If You’re a Person, You Ask Questions
Lois Braverman, social worker*
Living in Iowa for 32 years, I had no sense at all of psychotherapy as a Jewish field. I chose social work as a feminist; both emphasize the need to understand context: how community, poverty and patriarchy impact one’s relationships and mental health. I cared that social work was a field historically dominated by women, that the field’s foremothers believed that case-workers’ unconditional regard for their clients was essential for change. I loved that Carl Rogers was a student of these women.
In Iowa, I would tell my students that it was good for a Protestant family to see a Jewish therapist, it brought out more of an emotional life, and that Protestant therapists had the advantage of calming things down more quickly.
As a Jew, I felt well-suited to the difficult and core therapeutic skill of asking questions. The Passover seder taught me about being a Jew: that if you’re a person, you ask questions; that everything has multiple answers; that everyone thinks their view is legitimate and correct; that strong exchanges, arguing your point of view, is good. I liked Judaism’s intrinsic validation of different people’s meaning systems, its emphasis on what something means to every single person at the table — to you and to you and to you.
Is She or Isn’t She? Fixating on Whether or Not My Shrink Is Jewish
I’ve been with my shrink for 10 years and I really really don’t want to know if she’s Jewish. Her last name is unidentifiable. She could be Jewish, she laughs in the right places. But I’m a professor of Middle Eastern Studies, I profess support for both Israelis and Palestinians, so I have a backlog of getting attacked by both sides. If I knew my shrink was Jewish, I’d have to deal with more of this. Besides, if you’re Jewish, no one else is ever exactly the right kind of Jew. I carry around a lot of disappointment about how other Jews are Jewish, so if my shrink were Jewish, I’d have to feel my judgment of her. Not knowing is good avoidance. I don’t have to experience the unsafety of our specific differences.
But what if my shrink is a Jewishly illiterate Jew? She probably is, I have to explain Hebrew words to her. It’s so widespread not to have competence around your Judaism; it’s the only area where Jews are proud to be illiterate. We’re proud to be assimilated, that we can “pass.” Being Jewish is not like having black skin or being in a wheelchair — identities that force you to think about your difference. Jews have the complicated luxury of not having to articulate identity. If my shrink and I spoke about this in the room, whoof! Our avoidance of this topic, after 10 years, is probably bad.
But if I found out she was not Jewish…. Well, her husband has a more Jewish name, but the way he pronounces it isn’t Jewish. Maybe he’s from the South, maybe he grew up in a place where no one knew how to pronounce a Jewish name. If I found out that he’s Jewish and she’s not? That would explain a lot, that she doesn’t have an affect I peg as Jewish, but she still seems to “get” it. People who are smart, warm, alternative — they seem Jewish to me, but I know that’s just a feeling, a prejudice that’s not always true.
But if I found out she is Jewish? It would be fine. I don’t know. Either way. That’s why I haven’t pushed it. Maybe on some level, I do assume she is. I so treasure the intelligence and angle that she brings to what I bring that the question of Jewishness becomes irrelevant. I feel so “seen” and “held” by her… so she’s probably Jewish. But she doesn’t know a lot of the details of Jewishness, which of course doesn’t make me think she’s not Jewish.
Anyway, it’s a great pleasure bringing my shrink my interpretation of a parsha, how I interpret it as meditation instructions. I love turning people on to the underlying spiritual dimensions of Judaism, the Four Worlds. So maybe my compulsive teaching trumps whether I care if she’s Jewish or not. Nah, that’s bullshit.
A patient, Boca Raton, FL*
If I go to a Jewish shrink and tell her my mother was a child refugee during the Holocaust, it’s like, bingo! there’s 10 years of therapy right there. If I tell it to a non-Jewish therapist,
“Oh, isn’t that interesting. Tell me more.”
“No, I don’t want to tell you more. I don’t want to educate you about it.”
I go to this male, Jewish, eccentric psychiatrist. He was taking my history and I mentioned my mother was a child refugee during the Holocaust.
“So you have that,” he said, and then went on to his next question.
Karen Propp, Boston, MA
My husband and I have been in couples counseling with both Jewish and non-Jewish therapists, and with the non-Jewish ones, we had much better outcomes. Jewish styles tend toward enmeshment, that big-bosomed thing, and with three Jews in the room we’d feel engulfed, like you’re going to overwhelm them, they’re going to overwhelm you. It was hard to separate “good” close from “bad” close.
Non-Jewish therapists with very strong boundaries, very clear; warm, but not in a frightening way — that’s a better match. They’re going to hold back. It’s very safe.
A psychiatrist, Austin, Texas
Going to Jewish therapists would feel, ugh, claustrophobic, unsafe, like they were my parents. But a lot of what I want to talk about in therapy directly or indirectly involves Jews or Judaism, and I often feel worried about confirming a stereotype that I imagine my non-Jewish therapist might deep-down believe. So the subject of Judaism has actually never come up explicitly in my own sessions…or in my work.
As a burgeoning social worker, Freud and psychoanalysis seem so old-fashioned compared to Buddhism and mindfulness; I’m very interested in mindfulness-based practices. Still, psychoanalytic theory feels so familiar, so Jewish, something I grew up in.
A client and student-clinician, Bloomington, IN
After losing my mother at a young age, 24, I chose a therapist who would be my surrogate Jewish mother. My mother couldn’t stand anyone leaving her; if I packed to go away, she had to physically leave the house. When she got sick, I switched schools and a career track to care for her. I had a brother, a medical miracle, whom my parents overprotected until he died.
My mother didn’t want me far from her for reasons I understood only posthumously; when people had left her, she never saw them again. She became separated from her family at age nine during the Holocaust. My father, too. I didn’t know this. They never cried in their coffee.
I needed a therapist who was strong like my mom, with a lot of saichel about life; someone who would champion my living my own life, who would be incredibly instrumental to my growing up; someone kind and caring who would show me how to become the professional I wanted to be.
I also needed a therapist who treasured Judaism as life-affirming and celebratory. I never knew the joy of Judaism. The joy? I had to shed the shame and the victim-feeling to emerge into the beauty of Judaism and go forth with a happy life.
It’s a story of healing. I did a Jewish mother transference; that’s what I needed to do.
A client, Bethesda, MD*
For many years I saw this psychiatrist who had a German-sounding first name, maybe a German last name; he was very formal, with high boundaries, closed off, and he sat way the hell on the other side of the room. I’d have fantasies about him being a Nazi. He used to open his home-office door and then put on his suit jacket.
One day I go and, oh my God, there’s a menorah in the window! My shrink’s a Jew. My internal process shifted after that. I saw him as more like me; maybe he wasn’t such a frightening Other; he was a known Other. His being Jewish let me talk more about his distance; it felt more profound. I was more in touch with my yearning, my wish for us to know each other, to have a shared experience. If he wasn’t a Nazi, why was he so fucking closed off, why did he sit in yenemsvelt, a thousand miles away? Who does that? Maybe a yekkie.
After that, I was free to realize we were a terrible match.
Anonymous, psychiatrist, toronto *