Is Jewish Anx­i­ety A Thing?

Or Are We Just Imag­in­ing It?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Philip Eil

Iam an anx­ious Jew. By which I mean (a) I am Jewish, and (b) if I had to pick the over­ar­ch­ing emo­tional theme of my life, it would be fear. Or worry. Or panic.

One of my first mem­o­ries is a pe­di­a­tri­cian’s visit where I was so scared of an im­pend­ing vac­ci­na­tion that I tried to bolt out of the room. That feel­ing of vis­ceral ter­ror has never re­ally gone away. Since then I’ve strug­gled with fears of fly­ing and closed-in spa­ces, and flash pan­ics about my apart­ment hav­ing bed­bugs, or black mold, or a gas leak. I’ve gone to count­less doc­tors — car­di­ol­o­gists, ear/nose/throat ex­perts, der­ma­tol­o­gists — to quell hypochon­dria. In col­lege I started hav­ing full-blown anx­i­ety at­tacks, in­clud­ing one in which EMTs and an am­bu­lance were sum­moned to as­sure me that I wasn’t hav­ing a heart at­tack. Years

later, as an adult, I be­gan reg­u­lar ther­apy ses­sions to see if I could tame the re­lent­less, rapid-fire neg­a­tive thoughts that oc­ca­sion­ally hi­jack my mind. But even with pro­fes­sional help, I haven’t fully es­caped the oc­ca­sional flash of per­spi­ra­tion, revved-up heart­beat and short­ness of breath, or the ar­rival of a new fear du jour — a fa­tal dis­ease I’m sure I have, a so­cial gaffe I’m sure I’ve made — that gnaws mer­ci­lessly at the in­side of my skull.

Ac­cord­ing to the Anx­i­ety and De­pres­sion As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders af­fect nearly 44 mil­lion adults in the United States. But even with this knowl­edge, at some point I ac­cepted the idea that there is some­thing in­her­ently Jewish about my af­flic­tion. The world around me re­in­forced this with jokes (like the one about the Jewish head­stone that reads, “‘I told you I was sick”), movies (“High Anx­i­ety,” “An­nie Hall”) and think pieces (“I’m Not a Hypochon­driac, I’m Just a Jew,” “Con­fes­sions of a Neu­rotic Jewish Mother”).

And, I ad­mit, the idea of Jewish anx­i­ety is com­fort­ing. If you’re suf­fer­ing in the same way your an­ces­tors suf­fered for thou­sands of years, it feels no­bler than if you were sim­ply suf­fer­ing alone. (And, con­sid­er­ing the rich his­tory of anx­ious-Jewish hu­mor, it’s at least fun­nier.) Even if my vis­its to syn­a­gogue have dwin­dled in re­cent years, I like the idea that cer­tain as­pects of my Ju­daism are non­vol­un­tary, hard-wired.

And yet, at the same time, I’m a cleareyed jour­nal­ist who knows that these be­liefs are un­sci­en­tific, and that hunches are not the same as hard proof. And proof, or at least com­pelling ex­pla­na­tions, is what I re­cently went look­ing for.

My ques­tions were sim­ple: Am I anx­ious be­cause I’m Jewish? Or am I sim­ply a Jew who hap­pens to be anx­ious?

And are Jews ac­tu­ally more anx­ious than other peo­ple?

In 2013, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­leased a 214-page re­port called “A Por­trait of Jewish Amer­i­cans: Find­ings From a Pew Re­search Cen­ter Sur­vey of U.S. Jews.”

The re­port, based on thou­sands of in­ter­views con­ducted in all 50 states, was filled with in­ter­est­ing data, but what you won’t find in it is any men­tion of anx­i­ety. Nor will you find anx­i­ety or re­lated ail­ments listed on the of the Jewish Ge­netic Dis­ease Con­sor­tium, which, un­der “Ashke­nazi Jewish Dis­eases,” lists dozens of ail­ments, from Abe­tal­ipopro­teine­mia to Zell­weger spec­trum dis­or­der PEX2.

