The ways a psychotherapist discovers she's a Jew

I am a family therapist. I am a feminist family therapist. I am a Jewish feminist family therapist. Why do my feelings and reactions change so dramatically when I read out loud, “I am a Jewish feminist family therapist”?

Because I have never thought of my religion and culture as playing a significant part in my work. Because, though I have not hidden the fact, I have never been publicly identified as a Jewish therapist. To be active as a feminist, questioning sexist biases in family therapy is one thing (and often a lonely thing); to be known additionally as a Jew, only seems to increase the isolation and marginality.

I write here about counter-transference, about how my Judaism affects my reaction to clients, and subtly shapes the therapeutic process. I write with some shame, because this is the first time I have really acknowledged the Jewish part of myself as a therapist.

A trainee of mine (I train graduate students and experienced clinicians in marital and family therapy) is a young man who, through his own deeply committed quest, has become an Orthodox Jew. A yarmulke, bobby pinned to his hair, proclaims this. One day, I asked the trainees what each of them felt self-conscious about that might influence’ the therapy process. Everyone enumerated facts such as their wealth, the suicide death of a parent, being single, being too young to give advice to parents struggling with delinquent children. I do not remember the response of the young man – only that he did not mention his yarmulke. What I do remember was my shocked amazement. How could he ignore the obvious? How could he be so comfortable with a badge that publicly marked him, in a community that knew almost nothing about Judaism, with clients who almost always stared at the rarely-seen headpiece? Did I also feel some anger that his visible tribute to Judaism rendered my own Jewishness more visible?

A gentle, depressed, self-absorbed man sits across from me in my office. Bright and articulate, he easily wields psychological jargon that does little to alleviate his inner pain. Attractive, he is just slightly overweight. He is wonderfully emotional, a characteristic that I usually am delighted to find in men. But he focuses on his weakness, his dependence on his lovers. Under stress, he whines — even as he talks about his strong support of his fragile family. As he bemoans the fact that he feels embarrassed when he works out at a local gym, I feel both empathy and irritation.

Much as I care for him, I am impatient. Not simply as a therapist, but as a woman. And not just as a woman, but as a Jewish woman facing a Jewish man. How I wish he could retain and cultivate the sweet loyal emotional side of him, yet toughen it with aggressive self-assurance and passion.

Would I feel differently if he were not Jewish? I am just beginning to recognize that the images I carry of Jewish men and their relationships to women and family are less than flattering. Would I feel differently if I were not Jewish? The complex dance between female therapist and male client is intense, full of unexpected binds and pulls — but the added dimension of Jewishness deepens and complicates my feelings when I least expect it to.

Her accent is delicate but her personality is tough and strong. She is a survivor in every sense of the word, having fled Europe while her father was losing his life in the camps, bringing her mother to America with her. Her mother never stopped mourning, and my client dedicated her life both to her mother’s unending sadness and to her own children.

Now, many years later, her youngest child has moved far away to another state and is reluctant to come home for the High Holidays. She is complaining about him — angrily describing his distance while denying that it means much to her, affirming his maturity and that he has his own life — while at the same time berating him for leaving her and the family. I testily make a comment about his need for distance, feeling she is aware only of her own loss, and not of his struggle to balance his loyalty to his mother with his wish to build a life of his own.

She and I struggle. This struggle feels uncannily personal, rather than therapeutic. I stop, all too aware of the seeds within me: I live 1700 miles away from my family a move taken years ago out of emotional necessity as my mother and I began the difficult process of creating two adult selves in a relationship. My client’s pained, angry struggle with her son activates the emotional layers of my own development and my feelings of love, loyalty, anger, fear of rejection, fear of disappointing, needing to breathe, wanting to reassure. But even as I name my feelings which are leading me into a futile struggle with her, I am unable to tame them. And it all feels so Jewish.

The couple bickers endlessly in my office. Immigrant Americans, their talk is peppered with Yiddish sayings, some of which I recognize from my childhood, others which exclude me by their unfamiliarity. The constant haranguing is comforting. I flash to a time when I was intellectually sparring with a Jewish mentor of mine during a research meeting. Our emotionally-contained New England born colleague was visibly discomforted. My mentor said, “Don’t worry. This is how Jews make love.”

So too with this couple. I move easily in their medium: kvetching, recriminations. But the underlying hostility also discomforts me. When I press for what fuels their anger, sadness emerges. It is not just the sadness of this moment, this marriage. It is the sadness of two Jews who carry the Holocaust with them; who carry a vision of life as dangerous and depriving; who cling to, yet resent the way they’re different from others; who rail at God and can never find solace. I am overwhelmed not just as a therapist but as a Jew who empathizes with their view of the world.

I remember a male colleague working with another Holocaust couple, who broke down and began to weep in a supervision meeting — a Jew mourning Jews. Now I think, What can my therapeutic tools provide this couple? Gradually, my shame about being a Jew begins to recede. Cliched as this may be, I feel some relief from this simple act of naming — naming a part of myself long denied.

In the midst of writing this article, I began teaching a new class. On the first day, I gave my trainees a simple exercise: “Teach us about your name. Tell us where it came from, whether you like it, its significance to you and to your family and in this class.” We go around the circle, people telling funny tales and poignant stories. I am the last one. I’ve done this exercise many times, but this time, I say something completely new: “Listening to you, I am surprised to realize that some of your names were picked out of baby name books or because your mother liked a certain flower, or because your Dad has the same name. I am a Jew, and most Jews name children after someone real and beloved who has died. I am Michele Louise, and have the Hebrew name of Malka Leah. I am named after my father’s mother and my mother’s father. I have never thought much about my Jewishness until recently. Now I do not know what to think, but only that I have begun something unsettling. That will be a part of what I bring into this year and our work together.”

Michele Bograd is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, MA. She is core faculty member at the Kantor Family Institute in Somer-ville, and co-editor of Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988).