Is Anxiety Jewish?

By | Nov 30, 2012

Do the Jews own anxiety? That’s the question Daniel Smith asked in The New York Times earlier this year, looking at the long history of worrying Jews and concluding: no, but we sure want you to think so. “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious,” Smith wrote. “We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew—our hysterical clown.” In his book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, Smith writes about his struggles with anxiety and search for relief. We talked with Smith about the past and future of the anxious Jew.

Is the anxious Jew real, or is it a trope?

It’s both a trope and real. It’s real insofar as the Jewish way of thinking dovetails with an anxious mode of thinking. The Talmudic tradition is one of constant, interminable questioning and turning things over and analyzing. It’s endless exegesis. What do they say in Fiddler on the Roof? “On the one hand, on the other hand, on the other hand.” That’s built into the tradition. Secondly, it’s anxiety-producing to be the subject of a perennial, inextinguishable, illogical, murderous rage for two thousand years, one the object of which is quite plainly to extinguish you and your people from the planet. That can make people a little nervous. Anxiety is a state of vigilance. It’s inarguable that there are and always have been physical threats against Jewish people.

Does that large-scale, existential anxiety trickle down to individuals’ day-to-day anxiety today?

We all know anecdotally that Jewish families can inculcate this nervousness, this awareness of being apart, of being the people of the book, the thinkers, the scholars—it trickles down in that way, as a tradition, as a way of being. Whether there’s something genetic as well is entirely possible, I don’t know. Possibly it’s bred in somehow, but it trickles down culturally. There’s a culture of overthinking—at least there has been a culture of overthinking—and even of celebration of it, and that’s where it becomes a trope and becomes like prophecy. Jews aren’t necessarily more anxious, but they’ve been better at dramatizing anxiety. I think it might be in a kind of fuck you way, like, “You can’t fire me, I quit.” If you’re going to paint me as weak-willed, I’m going to do it so thoroughly, so comically, so entertainingly that we win, in a sort of ironic, self-parodizing way. Because the anxious Jew does bear a real semblance to the Jew of the classic anti-Semitic imagination—worrying and confused and weak willed—but he’s not a lesser figure, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s the hero. The character Woody Allen plays in all those movies is the most thoroughly realized, most engaging, most easy to empathize with character in those films, and that’s often true of characters in the Coen brothers films, or Alexander Portnoy. These are the protagonists, the heroes. It’s a nice little move, but it’s on the wane.


Jews are no longer the minority in the America that’s facing the classic anxiety of assimilation. The classic anxious dilemma in the Philip Roth novel is, do I move forward and be an individual American that doesn’t think of himself as a Jew first, or do I pay fealty and honor to the way my parents want me to be—to go to temple, be bar-mitzvahed, light Sabbath candles, marry a Jewish girl. Do you do all those things that tie you to the Jewish world, or do you move forward into the great American beyond? The people now who are really good at articulating that anxiety in novels and films are South Asians and Arab-Americans—books like The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. And in sitcoms, you see the demographic shift to more Indian characters.

Is the anxious Jew being replaced with something, then? There are still plenty of anxious Jews—Judd Apatow’s essentially built a whole career out of them.

That archetype will probably always be there. That’s a pretty classic cooption of an anti-Semitic stereotype, the libidinous ne’er-do-well. Seth Rogen’s not an attractive character in a lot of ways, and there’s no intellectualism. I don’t know if we’re seeing a replacement, but I do know that if someone creates a character that seems like something out of a Roth novel from the 1970s, or like a Woody Allen type, you notice it as hackneyed and stale. I have the feeling in my gut that it doesn’t quite fit with the reality of life at the moment for a Jew.

In your book, you write about your brother creating his own book of guiding quotations, and feeling jealous of people who had a religious upbringing because they had always had “these portable little bundles of certainty, these neat foundational texts.” Do you think there’s truth to that? Has the move toward secular, cultural Judaism and away from a text-based Judaism contributed to anxiety?

I can see how the adherence to and acceptance of a faith tradition—in  particular the belief in and adherence to scripture—can be comforting. That’s no secret. This is why people often turn to religion for comfort—that’s its point of popularity, is it not? So obviously there’s something to it. On the other hand, there are aspects of faith that are very anxiety-provoking, particularly in Judaism. Kierkegaard deals with the Christian stuff—having to take the leap of faith—but Roth is the go-to guy for the anxiety caused by the strictures of the Jewish faith: by having to keep kosher, having to keep the holidays. It can keep you steady, but it can also be a burden. Who wants all these rules? It depends what kind of mind you have. I have a skepticism about adhering to rules that to me seem either arbitrary or based in a culture that no longer exists. But on the other hand—I sound like Tevye—having traditions and feeling anchored is nice and comforting. But Scott didn’t go and find a scripture; he cobbled together stuff from literature and philosophy and art. He didn’t go to the Torah or the King James Bible or the Koran.


Moment’s 2012 Elephant in the Room Contest, in partnership with the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety, asks readers to tell us about their experiences with anxiety. Visit the contest’s page here for more information on the contest, and to submit an entry.


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