When Sharon Leder was growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a saying: Shicker is a goy. Translated from the Yiddish, it means that addicts and drunks aren’t Jews.
Leder, a women’s and Jewish studies professor, knows firsthand that this isn’t true. By day, her dad was a kosher butcher. By night, he battled a secret heroin addiction throughout her childhood. He was found dead in the bathroom of his father’s butcher shop at 42. Leder was 17.
As a child, she was the keeper of his secrets. In fact, her grandmother pleaded with her to talk her father out of his addiction. She was only 8 years old.
“I was told by my grandmother that, because he loved me and listened to me, I should talk him out of it. I didn’t understand it. I felt that I should, because I loved my grandmother. She was a very powerful influence on my family. This was my father’s mother. I wanted her approval. I wanted to fulfill this.” But, she says, “I was also terrified.”
Too scared to confront him, “I lived with that repressed assignment most of my life,” she says. She’s written a fictionalized account of her relationship with her father, titled “The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search,” out this month.
Leder’s dad became emotionally and physically abusive toward her mother, his high-school sweetheart, who had married him when he’d promised to stop using drugs. But his late-night butcher deliveries gave him an outlet. She discovered him using with an old friend, and he became angry when confronted and begged her not to tell his mother. His mother found out nonetheless, and blamed her daughter-in-law for the relapse.
Ultimately, her father bounced in and out of treatment centers, many of which were founded post-World War II to help men traumatized by the war. They didn’t help.
“The military felt responsible for helping addicted men. He went cold turkey at a veterans hospital and watched many men have strokes or heart attacks. They died. He felt like he was in prison, and he was treated like a criminal. He went to psychotherapy, and the psychotherapist who treated him administered morphine. He had shock therapy, which ruined his memories, but not the habit,” she says.
Her dad traveled to Florida to get away from the temptations of New York, but he used again, ending up in jail, and returned home and visited a Harlem methadone clinic. The cures never took.
“It was a shanda in the neighborhood,” Leder says.
Today, she hopes her book helps other Jews dealing with addiction but too ashamed or afraid to speak up.
“The Jewish community needs to provide services for addiction problems. By keeping it a secret, I had blocks in my own life, and my father never felt an above-board way to deal with it. I hope Jewish groups, synagogues, can start conversations about the reality of addiction,” she says. “What addicts need are love and community. They need compassion.”