Addiction is real for Amy Winehouse and for other Jews

Late in the morning of July 23, as I turned on my computer to check my email and lazily scroll through the  Saturday morning news, I caught my breath, mug of tea partway to my mouth.

Amid the unfolding horror in Norway, with U.S. budget talks at an impasse, that one headline shouldn’t have struck me so powerfully. And yet: Amy Winehouse, dead at 27. My age. A Jewish girl of my age exactly.

To say that the death of this undeniably talented, plainly self-destructive singer was unsurprising would be an understatement. My Facebook feed confirmed this, with friends’ sentiments ranging from deeply mournful to a few borderline-callous “Well who didn’t see THAT coming” type of comments.

No, I wasn’t surprised either. But I was deeply saddened — and, as I read the tributes and commentary that began piling up online, reflective: about what it meant, as a media consumer, to have watched her self-damage play out for so long on a public stage; about the correlation between artistic creativity and depression; and finally, about the party line on Jews and addiction.

I’ve always been interested in the folk wisdom that Jews simply “aren’t alcoholics.” There is evidence suggesting many Jews carry a gene mutation that makes drinking less pleasurable — i.e., cue the aspirin after that second glass of wine — and therefore we’re less likely to rely on alcohol over time.

On the other side is the “nurture”-based explanation: that being introduced to alcohol through small amounts of wine, as part of rituals on religious holidays, contributed to a healthy, moderate relationship with liquor in adulthood.

And then there’s the wisdom of Milton Berle: “Jews don’t drink much because it interferes with their suffering.”

All kidding aside, one thing has always stood out to me about these claims: Though perhaps at a lower rate than we see in other cultures, Jews can, and obviously do, develop life-threatening problems with drugs and alcohol.

To believe otherwise leads to an unwillingness to ask for help. Just like the social stigma that persists around mental illness, the “shame” of having a problem Jews aren’t supposed to have prevents many from seeking support and treatment, even when it’s readily available, according to Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others. Familiarly known as JACS, it is a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York.

Though there are a handful of similar groups scattered around the country, they are few and far between. One such entity, the Beit Simchah–Jewish Recovery Community, used to be run by an Orthodox rabbi in the Bay Area, but is now defunct.

The fact that Jews, especially religious Jews, might be unlikely to self-report a struggle with alcoholism only feeds the myth that it’s not a Jewish disease. Then there’s the reality that many of the most visible addiction disorder treatment groups in the U.S. use spiritual language in their materials. Though Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs have many different incarnations, their roots lie in Christianity.

In “Jewish Sisters in Sobriety,” a book of stories published by JACS in 2007, several women recount summoning the courage to walk into an A.A. meeting and then feeling alienated by being the only Jewish person there.

Amy Winehouse was, up until last weekend, probably most famous for a song about refusing to go to rehab. But she did go in for help, more than a few times. And even at her lowest, her self-image was far from what the public saw: In interviews, she spoke lovingly of her grandma, called herself “a nice Jewish girl” and in one, she even forecast that her future would include “taking care of her husband and seven kids.”

All of which is to say: Addiction is an insidious and very real thing. It happens to people from every background and upbringing, it has nothing to do with being nice, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we think we don’t have to talk about it because it’s “not a Jewish problem.”

At 27, it seems Amy had been battling her demons for more than a decade. Here’s hoping others will start speaking up about theirs before it’s too late.

Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]

Related article: Amy Winehouse funeral: music, beehives and Hebrew

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.