Hebrew Voices #25 – A Sober Purim in Jerusalem (Rebroadcast)

A-Sober-Purim-in-Jerusalem600x521In this episode of Hebrew Voices, A Sober Purim in Jerusalem, Nehemia visits with Rabbi "Big" Mike Gondelman to learn about the Jewish approach to treating alcoholism. The conversation opens with profound insights into the character of the Persian King Ahasuerus whose alcohol-driven binges nearly resulted in the total annihilation of the Jewish People. After hearing this interview, you will never look at Purim, alcoholism, or Alcoholics Anonymous the same way again.

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Transcript

Hebrew Voices #25 - A Sober Purim in Jerusalem

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon with Hebrew Voices, bringing you a special episode in honor of the Biblical festival of Purim. Purim is a celebration of a miracle of God’s intervention in history. It’s recorded in the Scroll of Esther, and it took place during the reign of the Persian King, Ahasuerus. In English, I think you pronounce that “Ahasuerus,” or something like that. And during these events described in the Scroll of Esther, the Jews narrowly avert total and complete genocide at the hands of Haman. And I think at the dawn of the 21st century, we have a better appreciation of Purim than we did in the past, because we know what genocide looks like.

Now, in Jewish culture, we have this strange tradition on Purim that if you’ve never heard of it, you might think I’m making it up, but it’s true. And the tradition is to get drunk, and I mean, really fershnickered. In fact, the Talmud teaches that it’s a requirement to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Now, this certainly isn’t commanded in the Torah or even anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, but it really is deeply entrenched in Jewish culture. In fact, I’ve seen Jews who are quite lax in their observance of God’s holy and eternal commandments, but when it comes to Purim and getting drunk on Purim, you would think these are the most devout Jews you’ve ever met. I’ll be honest, I’ve always been uncomfortable with this.

The Book of Proverbs warns against heavy intoxication. For example, chapter 23 verses 29 to 35. It says there about getting drunk, “It bites like a snake. It stings like an adder.” In other words, alcohol has the potential to be like poison. I want to be clear, I’m not preaching here against drinking alcohol in moderation. Somebody say, “in moderation”, for those who can handle it. But there are some people who can’t handle it. And this week’s episode is really about alcoholism as a spiritual disease.

Now, what inspired me to do this episode was, a few weeks ago, I was listening to this podcast called Hardcore History with Dan Carlin. I’ve got to tell you guys, this right now is my favorite podcast - besides Hebrew Voices. The guy’s amazing. He’ll do these four-hour episodes, and sometimes he’ll do a series of six episodes, four hours each, 24 hours. I’m jealous. [laughing] We’ve got to do this. I’m trying to limit this to an hour, and the guy does four hours. He’s amazing, Dan Carlin.

And he has this episode where he’s talking about how alcohol and drug abuse sometimes played a pivotal role in history, and it is a role that’s often overlooked. And he brings this example of Napoleon Bonaparte, the greatest general of all time. And it turns out, the night before the Battle of Waterloo, the most important battle of his career, Napoleon smoked opium. And the next morning, he was still coming off of those effects.

And Dan Carlin in his Hardcore History, says, “What would the history have been like? How would it have turned out if drugs hadn’t been involved?” And look, here’s a painful example I’ve got to bring. Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, it’s been well documented now that he was an amphetamine addict. And they show these videos at the end of his life where his hand’s shaking, and the experts say that’s actually the result of amphetamine use. And amphetamines make you paranoid, and this guy was nuts to begin with. What did amphetamines do for him?

One of the coolest examples that Carlin brings is Ogedei Khan, who was the son and heir of Genghis Khan. In the year 1241, Ogedei Khan literally drank himself to death. Now, this was a man who ruled the largest empire in world history. And Ogedei’s family knew he had a drinking problem, and at one point had assigned a minder to follow him everywhere he went, to try and get him to stop drinking. Eventually, Ogedei, the emperor, pledges to limit his drinking to one cup a day. He’s the emperor, so what does he do? He has a giant cup made and he drinks himself to death. And when he dies, this throws the Mongol empire into upheaval.

Now, all this got me thinking about, if that was the role of alcohol abuse in world history, what was its role in Jewish history? And of course, you know, we’ve got the story in the Torah - it’s in the Torah Pearls, guys, I don’t want to re-hash it - but with Noah, and what happened with him, and it’s not what you might think. Go listen to the Torah Pearls on Noah. It’s pretty bad, all because of alcohol.

Now, what about Purim? Purim was a series of drunken decisions that nearly ended in genocide, but were miraculously inverted in favor of a bloody civil war. Like, that’s the happy ending. Instead of genocide, we have a bloody civil war. And the story opens with Ahasuerus deposing his queen during a drunken stupor. He regrets it as soon as he sobers up. And a key part of the plot is Ahasuerus turning over the day-to-day running of his operations, of his empire, to the Jew-hater, Haman, so he can focus on his drinking habit. And Haman gives him money. Basically, Haman gives him beer money so he can continue on his drinking binges. And then the emperor, Ahasuerus, is presumably too drunk or too hungover to notice that Haman is issuing orders in his name to wipe out the Jews. And during a drunken rage, he eventually orders Haman to be executed, and that was the happy ending part of it.

Now, for this episode I decided to find out how Judaism deals with alcoholism, and I mean modern Judaism today. And to do this, I met up with a man named Rabbi Mike Gondelman. He’s known as Big Mike. The guy is 6 foot 9, ex-football player. He’s the founder and director of the Jerusalem Sober House, a 12-step-based recovery program in Israel for Jews of all backgrounds. Big Mike holds a certified addiction and substance abuse professional international certification from the IC and RC, and a bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies from Ohr Somayach Yeshiva. His experience includes running group therapy sessions, individual counseling, drug testing, assessments in crisis intervention at some of the most well-known yeshivas in Jerusalem. In addition to this, he also spent many years on the streets of Jerusalem, volunteering his time, working with at-risk youth.

