I was raised by a refugee from the Holocaust, who was raised by a refugee from pogroms. The terror my mother must have felt was transmuted into relentless anxiety that attached itself to whatever was at hand. When real crises occurred, she handled them forthrightly; it was the ones that might occur that never stopped plaguing her.
Each time she left her apartment, my mother went back to make sure the stove was off, then recheck that the door was locked, usually more than once. Whenever I wanted to try a new activity, she knew someone who had either died or been severely injured by it. When I wanted to go camping, she informed me that a tree had fallen on her friend’s nephew’s tent. Even walking down the street might be life-threatening—the pharmacist, she reported, was almost hit by a large chunk of ice that came crashing off a building.
The letters I received when I went to college were not filled with anecdotes of the folks back home but with warnings not to ride on motorcycles. In the donut shop where my mother purchased coffee every morning, she asked the clerk to make sure the lid was on tight, twice. Every day.
How could I ever know what was dangerous and what wasn’t? I see-sawed between heedless risk-taking and fear of almost everything. My zest for life and adventure was dampened by the potential for disaster that accompanied any action at all. Making a decision, even a minor one, became fraught with possible dangers that had to be carefully weighed.
On the other hand, I have never had my purse snatched because I learned how to cling to it so that the incipient thieves of the world can’t get it. I have never been mugged, maybe because I’m always aware that everyone on the street could be dangerous. I have learned the term “catastrophize” and am still teaching myself that it does not have to be second nature to assume that someone is dead if they are more than 15 minutes late.
And now can we talk about depression?
Roz Leiser has worked as a nurse and a grief counselor. Her writing has been published in The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications, and she is currently at work on a memoir.
The rabbis of the Talmud were very astute observers of human health and behavior, and were well aware of the corrosive effect worry can have on the mind and body. Indeed, the Talmud seems to have anticipated modern psychosomatic medicine when it tells us, “Worry can kill; therefore let not anxiety enter your heart, for it has slain many a person.” We now know that, indeed, there is an increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease among patients with panic disorder and related conditions.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Talmud instructs us, “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you never know what the day will bring.” So far, so good. But then the rabbis add, “Maybe by the time tomorrow arrives you won’t be here anymore, and you worried about a world that was not yours.” This sounds a bit like Woody Allen’s contribution to the Talmud! Were the rabbis being deliberately paradoxical?
No, I think they were providing us with a way of gaining perspective. After all, if death can come at any time, why worry about “the small stuff,” like whether you’ll get that new car, or meet the next tax deadline? By reminding us of our own mortality, the rabbis—like good therapists—were teaching us to focus on the things in life that really matter.
Ronald Pies is a psychiatrist who teaches at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University School of Medicine. He is the author of Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone.
A few years ago, I went to see the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of New York. An older couple asked me if my grandparents had lived in the neighborhood.
“No, my family came from Poland,” I said. “My parents came to the U.S. after the war.”
“Oh, your parents were survivors?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
There was a look of pity on her face. I’d seen that look before from American Jewish men and women of a certain age. I can well guess what it means: My family life must have been dark, without much joy and hope. Those looks of pity are, however, unnecessary. My parents loved a good story, a good meal, a good joke and a little too much schnapps on holidays. They weren’t anxious. They were determined to live a good life. When my mother died, a Hasidic rabbi came to pay his respects. He said to me as he shook my hand, “Don mameh iz geveyn a krieger.” My mother was a warrior. He was right. So was my father.
I’d like to posit that there are two major cultures that exist in Judaism today. There is the American-Jewish, urban, anxious culture depicted with great humor in movies, books and TV. Worry and fear seem to be the main drivers in this culture. Quite frankly, I don’t understand this culture. It’s nothing I grew up with.
My parents survived World War II because they abandoned that culture. My father ended up in Stalin’s Polish Red Army. My mother, with cunning and resourcefulness, lived through the war years in a gulag in Siberia. They were fighters. When a problem came up in my home, it was handled with efficiency and pragmatism. That’s how I was taught to live. This is the culture not of anxiety, but of what is best expressed in Yiddish: the culture of der shtarker. It’s a culture that demands all to show strength and be resolute. As my father told me time and time again when I was little and had to do something difficult, “Shtark zich, shtark zich.” Make yourself strong.
Like my parents and their friends who survived the war, Israelis follow this culture of swagger and strength. They associate the anxious culture of the pre-war Pale with weakness and, unlike American Jews, have very limited nostalgia for that time. I’m of the view that the culture of anxiousness—of fearing the next pogrom, of walking on eggshells—is of no value. My parents needed to move past it to live a productive life. The citizens of Israel needed to move on to create a new and vibrant country. It would be best if the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Jewish pre-war New York City tenements left it behind as well.