Jews and gambling
[Regarding the recent event in which] local Jewish college students on the verge of finals took a break and had a casino night at the Hillel-JUC: The winners were not the students, but the victims of Super Storm Sandy to whom the money was being donated.
I applaud the cause and the student involvement, but I just reviewed a book entitled The Gambler’s Daughter; it was written by a former Pittsburgher who grew up on Beacon Street in Squirrel Hill. Her father was a compulsive gambler whose behavior caused untold stress on her mother and on his daughter, her trauma lasting well into her adult years. The author, Annette Dunlap, now married and living out of state, sought to exorcise her own demons by trying to understand why her father, Albert Moritt, engaged in such destructive behavior. While she makes a slight nod to some possible hereditary disposition, she looks for an explanation in the environment.
She suggests that gambling was all too common in the poor, immigrant Jewish ghettos, that it certainly was a common practice in the Depression wracked Hill District of Pittsburgh. She correctly cites the efforts of the Irene Kaufmann staff to close down such operations and the admonitions of the rabbis.
But she doesn’t just discuss the circumstances of the poor neighborhoods in which the Jews lived. She goes much further and indicts a Jewish tradition that she argues goes back to “drawing lots” in the Hebrew Bible through the spinning of the dreidel for Chanuka to all the fundraising Monte Carlo nights at synagogues.
She seems to suggest, certainly most unfairly, that Jews are more prone to a gambling addiction than others. The questionable validity of her claims aside, and they certainly can be challenged, her admonition and concern ring clearly. Do we indulge in and sanction gambling too much in the pursuit of higher charitable ends? Are we thereby facilitating a kind of behavior, which, unchecked, can be devastating to all involved, the gambler and his or her family?
The jury is out yet on why someone becomes addicted to gambling, why they cross that line between social entertainment and psychiatric disorder, but we should recognize that gambling can become an addiction, just like alcohol or drugs. Let’s keep that in mind as we go about our important business of tzedaka.