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Jews, drugs and Hashem

by: E G Davis - Last updated: 2003-10-15

Taking drugs

Taking drugs

I was arrested for heroin possession on a cloudy Saturday morning in downtown Tel Aviv. My drug dealer and I were on the road in his little white Peugot. I had five grams in my pocket. When I checked the rearview mirror and saw the red flashing lights of the mishtara - the Israeli police - I was so high I didn’t even flinch.

They ordered us out of the car. The streets were almost empty because of the Sabbath, but a few gawkers still slowed to stare. One squad car became four. The officers searched the trunk and found my needles.

"Don’t talk to him," a forty-something female officer hissed at me as they separated me from my dealer. I handed over the drugs in my pocket.

Her rapid-fire Hebrew only had me staring dumbly. "Is this stuff yours?" she asked in English. "Are you covering for him? Are you afraid of him?" It seems I didn’t fit her profile of a dangerous criminal. "These aren’t your drugs!" she growled, voice raspy, waving the baggies in front of me. I told the truth because I was too high to be afraid, and I just didn’t care anymore. She threw me in a squad car with a look of disgust.

At the station, I was fingerprinted, then bullied: "He gets high, not you," the officers shouted at me in the dank cement basement they used for detainees. "Tell us the truth and you maybe go home tonight. Don’t and you spend the night in jail." The female officer threatened to kick me out of Israel and not let me come back.

She took out a book they had found in my backpack - Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought, and began flipping through the table of contents. "Why do you have this?" she asked, handing it to me, a quizzical expression on her face.

"I go to yeshiva," I explained. Her face softened with pity.

My first taste of heroin came in high school, with Jenny. Jenny was sullen, sexy, and Catholic. She drew dark pictures of naked women and angry black men. She smoked Camel Wide Lights. She got kicked out of school. I was fascinated by her because she was the baddest person I’d ever met. And she was a heroin addict.

I had watched her do it before. But on that day my curiosity took over. An overweight child, I had grown up awkward and bookish. In my early teens the extra pounds melted away. I started smoking cigarettes, then pot. I became vivacious and sociable. I liked myself better.

"I want to try it," I said, the words heavy on my tongue. We were sitting in Jenny’s parked car in a lot near our school. I felt the adrenaline rushing.

Jenny grinned. She took a white knee sock out of her backpack. Inside was a spoon-charred black on the bottom, a needle, the kind diabetics use for insulin, and a piece of cotton. I watched in silence. "This is for me," she said. "You just snort it since it’s your first time."

She picked up a packet wrapped in Zig-Zag rolling paper and spilled the powdery contents onto a shiny magazine. I stared at it. "Take out a crisp bill," she ordered.

I leaned down to the magazine, rolled five-dollar bill in hand, and inhaled, holding one nostril closed like she told me. Suddenly, waves of pure pleasure engulfed my body. For perhaps the first time in my life, my heart felt at peace. "S**t," I thought. "This is just too f**king good."

My grandfather still has his Polish accent after 60 years in America. Raising children in the fifties, he wouldn’t put a mezzuzzah on the front door to his own home. He didn’t want anyone to know his family was Jewish, because he thought it was a threat to their safety.

"Never trust the goyim," Grandpa told me many times. He had watched his parents and eight siblings die before he turned nineteen. After he escaped from Poland, no one wanted to hear his stories. The stories were just too horrible.

I sensed his sadness before I knew what it meant. On Passover, he would cry out, half-drunk with haggadah in hand, "You think there’s a God? After everything that happened to us, you think there’s a God?" My mother and her three sisters would leave the table awkwardly, running to the bathroom to whisper about their father.

They left me, an eight-year old with a piece of jagged matzah in my hand, to stare at my sobbing grandfather, questions racing through my mind. How could I help him? Who hurt him? I wondered, but didn’t ask. I felt indefinably sick, the sickness of shame. If the strongest person you know breaks down at the dinner table, you’re not safe. I never felt safe again. To me Judaism meant bulldozers pushing piles of corpses into mass graves. To me it meant death.

