I myself have seen suffering and tragedy result from alcohol excess in celebration of Purim. I urge all who read this message to avoid such excesses, and to strive for a Purim of reverence and joyous spirituality. Have a happy Purim, and a “kosher” one as well.
I must report that when I first circulated the above statement I received at least twice as many criticisms as expressions of support. The critics felt I was either exaggerating the situation greatly or minimizing the importance of the injunction to drink on Purim.
Now, a decade later, denial of the severity of the problem of drunkenness on Purim, and of alcohol consumption all year, has diminished. More and more people, professional and laymen alike, have become concerned with the problem and are attempting to address it.
Most gratifying is that for some years now prestigious roshei yeshiva and rabbanim have lent their signatures to proclamations warning against excessive drinking on Purim day.
However, the problem has far from disappeared. Purim is still a day when youngsters imbibe alcohol, often given to them illegally by adults. It is still a day when we can witness disgraceful, nay decadent, behavior in the immediate environs of schools and shuls. And it is still a day when ambulances speed to emergency rooms with cargos of young adolescents in the throes of toxic reactions to alcohol.
Now you know why I have come to dread Purim.
But Purim is just one day out of the year. As the Yiddish folk song has it, “Heint iz Purim, morgen iz oys” – “Today is Purim, tomorrow it’s gone.” The merriment and laxity of Purim are indeed confined to that one day. But what about the rest of the year?
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To give the reader a feel for the nature of the problem before us I must provide some factual background.
I begin with the assertion that there is convincing evidence that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are on the increase in Orthodox Jewish society. Psychologists and social workers who practice in the frum community can testify as to the prevalence of this phenomenon. Sadly, so can police officers, judges, and the offices of district attorneys throughout the metropolitan New York area.
The dangers and consequences of alcohol are many. Domestic violence, also on the rise in the frum community, is often associated with alcohol abuse. Scientific studies have shown that alcohol is implicated in most incidents of domestic violence. Welfare workers know that child abuse and neglect are closely associated with excessive alcohol consumption by parents. Alcohol use is one of the primary factors causing deterioration of academic performance and behavioral difficulties in school.
What is also of great concern is the established fact that alcohol is a gateway substance and often leads to experimentation with illegal, and even more dangerous, substances. Young people who experiment with alcohol are much more likely to move on to marijuana, cocaine, and other harmful drugs.
That alcohol consumption is a primary factor in automobile accidents is common knowledge. What is less known are the findings of organizations such as the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, whose workshops I have attended, that a large number of diseases and conditions are at least partially attributable to alcohol abuse. They include breast cancer, cardiomyopathy, cirrhosis, dementia, duodenal ulcers, hypertension, liver cancer, and seizure conditions.
School counselors familiar with patterns of alcohol abuse among their students have noticed two interesting phenomena. Number one, kids are beginning to experiment with alcohol at earlier and earlier ages. A clinical social worker, who works as a consultant for several Orthodox Jewish day schools, recently described to me the work she is doing with fifth graders who have been experimenting heavily with the liquor that is so easily accessible in their homes.
Number two, whereas smoking, drinking, and the use of illegal drugs was in the past much more prevalent among boys than among girls, that long ago ceased being the case in general society and has now changed in the Orthodox Jewish world as well. As in so many other facets of life, the gender gap has slammed shut when it comes to alcohol consumption. What is worse news – but news well worth knowing – is that girls and women get hooked faster and suffer harsher consequences sooner than do boys.
The description of some of the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption that I have just outlined, in a very abbreviated fashion, is meant to dispel the complacency of our community when it comes to the matter of controlling the availability of alcohol. For what one finds shocking as one begins to become familiar with the problem is the extent to which alcohol is so freely available in our synagogues and has become such an important element of our religious observances.