Big Mike came to Israel from New York in 2001 and currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children. Now, Big Mike… and by the way, if you guys heard the Holy City Soccer episode, where I was talking with Ari Lewis… it’s an amazing episode, guys. You’ve got to listen to it. And he mentions there, he says something about “Roll Tide”, and I’m like, “Wait, why did you say that?” He says, “I don’t know. But Big Mike always says, “Roll Tide”. [laughing] It turns out, Big Mike was a football player in Alabama, not at the Crimson Tide, but some other team. But he was a big fan, and still is, of Alabama. Roll Tide.

Well, Big Mike launched our conversation by offering this profound insight in what, for me, was one of the really big mysteries of the Scroll of Esther, this little part of the plot I didn’t understand. And it turns out to be something that gets at the very core of King Ahasuerus’s character, and indeed, something that drives the narrative of this entire biblical book. So, here he is, Big Mike.

Mike: You’re talking about a guy who was a blackout drinker.

Nehemia: Clearly.

Mike: In the sixth chapter in the Book of Esther, what does he do? I think it was the sixth chapter, where he opens up, he’s looking at the book of all these royal decrees and this and that, and everything else, and he sees like somebody saved his life…

Nehemia: And he doesn’t remember that.

Mike: Yeah, he’s got no clue whatsoever.

Nehemia: Oh, I never heard… That’s such a great explanation.

Mike: He’s a blackout drinker.

Nehemia: So, that’s why he didn’t remember. That’s so interesting. Whenever I read that, I’m like, “So, how is it he doesn’t remember somebody who saved his life?”

Mike: He’s a blackout drinker.

Nehemia: Do you know what it reminded me, the way I always thought of it? Half-jokingly - there’s this theme in the Simpsons. What’s the guy’s name, Mr. Burns, whenever he meets Homer Simpson he says, “Who is that guy?” and his assistant says, “That’s Homer Simpson, Sir.” And it’s like he’s never heard of the guy before, even though they’ve had all these life incidents together. But you’re saying he could be a blackout drunk, and that’s why he doesn’t remember. That’s an amazing insight that I would never have gotten.

Mike: Well, I’m an alcoholic, so it works nice like that.

Nehemia: There you go, that’s wonderful. The word “mishteh”, which means a drinking party, appears 19 times in the Scroll of Esther, which is amazing. And it’s a central theme.

Mike: But think about that for a second. You know, it’s like 19 times we’re talking about drinking!

Nehemia: 19 times in nine chapters, nine-and-a-half chapters, technically 10.

Mike: 10 chapters, yeah. You know, whatever.

Nehemia: Yeah, there are three verses in chapter 10, whatever, 9 chapters really.

Mike: It’s still a full chapter.

Nehemia: 19 times, it’s a central theme.

Mike: But what is it saying? It says, “Alcohol - be wary of it.”

Nehemia: Ah, so this is where I have the problem. Because in Jewish tradition…

Mike: Like, “Be careful, don’t drink too much. This is what’s going to happen. Your life’s going to be upended. You’re going to be destroyed.” Over what, over a drink? Really, is that single malt that worth it?

Nehemia: So, it’s pretty clear that the message of Purim is that bad things can happen if you abuse alcohol. [laughing]

Mike: It’s more than just that. Think about it.

Nehemia: I mean, we’re talking genocide, basically, almost happened because of it.

Mike: Hold on, hold on. You see, here’s the thing that you don’t even understand from a program perspective.

Nehemia: By “program” you mean the 12 Steps…

Mike: Yeah, I mean Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, yada, yada, yada. There are almost 300 different 12-step groups nowadays. It was an explosion, from two white guys in Ohio, it exploded into almost 300 different groups.

Nehemia: Wow. And it’s not just alcohol?

Mike: Yeah, you’ve got everything from Codependents Anonymous to Overeaters Anonymous, to Marijuana Anonymous. You have Heroin Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous…

Nehemia: From a program perspective…

Mike: From a program perspective, what are you talking about? You’re talking about people who are lacking spirituality. And they’re searching for stuff, and so they’re trying to fill it up.

Nehemia: So, basically, Ahasuerus and Ogedei Khan, they’re like, “I’ve got this whole empire. What am I going to do with my life?” And they just drink themselves…

Mike: Yeah, think about it, it starts saying he’s the ruler of 127 countries. Like, you’re in charge…

Nehemia: He’s the king of kings.

Mike: Exactly.

Nehemia: That was his title, “King of Kings”.

Mike: Exactly. You’re was the leader of 127 nations. You’ve got the hottest woman in the world, which apparently, that’s what Vashti was.

Nehemia: Was she? Okay. [laughing]

Mike: Apparently. But what’s the importance of recognizing? Kind of, right? You go figure.

Nehemia: Go on.

Mike: This is what happens when an addict gets semicha and becomes rabbi, you know what I mean? You’re just like, “Well this is just not right. That’s just not right.”

Nehemia: All right, so here’s the thing. Here’s where I struggle with this. So, the message to me is pretty clear.

Mike: So, he’s focusing, and what is he focusing on? He’s focusing on the physical.

Nehemia: Meaning, King Ahasuerus?

Mike: Yeah, King Ahasuerus, right? Everything is about the physical. You give me more stuff. You give me the better iPhone. You give me the fancier car. You give me the nicer house. You give me this gold bracelet. You give me this gold watch. You give me the Rolex, the this, the that. Where does it end?

Nehemia: And he’s lacking in spirituality…

Mike: Exactly. And I want to talk about that, when we get to it, that the 12 Steps is really a spiritual program, not just about not drinking alcohol. But here, I want to bring this, and this is from the Megillah. It’s actually the Talmud Tractate of Megillah, 7B, and it’s the name of Rava. And it says, “A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim till he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’.” So, how do we have this in Jewish tradition? And this is definitely how it’s carried out.

You know, it was interesting. I was recently traveling with this friend of mine who’s a Southern Baptist Christian. And in his whole life, he’s never had alcohol, and he’s never been around people who drink alcohol. And he was talking to this person, the guy was saying he was a Christian and he was…

Mike: That’s impressive. I’ve just got to say, I’ve just got to put that to all your listeners out there. That’s impressive.

