Olga Chats

...About life, love and Jewish idiosyncrasies

Olga Silverstein, doyenne of family therapy, is the pioneer of Brief Strategic Therapy. Since 1972, she has been senior training supervisor and a faculty member of New York’s Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy. In 1978, Silverstein co-founded the Women’s Project, a collective that critically examines sexism in the practice of family therapy. Her most recent book, The Invisible Web: Gender Patterns in Family Relationships (New York: The Guilford Press, 1988), is co-authored with Elizabeth Carter, Peggy Papp and Marianne Walters, all Women’s Project collaborators.

Silverstein has lectured worldwide. Together with her therapist-daughter Laura Silverstein, she leads seminars on mothers and daughters, presenting a new therapeutic model for intransigent intergenerational problems. Silverstein has three children and one seventeen-year-old grandson. What follows are her observations on some Jewish family situations:

On Who is a Jew

Jews take on the coloration of whomever we’re around. It’s who we are: we adapt and fade into the woodwork by taking on as much of the majority culture’s identity as we can Jews in China become very Chinese.

This is both our strength and our greatest weakness. It is, of course, the only way we can feel safe — particularly since World War II.

On the other had, there are whole groups of young Jews who make counterphobic statements of their Jew-ishness by becoming more religious, even extremely Hasidic. This is their way of saying, “It didn’t save us in Germany and it isn’t going to save us now; we’ve got to make our statement that we are Jews, and we’ve got to stand and fight for it.”

This taking on of coloration is why German Jews are critical of Russian and Polish Jews — because Germans are critical of Russians and Poles. You see, we assume the cultural norms of the particular culture around us. We’re also generally critical of ourselves because we come from cultures that are critical of us.

In the same vein, just as Anglo cultures have more status in the world, so too do the Jews from Anglo countries assume more status. Overall, the Jewish family tries not to be the Jewish family. But, again, there are two poles: We either make too strong a statement of our specialness and difference, or we negate it altogether.

On Whether the American Jewish Family is the Same as the Plain Ol’ American Family

Families are structured around certain basic ideas of life. The Anglo-Saxon family is structured around the basic notion of autonomy — the importance of self-realization, and self-differentiation from the family. This kind of autonomy is absolute anathema to the Jewish family. Jewish families are structured around the idea of community. Obviously, you can see why.

For example, look at it in terms of economics. Early pioneers in the United States had to be autonomous, independent, to go across the Plains and discover America and set up then-whatever….

But for Jews, survival has never consisted of being alone in the universe out in the wilderness. It has always been communal.

Jews never came to this country to settle it. Even if our parent or grandparent came as a maverick, they immediately found a yishuv, a Jewish community.

They did not get on a covered wagon and go out to settle the West. They found themselves a Temple and a Jewish community that they could be part of, and then they spent the rest of their lives bringing over six brothers, three sisters, and two aunts and an uncle.

We have this illusion that we’re like the rest of America and that we’re into autonomy. But that’s nonsense!

On the Jewish Mother

Given the importance of autonomy in our Anglo culture, you can see why the stereotype of the over-involved Jewish mother becomes a caricature. See, the Jewish mother is doing what her Jewish culture has taught her to do — which is to be very involved in the life of her family, to keep the family together, to function powerfully as a central force around which the family can exist. Not just the immediate family, but the whole mishpochah. We’re the only culture in the world that I know of that even has a word for mishpacha. There’s nothing in the English language that relates us to the extended family. And if there’s no word for it, it doesn’t exist.

The Jewish mother is very scary to another culture, to a culture that values, above all, autonomy and individuation of its children.

On Mother-Bashing Within Judaism

We Jews don’t hate our mothers. Oh no no no no. On the contrary, we love our mothers. The reason we punish our mothers is that loving them so much puts us out of sync with our culture. When you go away to college and you’re the only girl in your dorm who loves her mother, you’re in trouble. So you don’t love her; you criticize her. This is even more true, of course, for boys.

