Tag : Addiction

October 23, 2020 by

Stopping Judgment in Its Tracks

“Addiction followed by redemption” is the familiar trope that implies wrongdoing, even sinfulness, on the part of a person who has used and “abused” what are referred to as “substances.”

Part of my job as a harm-reduction therapist is to help people sort out the shame, guilt, self-punitive impulse and desire for redemption engendered by a culture that sees substance use as moral failure and a society that judges it a crime. In 2016, I was a social work student interested in youth who were aging out of foster care, and slightly disappointed that my first year’s field placement was with a homeless mobile outreach team. I considered homelessness a policy issue beyond the realm of a street outreach crew, and I believed our food and clothing distribution, referrals to services and crisis deescalation work were nowhere near even a bandaid-level treatment for a national wound that requires policy change—not free soup—to heal. But this was during the third wave of the American opioid crisis, when overdose deaths were increasing dramatically thanks to the illicitly manufactured synthetic opioid fentanyl, far more potent than heroin and added to a variety of drugs to decrease production costs and increase profits.

Conducting assessment after assessment with people who did not have housing and who reported long histories of drug use, I realized quickly that there had been a bit of a chicken-and-egg confusion even in the minds of self-identified progressives: for the vast majority of the people I worked with, substance use didn’t cause loss of housing, substances were used because of loss of housing. Substance use didn’t cause trauma, substances were used because of trauma. Substance use didn’t cause economic hardship, substances were used to survive economic hardship. Substance use didn’t cause mental illness, substances were used to manage mental illness. This is not to diminish the real and tragic risks and harms that are involved in drug use, especially in a policy atmosphere of punitive prohibition. But for so many people, drug use is (or at least starts as) functional and helpful. Far too often, though, the laws, policies, practices, beliefs and attitudes that affect the lives of people who use drugs are neither functional nor helpful.

It’s now several years later, and I work in a sunny Brooklyn office with people who are struggling with their substance use and who haven’t found traditional, abstinence-based treatment effective. Many have found such treatment harmful and will not subject themselves to further judgment, shaming and dismissal. After Hours Project is a multi-service agency in Brooklyn that provides, among other things, access to sterile syringes and other materials for safer injection, medication-assisted treatment for opioid use, and mental health services (that’s me!). My office walls are covered in informational posters in Spanish about Hepatitis C, postcards from the LGBT Center welcoming the queer and trans communities, the 2020 HIV Drug Chart and stickers from the Canadian community-based health organization Street Health that affirm: “Drug users deserve safety and support.” A few steps away are stairs that lead to the syringe exchange, where my colleagues give out injection materials and naloxone, the overdose reversal medication. In adjacent offices are HIV case managers and housing specialists. Here we work towards abstinence from substance use, but also towards reduced substance use, better-managed substance use, safer substance use, and sometimes we work only on other areas of life—because people can improve their emotional wellness and work towards their goals without changing anything about their drug use.

I’m happy when the people I work with achieve their goals, but I’m most deeply fulfilled when they achieve redemption not through the renunciation of their “sin” but through the realization that their reasons for using substances are real, important and legitimate…and when they realize that much of their suffering is not because they made a “wrong choice,” but because the world around them has fumbled its response to this choice.

Essentially, this is what harm reduction offers service providers, policy makers, and the public: redemption from the sin of oppressing people who use drugs. Imagine this, for example:

You head over to your local hospital’s inpatient detoxification unit to withdraw from heroin under medical supervision. In detox, you will get medications to safely manage the symptoms of withdrawal that accompany sudden abstinence from heroin use. You’ve left your kids with your mother. You feel slightly guilty about this, but you’ve been increasingly worried about your health, the possibility of overdose, your financial stability, and the legal risks of your drug use. This is your third time in this unit over the last six months—you go whenever your insurance will cover it—and the hospital staff therapists, previously warm and accessible, now don’t approach you to do their phony “assessment” until the day of your discharge.

You overheard a doctor dismissively call you a “frequent flier.” Nobody is talking to you about long-term treatment options anymore. You feel kind of written off. In group, a counselor tells a story about her own recovery: from the “mistake” of drug use to the redemption of “better choices.” “Clean” and “dirty” urines. Substance “abuse.” Substance “misuse.” “Addicts.” You understand yourself to have done something wrong, and you feel bad about it. You are aware of what people think about others who use drugs, and it affects how you understanding yourself. You are urged to avoid “people, places and things” that trigger cravings.

Yeah, sure, you think. I will definitely avoid my closest friends, my neighborhood, the stress that is a part of my daily life, and my romantic partner. You’re taught how to prevent relapse. You know that relapse is a very shameful thing. It’s failure. You’re also told that you have a disease. This is slightly comforting, because it means you’re not entirely to blame, but it’s also disheartening. Also, this idea that your disease means that you can never use a substance again doesn’t ring true. After all, you know people who in the past had a serious problem and now drink, smoke weed, and do some cocaine once in a while. They seem perfectly fine.

A few days later, you don’t feel much more prepared to leave the hospital this time than you did last time. If you’re being honest with yourself. This whole thing has been hard. You don’t feel like you were treated nicely. Plus none of this stuff—the groups, the counseling, the peer support— has been helpful. When you meet with the therapist to do your assessment, you don’t share that you’re dying to get out of here and use again. You don’t want her to judge you, coax you into saying things you don’t mean, or get a desperate, panicky look in her eyes.

You leave the hospital. There’s fentanyl— far stronger than heroin—in the area and it’s caused a few overdoses. It might be in your bag today. You prepared so well for detox, getting rid of all of your injection materials because they are definitely triggers, and now you don’t have a needle. You may have to use someone else’s. You have to really work to find a vein because most of yours are shot. You don’t want anyone to know that you’re doing this just hours after getting discharged from detox, so you’re outside and alone. You could get arrested. You could die out here. Nobody knows you’re here.

