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.
wiki commons
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

As volatile — indeed addictive — as books about users spiraling to rock bottom can be, books about recovery often offer the opposite experience. Flattening language with recovery and self-help jargon while also cleaning up narrative ambiguity, authors writing about recovery cannot help but preach 12-step truth. This is the challenge of much of the second half of Kaufman’s book. While “Drunken Angel” manages to carry a difficult character with grace and sympathy to a satisfying resolution, the ending is nevertheless the weakest part of the book.

Bebergal takes a different and far more compelling track by weaving his personal story of falling apart and coming back together into a mix of expert music commentary, iconoclastic research on psychedelics and a variety of New Age pursuits. His reflection and analysis include interviews with mainstays on many elements within these topics — from Wavy Gravy and Dennis McKenna to Mark Tulin of the Electric Prunes, the band whose song “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” gives Bebergal’s book its title.

Much of Jewish public conversation concerns policies and numbers: in other words, the Halacha of Jewish life. We are concerned with affordability, training and investment required by Jewish institutions; who is engaged with Israel and why; determining which populations require the most support or enrichment. But communal systems cannot flourish where their only narratives are numbers and rules. For true vibrancy, communities require human stories — of suffering and triumph, conflict and euphoria, humor and love — to ensure that a community understands its own depth and complexity.

Kaufman and Bebergal offer specific and idiosyncratic understandings of how Judaism launched their respective descents and how it provided opportunities for spiritual balance when they were sober. Their brave and at times stunning accounts make visceral the volatility of people who fall through the cracks of the law. This makes for wonderful contemporary Aggadah.

The grand narrative of Jewish culture in North America — now layered with nostalgia and myth — was emigration from the Old Country followed by struggles and success. While other dominant Jewish narratives like the Holocaust and the State of Israel remain cogent to many on this side of the ocean, these are generally not the personal stories of the people who live here. Part of the madness each author battles comes from finding a way toward a personal story that makes sense in a world where collective and communal histories do not.

“All your suffering comes from trying to pretend that you are sane,” one of Kaufman’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors tells him during a difficult moment in his rocky journey to health. Jewish culture benefits greatly from the stories of two wounded souls seeking healing and a truth greater than themselves — even if this means risking insanity and ostracism. Such stories inspire readers to examine their own complacency within the “law” and, for those who might feel particularly lost and alone in the status quo, shape a conversation challenging the constraints of society while also heightening its magic in the ways that the Aggadah always has.

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y in New York City and founding director of LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.