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by Susan Schnur

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Why Do Therapy and Jewish Women Go Together?

Not long ago at a packed synagogue service, the rabbi happened to ask the congregation, “How many of you are psychotherapists?” A stunning number of hands shot up and the congregation burst into laughter. “How many of you are in therapy?” he then joked, since the spirit had suddenly become intimate. Even more hands, followed by so much laughter it rattled the yizkor plaques.

It wasn’t that any of us were surprised by this — after all, the lobby directories in the synagogue’s urban neighborhood are virtual decalogues of Weinberg and Goldman and Rifkin psychotherapy practices — it was more like something had been broached that none of us had exactly thought through; like an emotionally complex secret had been outed that felt sweet or canny or embarrassing or maybe hilarious. We didn’t know. Most of the hands belonged to women.

Sometime after that, I attended the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C., an annual conference of 3000-plus people that is 80% female and overwhelmingly Jewish. By the look of the crowds muscling through the hotel hallways, it could have passed for a Hadassah convention. It got me wondering: Why are Jewish women so over-represented as shrinks? And why are so many of us also among the shrunken?
It’s true that as the psychotherapy profession has increasingly yielded to less intellectually rewarding orientations and as the field has become less lucrative by the day, fewer Jewish women are choosing to enter it. But it’s also true that if you’re reading this, you’re either a therapist, or someone who’s been to one, or one degree of separation from same. So I decided to interview several dozen women, mostly practitioners* (plus some clients/patients), to ask whether and how they thought that being Jewish and female informed their work in the therapy room.

Do you think Jewish women are particularly good at rupture and repair? I asked. Do you feel you’ve inherited the long Jewish tradition of pilpul [dialectical thinking], of learning in pairs, of sitting with multiple truths, of tolerating doubt, of skepticism, of pre-occupation with redemption? Of jokes about reasoning, of memory as the most moving category of experience?

Is Freud a secular Rashi? Do women or Jews seem attuned to “yearning” in an acoustically special way? Does the timbre or range of your emotions, or your dutiful witnessing, feel Jewish or womanly? Do you carry transgenerational rachmones or trauma? As a Jewish woman, do you have a culturally specific ear for bullshit and for calling it out? Did you need to be a healer?

As someone who herself became a rabbi and then a clinical psychologist, I’m aware of having been deeply affected by the Mishnaic cornerstones of my day school education: “Acquire a friend with whom to study,” “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is given,” and “hafach ba v’hafach ba” —  “Turn it and turn it [a sacred text] for everything is in it.”

Does talking about Jewish stuff in therapy stir people up? Yes, my informants said, which is why we so often don’t do it. Are the dynamics different, I asked, when your patient (or therapist) is Jewish or female? Often, yes. Do you cherish the work you do? Every single psychotherapist said yes to that.

The stories that follow are all “as told to” me, edited with considerable naches and condensed with regret.

–Susan Schnur


*Lois Braverman, LCSW, is President and CEO of The Ackerman Institute for the Family in NYC. The founding editor of The Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, she also was the editor of Women, Feminism and Family Therapy. Laura Brown, Ph.D., is a feminist psychologist whose latest book is Your Turn for Care: Surviving the Aging and Death of the Adults Who Harmed You. Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D., is a psychologist/psychoanalyst whose most recent book, for children, is When the Hurricane Came. Lori Hope Lefkovitz, Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern U., held a postdoc fellowship in psychoanalysis; her most recent book is In Scripture: The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities. Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D. is the Director of The American Eating Disorder Center. Her just-released book is Befriending Your Ex after Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and, Yes, Your Ex. Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, MSW, is co-editor of Jewish Women in Therapy: Seen but Not Heard. Her newly released memoir is My Songs of Now and Then. Anne Pomerantz Waldoks, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Brookline, MA, who synthesizes her training in Internal Family Systems (IFS) with traditional psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

My Grandmom Made Me a Therapist

Lois Braverman, social worker, New York*

Growing up, my grandmother was my roommate; we shared a dresser, a closet, in a little working-class row-house in Philadelphia. She came from Minsk and was the oldest of seven sisters. Every day she called every sister on the phone, a couple of hours a day; she must have been viewed by her sisters as an incredible listener.

I’d come home from school, she’d be in the kitchen, and I’d pick up the extension in my parents’ bedroom; stealthy, you had to breathe very quietly. It was much more interesting than TV. About husbands, children, worries, why is he doing this, why isn’t she coming home in time. The talk of women, trying to understand and accept human frailty, suffering, disappointments. It wasn’t about the stock market. Did he lose his job? She lost a pregnancy, who was angry at whom, was it reasonable.

