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Busking across California for Crohn’s disease

Gideon Grossman is using his drumming skills to raise money for research into a cure for Crohn's disease.

Gideon Grossman is using his drumming skills to raise money for research into a cure for Crohn’s disease.

LOS ANGELES — 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. He’ll be banging his bucket drums up the California coast 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.

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. Ashkenazi Jews are up to four times more likely to have it than the average non-Jew of European descent.

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 in different places he has lived, like 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  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.

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  caught Grossman’s attention. Using samples mailed in from people across the country, 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 become 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.

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. So he began to play on the quieter buckets.

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.

He is reaching out to synagogues en route to see if they would be interested in having him speak to fellow Jews about the disease.

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