My father had A long-term addiction to heroin that began in 1939 in New York City and ended when he overdosed and died in 1963, at age 42. He tried all the ways known at the time for treating his addiction—cold turkey, psychotherapy, shock treatment, and methadone. None of these treatments kept him away from mainlining heroin, which he did because he believed he needed it in order to function in the world. He often said he wished that heroin were legal, so that he didn’t have to find illegal, black market ways to score, either by purchasing the narcotic clandestinely from pushers whom he knew in Greenwich Village and Harlem, or by buying it on the streets of the Bronx or Manhattan from someone he would meet by chance in the “right” neighborhoods.
As it was, my father had to keep his problem hidden. He and my grandfather were local Kosher butchers in a Jewish area of the southeast Bronx. No one in the two dominantly Jewish neighborhoods where we lived — first in the Bronx, then in Queens — could know about his addiction. I learned much later, after my father died, that our family moved to Queens not so much for the usual reasons of better schools and suburban upward mobility, but to break my father free from his drug contacts in the Bronx and to better hide his addiction from neighbors and customers. The local wisdom was shikker iz der goy; drunkards and addicts of all sorts were non-Jews. Jewish communities adamantly denied that addiction, or alcoholism, was a problem among Jews; to be a heroin addict and a Jew was a contradiction in terms. Heroin addicts were seedy criminals, morally flawed, selfish, weak-willed. My father’s problem was a shandah, reflecting shame on the entire family.
On the Sunday morning of the day he died, he was with my younger sister in Crotona Park in the southeast Bronx, near where he and his father still operated their butcher markets. My sister remembers him getting a small bag of something from a man who met him in the park. He dropped her off at home in Whitestone, Queens and returned to the Bronx. He told the family he had errands to do at his father’s shop, closed that day, but in reality, he went there to take his fix. My father claimed he was keeping clean on methadone. Maybe he was, but that evening, he felt he needed to shoot up heroin. My family still conjectures that he overdosed because he purchased “bad” stuff.
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Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:10-15