Nehemia: Well, here’s what opened my eyes and kind of got me thinking of wanting to do this interview. So he met this gentleman who introduced himself as a Christian, and the guy was drinking a beer. And afterward, he says to me, “Nehemia, that guy wasn’t a Christian.” I’m like, “What do mean? He believes like in what you believe.” And he said, “No, if he’s drinking alcohol and smoking, he’s not a Christian.”

And so, that’s like, wow, that’s a completely different concept than we have in Judaism, where in some instances there’s a sacred function to alcohol.

Mike: For sure. In Judaism, we drink l’chaim, “to life”. That’s what we’re drinking. We drink to raise up life, that’s what we do.

Nehemia: Well, so we’ve got the four cups on Pesach. And it’s funny, because my father every year did the four cups of grape juice. And one year, he decided to be really, you know, makhmir, really, really…

Mike: Really stringent.

Nehemia: Really stringent and devout. And he, of blessed memory, was a rabbi. So one year, he tried to do the wine and I think he fell asleep after the second cup. He wasn’t an alcohol drinker. But we do have this sacred function, you know. And look, there are synagogues where they do the makhya where after services, they’ll actually hand out shots.

Mike: Yeah, there’s a whole thing from the OU that came out, was it last year or two years ago?

Nehemia: This is the Orthodox Union of Rabbis. So, what did they come out with? I don’t know about this.

Mike: So, they came out with a whole thing about the kiddush clubs.

Nehemia: What’s that? I don’t know what kiddush clubs are.

Mike: Kiddush clubs are, in America, basically what will happen is that after the Torah is read, guys will…

Nehemia: Oh, the old men?

Mike: You know, they go and they have some herring, and they have a couple of shots of whiskey.

Nehemia: I didn’t know it was called the “kiddush club”, but yeah, okay.

Mike: And then, they came out against it, because people were not praying any more. They just went to shul to get drunk, and they were ignoring their families.

Nehemia: Well, but the point is, in some…

Mike: Mind you, that’s not everybody.

Nehemia: Right, but in some, especially Sephardic shuls, Synagogues, they will do this, you know, where they do the makhya, which is the arak, they’ll do shots. And so, recently, my nephew had his Bar Mitzva, and my brother-in-law walked around with a bottle of whiskey, pouring shots for everybody. And you had to drink in order to show that you were participating in his simcha, in his joyous occasion.

So, how do we reconcile the message of Purim with this statement that a man’s obliged to intoxicate himself? And before we started recording, you were telling me that might be a mistranslation…

Mike: Yeah, I definitely think it’s a mistranslation.

Nehemia: So let’s talk about that, because this is the way it’s interpreted, as a man’s required to intoxicate himself.

Mike: Of course, because people want to see what they want to see. You know, like listen, you go to Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, who’s a much bigger person and a much holier man than I am, he will tell you that it’s very clear that you don’t need to drink at all on Purim. And he will explain to you how, why and what, and everything about it. And it’s like, “Just take a nap.”

Nehemia: And incidentally, the word there, “libasomei” in Aramaic here, in the Talmud, probably means something more literally like, “to be fragranced until one doesn’t know, can’t distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.’” And they’re inferring that to be “fragranced” means to be drunk. And you’re saying it doesn’t.

Mike: I’m saying it doesn’t necessarily mean it.

Nehemia: It doesn’t have to mean it.

Mike: Exactly. One of the things about Judaism is that we find that words very often have double, triple or quadruple meanings. And it’s like, what is it really saying?

Nehemia: Yeah, so how do you reconcile this? Anyway, this is why I thought, “Okay, we have this holiday where Jews around Jerusalem are going to go around, and in the name of their faith, are going to be getting drunk.” And you may say that’s wrong, it’s not what the Talmud says…

Mike: Listen, I’ll tell you like this.

Nehemia: But it’s what’s going to happen.

Mike: It is what’s going to happen. You know what I do on Purim?

Nehemia: What do you do?

Mike: I take a nap.

Nehemia: You take a nap.

Mike: And I’m mekhayem the mitzva.

Nehemia: Okay, it means you fulfill the commandments…

Mike: I fulfill the commandments…

Nehemia: …by taking a nap.

Mike: …by taking the nap. And you know what?

Nehemia: Because, while you take the nap, you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai?

Mike: Exactly.

Nehemia: Okay, because you’re asleep. Okay, but anyway, I thought it would be appropriate in this spirit to talk about the 12 Steps. And so, here we are at the Jerusalem Sober House, and in a little bit, we’re going to get up and we’re going to actually walk around and get a tour of this house.

Mike: Awesome.

Nehemia: But now, I just want to talk about… In one of your videos that I saw on YouTube… and by the way, guys, go to my website, nehemiaswall.com, there’ll be a link to Big Mike’s YouTube channel, there’ll be a link to his website. And actually, there are some really interesting videos you have.

So, I have to bring up a sensitive topic here. So, I grew up, you know, in Chicago…

Mike: I’m sorry to hear that.

Nehemia: [laughing] Me too. Anyway, so I grew up being told that Jews don’t have a problem with alcohol, that’s a problem that the Gentiles have.

Mike: Yes.

Nehemia: And that’s why I thought it was important to come to a Jerusalem sober living house, where they’re dealing with 12 steps and alcoholics, because it’s kind of like, “Oh, we can get really drunk on Purim, because we don’t have a problem with alcohol.” But that’s not really true, is it?

Mike: I mean, listen. You’re talking about a disease.

Nehemia: Yeah. So, you’re the expert. Is it less common in Judaism for alcoholism?

Mike: No, it’s not at all.

Nehemia: It’s just as common, in your opinion?

Mike: It’s just as common.

Nehemia: So, tell us what you deal with here at the Jerusalem Sober House.

Mike: What I deal with is, we’re primarily drugs and alcohol. We’re old school like that. It’s like, you know, “You want to shoot up a little heroin? Great, come to me. You want a snort a little coke?”

Nehemia: So this is the meat and potatoes, that stuff.

Mike: Yeah, I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy, really.

Nehemia: [laughing] Meat and potatoes, 12-Step.

Mike: Another thing that’s crazy is that I myself am a junkie. I’m a heroin addict, right, for six years.

