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How I Learned to Make Judaism and My Sobriety Work

A gold Star of David hanging from a tree branchPhoto credit: David Holifield via Unsplash

I got sober in 2017, at the age of 21. The year before, I moved to Israel and decided to pursue an Observant Jewish lifestyle, which involves things like modesty laws and following the guidelines for keeping Kosher. When I decided to get sober, I hadn’t considered all of the traditions and holidays in Judaism that involve drinking—a lot of drinking. As I started to attend recovery meetings, I realized that these occasions were stressful for those of us who were both Jewish and in recovery. 

Several of us who had similar backgrounds and celebrated the same holidays felt anxiety come up around these celebrations. A few of us who had been in recovery for a while decided to convene with friends and family who were understanding and willing to create safe spaces. Still, coming to terms with celebrating these holidays sober was difficult in the beginning, and for newly sober people, it can be hard to wrap your head around. 

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But what about Kiddush?

So many newly sober practicing Jewish people have asked me this question. Kiddush is the practice of sanctifying a day with wine. It can be done with another type of alcohol, or even grape juice, but the traditional way to do so is with wine. In observant circles, this takes place twice a week, once on Friday night and again on Saturday morning. If there are more holidays, then this act of sanctification might happen several times a week. Kiddush is a weekly ceremony with much significance in the Jewish community. It is how we start our Shabbat meals and how we make a day holy. 

When I first got sober, I found the celebration of Kiddush extremely awkward and anxiety-provoking. I worried about what I’d do if my hosts saw that I wasn’t drinking wine. I lamented over whether or not I should ask for grape juice. And this was just Kiddush, never mind the meals, which always included alcohol. During these feasts, I always felt on edge with my sobriety. My brain would try to rationalize drinking because it had a religious purpose, even though I knew drinking wasn’t best for me. 

When I think about my relationship with alcohol, I don’t see it having any other function in my life outside of disconnecting me from myself. It didn’t help my relationships with other people or raise anything in my life up to a level of holiness.

How Staying Silent Affected Me

This took up so much brain space that I often couldn’t focus on anything else during the rest of the meal. I desperately wanted to fit in with those around me and also felt like, being so young, most people wouldn’t take my need for sobriety seriously. So, I constantly swallowed that piece of myself and allowed it to sink to the bottom while I pretended to drink what was handed to me. 

Eventually, though, all of those little swallows of my truth started to eat away at me and my recovery. I felt on edge and anxious and wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to maintain my sobriety while also feeling like I was living a lie. Trying so hard to fit in was pushing me toward either drinking or leaving the community that I cared so deeply for. I truly felt, for a long time, that I couldn’t be sober and live a religious life. 

I knew I needed to decide what I was going to do. I could let sobriety bring me closer to the values I wanted to live my life by and the people I wanted to live it with or I could allow it to isolate me just as my addiction had done, to begin with.

Bringing My Sobriety and Religious Life Together

I started talking about it. I asked for grape juice at meals where I knew the hosts. I would pass my Kiddush cup to my friend to drink it so it wasn’t sitting in front of me. When people offered me alcohol, I told them I didn’t drink. If we were close, I told them why I didn’t drink. I allowed my sober life and my religious life to become one. 

Slowly, other people started opening up to me about their drinking problems. They talked about the fact that they didn’t drink or wished that they could stop drinking. They told me about how hard it is when you’re part of a culture and religion that doesn’t talk about those things. We spoke about how difficult it is to step forward and speak for your needs in a situation surrounding holiness and tradition.

I’ve learned to let my recovery bring me closer to my community and those in it. I’ve learned that standing up for my sobriety allows me to really show up and enjoy holidays and celebrations. I’ve found that often the best way to deal with these situations is to just be open and honest. 

Setting Boundaries for Myself to Protect My Sobriety

Being sober is a choice. Being religious is also a choice, and I have found that they can exist together. It’s not always easy but it is definitely worth it. Even if that means that I bring my own grape juice or mocktail to a Passover seder. Protecting my sobriety comes first, and sometimes that means knowing my limitations in these situations.

I’ve also left several Purim meals to take a breath and call a friend. I’ve walked three miles to go to a recovery meeting on Shabbat and even if that wasn’t how I envisioned my religious or sober life, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Now, my community shows up for me, too. Last year, one of my friends had a birthday party and went out of her way to make a non-alcoholic drink so I could feel included. When I went home for my birthday this year, my friends bought me a bottle of sparkling grape juice to have while they had mimosas. 

I was so scared to speak about my addiction and sobriety because I didn’t want to lose the people in my life. But in reality, they showed up and constantly reminded me that I’m not alone. They showed me that just like addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum, neither does recovery.

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I truly believe that talking about these things is how we can best find recovery and community, especially within the Jewish tradition. If we can turn up the volume on these conversations then we can allow for more healing to take place. We can allow for more connection and conversation and healthier relationships. We can create a safe spiritual space for people to join. I promise you can be sober and still have Kiddush.

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