Mind, Body & Spirit

This Jewish drummer, 24, is busking up the California coast to stomp out Crohn’s disease

Gideon Grossman wants to use his drumming skills to raise money for research into a cure for Crohn's disease, a condition he has had for years. (Screenshot from YouTube)

(JTA) — Gideon Grossman taps out rapid hip-hop beats on his compact setup of bucket drums. He beams at the camera. His drumming is so effortless, it’s hard to believe he suffers from a sometimes-crippling gastrointestinal disease.

In addition to flawless rhythm, Grossman has Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract that usually manifests itself through chronic diarrhea and abdominal pain. As yet there is no cure.

Grossman, 24, is a lanky and cheerful New Jersey native who’s relying on his charm and talent to launch an ambitious effort to raise money for research into Crohn’s and other inflammatory bowel diseases, or IBD, like ulcerative colitis.

This week, Grossman is launching Busking for Crohn’s. With that, he’ll be banging his bucket drums up the California coast, from San Diego to San Francisco, and will donate his proceeds to the American Gut Project at the University of California, San Diego. He believes the project, which focuses on mapping the human body’s systems of bacteria, is the most promising in the field of IBD research. His goal is to raise $10,000.

For Grossman, it’s an opportunity “to fuse together the two interests of mine,” he told JTA. In the spring, he was kicking around the idea of a California road trip, he said.

“I decided, ‘You know what? I want to add this other element of passion from my personal history and my life and make this trip more fulfilling than just roaming around,'” Grossman said.

Doctors believe that Crohn’s disease — first identified by Jewish doctor Burrill Crohn in 1932 — is at least partly a result of an abnormal immune system response to gut bacteria caused by genetic mutations and environmental factors. It affects about 700,000 Americans, but Ashkenazi Jews are up to four times more likely to have it than the average non-Jew of European descent.

But the field of IBD research is still fuzzy. One doctor told the Forward in 2011 that the kosher diet and other sanitary habits of 20th-century Jews (Crohn’s and colitis symptoms were virtually undocumented before the 20th century) could have left their immune systems ill prepared to deal with certain bacteria. In 2012, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers discovered five genetic markers that could help explain the high rates of Crohn’s among Ashkenazim.

Busking is a relatively new pursuit for Grossman, something he’s done since graduating from Princeton in 2014. In addition to on-and-off gigs as a software developer, he’s been honing his bucket drumming skills while busking in different places he has lived, like New York City, Tel Aviv and Hawaii.

“[It’s] a nerve-wracking hobby, but that nervousness is what makes me feel so alive while performing,” he said in a video promoting his project. “Transforming a dull subway platform into a stage, and converting passers-by who didn’t buy tickets into an audience, is an incredibly unique experience.”

For Grossman, who attended a New Jersey day school and grew up observing Shabbat, his Crohn’s symptoms first appeared at sleepaway camp before his senior year of high school. He had diarrhea some six times a day, lost weight and started to feel tired participating in the sports he loved, like soccer and swimming. He became nervous and kept the symptoms to himself, wary of talking about his troubles in the bathroom.

When his mother came to pick him up at the end of the summer, she could tell something was wrong. So he explained his stomach struggles.

“Any Jewish mother does not like to hear that,” Grossman said. “We didn’t go home, we went straight to the hospital.”

After a long diagnostic process — an initial colonoscopy found nothing, but eventually an ingestible pill camera invented by Israelis identified Crohn’s markers — Grossman took solace in learning about the different realms of Crohn’s research.

The American Gut Project, one of the world’s largest crowdsourced scientific research projects, caught Grossman’s attention. Using samples mailed in from people across the country, project co-founder and UC San Diego professor Rob Knight and other researchers compare what a healthy person’s bacteria networks look like against those found in someone with a hard-to-understand disease like Crohn’s.

If they can identify the differences, then curing Crohn’s could potentially be as easy as changing one’s diet to cultivate certain types of bacteria, project manager Embriette Hyde explained to JTA. But there’s a catch: As of now, there’s no telling whether one’s bacteria makeup is a cause or an effect of IBD.

As for Grossman, he didn’t let his Crohn’s diagnosis prevent him from playing music. He had played drums for years in various bands and in the school marching band, but moving into a New York apartment didn’t allow for that type of noise (or space). So he began to play on the quieter buckets — something he calls much harder than playing a full kit. By the time he moved to Maui to work for a startup, he was comfortable playing around the island’s beaches. His Crohn’s disease was also in remission, helped by injections of the anti-inflammatory drug Humira.

Grossman’s $10,000 goal for Busking for Crohn’s is a lofty one — the most he’s made busking in one day is about $40, at the Tayelet promenade in Tel Aviv, he said. (His website is also taking donations.)

In addition to busking, Grossman will raise awareness by conducting interviews with experts and posting content on a Facebook page. He plans to update his location — which will be determined, at least in part, by where he finds a place to crash — through a Twitter account. He has lined up overnight stops in Southern California, from the home of a 70-year-old retired woman in Escondido to a friend-of-a-friend’s place in Los Angeles. He said he’s also started reaching out to synagogues en route to see if they would be interested in having him speak to fellow Jews about the disease.

Following the tour, Grossman hopes to enlist others across the country in the busking cause.

“If other people want to contribute, if they play music or sing or do gymnastics or breathe fire, if they want to do some busking for the same cause in their city, maybe it’s something more people will be involved with,” he said.