It’s a show for the larger culture. A young man cannot love his mother in this Anglo culture because that makes him a mama’s boy. If you’re a mama’s boy — now, there’s nothing worse! That’s the greatest disgrace.

On the Real Role of the Jewish Woman

Minority peoples in general — particularly those who are afraid and in a hostile environment — need to protect their male members. That’s the real role of the Jewish woman, to protect the men.

Black mothers taught their sons to Uncle Tom it. And, if you want to look at it that way, Jewish mothers teach their sons to do the same, with admonitions like, “Don’t be too conspicuous” or, like my mother used to say to us when we came home with all A’s, “Well, that’s very nice, but I don’t like anything that’s overdone.” Everything in moderation. Don’t stand out where people can see you.

The men get that message more strongly than the women because they’re the ones more likely to be perceived as competition by the larger culture. So in the shtetl, the men were encouraged to go into the study house and study; the women protected the men by going to market. Jewish women could have greater access than men publicly because, in general, women are less of a threat.

Then what happens is that the Jewish woman becomes quite independent and capable and that makes her undesirable and unpopular with men. It puts us into the “JAP” stereotype.

On the Messages that Jewish men give to Jewish woman

Jewish women get very confusing messages from Jewish men. Jewish men say “I depend on you to take care of me. I’m going to hide behind your skirt because I might need protection. And I know you’ll provide me with this protection and I value that. But I’m going to make believe that I hate it.”

There is a double message to Jewish women. That we’re so necessary, but it’s a secret that we’re so necessary. Don’t let anybody see it. Don’t let the rest of the world know.

And even though, today, women are professionals, or represent 50 percent of law school students, that doesn’t matter. The cultural injunctions spin on long, long after they’re actually necessary. The emotional stuff has great power. In fact, as the woman becomes more visible in the marketplace, as she becomes a lawyer or rabbi, it becomes ever more obvious that she is capable. And then the illusion, the game that it’s not the way it looks, is shot. You blew the game! And it becomes humiliating. Humiliating to both the man and to the woman.

On a typical Jewish couple in Therapy

Let’s say that this morning I saw a young couple. She’s a lawyer. He’s a professor. She’s saying, “He’s not assertive enough!” She’s very upset and angry. “He’s not assertive enough!’

She perceives him as unassertive not because he is unassertive, but because she’s afraid of her own power and assertiveness. She’s ashamed of it. So she wants him to change — to be more assertive — so that she can be more openly assertive.

She perceives herself as too assertive. Now, what’s going to allow her to be assertive and feel all right about it? If he can be even more assertive than she is, right? Then she can be as assertive as she needs to be.

The Jewish culture is telling her not to be assertive. That’s the illusion: “Jewish women are dependent and needy; they feel entitled. They’re also arrogant and pushy.” It’s a double message: be independent and strong — and look needy.

On the Movie “Crossing Delancy”

I just saw the movie “Crossing Delancy” and I thought, “This isn’t happening in 1988!” I was absolutely appalled. First of all, the old Jewish women are not only portrayed as obnoxious, interfering and pushy — but they are also ugly.

This young woman makes this wonderful speech, “I have a good life. I meet interesting people,” and then she ends up with the pickle salesman. Now they did make him appealing, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the young woman discovers what her grandmother always knew, that the only worthwhile thing for a woman to do is to marry. It doesn’t matter what else — first, marry. There is something here that is unique to Jewish women. Non-Jewish, unmarried women in their mid-thirties are not necessarily more happy than their Jewish counterparts, but they are less anxious. Jewish women have to be married, because it’s our job to pick some poor schnook and take care of him. To find our pickle salesman who desperately needs and wants us, and to serve our life function.

On being gay or Lesbian in the Jewish family

In the Jewish family, it’s a greater affront to be lesbian than to be gay. That is the greatest affront to the Jewish family — to be lesbian. Because, again — our job is definitely not to take care of other women! I mean, two women wasted on each other. Who’s going to take care of the Jewish men? They’re going to end up with a “shiksa.” I mean, think of it.

