Anxiety is not exclusively a Jewish trait, although as a people long subject to persecution, we continue to pass it on to our children.
When I was 18, I left home to spend a year in Tel Aviv. There, thousands of miles from the Jersey shore, I traveled to Jerusalem to meet my father’s cousin. My first impression was of a wild-haired man, an intense artist, so different from my methodical scientist father. Yaakov Kirschen is a cartoonist, the creator of Dry Bones and a fervent Zionist who had left his native Brooklyn behind. My father’s small family was wracked by petty arguments, suspicion and unspoken suffering, and I’d never met Yaakov before. Fortunately, my trip to Israel somehow trumped all that, and I was given his phone number.
Yaakov divulged rumors that I had never heard. My father’s mother, Rose, was not really the daughter of my great-grandparents Meryl and Nissim Bronstein. Rose’s parents, he said, had been killed in a pogrom in or around Skvira, a town south of Kiev where hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews were murdered at the end of the 19th century. Somehow Rose and her sister, little girls at the time, had survived. In the belief that it was best to leave the past behind, Rose had never spoken of what really happened. But the trauma, Yaakov assured me, had been passed on: We all carried it within us, making us a high-strung and volatile lot.
That a pogrom might be at the heart of our family dysfunction caught my attention. It was my first glimpse of the invisible anxiety that gripped my extended family. Rose wasn’t my only grandparent with a traumatic past. My maternal grandmother Dora fled to America at 17 from Sudilkov, about 125 miles east of Kiev in a region also long plagued by brutal anti-Semitism. Transplanted to tranquil Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Dora was a recluse who rarely left the house except to accompany my grandfather to the family furniture store. Fluent in many languages, she was fearful of outsiders and foreigners and rarely attended social events. I never knew her: She died in her sleep holding my baby photos. When I was 23 and developed a full-blown case of agoraphobia while working on my doctorate, I paused to think about her. I dropped out of graduate school and struggled for several years before learning to work my way through my own deep-seated anxieties.
This was in the 1980s, not an era when people talked openly about mental health, and the experience was painful and embarrassing—I simply couldn’t explain to myself, or others, how an adventurous young woman like me could suddenly be felled by fear. In hindsight, it was a blessing. I learned how to better care for myself and for others, and most importantly, to recognize anxiety in many of its manifestations. Aware of anxiety’s physical, cultural and other origins, I can speak more gently to it.
I tell you all this as a foreword to our Anxiety Issue. Anxiety is not exclusively a Jewish trait, although as a people long subject to persecution, we continue to pass it on to our children, even in times and places where it is far safer to be a Jew. Although the topic is less taboo than it once was, we, as individuals, a people and a society, still have far to go to erase the stigma surrounding it. In partnership with the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety, Moment recently held its second annual Elephant in the Room essay contest, which highlights issues that don’t receive the attention they deserve. We asked, “How has anxiety affected you, your family or the Jewish people in general?” In this issue, we publish three winners, three finalists and excerpts selected from the many thoughtful essays we received.
In an effort to provide context for this, our rabbis weigh in with a related question: Is there a theological basis to Jewish anxiety? In addition, we look into the meaning of the Yiddish word tsuris, a familiar variety of “Jewish” anxiety. Of course, no discussion of anxiety would be complete without considering Israel and its situation today in the Middle East. An interview with researcher Eric Trager about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its president Mohamed Morsi provides background and perspective to help you understand the fast-moving events in that country. Also, former Wall Street Journal reporter Robert S. Greenberger takes us into the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment of iconic conservative Norman Podhoretz, whose bleak outlook on current events in Iran and the Middle East, as well as on American domestic policy, makes it difficult for him to see how the majority of American Jews don’t share his views. And our columnists cover the gamut of anxiety-inducing topics, including the Arab Spring, Israel’s “death hierarchy,” American Jewish synagogue politics and more.
But don’t worry, not every story will raise your blood pressure! We are delighted to include “A Beggar’s Place,” another winning story from our annual Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction contest; a gastronomic geo-history of Jewish-Indian food; a round-up of the latest Jewish cookbooks; book reviews on the legacy of Abraham, black Jews in Africa and the Americas and a fantasy story of reincarnation.
Back to my cousin Yaakov’s speculation: A few years ago I obtained a copy of my paternal grandparents’ New York City marriage license. On the form my grandma Rose wrote that her parents were Fanny Podorsky and Jacob Bronstein. Jacob may have been the brother of Nissim, but suffice it to say that whatever the cause, Fanny and Jacob did not live to raise their daughter. The old rumors may very well be true.