One of my great-aunts saw a married man until his wife died, then she married him. That was a scandal. All of these different configurations are a part of life. It was all about the relationships. The idea of being in contact every day! My grandmother would go across town by public transportation, for a week, to stay with Aunt Shirley and my cousins — unlike me, they were not so happy to share a room — and my mother was expected to call her every day.

When I left home and got married, might we live in Philly? Where would we live? My mother said, “Well, of course you’ll call me every day.” I said, “I don’t think so.” I didn’t want to have to report everything. But I understood “reporting” — there was this expectation. You would have a close, intimate knowledge of what everybody was doing and feeling and thinking every single day.

Let’s Make a Big Deal Out of Everything

Judith Rabinor, clinical psychologist, New York*

I treat eating disorders and I say to my patients, I feel like a friggin’ talmudic scholar, turning over every behavior, every dream, every word. There’s not one reason that someone gets an eating disorder; it’s a metaphor for all these issues underneath. We investigate, we investigate, we investigate. That’s what therapists do. Also, therapists don’t have to stay on topic. Is that Jewish? Maybe. What I love about a session is you don’t have a goal; the goal is to investigate.

I don’t love being in synagogue, but I love the concept of a mishkan, a sanctuary. People need a safe place; they need to feel their body is safe, but it’s something they’re angry about, they fight, they can’t breathe and relax. So my office becomes their mishkan.

A lot of my work is to help people learn that having company in life makes life better. Judaism strongly believes in not being alone — a study partner, a marriage, a community, a minyan. I had an eating disordered patient who didn’t want to join a group. “I don’t want to tell anyone about my eating disorder, why would I join a group?” But then she was like a mother in that group, her disorder got so much better.

Therapists do not tolerate elephants in a room. We call it out. That feels Jewish. I’m always looking for elephants. Often we don’t know what the elephant is. That’s what I’m doing; underneath the story there’s another story. One elephant? There are elephants under elephants. People are mysterious, things are never what you think, there’s never a one-to-one. Toilet training?…you can never say one thing causes another. I think this is very Jewish, do you?

I saw this movie, the story of Otto Frank, with old newsreels of concentration camps and barbed wire, and he says, “I would shovel shit, but in my head I was playing Mozart.” We’re all always playing something in our head, and that’s more powerful than reality. If you think it’s freezing, it’s freezing. I think it’s very Jewish to think about what you think. That’s one goal for me, that people stop being mad at themselves and they kind of understand they are a big puzzle and they come to appreciate complexity, to embrace it.

I do think that Jews live with more dread …that things happen, we know that, like other discriminated-against people. Empathy is a key component of being Jewish. At our seder, we know it’s not them who crossed the Red Sea, it’s us, all of us at any time who are ever hurt. We cross the Red Sea.

Anne Frank introduced me to the power of the internal world; she kept a journal. I was 10, 12, the same age as Anne, and my grandmother took me to Broadway to see The Diary of Anne Frank, this heroic little girl who was imprisoned in this room, but could still see the light. The next day I started a journal. I felt, I want to help people who have problems. There was such a richness to Anne’s inner world.

The idea of delving into unhappiness, my mother and father were very big on, “Go out and get some fresh air, it will make you feel better,” but I knew I would feel better if I talked to my best friend. “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing” — that was kind of the “subtitle” of The Diary.

When I became a therapist, I thought, “Oh my God, I get paid to do the thing I like best in the world, talking to people deeply,” and I feel I’m very good at getting under the main menu. But I also have lots of patients writing in journals like Anne Frank; I want them to get to know themselves. This is nice, but it’s 45 minutes a week, what else can you do when you feel really alone at night?

My grandmother was a writer, but my mother was into shopping, not the internal world. I felt sad because my best friend dropped me. If my best friend dropped me, I felt destroyed, bereft, there were traumas all over my life. My mother felt you get over things. I’ve gone into a field where you make a big deal out of everything; this is talmudic. You think you’re overweight because you love chocolate, and I think you love chocolate because you were missing a real sense of nurturance and nourishment in your life. You remember eating whole candy bags when you were five, you think you were a sneaky girl, sneaking candy. I think you were a sad girl. It’s more, for me, that I felt that talking deeply was the best thing in the world.

My mother was boring … okay, now I have compassion on her. She was a cultured woman, but she went to the opera and would tell me what people wore, she could talk on and on about sales in Bloomingdales, what people ate in restaurants. I didn’t want to grow up to have endless conversations, “How do you slice the tomatoes?” “Ma, any way you slice them, it’s okay with me.”

