“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
As a kid, I remember sitting in the main dining hall for Shabbat lunch, a long-standing tradition at my elementary/middle school. Every Friday, the elementary school students sat in the long, close-quartered cafeteria tables, while the middle school students were privileged enough to sit at the large roundtables with white linens and bread baskets filled with warm, round challahs. It was the biggest thrill for me as a fifth grader to walk into my first Friday lunch and get to sit at the big tables! Each week, a different table acted as the “head table” and each person at that table helped to lead a different prayer in the service—light the candles, break the bread, and of course, toast the wine.
Or, in our case, we toasted the grape juice.
As I look back at that time, I’m reminded that our religion is filled with tradition and celebration, including our weekly homage to Shabbat, when we are commanded by God to welcome each week’s end by consuming an alcoholic beverage. Is this right? Is this good? As kids, even though we were drinking grape juice, we were pretending to drink wine, were we not? Back then, I liked grape juice, so much that whenever someone was sick in class, I always asked for their allocated juice cup. But once I got older and learned about the tradition of drinking wine not only on Shabbat but also on other Jewish holidays, I wondered why the Jewish community felt it was necessary to drink on these occasions, and even questioned whether this had any kind of effect on us on a genetic level.
After doing a bit of research, I found some interesting answers to my questions. The Center for the Advancement of Health says that a particular gene found in the Jewish people is also one that, “produces a more active form of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the first step in alcohol metabolism.” In other words, in a culture that seems to encourage drinking, there appears to be a gene that naturally helps us metabolize alcohol more quickly. Ten years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York City had an exhibit sponsored by Seagram & Sons called “Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times” that examined the alcohol production and drinking customs in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East over the past 5000 years. No surprise: it included “sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls dealing with the ancient Jewish festival for new wine”.
Whether or not genetics have anything to do with it, as a real life bartender, watching people consume alcohol for a living, I know it’s the choices we make that count. For us as Jews, it’s both a religious commandment and a cultural privilege. We are able to acknowledge and revere the fruits of our Creator without denying ourselves any enjoyment. For many Jews, raising a glass of wine every Friday at sundown was, and still is, one of our most important traditions; for others, it is evokes a lifelong heartwarming memory of childhood, and of everything that made it all possible.
And by the way, even though I pour and taste lots of wine for a living – and I mean LOTS – I still prefer grape juice.