April 6, 2000
Mourning an Alcoholic Father
According to myth, Jews don't drink. This is false.
According to the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. This is true. Otherwise, why would my father choose to move in 1991 to Portland, Oregon, to live alone with his Dalmatian and begin drinking after 18 years of sobriety?
Yes, my father chose booze over me. Even more distressing, he chose booze over my four sons, whom he barely knew.
And on Feb. 6 of this year, alcohol killed my father, at 78.
"Dad died," my sister informed me by telephone.
"How?" I asked.
But I already knew. I knew with the specially tuned antennae of a child who has grown up with an alcoholic -- always watching for that slurred word or that lock of hair curled on the forehead that presaged an evening of hateful insults and humiliation, an evening that could escalate into ear-piercing screaming, an evening that invariably ended in tears, in wishing life were different, in a legacy of lifelong shame.
I knew with the certainty that alcoholism is a progressive disease that inevitably leads to insanity or death. Or "multi-organ failure," as the doctor euphemistically said.
And so, on Feb. 6, I began officially mourning for a man for whom I had been grieving a good part of my life.
I mourned for a man with the soul of a poet. A man full of charm and curiosity and humor, who appreciated life's intricacies and oddities. Who loved writers Albert Camus and Bernard Malamud. And poets Maya Angelou, Constantine Cavafy and Karl Shapiro. Who composed his own poems. Who once dreamed of becoming an English professor.
I mourned for a man with the heart of an idealist. An idealist whose nearsightedness would have disqualified him from joining the United States Army during World War II. Instead, in 1942, at age 20, he stole and memorized an eye chart, ensuring induction. He was stationed in the Far East where, as a radio operator, he flew an incredible 105 missions over the Himalayas, between India and China. He returned home a decorated war hero, a "golden boy," my mother said.
This same idealist moved our entire family from Davenport, Iowa, to Israel in 1962. Just as the Zionists dreamed of building a successful and solid Jewish state, so my father dreamed of providing his family with a life chock-full of substance and adventure.
And I mourned for a man who was disconnected from his family, his religion and himself. Who lived in secrecy and sarcasm. Who drank himself to death.
The writer Sylvia Fraser said, "All of us are born into the second act of a tragedy-in-progress. We then spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what went wrong in the first act."
I know the external facts of my father's childhood, but will never know the internal dynamics and personal pain.
And I'll never know whether alcoholism was the cause or the result of my father's troubles.
I do know that the Shechina, God's very presence, went out of my father as clearly as if departed from the Temple in Jerusalem when it was destroyed in 70 C.E.
The Talmud says, "As long as a person breathes, that person should not lose hope."
I believe my father lost hope a long time ago.
But in spite of the fact that my father and I had a strained and sometimes estranged relationship, I never gave up hope that he might change. I'd seen it happen before, in 1974, when he quit drinking and worked a strong Alcoholics Anonymous program. For over two years, he was an affectionate father and comforting confidante. But he moved away from his AA group and lived a white-knuckled sobriety, as a dry alcoholic, until his cravings consumed him -- and compelled him to resume drinking.
Underneath my father's iconoclastic and often cavalier facade, however, I remembered a patient and loving man who taught me how to ice skate and throw a softball. A man who was my adored companion at the annual Girl Scout Dad-Daughter Date Night. A generous man who wholeheartedly believed that you would never go broke taking someone out to dinner -- or sending his daughter to summer camp or college.
Alcoholism is a disease of denial, a characteristic especially prevalent in the Jewish community, where we hide our shandas, our embarrassing family secrets, from friends, neighbors and even our own relatives. This is perhaps why people say there are no Jewish alcoholics.
But according to Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, who runs a program for Jews in recovery in the Los Angeles area, 10 percent of all Jews have an alcohol or drug problem. This is the same percentage as in the general population. And alcoholic Jews run the gamut -- from ultra-Orthodox to self-hating and secular.
Alcoholics, according to the founders and sober members of AA, are powerless over their disease. That's why, in Step Three of this 12-step program, they make a decision to turn their life and their will over to the care of God.
As the daughter of an alcoholic, I was also powerless. I could no more make my father stop drinking than I could make the Messiah materialize.
My father once wrote:
Guilt and the
Future is fear
"Now" is all I have
But in the "now"
To dwell is
My father has been released from his pain -- and I from my hope.
At the memorial service a week after my father's death, lead by Cantor Jay Frailich of University Synagogue, I performed keriah, the symbolic ripping of my clothing. And I recited the words, "Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the True Judge."
Jane Ulman writes a bimonthly column for The Jewish Journal. She lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.