The thing with me is, I love listening to stories, any stories, long boring stories that nobody else wants to listen to. I can have a conversation that someone else would die from. I just feel that if you listen long enough, with a broad enough lens, you hear so many things in the story. I like this intensity — that I think is part of the Jewish spirit. I have this very big New York clang to my personality, very Jewish, and I just feel it’s me. I’m very proud of being Jewish, I don’t mind if I sound like a New York Jew.

I once gave a talk in the Midwest, I was talking about how I talk to patients about food, about how rabbinic it is to find out exactly how someone eats their bagel. So I’ll say to a young girl, “Tell me about the bagel, how you eat the bagel.” She’ll say, “I eat the bagel without dough.” Someone raises her hand, “What is a bagel without dough?” I explain that in New York there are different ways of eating bagels. This patient of mine was picking out the dough. In talking about all the rituals that go along with eating, you get a sense of a person and then you can ask, “What are the other rituals in your life?” We all have established rituals about food, and so from there we slide into everything. That’s Jewish.

The Therapeutic Dyad is Totally Jewish

Lori Hope Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies, Boston*

Saying things out loud that other people don’t has a very Jewish feel to me. And Jewish women, stereotypically, are not decorous. We’re brazen and impolite, specially Jewish mothers, speaking our piece. To “waste one’s time” talking about feelings, that’s female. So of course therapy is full of Jewish women.

The whole Jewish, suburban, kitchen-table culture is informally therapeutic; it was therapy before America became a therapized culture and could afford it. It’s also “ethnic” — African-American, Italian; you puzzle out your world by telling each other about your lives and making sense of it around a table.

Not so long ago, most Jews as a community lived the rhythms of a therapeutic life. There were calendar times for relationship repair and legislated emotional states, like mandating joy on Sukkot or Purim, and creating the conditions in which to have these feelings. The Passover seder has a therapeutic quality; we tell a national story about liberation and translate it into our personal lives. I would guess that Jews lived all the holidays psychologically. Now these functions are also translated into explicitly therapeutic space, and Jews have become therapists and patients.

The therapeutic dyad is obviously Jewish, and I surmise was familiar to Freud from the tradition of chevrusa, Jewish learning in pairs. There’s something tremendously exciting about working intimately, intensely, with one other person over a text you love. Freud understood “labor” as channeling libido; it’s “hot” to study. Imagine when the text is yourself or the relationship in the therapeutic room. There’s lots of potential, the kind of energy flow you see in religious ecstasy, but safe, contained.

Jewish people are traumatized, maybe it’s inherited and “forgotten,” so we come to therapy with a history of pain and with strategies we’ve informally developed for dealing with it. My parents are survivors, so I have the experience of their resilience, and also of living with the knowledge that they suffered immense loss. Often children of survivors parent their parents; you’re more careful, you enact a therapeutic role. You withhold the natural role of being cared for, and you’re emotionally alert, psychologically alert.

We’re taught that the Torah has 70 faces; there isn’t a single truth. We’re also taught that everything is in the Torah, but with a hitch: we have to find it. So Jews learned to search and to find ways to tell a story. The therapeutic practice of endless reinterpretation founded on the conviction that one story can yield many meanings — Jews are practiced at this! There’s something Jewish about all things analytic. Freud emerged right out of Talmud study.

Jews also have a fabulous tradition of not forgetting to remember to forget. We grog out Haman’s name, we blot out Amalek — it’s a commitment of erasure. This is therapeutic shuttling between memory [zachor] and forgetfulness. My father kept a diary, he was uneducated because he spent his high school years in Auschwitz: “There must have been other times in history when people were praying for the Messiah in vain [spelled “woine”]. For thos people probible was jost es bad thos days then for me now. To bad I hed to discover this in Auschwitz where I can do nothing about enithing.” This is therapy: empathy, feelings of futility, the redemptive possibilities that can emerge from overcoming trauma.

 The culture of the shidduch [arranged marriage] connects for me with being a therapist because there’s a Jewish tolerance for fools; the shadchan knew — everybody knew — that there was “somebody for everybody.” There’s a cosmic correction, it all makes sense.

Being Jewish is also perspective-setting. Participating in community, living the rhythms of a ritual life, having access to a time-honored alternative culture. It gives you a place to go when the pressures of secular material consumerism are damaging; it’s therapy, a resource for experiencing well-being. You look at a pimple on your nose and see a volcano, you have a place of escape that reminds you to count your blessings, to pray; you have a whole system. And if you’re volunteering in a soup kitchen, say, your pimple matters less.

Jewish women are doubly defined against the norm. Normatives don’t question their identity, but non-normatives learn to think, “What’s it mean to be me?”

