some into my glass, and then pumps in seltzer from a glass bottle. It’s impossible to soundlessly pump seltzer but Mom moves fast while Uncle El scowls and waits. I down the spritzer like lemonade and Mom, a Scotch drinker who has no interest in sweet grape wine, quickly mixes me another, intent on shushing me, even if it means boozing me up. It works. The cocktails still my hunger pangs and mellow me. Uncle El resumes reading, his voice fading gently into the background as I float far away from the Seder table and begin a slow visual tour of the beauty parlor.

I know this room by heart but never tire of exploring its haircutting stations, each with its own large round wall mirror, collection of hairsprays and styling gels, and set of brushes and combs soaking in tall, cylindrical jars filled with aquamarine-colored liquid. “Baruch Atah Adonai…” El drones, as I admire the creamy-skinned women smiling down from the posters on the walls, and long for a classy up-do or beehive to replace my dopey pixie haircut. “Elohenu melach haolam…” El mumbles, as I zoom in on the manicure table and its multicolored pyramid of tiny nail polish bottles, arranged in graduating shades, the palest whites at the bottom, and the spiciest reds on top. “Vat color do you vant?” Mutzah asks at the beginning of every manicure, as she plunges my fingers into a small dish of warm soapy water to soften my cuticles before gouging them with one of her sharp instruments. She attacks my nails like dirty potatoes, scrubbing them furiously with a stiff-bristled brush, bringing tears to my eyes. “Oy-yoy-YOY, so DIRTY!” she scoffs. Then, with tiny sharp scissors she cuts my nails short, demolishing my dream of having long, tapered fingernails like the women in the posters. Alas, by the time she finishes, my fingers look like pudgy stumps and my hands, drying on a small white hand towel, like fat meat patties.

The only thing buoying my spirits is the hope of choosing my color. I always point excitedly to the single reddest bottle atop the pyramid, only to hear, “Oy-yoy-YOY, too grown UP!” as Mutzah automatically grabs “Pink Cloud,” a color that is barely visible after two coats. I don’t let myself cry because I’m afraid of irritating her. The fact is I’m afraid of Mutzah just like I’m afraid of El. My mother insists they adore me but I detect no love in their stern demeanors. Even when Mutzah cuts my hair, insisting that a pixie, like cod liver oil, is good for me, she seems angry, using a hand-razor instead of scissors to shave off my curls, as if impatiently peeling a carrot.

I am too young to understand the cause of what feels like Mutzah’s perpetual annoyance. Only when I am older will I learn about her anguish over fleeing Hungary and, later, seeing my mother, whom she cherishes, depressed and impoverished, struggling to raise me alone. The bond between them is tight. Mutzah is Mom’s favorite aunt, her father’s older sister. She took Mom under her wing after my grandfather divorced my grandmother for having an affair. Mom was 16 at the time.

The divorce devastated Mom. It was one of many losses that she blamed for shattering her faith in Judaism and God. She also blamed the slaughter of her extended family in the Holocaust, the death of her first husband that left her to singlehandedly raise my two half-brothers, and her brief and violent marriage to her second husband, my father. It was after her first husband’s death that she began to drink.

I don’t remember how old I was when I began making the connection between the caramel-colored beverage Mom drank and her disintegrating mood. I don’t recall the first time I realized that her breath, which usually smelled of coffee and cigarettes, began smelling like something else in the late, and sometimes early, afternoon. I don’t know when I discovered that just beneath the breakfront drawer, where she stowed a thick bar of Hershey’s chocolate, were several bottles of liquor, some light brown, some clear. I don’t remember when I began noticing how she struggled to wake up in the morning.

I do remember, from the time I was very young, thinking about God and wanting to know if she believed in Him. And I remember how her answers changed depending on what she was sipping.

“I believe God is in my heart,” she would say, sitting with a cup of coffee. “I used to believe in God,” she’d say when nursing a Scotch. “But what kind of God lets a Holocaust happen? Or lets a man in the prime of his life die, leaving a wife and two little boys?” I also remember that as soon as the High Holy Days ended she insisted on putting away my Star of David. “It’s not necessary to advertise that you’re Jewish,” she would say.

If this admonition to hide my Jewishness made me feel afraid to be Jewish, Mom’s drinking, depression, and inability to work as I got older made me feel ineligible. Even if she could have afforded to send me to Hebrew school, I doubt she would have done it, given her deep disappointment in God.

Whether Mutzah or Uncle El knew any of this I don’t know. What Mutzah did know was how hard my mother struggled to make ends meet. Unlike my grandmother, with whom Mom always fought, Mutzah was Mom’s closest friend and confidant. They spoke on the phone several times a week, always in Hungarian, probably to prevent me from eavesdropping. And, they talked nonstop during our weekly, daylong Saturday visits, with Mutzah feeding us multi-course lunches in between coloring, cutting, setting, and combing out Mom’s hair. Mom didn’t need to have her hair done every week, but the free beauty treatments, manicures, and meals were Mutzah’s ways of caring for us.

So were the Seders. Although they didn’t signify to Mom or me what they did to Mutzah and Uncle El, they placed her among people who loved her dearly, which she sorely needed.

As for me, I continued to dread Passover for many years because it rekindled not only painful childhood memories but also my shame over how Jewish I wasn’t. It would take my mother’s death, my own marriage, and motherhood for me to celebrate this holiday, and the way of being Jewish that I would eventually find.

Andrea Kott’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and other publications. This essay is from her forthcoming memoir, Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope (Blydyn Square Books).

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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.

1953: 

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….”

1973: 

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.

1994:

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.

2000s:

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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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