Alcohol and the Jews: A Cultural Study of Drinking and Sobriety.
by Charles R. Snyder.
Free Press and the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. 226 pp. $5.00.
The Yale Center of Alcohol Studies has been interested for a number of years in the remarkable differences in the rates of alcoholism among various ethnic groups in America. Thus, Jews show very low rates for all the disorders and pathologies associated with alcohol: arrests for drunkenness, alcoholism, alcoholic psychoses, deaths from illnesses associated with heavy drinking, and the like. The Italians also show relatively low rates, while the Irish have perhaps the highest. These differences are being investigated in order to gain insight into the generally high level of alcoholic disorder in this country. Alcohol and the Jews is the first volume to be published; a book on the drinking habits of Italians in America is to appear shortly.
Many curious facts are involved in the relative immunity of Jews to alcoholism. To begin with, it turns out that there are proportionately fewer abstainers among American Jews than in any other religious group. Thus a remarkably wide experience of drinking, which also begins at a much earlier age owing to the wide ritual use of wine, tends to be associated with a very low rate of alcoholism. A variety of theories have in the past attempted to explain this phenomenon. It has been proposed that Jews (like ministers and women, said Kant) are in a peculiarly exposed position, and can’t afford to lower their guard by getting drunk, Others have argued that Jews are an unusually cohesive group, with strong community and social controls, and have pointed out that such groups generally have a low rate of individual pathologies—less suicide, less mental disorder, less alcoholism. (This argument seems to break down in the face of the fact that the Jewish rate for suicide has been far greater than the Protestant or Catholic since the end of the 19th century; it is also doubtful that Jews still have lower rates of mental disorder, or, for that matter, greater cohesion.)
Another theory holds that Jews place a great emphasis on food and eating (as do the Chinese—who also have low rates for alcoholism) and indeed tend to suffer more from obesity, which may be their form of neurotic release. But as against this theory it can be said that obesity among Jews is nowhere a problem of the same magnitude as alcoholism among the Irish or indeed Americans generally.
The sociologists of the Yale Institute—and Mr. Snyder is one of them—have taken a somewhat different approach from the ones outlined above. First of all, they have concentrated on the “ritual” aspect of Jewish drinking. Not only do Jews first come into contact with alcohol in a context of religious ritual, but even their “secular” drinking is ritualized: the glass before dinner, the toasts at a wedding, and so on. By contrast, other people drink for effect—the actual impact of liquor—and not because it’s “the thing to do at this point.” Another sociologist calls Jewish drinking “instrumental” rather than “affective.” By this he means that alcohol for the Jews serves as an instrument for observing certain social proprieties (it is interesting how many Jewish boys in Orthodox homes don’t like the taste of wine and whiskey, which they are on the proper occasions freely offered). Again, whiskey is not taken to change one’s psychic state, for the kick.
The notion of the instrumental use of alcohol in the Jewish group may be extended. Many of the interviews in this book (there are about seventy-five with New Haven Jewish men) indicate that a Jew will drink for “business reasons.” Because of the way business is conducted in America, these men will feel that they should take a drink, but not in order to experience the physiological effects of alcohol.
This seems to me a reasonable approach, and is supported by a good deal of data. Thus, it it is interesting to note that according to a national survey of college students, those groups which have the highest proportion of abstainers (the Mormons and the strict Protestant denominations) also have the highest proportion of drunkards. Mr. Snyder’s explanation is in line with that given above: since these are abstaining groups, the students never learned any rules in connection with drinking. For them, it is either abstaining or going to the devil.
But if the ritual context of Jewish drinking is so important in teaching habits of sobriety, what will be the effect of the steady decline in the number of the Orthodox, and, among them, of the detailed observance of Jewish law? Will not alcohol become dissociated from the context of ritual, norm, rule, control, and be used more and more (as indeed it is in American culture generally) as a means of inducing certain emotional states, and will not Jews begin to show the same rates of alcoholic disorder as non-Jews? As a matter of fact, in the student population, Reform Jews and secularized Jews get drunk as often as Irish Catholics and Protestants of British descent. However, there is no necessary direct relationship between these student figures and the end sum of alcoholic pathology. Perhaps the Jewish students are adapting to the student milieu, just as their fathers adapt to the business world, just as their elder brothers adapted to the army. If so, their drinking is still “instrumental” rather than “affective.”
Mr. Snyder seems of the opinion that the non-religious social patterns (probably derived ultimately from the religious ones) which limit drinking in the Jewish group are still operative, and will continue for some time to prevent the Jewish rates for alcoholism from approaching the general American rate.