Nehemia: You actually are a heroin addict?

Mike: Yeah, I actually am a heroin addict. I haven’t touched heroin since March 1, 1995. But when I got cleaned up of heroin, it was actually heroin. Maybe a little black tar, you know?

Nehemia: I don’t know what that is, okay. [laughing]

Mike: Let’s just let that go. But it is what it is. Nowadays, they’re mixing it with fentanyl, and all this other stuff where you’re not getting this pure heroin anymore. You’re getting all these chemicals into it, and it’s making it much more potent than what it once was.

Nehemia: Oh, really?

Mike: And it’s much more dangerous. It’s scary. And then we’ve got to detox these guys and get them sober, and everything else.

Nehemia: So, tell me, I understand that you actually found God through the 12 Steps.

Mike: Yes, I did.

Nehemia: Is that the whole story? [laughing] Boy, that was quick.

Mike: Yeah, there we go. I found Him in the 12… No, I came into the rooms as an atheist.

Nehemia: In the rooms, you mean the rooms of…

Mike: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous.

Nehemia: Okay.

Mike: They started talking about this God business, and I was like…

Nehemia: You were like, “Get me outta here,” or what?

Mike: It’s like, “Yeah.”

Nehemia: Let’s back up. You’re Jewish.

Mike: Yes.

Nehemia: And you’re an atheist Jewish football player who likes heroin. I mean, that’s basically…

Mike: Among other things.

Nehemia: Okay. Were you raised with religion?

Mike: I was raised in a traditional home.

Nehemia: Like “traditional” like Orthodox?

Mike: No, Conservative.

Nehemia: Oh, Conservative. Okay. So, how do you go from going to the synagogue on the High Holidays to being an atheist? How did that happen?

Mike: I mean, because it was crap. Like, you have to understand, I remember I had this friend, and he was…

Nehemia: Let’s assume my listeners know nothing about why it’s crap.

Mike: Okay. So, I had this friend, and I was going over to her house after shul, after synagogue that day. And what happened? You know, we’re not allowed to have lights on on Shabbos. We can’t turn electricity on and off. So my friend’s mother screamed at me because I turned a light on in the synagogue. But when we got back to her house, she’s like sitting there, turning lights on and off, cooking, all the stuff that you’re not allowed to do in the shul, she was doing in her house.

So, I asked her, I said, “What are you doing? You told me that we couldn’t turn lights on and off, because of Shabbos, but now you’re doing it here.” She’s like, “But that’s at shul, and this is in the house.” I’m like, “Whoa. If it’s wrong…”

Nehemia: So that didn’t make sense for you.

Mike: Yeah, if it’s…

Nehemia: It doesn’t make sense to me, either. Okay. [laughing]

Mike: You know? But it was like the idea of we want what we want, and we don’t care that it doesn’t make sense. We don’t care that it’s…

Nehemia: So, that somehow led you to being an atheist?

Mike: Yeah, because what did I say…

Nehemia: It turned you off of God?

Mike: Well, stuff like that. And then, I remember, we had a guy who was sleeping around the shul. It was ridiculous. All these married women, it was destroying marriages, and he didn’t care.

Nehemia: And this is in the context of the synagogue?

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: He wasn’t the rabbi, was he?

Mike: He was the rabbi.

Nehemia: Ah, okay. So basically you see someone who’s supposed to represent God, who’s acting ungodly, and you’re like, “Well, there must not be a God.”

Mike: Right.

Nehemia: That’s interesting. I’ve heard that quite a bit. Okay, so you go from there to being the football player, and you’re doing drugs, and you come to AA and they’re talking about God, and you’re like, “Yeah, right.”

Mike: So, yeah. I stayed sober for a year-and-a-half, the first time I walked in, and I relapsed. And then when I…

Nehemia: Wait a minute. Isn’t some of the 12 Steps talking about God, how did you do that if you were an atheist?

Mike: Because it defined God for me.

Nehemia: So, your definition of God was what?

Mike: Go to early direction, a group of drunks. I mean, God is just a higher power.

Nehemia: So the group was God.

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: Okay. So, how did that change for you?

Mike: I died.

Nehemia: You died?

Mike: Yeah, I died and came back to life.

Nehemia: What are you talking about? [laughing] What do you mean, you died? You can’t just throw that out.

Mike: I can, I just did.

Nehemia: What?

Mike: I had an overdose, a drug overdose.

Nehemia: Oh, okay. So you were clinically dead?

Mike: Yeah, I was clinically dead, and they brought me back to life.

Nehemia: Okay, so you had a death… I mean, they would call it a “near death experience,” but you’re saying you died?

Mike: No, I mean, my heart stopped beating. Wouldn’t that mean I’m dead?

Nehemia: I don’t know.

Mike: Listen, to the Catholics who are listening, you know, I was given last rites.

Nehemia: Were you really?

Mike. I was. I was given Last Rites. I woke up with an ashy cross on my head.

Nehemia: Wait, I don’t understand. What? There was a Catholic Priest there that gave you last rites?

Mike: Yeah, I don’t know. It was a Catholic hospital, what can I say?

Nehemia: So, you literally were given last rites?

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: Wow. I think they also call it like “Final Unction” or something? I don’t know.

Mike: I don’t know.

Nehemia: I don’t even know if they still do that, do they? Whatever, anyway, so you were considered dead. Wow.

Mike: Yeah. They actually did call the time of death, apparently. And they turned off the machines, and then I woke up.

Nehemia: What?

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: They’d turned off… And you were just going to throw out there, “I died,” and move on. Like, wait a minute. They turned off the machines and you woke up?

Mike: And I went from an atheist to an agnostic immediately.

Nehemia: Wow. Wow. What happened after that?

Mike: I’m stuck in the hospital bed with tubes in and out of every hole in my body. They even cut one in my side to find another one for my lungs, because there weren’t enough holes there to begin with.

Nehemia: And all this is by the drug overdose?