What Jewish Women Dislike about Themselves (and Me)

Laura Brown, clinical psychologist, Seattle*

I have to say that Jewish, female clients definitely bring out something different in me. I have to work hard at this “how-is-this-person-not-like-me” challenge. In the beginning, I was surprised by the degree to which other Jewish women felt alienated from Jewish culture; I myself had such a positive Jewish experience, with education and powerful women role models. I hadn’t appreciated how unusual this was. Therapy is not as Jewish a profession in Seattle as it was in Cleveland, where I grew up, so discovering a quite non-Jewish psychotherapy community was a big surprise.

The clients for whom my Jewishness has been most salient and powerful have not been Jews. On the ground here in Seattle, Jews are a little scarce; many people have had little to no contact with a Jew until they walk into my office. Because I can offer an alternative to dominant (a.k.a. Christian) norms for, say, forgiveness, conflict or grief, I can illuminate different ways to be in the world. Clients find this valuable. At times I’m seen as the exotic “Other,” but such are the vicissitudes of transference.

I think that internalized sexism affects some of my Jewish female clients’ ability to bond with me; they don’t like themselves for being or looking like a Jew, and I am not only very overtly a Jew culturally and intellectually, but I’m also a physical prototype, zaftig with curly, wild hair. I represent what Jewish women dislike in themselves. I then struggle in myself to have compassion for their negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism, and this plays out in the therapeutic relationship.

At age 9, I decided to become a psychologist, and in my case the stereotype of difficult families spawning good therapists was painfully true. I was the oldest child, the only daughter of a very depressed woman. Her gender and mine had a lot to do with my career choice.

As a client, I’ve only had one Jewish therapist, a male with a nasty “Jewish mother” countertransference who was undermining in very destructive ways. I’ve run into this a lot with Jewish male therapists being much more competitive with powerful Jewish women. My other therapists have been non-Jewish women. One in particular, a child-refugee from Cuba, really understood issues of exile and alienation — from both the dominant culture and one’s own — and she was able to connect with me around how being a Jew is so important to my sense of self.

Therapy Feels Very New Jersey

Anne Waldoks, clinical psychologist, Boston*

Growing up in Teaneck, NJ, my family would often visit my grandmother in Leonia, in a little split-level shared by the larger family. My grandmother downstairs, my uncle and his family in the central house, and my cousin’s family on the third floor. We would come over, a lot of women, and there were two kitchens, but my grandmother’s little kitchen downstairs, that’s where the action was. Everything got talked about — every aspect of everybody’s problems and glories, and the state of the world.

Like in many Jewish homes, a lot of talking about feelings happened around the children; the adults were completely comfortable with that. It was part of life’s fabric to express feelings, to be at home with anger — like in Italian families, of which New Jersey has lots. WASPS are not so comfortable talking about, or even thinking about, feelings, but my family, like most Jewish ones, was warm, come-right-in, permeable boundaries. It was beckoning, but it’s the good with the bad…. And Jewish women are power holders at home, we’re confident about that, so we set the tone, and what do we do? We talk about feelings. Maybe this is why Jewish men are so often emotionally available.

From the youngest age, I sat next to my dad in shul, playing with his tzitzis and having the Torah stories trickle in. I felt like Jewish life was built around studying people’s lives: what did Moses do, and Rebecca, and Joseph; it was the highest value to examine lives, to overcome obstacles in being human, to think about the consequences in all relationships — intergenerational, business, peer — how we all struggle with being human. The people in the Torah, they were all flawed! We don’t have a Jesus ideal; there was no expectation that any person would achieve grace and perfection. Jews take it for granted that if you’re human, you have interesting stuff to work on.

When Jewish women think about choosing a profession, being a therapist feels like an important and worthy thing to do. As Jews in a Christian host country, we see ourselves as “different from.” Jews are a quirky people. We’re interested in how we are different, as a people, as individuals. It’s not just “let’s fix it.” It’s “let’s be interested and informed about difference. Let’s strive to be known.”

As a psychologist, I sit there thinking, “I’m so here for you!” We’re two people sitting in a room together, and the goal is for me to give you permission to be totally known. I strive to extend that invitation. I tie this in emotionally to the New Jersey ethos that I grew up in: women as tummlers, all the women in the Bible working the family system.

For me, coming-of-age in the 1970’s, there was a funny glass ceiling for how professional I could be as a woman. In my circle, becoming a doctor would have been a little too much for the girl in the family; there was some sexism, girls shouldn’t do all that. Being a psychologist, this was the closest I could get to being a doctor. The directness, the emotional complexity, being so in the mix — it feels very Jewish to me, very New Jersey. Sitting and talking to somebody is like breathing and swallowing.

I love New Jersey.