I spent the last six months of high school on heroin. It gave me an escape from fear. It felt so much safer to be a heroin addict than the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. My grades plummeted. I began stealing money and jewelry from my mother. I pawned my CDs and began shooting up with a syringe. A package of needles from the drugstore cost the same as a Whopper Junior meal at Burger King. Most of the time, I went without food.

I tried to quit a few weeks after graduation. I put all my paraphernalia in a paper bag and tossed it into the dumpster of an empty church parking lot. A few hours later, the chills of heroin withdrawal started to set in. I ran back. As I pushed my hand into the refuse and felt for the bag, I had an epiphany if I kept this up, I’d soon be dead. Shaking beside the dumpster, I knew I still wanted to live. The next day, I summoned the courage and checked into a drug rehab center. When I got out two weeks later, I vowed never to slip back into addiction.

"You did what when you were in high school?" my roommate Rachel exclaimed in disbelief as she slurped her coffee. We were at our house, studying for a midterm exam when I decided to come clean about my troubled past. I’d come so far since then. Now, I would yell "No thanks. I don’t drink," to guys who approached me at house parties with plastic cups of beer in hand. Cigarettes and coffee were the strongest chemicals I ingested.

"Jews don’t believe in God," I told my sponsor defensively over coffee and cigarettes. Twelve-step groups like Narcotics Anonymous strongly advocate belief in a higher power, claiming it alone takes away the desire to use drugs. To me, God was powerless a cruel joke made up by people who’d had easy lives. But recovering addicts claimed God did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. It was a struggle, but as I met Jews who did believe in a higher power, my philosophy changed. Gradually, I traded in my hand-me-down dejection for new hope.

Soon, twelve-step meetings weren’t enough. I became uncomfortable saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end of every meeting. I wanted to sit in synagogues as well as churches. I had found God; now I wanted to find the Jewish God.

In my senior year I visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright trip. I bought my first Hebrew Tanach and learned that Jews are supposed to follow 613 commandments, not just ten. I found truth in Orthodoxy. If the Torah was real, then it was my duty as a Jew to obey it. To me, tradition was an answer to Grandpa’s pain and to my own spiritual wandering.

Back at college, I was instinctively drawn to the huge Shabbat dinners on campus sponsored by the Orthodox Outreach Center. When the rabbi blessed each of his children, I almost cried. I imagined that Grandpa’s Shabbat table in Poland looked like this one, with the scent of freshly baked challah wafting over long tables agleam with polished silverware. I craved the security and stability that religious life provided.

The religious women I met were intelligent, strong and secure, not backward or subservient. I devoured books on the difference between men and women, on the philosophy of halachah, on free will and determinism. The hardest idea to swallow was that God makes everything happen for a reason. In my family this was blasphemy, but I decided to keep an open mind.

My mother fumed silently about my new religious habits. I refused to eat her chicken or attend the family’s Rosh Hashanah celebration because they didn’t conform to halachah. She resented the implication that my new way was better than the family’s. She told me she was a little jealous of the new people in my life, because I held them in such high esteem.

Grandpa was more direct. He sat me down at the local kosher restaurant. He started naming atrocities, as if the existence of tragedy would change my mind about God. "Babies dying..." he pressed on, as the waitress refilled my coffee cup. "Remember what happened to my mother and father. Don’t you think they believed in God, too?" I was ready for this tactic of his: "Grandpa," I replied. "Don’t you think it’s a miracle the Jewish people survived when faced with such bloodthirsty enemies?" He stayed silent.

It didn’t take much for the rabbis at the Outreach Center to convince me to study Torah in Israel. The Ba’al Teshuvah girls’ seminary I decided on was cheap in price and fundamentalist in outlook. I would learn self-discipline through the laws of Kashrus and Shabbas. I would find spiritual meaning in the rituals of my ancestors. I would marry a real mensch and have a stable home life.

"Please don’t do this," my mother pleaded wearily a few days before my departure. "I’m afraid what if something happened to you," she said desperately.

"I’ll be just fine, Mom," I told her. "I’ll call you every day."

I landed in Israel on a hot August day with two huge duffel bags in tow. My two roommates had come to seminary months before, and were already scrupulously observant. When they saw me hiding in the bushes on Shabbat to puff my cancer sticks, they exchanged disapproving frowns.