Mike: Yeah. I’ve got a respirator in. I’ve got tubes, oxygen, IVs, and I couldn’t move. So all I could do was think. I’m like, “How am I here right now?” And the doctor who was in the emergency room comes over to me. And he was this Indian guy, you know, like India-Indian. And he was like, “I don’t know how you’re alive right now.” And he’s pale. He was just trying to figure out what had happened. He’s like, “We did everything we could to save you, and you were dead. And you came back.” And he was just like… It threw him for a loop. It obviously threw him for a loop, and I was there. I was just like, “I have no idea. I just woke up,” like I was sleeping, you know what I mean?

Like, here I am, lying on the bed, they’re doing all this crap to me, and I had no idea what the hell’s going on. And I’m just like, “I’m going to wake up.” I’m in massive pain and I’m just like, “Where am I? How did I get here?” I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get up. I was just done. Obviously, they turned the machines back on and monitors, and everything else. I was having trouble breathing… which you would too, if you had a tube stuck down your throat, you know, just pulling that out.

Nehemia: Okay. So, at this point, you’ve gone from an atheist to an agnostic.

Mike: Yeah, I just didn’t know. And then, when I came back into the rooms two months later…

Nehemia: In the AA rooms?

Mike: Yeah, AA rooms, I just started thinking about it. I just started thinking about God, and trying to understand where He was, and what He was. And then it was like the more I understood about God, the less I… because the second Steps talks about choosing your own concept of God. And for me, I couldn’t choose my own concept of God. I couldn’t be like, you know, George Burns, sitting in a La-Z-Boy, smoking a cigarette. You know, it’s like, “When you’re ready, I’ve got some good ideas here.” It was like, that wasn’t happening, you know?

Nehemia: [laughing] I don’t think the young people have any idea what you’re talking about, but go on.

Mike: Oh, well. You know, like I couldn’t see this blue-eyed, long-haired Jesus, or I couldn’t see something like that. I just couldn’t see it. That’s not what God was to me.

Nehemia: So, what was God to you?

Mike: That’s the thing. I didn’t know. Like really - what is He? I started looking for God, and I converted to like 10 different religions.

Nehemia: Really?

Mike: I got baptized three times.

Nehemia: Into what?

Mike: Well, it depends on which baptism.

Nehemia: Oh, so were you a Muslim at one point?

Mike: No, I never did Islam, but I did a whole bunch of other... I’ve done a lot of Eastern religions.

Nehemia: Oh, really? So, you explored lots of different religions, okay.

Mike: Yeah, I explored a lot of different religions. I’m just saying, some of those… Remember, I went to college in Alabama. Some of that baptism is like, they just dunk you in a river. You’re like, “Really?” It’s like the Catholics just pour a little water on your forehead.

Nehemia: So, you had different experiences, okay.

Mike: Yeah, but you want to know something, though?

Nehemia: Yeah.

Mike: It was crazy spiritual.

Nehemia: It was?

Mike: It really was.

Nehemia: You felt something when they were dunking you in the river?

Mike: Yeah, I really did.

Nehemia: What about when they were sprinkling you with the water?

Mike: It was a different type of spirituality.

Nehemia: But you did feel something in both of them?

Mike: Yeah, I did. And it was interesting, because when I was in Alabama I would do to the black churches.

Nehemia: Let’s take a step back. So, you have a bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies from a Yeshiva, and you’re a rabbi.

Mike: Yes.

Nehemia: And you’re telling me, when you were baptized into different Christian denominations, you felt something spiritual?

Mike: Yes.

Nehemia: Wow. I did not expect to hear that.

Mike: Listen, when I was in college in Alabama, I used to go to the black churches, right? And I went there because on the weekends, I’d go home with the guys from the football team. It was nice. It was like, these are people who had a nice, simple belief in a higher power. They chose that their belief would be Jesus Christ and it was a nice, simple thing, and Jesus had complete control of their lives. And He saved them, and He protected them, and He took care of them.

Nehemia: So, how did you get from that to being a rabbi? [laughing]

Mike: Yeah, that’s a long story. But the short version…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Mike: The short version is that… I don’t know. It didn’t seem right to me. There was always something missing, you know? Like between the Orthodox and the Catholics, and the Baptists and the…

Nehemia: Orthodox Christians, you mean?

Mike: The Orthodox Christians, and the Lutherans, and then you have Gnostic Christians, which just totally screwed me up.

Nehemia: That exists today, the Gnostic Christians?

Mike: Yeah, actually there are quite a few.

Nehemia: Okay, and all this is because you weren’t a Southern Baptist. [laughing] I’m kidding.

Mike: Yeah, I know. So, the more I searched, the more I remember being… The one good thing about being in New York - I was based in Rockland County, it’s like 45 minutes outside of Manhattan, right? Within an hour of there, I had at least 30 different religions that had some sort of worship, a place of worship.

Nehemia: Like active religions with a center you could go to?

Mike: Yeah, like you even had Zoroastrianism church.

Nehemia: Seriously?

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: Did you get involved in that for a while?

Mike: I started talking to a guy who was in it. I mean, the whole concept is cool, the dualistic religion. There are two guys fighting…

Nehemia: I wouldn’t call it cool, [laughing] but okay.

Mike: Listen, I didn’t say I believed it, but the concept is cool. Like, it’s two brothers fighting over the fate of the universe.

Nehemia: Okay, I hear you. It’s an interesting concept.

Mike: It’s like Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Shintoism, you know, you name it, Islam, Christianity. Like it’s all there.

Nehemia: So then, how did you decide Judaism?

Mike: Judaism decided me.

Nehemia: How did that happen?

Mike: Because I had this little Chabad lady in my ear, you know? A wonderful woman. She mekareved me.

Nehemia: Translate that into English. She brought you close to Judaism?

Mike: Yeah, she brought me close to Judaism.

Nehemia: How did she do that?

Mike: I mean, as I was looking at all these different religions, she was like, “You know, in all these other religions you keep looking at, Judaism is in each of these religions.” She would show me, “This came from Judaism, and that came from Judaism, and that came from Judaism.” She herself was a balaas teshuva, someone who was out of the flock and then came back.

It’s like, I kept looking at all these different religions and I really saw, “Oh, look here’s Judaism here, and here’s Judaism there, and here’s Judaism there.” It’s all about love.

