What is a your task-as a therapist-when a Jewish woman becomes your client? Very often therapists assume that Jewish identity is unimportant to their clients. But that assumption may be wrong.
The woman you know as a radical lesbian carpenter may have spent hours of her childhood in Hebrew school. Ask her about her Jewish identity. What did those hours mean to her? And don’t assume that you know what a given Jewish ritual means to a client. Ask. A friend of mine once told her therapist that she didn’t want to schedule an appointment for Yom Kippur. “What, do you need to pray or something?” cracked the therapist, evoking in my friend feelings of exposure, shame and alienation. That therapist could have asked a real question: “What does Yom Kippur mean to you?” Your first task as a therapist is not to assume you understand. Assume you need to listen and learn:
Children and Family. The decision to have or. not have children and the meaning of family have particular weight in the Jewish community, as in other minority communities, especially those subjected to genocide. The people’s survival has depended on the strong family, and on the woman’s reproductive performance. To take a simple example, the therapist who sees in a Jewish woman’s anguish about whether or not to have a child only a classic feminist dilemma may miss a dynamic of which even the client herself may be unaware.
Money. To many non-Jews, Jews are money. A friend tells me that whenever she mentions money in therapy sessions she feels intense anxiety, lest her therapist click into anti-Semitic stereotypes. Jews’ relationship to money is further complicated by the dramatic class shifts many of us have experienced in our own or in our parents’ lifetimes.
Alienation. The non-Jewish or assimilated Jewish therapist needs to consider that the woman who looks to her like a “normal white woman” has experienced in her own life or through her parents’ experience serious alienation and even danger from being Jewish; thus the question of Jewish paranoia asserts itself. Many of us were taught that the world is dangerous because the world is dangerous. A therapist who treats this fear as pathology seriously misses the point. A friend whose father survived the Holocaust tells of her reluctance to mention Hitler to her therapist; her fear is that her deepest loyalty and rage, her commitment to Jewish survival and memory will be defined as pathology, therapized away.
“The Real Jew.” Any minority culture which has encountered the force of American assimilation has lost much of itself. Some Jews have lost more than others, and often we feel ashamed of this loss. Many of us have only one Jewish parent, or received no religious education, or have a partner who is not Jewish. From a relatively homogeneous culture not so many generations back we have developed a tremendous range of experience and relationships to Jewishness, but without a corresponding sense that this range is valid, acceptable. Jews tend to feel judged by other Jews as not Jewish enough; this projection includes our own self-judgement, and makes us either undermine our sense of self or turn from Jewish community.
There is also the issue of how to define the self. Traditional therapy focuses on an individual’s exploration and healing; its very bias runs counter to the bias of Jewish culture, which is toward the collectivity. Not that the individual should be sacrificed to the community, but that the individual is profoundly connected to the community, so profoundly that separation is not truly possible without extreme loss.
But even feminist therapists who understand perfectly well that the personal is political, that the family and community conflict may be worth probing instead of escaping, who know better than to idealize individuation and demean connectedness—still these same feminists sometimes miss the point about Jewishness and see it only as an archaic construct to shed.
In addition, Jews have fuzzy boundaries. Boundaries between the self, the family, and community. Between the generations. Between history and the present. Between national identity and identification across national lines with the Jewish people. Even one’s body is barely one’s own. A friend says, You return from the toilet, and everyone wants to know: did you go? The nosiness characteristic of Jewish culture relates both to responsibility and danger; if you constantly monitor information, you may be able to ward off disaster.
How do I live my life if it is not my own? There are injunctions directed at me, as a Jewish member of a larger entity, the Jewish people; as a female member of this same entity; and as a woman. They all agree on one point; Everyone else is more important than I am. As a Jewish woman, I need protection against these injunctions. But the therapist who attempts to point out the danger without grasping also the positive life-affirming aspect of Jewish culture forfeits my trust.
I know that not every Jewish woman who seeks therapy wants to address her Jewishness; nor would I presume to dictate the form this work should take (though as a secular Jew I will also confess to disappointment that so much of it, related to or independent from therapy, has centered on religion). But since Jewishness is a collective endeavor, the work to reclaim it will be pursued with other Jewish women, in study groups, cultural activities, as well as political work as Jews. Therapists need to understand that this work can in itself constitute a healing, and that it takes courage.
When Jewish women criticize mainstream or traditional Judaism, or when we criticize Israel, it feels like splitting the family. And it feels like our fault. As daughters in Jewish homes, many of us learned to shore up the family, to protect it. Much of the work any of us do in therapy includes unlearning this protection, a counter-education that may be, as I’ve said, especially frightening for minorities, including Jews.
Are we dividing the Jewish people and exposing them to danger? Are we abandoning our fathers and brothers whom we were trained to flatter and protect? Will the community of Jews reject us and will we then be alone, hated by both Jews and non-Jews? What does it mean to raise charged and potentially divisive issues in a group that seemed, up until the disruption, to be getting on fine? It can provoke in us great longing and dread.
In addition, for Jews who felt constrained by the growing-up demands of their family or Jewish community, and-who may have created some freedom through distance, the thought of engaging with any level of Jewishness will feel like rejoining the family, with all the attendant conflict.
Therapists must help us, then, to understand why we are afraid, deeply, irrationally afraid of our own power. We’re afraid of sexism. Anti-Semitism. We’re afraid of division, of anger. We’re constrained by our own ignorance of Jewish history and culture, by our lack of pride in who we are, our lack of trust in one another. We’re reluctant to rejoin a family we gratefully escaped.
Therapy’s task is to help us recognize our fears and welcome our strengths, to help us create this world not in spite of who we are, but because of it.