The Elephants in That Room

Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, social worker, Ithaca, New York*

I co-founded the agency for battered women in Ithaca, New York, and I’m convinced that my Jewish background brought me to do this. These women’s traumatizations were silenced, and so was the traumatization of my childhood. I was born in Berlin in 1924, and I didn’t have words for the Jewish condition. We had a lively, colorful family; we didn’t talk about anti-Semitism.

When I encountered Jean Baker Miller’s feminist work about subordinates and oppressors, it changed my life — how subordinates “know much more about the dominants than vice versa; they have to become highly attuned to the dominants, able to predict their reactions of pleasure and displeasure.” I thought, “Ah! The long practice of reading many small signals!” As a feminist therapist, I look at power: When a woman reports feeling depressed at work, is it a sexist environment? There were no bat mitzvahs back then, in my childhood, what does that tell a 13-year-old girl? When your brother gets circumcised and there’s a fuss, nobody made a fuss over you! Feminist therapy minimizes the power relationship within the client/therapist dyad, too: the client is her own best expert, she knows more about her life.

My mother was a defiant rabbi’s daughter who left home against her father’s wishes to study midwifery for two years in Vilna; she was very proud of studying human anatomy at a time when women were supposed to stay ignorant about their bodies. Mutti once delivered a child in a very poor household with nothing to wrap the baby in. She took off her slip and tore it up. Both my parents were rescuers; my father got every single relative to leave Europe. We were always taking care of people.

My first therapist, a non-Jewish male. One day, in the middle of our session, the once-daily train from New York to Ithaca came through. “Hear the train?” I said. He found that resistant: “What’s really on your mind?” He wanted to hear about my infant sexuality.

“Well, the train, damn it, from Berlin to Switzerland, before Hitler.” It was a huge disruption and I needed to talk about it; it brought up the wanderings of my family. Later I had a Jewish therapist, a feminist; his wife was the head of the N.O.W. chapter in Syracuse. With him, being Jewish was no longer the elephant in the room. I felt freer; we talked about Jewish things; it made a real difference. He’d throw in a word of Yiddish; it was very comforting.

Freud’s attitude to religion is still with us; an awful lot of Jewish therapists are anti-religious or non-religious, and we’re not sufficiently comfortable with spiritual matters. Among therapists who are uneducated Jews, there’s ignorance…however, I do think this is changing.

Transgenerational transmission of trauma? Absolutely; certainly for me. My parents’ experience of life in the shtetl, the daily fear, the pogroms, this colors everything I know. Jewish paranoia is rooted in a fundamental reality; it needs to be acknowledged. Understanding the transmission of paranoia has been a major task for me personally — learning to separate, to give up the generalization of fear. It’s the Jewish inheritance.

The Tikkun Olam of Kitty Genovese

Nechama Liss-Levinson, psychologist/psychoanalyst, Great Neck, NY*

I’m a traditional Jew, so Judaism is the prism through which I see life, like eyeglasses I wear wherever I am. When I meet a new client, I’m grounded in the knowledge that we’re all created with the divine spark, so I believe everyone is worthwhile. You may not believe it, with depression or low self-esteem, but I do.

If a client’s depressed, I integrate tikkun olam into our work, encouraging them to volunteer, offering websites and resources. There is a tremendous benefit, not only in terms of developing empathy, but in developing a healthier sense of self and a perspective on your own troubles. In Judaism there’s also the idea that even poor people should give tzedakah — you are never too poor to help someone else. Tzedakah develops self-empowerment and worth, you still have the ability to improve the life of someone else. Giving tzedakah can be a very successful intervention.

The Talmud says that “a dream that is not understood is like a letter that is not opened.” I love to work with dreams, they extend the meaning that the client and I create together. In fact, there’s a prayer that asks God to help us interpret our dreams.

When I was a girl, a phrase in the morning prayers particularly spoke to me: “These are the things whose fruits a person enjoys in this world and the interest is in the world-to-come: honoring your mother and father, acts of kindness, attendance at a house of study…and bringing peace between an individual and their friend.” I had wanted to do something grand to help the world — make peace between Israel and the Arabs — and it felt to me that it was maybe bigger than I could handle. I kind of had to downsize. I could, though, “bring peace between an individual and their friend.” I could be a therapist.

When I was 12, in 1964, right after Kitty Genovese had been murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens (while 38 people watched and did nothing), my parents, who always emphasized making the world a better place, went to Manhattan and stumbled on a crime scene — a man was dead and another man was running from the scene. They ran after him for many blocks until they found a police officer and shouted, “This man left the scene of a crime!”

The next day The New York Times wrote my parents up as the “anti-Genovese couple.” The man they’d chased had committed a murder. It was a pivotal story for me as a child, knowing this about my parents. You should never look away, you should always step forward. As a teenager, I became more religiously observant and I still am.