If you really read the first book of the Torah, Bereishis or Genesis, however you want to call it, what do you see? God talks about the heavens and the earth. But He doesn’t talk about that anymore. It talks about creating all these different things, and then He doesn’t talk about it. And then He gets to man, and He stops talking about everything else. And then, He only talks about righteous men from there. And then He talks about how to be a righteous man, because that’s really all God cares about, is how to be a righteous man, and how to do it with love. Over and over again, it’s all about the love. It’s love, it’s love. And, I mean, it’s crazy, but He’s all about the love. And we forget that. And we forget that side of things.

Nehemia: Look, that’s not something that I think we hear a lot in Judaism, that God is all about the love.

Mike: But that’s part of the…

Nehemia: That’s certainly not the perception that non-Jews have of the Jewish faith.

Mike: Because that’s part of the problem. Part of the problem is that we’ve gone away from that. Rav Baruch Ber, who was the mashgiach in the Mir in the ‘20s and ‘30s, right?

Nehemia: So, he was kind of like the, I guess, the supervisor in yeshiva?

Mike: The spiritual guide of the guys in a yeshiva, which is a place where guys sit and learn.

Nehemia: Mir would be like the “Oxford” of Eastern Europe in the Jewish world?

Mike: Yeah, exactly.

Nehemia: Of yeshivas.

Mike: Right. And he would give guys the fourth aliya to the Torah if they’d screwed up. And then…

Nehemia: And what that refers to is when they read from the Torah on Shabbat, seven different people will read from the Torah, or make the blessing, and the fourth aliya is the fourth person to read. And what’s the significance of that?

Mike: The fourth one has the least amount of khashivus.

Nehemia: Least importance. It’s in the middle, so it’s the least important.

Mike: Right. So then, to all the middle children out there, I’m one.

Nehemia: I’m a middle child, too!

Mike: There you go. That’s the spirit. We are not the least important, we are the most important, just tell them.

Nehemia: Roll Tide.

Mike: Roll Tide, man. All right. And not only that, I’m also a Jets fan, so J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets. All right, you can keep that one in there. [laughing] All right, but he would give the fourth aliya, and then he would tell them to do a kheshbon hanefesh, which is like a moral inventory, and you’d have to check out where you screwed up, what you did wrong, to improve upon yourself.

So, you were like… That was the whole idea, self-improvement, making yourself better, becoming the best person you can be. That’s what Judaism’s all about. Judaism’s so much about love, but we’ve gone away from that. We’ve gone away from this concept, like why? Because part of the reason is that we’ve lost the abilities, because we’re so focused on so many other things.

It’s like anti-Semitism has been around for 5,000 years. Great, mazel tov. Get used to it, already. We’re used to it. Get over it!

Nehemia: Move on.

Mike: Move on, all right? So, Okay, great. They hate us. Mazel tov. But somehow, we’re still here. You know, the beauty of it is that as we get close to this day of Purim, which is one of the holiest days of the year, where you can pray to God, and we’re there, we’re there with each other, I just want to offer up a prayer to everybody out there.

Nehemia: Please pray, rabbi.

Mike: I pray that we all look at our lives and we all see what we’re grateful for, and recognize how much gratitude we have, and how much good we have in our lives, and we pay it forward to somebody who doesn’t have as much as we do. And we spread that love, spread that care and that warmth to each other.

Nehemia: Amen.

Mike: Amen.

Nehemia: All right, excellent. Thank you. Wow, that was an amazing conversation, unbelievable.

You know, when I was done talking with Big Mike, he showed me around the sober living facility, the Jerusalem Sober House, and he took me up to the roof and he showed me one of the most amazing views of Jerusalem, and I recorded that. I want to share that with you guys. It’s amazing. Listen to this. You won’t believe it. Unbelievable. I love Jerusalem, and I love Big Mike.

Mike: We’re having fun with this interview. Let’s go up another flight.

Nehemia: I don’t think I’m going to hit my head. Big Mike, how tall are you?

Mike: I am six foot nine.

Nehemia: [laughing] You said, “Watch my head.” I’m only six foot, I didn’t even have to duck. All right. Wow, this is an amazing view, Big Mike! Are you kidding me?

Mike: I told you it was worth it. This is absolutely phenomenal.

Nehemia: Oh, wow. This is quite a view of Jerusalem. We’re in this northern neighborhood, and what we do is we get to look down really on the central part of the city. Where’s my house? I live in Baka.

Mike: Baka, you can’t see Baka from here.

Nehemia: That’s way on the south side. We can’t even see it.

Mike: You are on the other side, brother. All right, so anyway. This is Har HaTzofim, which is actually very interesting…

Nehemia: That’s my alma mater, Hebrew University, Mount Scopus.

Mike: There you go. But see, the interesting thing about Har HaTzofim is I opened up a rehab not too far away from guess what? The second largest pharmaceutical company in the world. It’s like one of the…

Nehemia: Is that Teva?

Mike: Teva, yes. That is Teva. But they’re right there, and thank God, they have a ton of security…

Nehemia: Wait, wait, wait a minute. So, is Teva that building that we see right in front of us?

Mike: The one that says “Teva” on it? Yes.

Nehemia: [laughing] So, this is the Jerusalem Sober House, and literally, they come up here and they’re being taunted by Teva.

Mike: Nana, nana, nana.

Nehemia: The irony is that the word “Teva,” I think Americans say “Teeva”, but the word “teva” means “nature”, which is kind of ironic for a pharmaceutical company.

Mike: Exactly. Especially one that made its money on generic drugs. Anyway...

Nehemia: Got to love Israel.

Mike: Exactly.

Nehemia: Tell everybody about the giant building that looks like the Second Temple.

Mike: It’s not the Second Temple, actually. It’s the Third Temple, and that’s the Belz shul. You got to pray…

Nehemia: Is it the Bobover or is it the Belz?

Mike: That’s the Belz, right? So, it’s actually like one of the national monuments. It’s designed exactly to what the Third Temple’s supposed to look like, from the outside. The inside’s a little different, but when you pray in there, there’s like 6,000 people praying at once.

