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.
One thought on “From the Editor | January/February 2013”
Dear Nadine, let me express my admiration for your beautiful rendering of your Jewish Manhattan centered world view. As a present resident of Denver CO (previously Easton MA, St. Petersburg Fl, Lincoln NE, Tel Aviv, Is, London UK, Bucarest Ro.) I am amazed how culturally biased your presentation is. The USA is much richer that NY, and the USA can offer its exceptional achievements far beyond the schtatel that is Upper East End or Upper West End. Yes, Jews are anxious: an anxiety that put them at the forefront of human development. It started in the desert of Sinai the day that God revealed itself to Moses not only as Shadai – the Almighty provider – but as the Holly Name which in translation means Past-Present-Future. The rest of the world was ready to accept this revolutionary and exceptional time-space notion only 5000 later, in the twentieth century, thanks to another anxious Jew, Albert Einstein. For Jews and Judaism to go through history carring this message was a burden and a salvation. Nowadays this message can provide us, if we are ready to pay attention, a critical ability to differentiate between faith and politics, between truth and demagogy, between “cool” and real. Learning from our past should go beyond fancy nostalgia and try to see the deep truth embedded in our Jewish experience: our own suffering and mistakes, our achievments and failures. One great anxiety can be identified in the failure of the “welfare” society, a creed highly advocated by many Jewish thinkers. Another major anxiety I would suggest is the limited interest of many Jewish public opinion makers in the extraordinary spirit of the US Constitiution, the only successful apllication of the spirit of Enlightenement. The renewed advocacy of “social justice”, this nebulous and arbitrary old Marxist notion whose aim is political power grabbing, creates a lot of anxiety. Our history should teach us that our support for these “prophets” of “social justice,” that empowered themselves to repair the world, will not prevent us to become their first taget of discrimination. We live in a critical moment in time: a renewed clash between tyranny and freedom, between secular begottery and naive faith, between the perception of entitlement and constructive progress. How Jews in the Diaspora will participate in this process will determine their survival. As part of the European “multi-cultural” ideology the Jewish presence in Europe is being eliminated . How does this reflect on us here in the USA?