Therapy Feels Very New Jersey
Anne Waldoks, clinical psychologist, Boston*
Growing up in Teaneck, NJ, my family would often visit my grandmother in Leonia, in a little split-level shared by the larger family. My grandmother downstairs, my uncle and his family in the central house, and my cousin’s family on the third floor. We would come over, a lot of women, and there were two kitchens, but my grandmother’s little kitchen downstairs, that’s where the action was. Everything got talked about — every aspect of everybody’s problems and glories, and the state of the world.
Like in many Jewish homes, a lot of talking about feelings happened around the children; the adults were completely comfortable with that. It was part of life’s fabric to express feelings, to be at home with anger — like in Italian families, of which New Jersey has lots. WASPS are not so comfortable talking about, or even thinking about, feelings, but my family, like most Jewish ones, was warm, come-right-in, permeable boundaries. It was beckoning, but it’s the good with the bad…. And Jewish women are power holders at home, we’re confident about that, so we set the tone, and what do we do? We talk about feelings. Maybe this is why Jewish men are so often emotionally available.
From the youngest age, I sat next to my dad in shul, playing with his tzitzis and having the Torah stories trickle in. I felt like Jewish life was built around studying people’s lives: what did Moses do, and Rebecca, and Joseph; it was the highest value to examine lives, to overcome obstacles in being human, to think about the consequences in all relationships — intergenerational, business, peer — how we all struggle with being human. The people in the Torah, they were all flawed! We don’t have a Jesus ideal; there was no expectation that any person would achieve grace and perfection. Jews take it for granted that if you’re human, you have interesting stuff to work on.
When Jewish women think about choosing a profession, being a therapist feels like an important and worthy thing to do. As Jews in a Christian host country, we see ourselves as “different from.” Jews are a quirky people. We’re interested in how we are different, as a people, as individuals. It’s not just “let’s fix it.” It’s “let’s be interested and informed about difference. Let’s strive to be known.”
As a psychologist, I sit there thinking, “I’m so here for you!” We’re two people sitting in a room together, and the goal is for me to give you permission to be totally known. I strive to extend that invitation. I tie this in emotionally to the New Jersey ethos that I grew up in: women as tummlers, all the women in the Bible working the family system.
For me, coming-of-age in the 1970’s, there was a funny glass ceiling for how professional I could be as a woman. In my circle, becoming a doctor would have been a little too much for the girl in the family; there was some sexism, girls shouldn’t do all that. Being a psychologist, this was the closest I could get to being a doctor. The directness, the emotional complexity, being so in the mix — it feels very Jewish to me, very New Jersey. Sitting and talking to somebody is like breathing and swallowing.
I love New Jersey.