Judaism offers me an existential anchor in life; it says there is meaning to the way you live it. Therapy is about making meaning, too…and becoming a clinician involves healing some sadness of your own.

I love the work I do.

“Don’t Worry…I’m Holding Your Story”

Anonymous, social worker, Los Angeles*

I have a Jewish client going through chemo, young like me, she is horribly miserable; a butch dyke.

We have a shorthand for making fun of her mother that feels Jewish. Her mother tells her, “You have to get a wig! You have to get a wig! You can’t walk around bald, drawing attention!” Sometimes she comes in bald, sometimes with a hat. I’m like, “What a relief you got a hat so you don’t draw attention.” She feels known and seen in the same intimate way she’s so unknown and unseen.

Growing up, my family dealt with secrets in this complex way that I think of as very Jewish. Everybody knows that Uncle Lou is a ____. We’re going to talk about it, and we’ll talk about it being a secret, and we’ll not talk about it at all, and we’ll not talk about it yet — all at the same time. There aren’t secrets, okay there’s a secret!! I think this comfort with simultaneity lets me, in therapy, shine a light on something and then say okay I can walk around this thing with you for a little while, we can jump all over it, ignore it…. It’s all okay.

To me, Judaism is story after story — the Purim story, the coat of many colors, Jonah in the whale. It’s about this most important job of telling the stories again and again, of holding them so they don’t get lost. Therapy is also about being that person to hold the stories, and the memory; this is the most precious thing. L’dor vah’dor, holding memory for the generations: “I’ve still got this whole thing! Don’t worry! I promise we’re not going to lose it.” Holding a client’s stories for her, holding a client’s memories, feels so Jewish, and if we’re holding it all securely…we can change it. That’s my experience of therapy, and of being Jewish.

I go to a queer synagogue where most of us do Judaism differently from how we grew up, a lot of us came here from the East Coast. Our havurah came to my family’s sukkah, and the way that we built the sukkah and used the sukkah, it was spiritually very different. My Jewishness feels so secure that I can change it.

A lot of Jewish female therapists I know have this tikkun olam idea of changing the world one-person-at-a-time, while men are so, “We’ve got a new theory.” My grandparents were very philanthropic. “Did I find a bargain,” my grandfather in Florida would say. “One dollar each for these stuffed animals, so I bought the whole thing and brought 10 bags over to the hospital!” That combination feels so Jewish to me: the bargain, the unself-conscious generosity, the always thinking about who you can heal.

Despite Myself: Ending Up with a Jewish, Feminist Therapist

A patient, St. Paul, MN*

I’ve been in therapy for most of my waking life and I specifically didn’t want a Jewish therapist. I also didn’t want a child-of-survivors therapist, because then the therapist would be doing her own therapy through me.

So I picked someone I was positive wasn’t Jewish: Elizabeth Bonner — I should know her name, I wrote her checks for a thousand years. One day I come to therapy and the name on the door is no longer Elizabeth, it’s Peninah. So I ask her. “Are you Jewish?” She tells me she’s really Jewish but was raised by parents who rejected their Judaism and she was angry about it. Some months after that, one day I come, and the door is Peninah Levin [not actual names]. She got very involved in kabbalah and psychology and married a Jew. I had to quit therapy after all that because I thought she was a lunatic.

Several years later I blundered into Dr. L., who turns out to be this very Jewish therapist. I’ve been with her for 20 years. I’m also in a group for Holocaust survivors’ children. When I started with Dr. L., I wasn’t engaged Jewishly, I was 90% absent. Two years later, I stumbled into a temple. Dr. L.’s client’s whole life changed after that.

First, I got a life. It happened in stages. I went Friday nights for several years, then on Shabbat morning, too. It became a family for me. Look, I’m going to be frank with you. I was lost in the ‘90’s, trying to get ahead as a high-achieving physician. Suddenly there was something more important than work. I started going to Israel regularly and got a Masters in Jewish Studies. Since my therapist’s own Jewish identity was so powerful, she supported me inside and outside.

Dr. L. was also strongly feminist, and since I’m single, which is about the last thing any woman ever expects in life, I had some issues. Dr. L.’s feminist critique was life-saving. There are so many disgusting things that happen to Jewish women who never marry. I felt shameful, fearful.

Several times in my life, I had the sense that everything was inside me already, dance, astronomy, Portuguese, but I had to learn the names. I had that sense about Jewish knowledge. When I started being driven by the Jewish calendar, my therapist showed me that you think about the holiday, you have to plan for it. When I hosted my first seder, she talked me through the Jewish content and took it for granted, “Yes, of course!” — which was very beautiful. She thinks I’m a part of this. This strengthened my identity as a person, not just a Jew. Like a parent, she came to my bat mitzvah and accepted me as a seasoned player.

