Anxiety and Judaism: the two seem to go hand-in-hand. From Moses to Franz Kafka to Woody Allen, the tradition is filled with worriers and hand-wringers. This year’s Elephant in the Room Contest—Moment‘s annual initiative to foster conversation about important but seldom-discussed topics–asks readers to tell us about their experiences with anxiety. We spoke with Jeffrey Cohen, Senior Visiting Fellow in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales and author of A Rabbi Looks at Mental Illness, about Jews’ anxious history and what Judaism can bring to the treatment of mental illness. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Are Jews more anxious than other people? Is there truth to the idea of the anxious Jew?
It’s a requirement, isn’t it? I think Mediterranean societies are inherently prone to anxiety. They’re rather intense and rather anxious. There’s a sense that Jews are also inherently anxious because of our history. You’re always looking over your right shoulder to see who’s going to come and bop you on the head. We’re inherently anxious because we’re always worrying about what does tomorrow hold? Will we be safe? It’s almost like Fiddler on the Roof—will I be wealthy or poor? Will the world around me change? It’s particularly true when you deal with children of survivors—the idea of always keeping two passports because you never know which one’s going to be canceled on you, which was rather scary the first time I heard it. We think of America being a safe place, and yet people are always saying, “Keep a second passport.” When you deal with children and grandchildren of survivors, they’ve learned this anxiety. Even those of us who are not children of survivors have picked that up. Also, with the Middle East crisis, we’re anxious about what’s going to happen in that part of the world.
Is there a reason Jews would want to hold on to this anxiety? Is it serving some purpose?
Those in the past very much used it. Parents who would say, “If you don’t do this, Jews will be wiped out.” I think the children born in Generation Y are not picking up that level of anxiety. That’s one of the reasons why my generation worried about intermarriage—the next two generations haven’t had that anxiety. There’s always that anxiety: Will there be the Jewish people tomorrow or, to quote Jonathan Sacks, will I have Jewish grandchildren? That’s very much the anxiety of those born post-war, whereas the next generation has not worried about it in the same way.
Is there anything unique that Judaism can bring to the treatment of mental illness?
If you get into the traditional Jewish cycle of things, such as Yom Kippur, there’s that sense of being able to let go of things. The gates of repentance are always open. No matter how bad things are, Jews will forgive, which is one of those important things which enables people to let go of things. There are so many things you see in the general world which are sort of Jewish, and we claim those. Something as simple as AA—that’s a very Jewish model, when you think about it. You hand it over to God and you let go, which are basically the first two steps of any 12-step program. Worrying about the sort of God you talk to is peripheral; it’s basically being able to let it go. If you have biological mental illness—things like personality disorders and episodal depression—I think religion can give you a safety net. If it’s done well, it’s a safe place for family members. Unfortunately, the last place they feel safe is in the community, with the sociological stigma that can be brought if the community is not caring. The fact that there are programs in the Jewish community for people with mental illness and mental retardation, which didn’t exist before, has opened the door. I think there are more facilities the community’s prepared to put in place which weren’t there a generation ago.
How does the Jewish community compare to other communities in terms of treatment of people with mental illness?
The ideal communities are people like Mennonites and the Amish. They will castigate themselves if a person has to leave the community to go into care, because it means that they’ve failed to be supportive of the person. Then you get right through to the traditional denial, which is reflected in many faith communities, or just “pull yourself up by bootstraps.” One of the troubles is mental illness is in the same continuum as alcohol and drug dependencies; the way a community sees that in relation to mental illness will relate to which is treated more. In communities where mental illness is considered worse, people will use drugs as self-medication, because being a drug addict is less of an evil than being mentally ill. In other communities, where alcohol or drug addiction is seen as worse, mental illness is treated more easily. Why do people like Freud and Alfred Adler come from the Jewish community? The Jewish community has more of an understanding of mental illness than it does of addictions. The fact that we have groups now for addiction is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not as acceptable as it could be.
Read more about our Elephant in the Room Contest–and enter your submission–here. This year’s contest is a partnership between Moment and the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety. (Sketch of Franz Kafka courtesy of Shutterstock.)