Nehemia: Have you prayed there?

Mike: Yes, I have. It’s an intense experience. You know, when you’re all praying the same prayers at once, it’s phenomenal. I remember in 1995, I went to the AA convention in San Diego. It was like 60,000 people saying the Serenity Prayer. I may not be right about the numbers, but it was like all at once. There’s a power to it. There’s a power when we’re all praying for the same thing at that moment.

Nehemia: And I should point out, in Judaism, or actually in Orthodox Judaism specifically, you don’t use electrical devices on Shabbat. So in a synagogue there are no microphones, and that really limits the number of people in most synagogues to around… 200, 300 hundred is a big synagogue. And here, you have a synagogue that was designed acoustically for how many, did you say?

Mike: I think it’s 6,000.

Nehemia: Wow!

Mike: And it’s crazy, because he’s heard. The entire place… it just echoes off the walls. But see, that’s the beauty of it.

Nehemia: You mean the cantor is standing there, and 6,000 people can hear him without a microphone.

Mike: Exactly.

Nehemia: Wow, that’s impressive.

Mike: (sings) Aye, ah-da aye, aye, aye. But the idea is we have all the different neighborhoods from here, and we could see, that’s the Jerusalem Forest down there. That’s the Central Bus Station, and that’s the Spire. There are so many different things that we have here, and it’s like this amazing, gorgeous view.

Nehemia: This is really a special view.

Mike: It really is. So one of the other therapists who came here to visit this place, a man by the name of Lou Abrams came up here. He spoke here, it must have been about three years ago. And I said, “I’ve got to show you something, Lou.” So I bring him up to the top. He’s like, “Why would you want to get clean anywhere else?” That was his line. He literally stood here for like 20 minutes just looking at the view, and he was like, in heaven.

Nehemia: Wow, yeah. This, I’ve got to say, is an impressive view.

Mike: It is, and it makes me grateful. Just the whole thing is about gratitude. But you know, you can see God’s presence. You can see all the beauty of it. Listen, we’re at night, so you can’t see all the things that you could see during the day. But during the day you can see ruins from like 3,000 years ago from here, like right down there. And with the lights on you can see the modern-day world and you see everything in-between. It’s simply amazing and beautiful. It’s a spectrum of life, from the ultra-Orthodox to the completely secular.

Nehemia: To Arab villages, like you really have quite a variety that you can see, to a model of the Third Temple. It’s impressive. Quite a view.

Mike: Right. And it’s one of those things where you just look at it and you’re like, “Wow. I’m impressed by what I’ve got here.”

Nehemia: So, tell me, how could somebody support the Jerusalem Sober House, or if they know somebody in need, how could they get help from the Jerusalem Sober House?

Mike: Well, we’re in the process of setting up our 501(c)(3). The 501(c)(3) will be ready as of April 1st, we were told. So, that’s exciting. So, they can simply send us an email…

Nehemia: So by the time most people are listening to this, you know, because people will be listening to this for years to come. So how could they do that?

Mike: Well, simply send an email to info@jerusalemsoberhouse.com.

Nehemia: Okay, that’s how they can contact you.

Mike: Yeah, they can contact me there. Or they can contact me at bigmike@jerusalemsoberhouse.com, and that goes directly to me.

Nehemia: Okay, very cool. All right, so you heard it there. If you want to somehow support what they’re doing here, or if you know somebody who needs help…

Mike: If somebody needs help, they can go via email, or we have an American phone number that’ll ring on Israeli phones. Yeah, it’s 845-738-2389.

Nehemia: And we’ll post that number and the email address…

Mike: And the website, too.

Nehemia: And the website on nehemiaswall.com.

Mike: Excellent. That excites me.

Nehemia: Awesome, very cool. All right, very cool.

Mike: I’m excited.

Nehemia: Yeah, this is a pretty cool place.

Mike: Right.

Nehemia: So, here you have Lifta, I guess it’s the old ruins.

Mike: Yes. It’s Lifta over there. That’s one of the wells that David HaMelech actually made. There’s a mikveh over there…

Nehemia: Wait, wait, wait. So we’re standing and we’re looking out - right now it’s black because it’s at night - but you’re pointing to the spot where King David, David HaMelech, what did he do?

Mike: He went to the mikveh over there, the ritual baths.

Nehemia: So he immersed himself in the water that comes out of that spring and fills up this pool. That’s where he went to cleanse himself.

Mike: Exactly.

Nehemia: Wow. And this is Jerusalem! Jerusalem’s amazing! It really is. You’re standing here in the middle of history, looking around, looking at the future, the Third Temple, and looking at something from thousands of years ago, from King David, and looking at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I mean, what an amazing contrast, right here in front of us!

Mike: Exactly. It’s simply phenomenal. Like you don’t even realize when you think… You know, there’s a famous quote, I forgot who said it, where Israel is the only country in the world where you can use your Bible as a tour guide.

Nehemia: I actually said that. No, I’m kidding. [laughing]

Mike: No, I know, yeah. I forgot who said it, but it’s a famous quote.

Nehemia: That’s pretty cool. I never heard that.

Mike: You never heard that?

Nehemia: No.

Mike: I have a lot of tour guides who are friends, and they say that a lot. It’s like one of those cliché lines for them. It’s like, “Oh, wow. It’s so cool,” you know?

Nehemia: Like I’ve done that, used the Bible as my tour guide, but I’ve never heard anybody say it quite like that.

Mike: It’s simply amazing. It’s like, I play football, obviously, but I was playing with some friends and we were like…

Nehemia: You play… Tell us about that. I don’t think we know about that. You mentioned that before. But you played in college?

Mike: Oh, yeah. I played a little bit in college. Only one year, I got kicked off the team because of my addiction. There’s a long story with that, but we’ll not get to that right now. But yeah, so there’s a league here in Israel called the Israel Football League, and we had a team called the Jerusalem Kings, which has since folded, but we’re coming back next year, hopefully, if we can get a sponsor, hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Not that I’m trying to get a sponsor, but you know. [laughing]

So yeah, it was an amazing thing, and we played all over Israel. And one of the beautiful things about playing all over Israel is that the backdrops… You’re in Ramot, right? It’s like Ramot is separated into five different spots.