A friend of mine had a Jewish therapist who questioned her, when she got more Jewishly engaged, did she lose her way. I don’t keep kosher, I have no yearning to be religious, but I experienced unconscious movement that was so positive.

Not long ago, on the bimah, I thanked Dr. L. by name. It was a very courageous and brave thing to say it to the community. I talked about not knowing my parents’ story, the shame I feel about that; about not knowing how to be a Jew. People ran up to me in the street because they identified. You learn not to ask, and then you learn not to know. I could not have connected to my Judaism one day sooner than I did, because of the massive Sturm und Drang that I came from. Unconsciously, it was all there — I had a famous grandfather, a rabbi, who died in Europe — but it had been pushed aside.

I developed a bond with a therapist who recognized the meaning of Judaism in my life and that changed everything.

If You’re a Person, You Ask Questions

Lois Braverman, social worker*

Living in Iowa for 32 years, I had no sense at all of psychotherapy as a Jewish field. I chose social work as a feminist; both emphasize the need to understand context: how community, poverty and patriarchy impact one’s relationships and mental health. I cared that social work was a field historically dominated by women, that the field’s foremothers believed that case-workers’ unconditional regard for their clients was essential for change. I loved that Carl Rogers was a student of these women.

In Iowa, I would tell my students that it was good for a Protestant family to see a Jewish therapist, it brought out more of an emotional life, and that Protestant therapists had the advantage of calming things down more quickly.

As a Jew, I felt well-suited to the difficult and core therapeutic skill of asking questions. The Passover seder taught me about being a Jew: that if you’re a person, you ask questions; that everything has multiple answers; that everyone thinks their view is legitimate and correct; that strong exchanges, arguing your point of view, is good. I liked Judaism’s intrinsic validation of different people’s meaning systems, its emphasis on what something means to every single person at the table — to you and to you and to you.

 


 

Is She or Isn’t She? Fixating on Whether or Not My Shrink Is Jewish

I’ve been with my shrink for 10 years and I really really don’t want to know if she’s Jewish. Her last name is unidentifiable. She could be Jewish, she laughs in the right places. But I’m a professor of Middle Eastern Studies, I profess support for both Israelis and Palestinians, so I have a backlog of getting attacked by both sides. If I knew my shrink was Jewish, I’d have to deal with more of this. Besides, if you’re Jewish, no one else is ever exactly the right kind of Jew. I carry around a lot of disappointment about how other Jews are Jewish, so if my shrink were Jewish, I’d have to feel my judgment of her. Not knowing is good avoidance. I don’t have to experience the unsafety of our specific differences.
But what if my shrink is a Jewishly illiterate Jew? She probably is, I have to explain Hebrew words to her. It’s so widespread not to have competence around your Judaism; it’s the only area where Jews are proud to be illiterate. We’re proud to be assimilated, that we can “pass.” Being Jewish is not like having black skin or being in a wheelchair — identities that force you to think about your difference. Jews have the complicated luxury of not having to articulate identity. If my shrink and I spoke about this in the room, whoof! Our avoidance of this topic, after 10 years, is probably bad.

But if I found out she was not Jewish…. Well, her husband has a more Jewish name, but the way he pronounces it isn’t Jewish. Maybe he’s from the South, maybe he grew up in a place where no one knew how to pronounce a Jewish name. If I found out that he’s Jewish and she’s not? That would explain a lot, that she doesn’t have an affect I peg as Jewish, but she still seems to “get” it. People who are smart, warm, alternative — they seem Jewish to me, but I know that’s just a feeling, a prejudice that’s not always true.
But if I found out she is Jewish? It would be fine. I don’t know. Either way. That’s why I haven’t pushed it. Maybe on some level, I do assume she is. I so treasure the intelligence and angle that she brings to what I bring that the question of Jewishness becomes irrelevant. I feel so “seen” and “held” by her… so she’s probably Jewish. But she doesn’t know a lot of the details of Jewishness, which of course doesn’t make me think she’s not Jewish.

Anyway, it’s a great pleasure bringing my shrink my interpretation of a parsha, how I interpret it as meditation instructions. I love turning people on to the underlying spiritual dimensions of Judaism, the Four Worlds. So maybe my compulsive teaching trumps whether I care if she’s Jewish or not. Nah, that’s bullshit.

A patient, Boca Raton, FL*


If I go to a Jewish shrink and tell her my mother was a child refugee during the Holocaust, it’s like, bingo! there’s 10 years of therapy right there. If I tell it to a non-Jewish therapist,

“Oh, isn’t that interesting. Tell me more.”

