A Sober Person’s Guide to Jewish Holidays

And how to support your sober friends.

Wine. Some of us hate it, some of us love it, and some of us love it a little bit too much. Until recently, I couldn’t handle a day without a glass or three of booze. Thankfully, on Rosh Hashanah 5780 (AKA last fall), I found myself staring at two empty bottles of champagne and a drained box of wine, thinking that I absolutely had to quit drinking before I lost everything in my life.

This would have been a bit easier to deal with, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the biggest Jewish holidays involve a LOT of drinking. People are quick to remind you that “it’s a mitzvah!” to get drunk on Purim, that in fact you are supposed to drink so much you can no longer tell the difference between Haman, the bad guy, and Mordechai, the good one. And what Passover seder doesn’t revolve around the not one, not two, not three, but four glasses of wine we are meant to consume? Even the weekly traditional Shabbat celebration focuses on challah and wine as the two pillars of the meal.

But you can be sober and observe, and even enjoy, the Jewish holidays. I know because I’ve figured it out for myself. With Purim and Passover coming up, I’ve managed to pull together some ideas on how to get through these holidays as a sober person, and how to help your sober friends celebrate safely and comfortably.

First, here’s a list of resources available for us to use in order to build a healthy support network:

  • Support groups such as AA or NA: You can find meetings within your city and state relatively easily through a Google search like “AA of Omaha, Nebraska”
  • Other programs: Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.), LifeRing Secular Recovery, Moderation Management
  • In larger cities like LA, Philly, or NYC, look for a “sober seder.” These events are hosted by Jews, for Jews in recovery. If there isn’t one near you, talk to your rabbi or consider starting your own!
  • For non-alcoholic options that are kosher, this site has a HUGE list of beverages that are acceptable. You can also use the list to come up with your own mocktails. (Kosher sangria? Why not?)

Secondly, I put together my own little list based on my personal experience with advice for Jews in recovery.

Advice for Jews in recovery celebrating Jewish holidays:

1. Be prepared.

These holidays can be triggering for people in recovery. If you know seeing others drink and being surrounded by alcohol is going to be triggering, consider other options. Stay in and have your own celebration with friends or loved ones. If you’re attending a party or seder, ask the hosts ahead of time to make sure there are accessible non-alcoholic options available or that there is no alcohol being served.

If you’re in a support group of some kind, make sure you attend a recovery meeting and call your sponsor, another sober person, or a trusted friend either before or after the festivities. Don’t be afraid to head home early if things get too wild for you. The most important thing is to maintain your sobriety, even if that means missing out on some costumed shenanigans.

2. Be honest.

You don’t need to explain to everyone why you’re choosing not to drink, but making sure the people you celebrate with are aware of your decision helps keep you accountable and gives them the opportunity to support you. For those party poopers that insist “it’s a mitzvah!” give them a gentle reminder that we are also supposed to put our health and well-being as a priority. Just as there are exceptions to fasting on Yom Kippur for those who are ill or otherwise at risk (look up pikuach nefesh if you’re not familiar!), there are also exceptions to consuming alcohol when it would endanger our health.

3. Go easy on yourself.

If you relapse or slip up, don’t waste time feeling guilty about it. (We’ve got enough of that already, right?) Take whatever steps you need to get back on track with your recovery. We aren’t infallible by any means, but luckily we get the chance to start over and try again with each new day.

But wait, there’s more! What if you drink, but you want to be there for your sober friends and family?

Advice for supporting Jews in recovery, from a recovering alcoholic:

1. Don’t pry.

If someone says no to a drink, respect their choice to do so and simply offer them an alternative. If they’re comfortable explaining why to you, they’ll say something, and if they aren’t, then just let it go. There are lots of reasons for abstaining from alcohol besides being pregnant or an alcoholic, and it’s not up to us to determine what they are.

2. Have some GOOD non-alcoholic options, for God’s sake.

We sober Jews like to celebrate just as much as everyone else, and frankly, we’d like some options besides water or grape juice. Take this as an opportunity to get wild with your mocktail skills and create something unique and enjoyable. It could even become a staple at seders for years to come.

3. Host a “sober seder.”

If you have lots of friends who are sober, or just a lot of friends who really hate hangovers, consider hosting a sober seder or sober Purim party. Many larger cities put on these events, but if that’s not an option, there’s no reason you can’t start your own!

4. Be supportive.

Above all, listen to what your sober friends and loved ones have to say about their needs during the holidays. These times can be trying for anyone, even a person who has years of sobriety under their belt. Let them know that you’re willing to make accommodations for them and want to support their recovery process. There’s no good reason that anyone should be excluded from celebrating just because they don’t drink.

Hopefully this list helps people in recovery and the ones who love them have holidays full of joy, peace, and treasured traditions. Now excuse me while I go make some kosher sangria. Chag Sameach!

Margot Skinner

Margot Skinner is a surgical technologist and Reform Jew living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They enjoy spending their free time listening to podcasts, baking, and hanging out with their sons (one human, one feline).

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