Let’s Make a Big Deal Out of Everything
Judith Rabinor, clinical psychologist, New York*
I treat eating disorders and I say to my patients, I feel like a friggin’ talmudic scholar, turning over every behavior, every dream, every word. There’s not one reason that someone gets an eating disorder; it’s a metaphor for all these issues underneath. We investigate, we investigate, we investigate. That’s what therapists do. Also, therapists don’t have to stay on topic. Is that Jewish? Maybe. What I love about a session is you don’t have a goal; the goal is to investigate.
I don’t love being in synagogue, but I love the concept of a mishkan, a sanctuary. People need a safe place; they need to feel their body is safe, but it’s something they’re angry about, they fight, they can’t breathe and relax. So my office becomes their mishkan.
A lot of my work is to help people learn that having company in life makes life better. Judaism strongly believes in not being alone — a study partner, a marriage, a community, a minyan. I had an eating disordered patient who didn’t want to join a group. “I don’t want to tell anyone about my eating disorder, why would I join a group?” But then she was like a mother in that group, her disorder got so much better.
Therapists do not tolerate elephants in a room. We call it out. That feels Jewish. I’m always looking for elephants. Often we don’t know what the elephant is. That’s what I’m doing; underneath the story there’s another story. One elephant? There are elephants under elephants. People are mysterious, things are never what you think, there’s never a one-to-one. Toilet training?…you can never say one thing causes another. I think this is very Jewish, do you?
I saw this movie, the story of Otto Frank, with old newsreels of concentration camps and barbed wire, and he says, “I would shovel shit, but in my head I was playing Mozart.” We’re all always playing something in our head, and that’s more powerful than reality. If you think it’s freezing, it’s freezing. I think it’s very Jewish to think about what you think. That’s one goal for me, that people stop being mad at themselves and they kind of understand they are a big puzzle and they come to appreciate complexity, to embrace it.
I do think that Jews live with more dread …that things happen, we know that, like other discriminated-against people. Empathy is a key component of being Jewish. At our seder, we know it’s not them who crossed the Red Sea, it’s us, all of us at any time who are ever hurt. We cross the Red Sea.
Anne Frank introduced me to the power of the internal world; she kept a journal. I was 10, 12, the same age as Anne, and my grandmother took me to Broadway to see The Diary of Anne Frank, this heroic little girl who was imprisoned in this room, but could still see the light. The next day I started a journal. I felt, I want to help people who have problems. There was such a richness to Anne’s inner world.
The idea of delving into unhappiness, my mother and father were very big on, “Go out and get some fresh air, it will make you feel better,” but I knew I would feel better if I talked to my best friend. “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing” — that was kind of the “subtitle” of The Diary.
When I became a therapist, I thought, “Oh my God, I get paid to do the thing I like best in the world, talking to people deeply,” and I feel I’m very good at getting under the main menu. But I also have lots of patients writing in journals like Anne Frank; I want them to get to know themselves. This is nice, but it’s 45 minutes a week, what else can you do when you feel really alone at night?
My grandmother was a writer, but my mother was into shopping, not the internal world. I felt sad because my best friend dropped me. If my best friend dropped me, I felt destroyed, bereft, there were traumas all over my life. My mother felt you get over things. I’ve gone into a field where you make a big deal out of everything; this is talmudic. You think you’re overweight because you love chocolate, and I think you love chocolate because you were missing a real sense of nurturance and nourishment in your life. You remember eating whole candy bags when you were five, you think you were a sneaky girl, sneaking candy. I think you were a sad girl. It’s more, for me, that I felt that talking deeply was the best thing in the world.
My mother was boring … okay, now I have compassion on her. She was a cultured woman, but she went to the opera and would tell me what people wore, she could talk on and on about sales in Bloomingdales, what people ate in restaurants. I didn’t want to grow up to have endless conversations, “How do you slice the tomatoes?” “Ma, any way you slice them, it’s okay with me.”
The thing with me is, I love listening to stories, any stories, long boring stories that nobody else wants to listen to. I can have a conversation that someone else would die from. I just feel that if you listen long enough, with a broad enough lens, you hear so many things in the story. I like this intensity — that I think is part of the Jewish spirit. I have this very big New York clang to my personality, very Jewish, and I just feel it’s me. I’m very proud of being Jewish, I don’t mind if I sound like a New York Jew.
I once gave a talk in the Midwest, I was talking about how I talk to patients about food, about how rabbinic it is to find out exactly how someone eats their bagel. So I’ll say to a young girl, “Tell me about the bagel, how you eat the bagel.” She’ll say, “I eat the bagel without dough.” Someone raises her hand, “What is a bagel without dough?” I explain that in New York there are different ways of eating bagels. This patient of mine was picking out the dough. In talking about all the rituals that go along with eating, you get a sense of a person and then you can ask, “What are the other rituals in your life?” We all have established rituals about food, and so from there we slide into everything. That’s Jewish.