I felt suffocated after only a week. I didn’t want to wear skirts all the time. I had no privacy. The school took care of my needs as if I were a child. With no grades to work for or money to earn, my natural laziness took over. I loved a couple of the teachers and had a few friends, but mostly, I felt lonely and out of place.

I had begun drinking kiddush wine on Shabbat a few months before I left for Israel. At seminary I met a girl who sold marijuana, one of the school’s few rebels. I started smoking her pot "to relax," rationalizing that a joint was no more harmful than Kedem. The pot led to codeine, available over-the-counter there. Because codeine is a narcotic similar to heroin, the drug triggered my body into intense craving. It felt like a gnawing hunger in the pit of my stomach. Even though five years had gone by, all it took was a few pills.

I began visiting drug stores when I didn’t have class, different stores so the same cashier wouldn’t see me too often. I was functioning on autopilot, trying not to think too much about what I was doing. "My brother has a bad cold," I would explain to the cashier. Because I was in a foreign place with strange new people, my drug use felt unreal. Back home, I thought to myself, no one will ever know.

I started to dream about hypodermic needles filled with hot auburn liquid. I would wake up with that intense familiar hunger. It took only a month of using codeine before I found Ishai.

"What you want? I get you anything you want," said Ishai in broken English, driving me around in his old Peugot. We had met at a party in Tel Aviv. A thirty-five-year-old sabra, he owned a parking lot and lived with his mother. When I first spoke to him, I had no idea he had spent four years in prison for heroin distribution. It was just luck.

"Want to dance?" he asked me at the party. I agreed, reluctantly. But when I wanted to leave and couldn’t find my ride, Ishai quickly offered to take me to the apartment where I was crashing.

"At rotzah samim? I get you anything," he said.
"What’s samim?" I asked.
"samim..." he imitated smoking, sniffing. I got it.
"Drugs?" He nodded. I suggested we go to the museum in Tel Aviv the next day, but only because I had an ulterior motive. When he picked me up, I asked him the question I had been rehearsing all morning: "Can you get heroin?"
"Heroin?" That word he knew.

Ishai still had connections from prison. In Yaffo, he left me in the car and ran into a decaying apartment building. As I waited, I alternated between cursing myself and savouring the old adrenaline rush that came with copping.

He drove to his mother’s apartment. We sat on the couch and Ishai handed me the stuff. He gave me a shiny magazine and I spilled out the contents of the paper. It was darker than I remembered. This was black tar heroin, purer and stronger than anything back home. I stared for a moment. Then I rolled up a 50-shekel bill, bent down, and inhaled.

Suddenly my breathing and heart rate slowed down. A tidal wave of pleasure washed over me, head to toe. It was déjà vu: I remembered shooting dope with Jenny as if six years had never passed. God was far away. Heroin became my cheap substitute.

This guy is no good. I don’t want you ever to see him again so I am putting him in jail," said the female officer maternally as I sat in her tiny office. It had been hours now, I didn’t remember what time Ishai and I had left the grungy motel that morning. I suspected at least four hours had passed since the questions had begun. Exhausted, I just wanted this nightmare to be over and forgotten.

"Go back to America," she told me when they turned me loose. I had no idea where I was. The streets were deserted. I walked aimlessly until I found an open convenience store. At the nearest street corner, I sat eating corn chips and orange juice. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all day long. No one answered my frantic cell-phone calls. I puked on the concrete.

Finally I got hold of Yitzhak, an admirer of mine, and convinced him to pick me up. "Let me take care of you," Yitzhak said in the cab on the way back to Jerusalem. He was an ordained Orthodox rabbi, a former surfer from San Diego who found God and spent his twenties in yeshiva. His wife had just ended their five-year marriage after he squandered all their money on crack cocaine.

The very next day I moved my things from the ultra-Orthodox girls’ seminary to his one-room hovel in Jerusalem’s Old City. I told Yitzhak I loved him, but mostly I was just glad to leave the seminary.