This is what happens in traditional, abstinence-based substance use treatment: a puritanical model of substance use reinforces shame, drug use is presumed to be a purely poor choice with only negative outcomes, recovery has a singular meaning of total and permanent abstinence, and people who are not interested in or able to achieve immediate abstinence from substance become neglected—leaving them at risk of overdose, transmission of viral infections, increasingly chaotic use of substances, and other harms. If somebody continues to use drugs, the rhetoric is: “They haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Wait until they do.”

Enter harm reduction. Part social justice movement for the rights and dignity of people who use drugs, part a philosophy- of-life to human problems, and part a set of highly pragmatic and specific evidence-based public health practices, the best-known of which is syringe exchange. It also includes safe injection sites and widespread use of naloxone.

Harm reduction rejects a moral judgment of substance use in favor of a compassionate and functional understanding: People do things for good reasons, even excellent reasons. Sometimes I remind myself of this mantra: All people do all things for excellent reasons. Use drugs for excellent reasons. Have unprotected sex for excellent reasons. Even harm themselves. My rule of thumb is, the more difficult to see the reasons, the better they are. When someone is harming others—when people deplete their partners’ savings, when parents neglect their children (women often bear the brunt of this judgment), when a manual laborer risks the lives of coworkers by being intoxicated at work—making judgments can cloud my understanding. I keep in mind that it doesn’t take a great reason for someone to be 10 minutes late for work or to steal a pack of gum. But if somebody is doing things that are very hard to live with, that hurt the people that they care about most and that lead to chronic guilt and regret, then their reasons must be extraordinarily important.

Harm reduction is curious about these reasons and is interested in respecting people’s self-determination by creating opportunities to reduce risks and harms even if the person is not interested in stopping right now—or ever. The harm reduction pioneer responsible for bringing overdose-reversal medication naloxone to the streets, Dan Bigg, coined the phrase “Any Positive Change” to express harm reduction’s goal.

In practice, and when dealing with clients, this means breaking things down as follows: You didn’t get arrested because you use drugs, you got arrested because drug use is illegal here, which is an injustice. You didn’t lie to your employer because “drug users lie and manipulate,” you lied to your employer because drug use is stigmatized and you don’t want to bear the brunt of this stigma—and you don’t want to be penalized for anything when you’re excellent at your job. Harm reduction says that people who use drugs, like all other people, can be—and routinely are—excellent parents, workers, leaders, friends, and members of society.

In the imaginary situation above, a harm reduction approach would have looked like this:

A staff therapist notices that you have been cycling in and out of detox and asks why. Over the course of your conversation, you’re able for the first time to verbalize what has made this so hard for you: heroin actually helps you out a lot. The staff therapist doesn’t try to convince you that this is a distortion; instead, she validates your reasons for using. She also points out to you how motivated you really are: you’ve come to detox three times in six months! Someone who is not serious about making changes doesn’t do stuff like this. You and she try to strategize around each thing that heroin makes easier, looking for other options. She offers some biomedical options, including methadone and suboxone treatment.

In group, you learn about how “recovery” means different things for different people. You realize that for you, right at this moment, recovery might mean making positive changes that improve your health and your emotional wellbeing, and that decrease some of the financial harm and the legal risks you’ve been experiencing. You don’t know if you want abstinence right now. The group facilitator seems to respect this and seems weirdly enthusiastic about exploring how you might go about reducing your risk of arrest and decreasing the cost of your use.

You also learn about how normal and expected intermittent returns to drug use are. A counselor discusses responsible preparation for these returns to use and urges group members not to fear or deny cravings for drugs, because an impulsive, shame-filled return to use can be very risky. She says explicitly: “You do not deserve to die, contract an illness, get arrested, or feel bad about yourself just because you’re using a drug.” You learn how to prepare emotionally through compassionate self-understanding. You learn how to inject safely: how to rotate veins, how to position the syringe, what materials to use. You learn where in your city you can obtain new, sterile syringes. You learn about preventing and reversing overdose: Never use alone. Try not to mix drugs. Go slow, especially after a period of abstinence—like this one, in detox. You leave with naloxone. You know how to use it. You also have a referral to a local harm reduction organization. You’re even thinking you might start on suboxone. You feel pretty good. You have options. You are proud of yourself. You have done nothing wrong.

So, what do communal atonement and responsibility look like this new Jewish year, as the American opioid crisis persists, as the overdose death rate skyrockets during the Covid-19 pandemic, and as eviction and dislocation lead to public drug use in areas where it previously happened indoors?

Teshuva starts with acknowledgement that in practically all spaces—including in progressive and accepting communities, health care settings, and religious or spiritual centers—people who use drugs are seen as bad people who are deliberately doing harm to themselves and others. Next, we regret our misguided judgments and our collective role in policing, stigmatizing, neglecting and incarcerating people who use drugs. Finally, we make a plan to correct these wrongs in our lives. I started with the simplest affirmation that the lives of people who use drugs matter: getting naloxone, which I keep on me at all times. You could also start by initiating this conversation in your community. Or by learning more about the criminalization of drug use and its role in mass incarceration. Or by exploring with curiosity and openness the messages about drug use that you have internalized throughout your life. Or by learning to see public drug use in your neighborhood not as an aesthetic blight but as a public health crisis involving human beings who deserve privacy, safety, and your compassion.

Rebecca Halff is a social worker and a former Malka Fellow at Lilith.

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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.


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.


Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 3.17.58 PM

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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