“No, I don’t want to tell you more. I don’t want to educate you about it.”

I go to this male, Jewish, eccentric psychiatrist. He was taking my history and I mentioned my mother was a child refugee during the Holocaust.

“So you have that,” he said, and then went on to his next question.

Karen Propp, Boston, MA


My husband and I have been in couples counseling with both Jewish and non-Jewish therapists, and with the non-Jewish ones, we had much better outcomes. Jewish styles tend toward enmeshment, that big-bosomed thing, and with three Jews in the room we’d feel engulfed, like you’re going to overwhelm them, they’re going to overwhelm you. It was hard to separate “good” close from “bad” close.

Non-Jewish therapists with very strong boundaries, very clear; warm, but not in a frightening way — that’s a better match. They’re going to hold back. It’s very safe.

A psychiatrist, Austin, Texas


Going to Jewish therapists would feel, ugh, claustrophobic, unsafe, like they were my parents. But a lot of what I want to talk about in therapy directly or indirectly involves Jews or Judaism, and I often feel worried about confirming a stereotype that I imagine my non-Jewish therapist might deep-down believe. So the subject of Judaism has actually never come up explicitly in my own sessions…or in my work.

As a burgeoning social worker, Freud and psychoanalysis seem so old-fashioned compared to Buddhism and mindfulness; I’m very interested in mindfulness-based practices. Still, psychoanalytic theory feels so familiar, so Jewish, something I grew up in.

A client and student-clinician, Bloomington, IN


After losing my mother at a young age, 24, I chose a therapist who would be my surrogate Jewish mother. My mother couldn’t stand anyone leaving her; if I packed to go away, she had to physically leave the house. When she got sick, I switched schools and a career track to care for her. I had a brother, a medical miracle, whom my parents overprotected until he died.

My mother didn’t want me far from her for reasons I understood only posthumously; when people had left her, she never saw them again. She became separated from her family at age nine during the Holocaust. My father, too. I didn’t know this. They never cried in their coffee.

I needed a therapist who was strong like my mom, with a lot of saichel about life; someone who would champion my living my own life, who would be incredibly instrumental to my growing up; someone kind and caring who would show me how to become the professional I wanted to be.

I also needed a therapist who treasured Judaism as life-affirming and celebratory. I never knew the joy of Judaism. The joy? I had to shed the shame and the victim-feeling to emerge into the beauty of Judaism and go forth with a happy life.

It’s a story of healing. I did a Jewish mother transference; that’s what I needed to do.

A client, Bethesda, MD*


For many years I saw this psychiatrist who had a German-sounding first name, maybe a German last name; he was very formal, with high boundaries, closed off, and he sat way the hell on the other side of the room. I’d have fantasies about him being a Nazi. He used to open his home-office door and then put on his suit jacket.

One day I go and, oh my God, there’s a menorah in the window! My shrink’s a Jew. My internal process shifted after that. I saw him as more like me; maybe he wasn’t such a frightening Other; he was a known Other. His being Jewish let me talk more about his distance; it felt more profound. I was more in touch with my yearning, my wish for us to know each other, to have a shared experience. If he wasn’t a Nazi, why was he so fucking closed off, why did he sit in yenemsvelt, a thousand miles away? Who does that? Maybe a yekkie.

After that, I was free to realize we were a terrible match.

Anonymous, psychiatrist, toronto *


  • Karen Koffler

    I was so disappointed to see Kew Gardens, Queens unfairly maligned in your piece “The Tikkun Olam of Kitty Genovese” on pages 22 and 23 of the Winter 2012/2013 issue. The murder of Ms. Genovese was a horrible tragedy. For decades, the residents of Kew Gardens have been unfairly accused of watching and doing nothing during the crime. This misinformation has found its way into social psychology text books and many articles over the years.

    The New York Times debunked myth of the callousness of the residents of Kew Gardens in 2004: “Kitty, 40 years later.” The author could have easily found it if she had done a simple search.

    Ironically, the day after I read the piece in Lilith, the topic was once again covered in the January 30, 2013 issue New York Times: “Timeless book may require
    some timely fact checking.” The article addresses a reissue of A.M. Rosenthal’s nonfiction account of the murder and the question of how changes in interpretation of fact should be handled. I recognize that this particular article appeared after the issue went to press, but it helps to clear the good name of Kew Gardens residents.

    I expect Lilith to engage in fact checking. In a piece about repairing the world, I am especially disheartened to see Kew Gardens denigrated carelessly.

    Note that I am a Jewish woman, a psychologist by training and a former resident of Kew Gardens, where many Austrian and German Jews made their homes after fleeing Europe.

    Regards,
    Karen Perlmutter Koffler