Yitzhak’s little stone efficiency lay just outside the Jewish quarter, at the crossroads between the Armenian, Muslim, and Christian sections of the Old City of Jerusalem. Outside, I sometimes heard the rude "phht" sounds of spitting, and the little Muslim boys chanting "jihad" at our blue steel door. Yitzhak would look through the peephole. "Oh, honey—Cousin Achmad is here to see you!" he’d announce in his Arabic accent. We’d giggle together. Two weeks after I moved in, I convinced him to fetch heroin and try it with me.

In the ten-by-fourteen-foot room, there was no kitchen sink, no stove, no microwave, no heat, no windows. Two bookcases lined the walls, filled with sifrei kodesh, holy books, gathering dust. Yitzhak wanted to sell them for drug money but I convinced him not to.

Soon we settled into a routine, playing house. He left early in the morning for work, building homes in the Israeli settlements. I woke around noon and shot up before my first cup of coffee. Pale and half-naked, I sat with my eyelids drooping from the rush of narcotic, mascara from the previous night’s drug party streaking my face. I listened to the church bells and the Muslim call to prayer outside the blue steel door. In the early afternoon I would shoot up again, and once more at night with Yitzhak.

When we ran out of dope we would take off down the highway in a cab, headed for a little Arab town. Yitzhak and I could have bought our drugs on the streets of Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem, but we went to the "source" for greater quantity and purer quality. The Palestinian flag flew high there. The homes were no more than rickety shacks and the streets were eerily deserted. Yitzhak would go into one of the shacks, alone; the Arabs wouldn’t sell drugs to women. I waited in the car, scrunching down in the seat so no one could see me. After we copped we felt exhilarated—the police hadn’t caught us and the Arabs hadn’t killed us.

My living with Yitzhak was a touchy subject in the neighborhood. People knew because the Old City is like a medieval shtetl; everybody is in everyone else’s business. When he was invited for a Shabbat meal, he asked if I could come too, as his "friend." I was happy to be invited. Despite everything, I still felt Orthodoxy was my spiritual home.

"Will you need a bed for the night?" asked the lady of the house. On the outside, I looked like a normal religious girl with my long skirts—she presumed I was Shomer Shabbat and wouldn’t be traveling. "Oh, I’m staying with another family," I lied, so I could leave with Yitzhak. It felt silly to deceive them about living with a man, but I was willing to do so to be part of that culture.

The first night of Passover, the two of us were invited to a Seder at a good-hearted Lubavitcher rabbi’s home. We shot up before leaving for the service. During the Four Questions, Yitzhak’s head dropped and he started snoring. I kicked him under the table and tried not to laugh. If the rabbi saw, he was too nice to say anything.

Sometimes I would sit and watch the happy tourists in the streets. Other times I walked to the Western Wall, located only footsteps away, and poured my heart out, in both English and Hebrew, next to the other swaying, teary-eyed supplicants. Amid the holiness of the Kotel, I pleaded for help with my addiction.

The security situation was growing worse by the day. All around us, suicide bombers destroyed shops and buses, murdering scores of civilians. Drugs were harder to get now because of the worsening Intifada. Yitzhak refused to risk his life for me anymore. He wanted to get clean. I collected what was left of my stash and moved to a hostel.

Jenny died in April. Her mom had found her slumped over in front of the television in her apartment. My high school partner-in-crime, the girl who had inducted me into addiction, had overdosed on heroin. When my mother called to tell me the news I was high. "You see, the same thing is going to happen to you if you don’t stop this meshugas," Yitzhak yelled at me with his newly reformed tone. He was right, and I knew it.

I took a bulletproof bus to Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb, in Bethlehem. The bus dropped me off at the door, leaving half an hour to daven. Outside I saw only Israeli military tanks, no people. Through the centuries, this has been a place Jews come to pray. It’s said that Rachel weeps for the Jewish people. I knew she wept for me that day.

I had tried to satisfy my spiritual needs with drugs, and gained only suffering and misery. I realized then that the mitzvahs of Orthodox Judaism are not a quick fix; it takes patience and perseverance to learn from them. Inside, women rocked back and forth, pleading to Rachel Imeinu with all their might. I joined them, begging her to intercede on my behalf, to help me become sober and happy. I prayed: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"

Then I got on a plane.


First published in New Voices