But a gay male, on the other hand, that’s not so tragic. They have more time to study.

There’s that old Jewish joke of the son saying, “Mom, I just met this wonderful Jewish doctor — but, well, it’s a he.” And the mother answers, “Thank God he’s a Jewish doctor!”

On marrying Out

The period of differentiation, of proving that you’re part of the larger culture, is most powerful in your late teens and early twenties — the marriageable age. Also, the need to assimilate is greater today because of the Holocaust. The generations who reached maturity after the war have an unconscious need not to be one of the victims of the world. Then also, there’s this whole building up of a negative image of both the Jewish female and of the Jewish male. Because where the woman is a “JAP,” the male is a “NERD.” He’s a nebbish; he’s a wimp. This all plays into choosing someone from the non-Jewish world. The strongest impulse, again, is toward becoming invisible.

This presents tremendous conflict for Holocaust kids. Holocaust kids are children of the walking wounded. They’re caught between their loyalty to the parents’ culture and their desire to leave it. They’re in tremendous conflict.

On the Autonomy of the Jewish Woman

There is a myth that Jewish women are independent and autonomous. But what do we mean by “independent?” Is it independent to depend on our care-taking abilities to get us through life? Is that independent? No, I don’t think so. That’s just as dependent. We’re dependent on people who depend on us. Right? To make us feel good, or to make us feel like good women, total women. We need children and nebbish husbands. Independence is definitely not part of the Jewish culture. Forget it. That’s a phony idea. It’s a pseudo-independence that we assume. We have no independence.

On the Generations

I think that young Jewish professional women are less comfortable in their skins than their mothers. I was a very typical Jewish mother until my kids grew up. I mean, I’m a very typical Jewish mother in that I did not go to college until my son went to college. When my son got into Harvard, I went to school. So I was a very typical Jewish mother. But had my son not gotten into school, had he not been a good scholar, I don’t know what I would have done. There’s not a hell of a lot of difference between my daughters and me, although there is a greater conflict for my daughters about how they impact on the men in their lives, on how assertive they can openly be, how successful they can be. The conflict comes in their marital relationships. Always. On account of their fear of stepping out in unsanctioned ways, and of not taking proper care of their men.

The myth of the domineering, loud, outspoken, direct Jewish woman — I don’t see that. Certainly that’s not the one who comes into therapy. I see much more of the woman who is unsure, who’d like to break out, who wants to do something, who’s afraid of what will happen to her, of what will happen to her marriage, to her man.

On “WASP” Woman

It’s very different for a Jewish woman than for a non-Jewish woman — and I’m not talking about Italian women, Greek women. I’m talking about “WASP” women. They have none of this message to “protect men.” None at all. To be the ideal “WASP” family, you have to live autonomously side-by-side, minding your own business and leaving each other alone. Now you may suffer a little bit from lack of intimacy and, uh, coldness, and the kids complain, but… .you have to do it. Because autonomy is the highest value for both male and female; you can’t lean on each other. And that’s why they hate Jewish women. That’s not where you’re supposed to be. Take my example of the female lawyer in therapy. If she was not Jewish, she could be autonomous without conflict. She could be a great lawyer and he could become alcoholic in response, and she would feel that that’s his problem. And she might or might not leave him, but she would go ahead and be a great lawyer and play golf on Sunday and….

On the Jewish Husband

The Jewish male does his part, because as his wife gets more and more free of the family, he gets more and more depressed. I mean, he does his part to bring her back into the system. He gets depressed so that she gets guilty. She get guilty; she get worried; she get angry. She insists that he be more assertive. Which, of course, once you tell somebody to be more assertive — it’s a paradox, you know. The only way to be more assertive when you’re told, is to be more compliant.


So it gets them into this kind of spiral, this bind. It’s a bind for both of them. You want a solution to this problem? (laughing)

Olga Silverstein was interviewed by LILITH’s Special Projects Editor Susan Schnur.