Nehemia: That’s this northern neighborhood of Jerusalem where we are right now.

Mike: Yeah.

Nehemia: Ramot is a very remote neighborhood.

Mike: It’s not remote.

Nehemia: Well, if you live in Baka, it’s remote. [laughing]

Mike: Well, it’s your problem, not mine. I live in Ramot. No, there’s a part of Ramot called 06, right? And in 06 they wanted to build a whole thing. They started digging for these houses, like digging the foundations, and what did they find? They found a yeshiva from the First Temple period.

Nehemia: What?

Mike: Exactly. And it was amazing, and there were actually some scrolls there, but they moment they touched them, they fell apart. It was crazy. They were able to get some of…

Nehemia: Got to love Israel. It’s amazing.

Mike: Think about that. Think about that, you’re just like, “Wow!” It’s like we can walk up the road from here and see stuff from the Second Temple. It’s like, Shmuel HaNavi, you know? Samuel the Prophet. Where he’s buried is right up the road over here. You see this road coming out over here? Right up the road, he’s over there. That’s where he’s buried. If you think about it, you go through the Bible, Shimon HaTzaddik, Shimon the Righteous, right? I don’t know if you’d say Shimon - Simon the Righteous, right? He’s buried straight ahead, that way.

The Sanhedrin, they talk about it in the Gemara. Right behind that, you see that tall building right there with the blue lights? If you go a little bit up that road right there, a little bit behind?

Nehemia: Yeah.

Mike: There’s hundreds of grave sites of the Sanhedrin, of people who were in the Sanhedrin. I mean, it’s in the spot called Sanhedria. That’s why they’ve got the name. It’s like, that’s where we’re at. That’s the beauty of here. And that’s our history, and that’s who we are. And that’s one of the things as addicts that we always lack, is we lack a grasp of who we are, and what we are.

Nehemia: That’s interesting that you say that. So, I’m currently reading this book by Rabbi Abraham Twerski.

Mike: Dr. T., I love him.

Nehemia: He’s amazing.

Mike: He’s beyond amazing. He’s phenomenal.

Nehemia: He really is. So, one of the things he’s saying is the 12 Steps aren’t just for addicts.

Mike: 100 percent, I agree.

Nehemia: What he says is, because he’s a rabbi and a psychiatrist, and he dealt with these alcoholics, and he started to learn about Alcoholics Anonymous, and he said, “Wait a minute. We don’t need psychotherapy for people who are depressed. We need to get them into some kind of 12-step program that’s appropriate for them,” and for people who have all these other issues, for all kinds of character defects. You need some form of the 12 Steps, he’s saying. It’s amazing what he’s talking about.

Mike: Let me tell you an even better story. There’s a program called JACS in America, right?

Nehemia: Yeah, what’s that?

Mike: JACS is a program like an Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and on and on and on, which is for the families of addicts. It’s evolved into an umbrella organization, kind of thing, so they invited this rosh yeshiva, who’s the head of a big yeshiva in Baltimore, called Ner Yisroel, Aaron Feldman. And they said, “Here, we want to show you something. It’s called the 12 Steps.” Rav Aaron Feldman looked at him and said, “That is an amazing piece of mussar.

Nehemia: Which is Jewish ethics, which is actually what he shows in one of the books that I’m reading right now, is that he shows how basically everything in the 12 Steps comes exactly from Jewish sources, or at least has parallels in Jewish sources.

Mike: Right, so what happened? Aaron Feldman took a copy of the 12 Steps and put it on every single desk in his beis midrash. And then in the classroom over there, he was like, “I want all of you to do this.” “But we’re not addicts, Rebbe.” He was like, “It doesn’t matter. It’ll help build up your character.”

Nehemia: Right. That’s amazing. Pretty cool. All right.

This episode of Hebrew Voices was sponsored by an anonymous donor. Thank you. Toda.

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Guest Bio: Rabbi "Big" Mike Gondelman is the Founder and Director of the The Jerusalem Sober House, a “12-step based recovery program” in Israel, appropriate for Jews of all backgrounds. Big Mike holds a Certified Addictions and Substance Abuse Professional (CASAP) international certification from the IC&RC and a Bachelors Degree in Judaic Studies from Ohr Somaech Yeshiva. His experience includes running group therapy sessions, individual counseling, drug testing, assessments and crisis intervention at some of the most well known Yeshivas in Jerusalem. In addition to this, he also spent many years on the streets of Jerusalem volunteering his time working with at-risk youth. Big Mike came to Israel from New York in 2001 and currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children.

  • Janice says:

    I very much appreciate your interviews, always some wonderful Jewish people who are doing wonderful amazing things for other. Is the best of Israel; is her people. I will join Jerusalem Sober House, with just good clean fun Pure Joy needs no substance abuse!

    Chag Semach to Everyone!

  • Gary Michaels says:

    You claim “After hearing this interview, you will never look at Purim, alcoholism, or Alcoholics Anonymous the same way again.”

    If we can simplify those nouns by using ONLY the term ‘alcohol,’ this can’t be further from the truth. In terms of the Tanakh, I’ve yet to find anything that actually promotes drinking or points to it’s benefits. At best, you can make the case that God tolerates it, but that’s not the same as instituting the practice, attesting to it’s benefits or endorsing it.

    As a side note, God reluctantly allowed A WHOLE LOT concerning His people including the anointing of a physical king, the institution of a split kingdom, and the rule of Solomon, who succumbed to the idolatry of his strange wives BIG TIME. I can’t imagine anyone claiming that these examples were manifestations of God’s desire and plan for his people–rather, they ran counter to God’s promises.

    With all that is presented in the Tanakh, the use of alcohol fits the same bill. It’s just one more thing, practice, addiction, diversion (in short, IDOL) that separates one from God. The need for ANYTHING other than God to make one’s life complete is by definition a spiritual deficiency, as the video implies.

  • PhillipGeorge©2016 says:

    Is it possible “touch a dead thing” means having a wrong answer? – to which there is a second pesach.

    just thinking out loud