Addicted to Aggadah

How Drug Tales From the Edge Enliven Our Community

Taking Chaos to Heart: Unlike alcohol abuse, stories of turmoil strengthen the communal body.
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Taking Chaos to Heart: Unlike alcohol abuse, stories of turmoil strengthen the communal body.

By Stephen Hazan Arnoff

Published February 20, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
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Drunken Angel
By Alan Kaufman
Viva Editions, 464 pages, $25

Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood
By Peter Bebergal
Soft Skull Press, 232 pages, $15.95

Jewish culture has always sought a balance between texts of the halachic, or legal realm, and those of the Aggadah, or narrative. Not only does the Aggadah explain the larger purpose of law, but it also documents private moments that define religious meaning in the spaces within and beyond the law. From the laconic agony of Isaac to early modern stories of magical Hasidic masters and beyond, a vibrant world of stories describing individual quests for meaning provides the blood that flows through the Jewish communal body.

Fiction, film, music — and the arts as a whole — manifest an important part of such circulation of real-life experience and desire through Jewish forms today, and this is where recent books like Alan Kaufman’s “Drunken Angel” and Peter Bebergal’s “Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood” come in, and why their stories are important.

Kaufman and Bebergal share early and all-but-deadly addictions to drugs and alcohol — elixirs that help them dull the psychic pain generated by their sensitivities to the world and act as stimulants for bodies hungry to test many boundaries. For many of the same reasons, both men are artists. As they recover from deep and dark addictions, Bebergal and Kaufman find creative voices to carry their sensitivity and hunger while hanging soberly on to the world.

Kaufman, son of a French Holocaust survivor, came of age in the Bronx in the 1960s and ’70s. Literature shaped his imagination and provided respite from haunted, abusive parents and his own constant churn of anxiety and anger. Starting from his teenage years, Kaufman — who also wrote the books “Matches” and “Jewboy” — describes wild and dangerous binge drinking as powerfully as masters of the genre, like Charles Bukowski and Frederick Exley. Even as he inhabits the literary and artistic circles of New York and Jerusalem and serves in the Israel Defense Forces, his life drowns in years of blackouts, fights, money roundabouts, trampled relationships and a battery of blows to an increasingly bruised body. The first half of the book, documenting this journey, is unsparing and left me both thirsty for more and physically nauseated.

Bebergal — a Boston-based writer who previously co-wrote “The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God” with Scott Korb — came of age in the 1980s, the child of a Jewish family already ensconced in the suburbs. Essentially a generation later than Kaufman, his obsessions and medicines reflect his era. Dungeons & Dragons merges with comic books, punk and psychedelic music to transform Bebergal from a geeky teen experimenting with a fantasy world in his parents’ basement into a street urchin, copping drugs on Boston Common. Bebergal’s taste for mysticism is fed in particular by abuse of psychedelic drugs. Frequent dabbles in everything from the occult and tarot to New Age-infused Kabbalah leave him in a constant state of spiritual agitation. It is a descent into drugs and magic as dizzying as Kaufman’s journey into alcoholism.


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