In the 2002 book “Cre­at­ing Men­tal Ill­ness,” Rut­gers Univer­sity so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Al­lan Horvitz ap­pears to of­fer some­thing ap­proach­ing an an­swer when he notes, “Al­though only about 1% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion is Jewish, Jews have made up about half the clients of dy­namic [psy­chi­a­try] ther­a­pists since the 1920s,” and, “In­deed, a na­tional sur­vey in 1976 found that more than half of Jewish re­spon­dents had en­tered psy­chother­apy at some point in their life, a rate far higher than for any other group.” But, as a men­tal health re­searcher pointed out to me, these sta­tis­tics could be a re­flec­tion of

The fear is some­thing deeper than mere hypochon­dria.

any num­ber of fac­tors that have noth­ing to do with Jewish rates of men­tal ill­ness, or specif­i­cally anx­i­ety — af­flu­ence, ac­cess to men­tal health care, a cul­tural or so­ci­o­log­i­cal faith in medicine and men­tal health.

“Jewish Amer­i­cans and Men­tal Health: Re­sults of the NIMH Epi­demi­o­logic Catch­ment Area Study,” a six­page ar­ti­cle pub­lished in 1992 in the jour­nal So­cial Psy­chi­a­try and Psy­chi­atric Epi­demi­ol­ogy, con­tains lit­tle men­tion of anx­i­ety specif­i­cally, but, over­all, ap­pears to dis­miss the idea that Jews have ex­cep­tion­ally high lev­els of men­tal ill­ness. “The ma­jor find­ing from this com­mu­nity sur­vey was that the over­all life­time rate of psy­chi­atric dis­or­der did not dif­fer among Jews as com­pared to non-Jews, even af­ter con­trol­ling for de­mo­graphic fac­tors,” it reads.

The psy­chi­a­trist, au­thor and Brown Univer­sity psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor Pe­ter Kramer told me he knew of no re­search-based ev­i­dence that Jews suf­fered from anx­i­ety at higher rates than other groups, and he even sent me a Wash­ing­ton Post book re­view he wrote in 1992 in which he notes, with re­gard to early-20th-cen­tury ideas that Jews were more vul­ner­a­ble to ner­vous ill­nesses, “it is hard to dis­tin­guish epi­demi­ol­ogy from anti-Semitism.” Mean­while, the re­searcher and Ic­ahn School of Medicine Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­ro­science Rachel Ye­huda told me that she had never en­coun­tered any ev­i­dence of higher Jewish anx­i­ety in the med­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, and said, “I just don’t think that we know this to be true, em­pir­i­cally.” The Bran­deis-based so­cial psy­chol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary Jewish stud­ies Leonard Saxe told me that he, too, was un­fa­mil­iar with much data sys­tem­at­i­cally com­par­ing Jews and non-Jews, and he had dif­fi­culty even en­vi­sion­ing how such a study could be con­ducted in the first place, con­sid­er­ing, “We barely can tell who are the Jews and how many of them there are.”

So, where, then, does the idea come from? In a word: ev­ery­where. Scour the non­med­i­cal lit­er­a­ture and you’ll find var­i­ous ar­gu­ments link­ing anx­i­ety and the Jewish mind. In a 2012 in­ter­view, the au­thor of “Mon­key Mind: A Mem­oir of Anx­i­ety,” Daniel Smith, said the tal­mu­dic tra­di­tion is “one of con­stant, in­ter­minable ques­tion­ing and turn­ing things over and an­a­lyz­ing. It’s end­less ex­e­ge­sis.” Oth­ers at­tribute our anx­i­ety to the bias and anti-Semitism Jews have long en­coun­tered. In 1937, the rabbi, es­say­ist and founder of Re­con­struc­tion­ist Ju­daism, Morde­cai Ka­plan, wrote, “The av­er­age Jew to­day is con­scious of his Ju­daism as one is con­scious of a dis­eased or­gan that gives no­tice of its ex­is­tence by caus­ing pain.”

Else­where you’ll find the idea that our anx­i­ety stems from cer­tain ir­rec­on­cil­able con­flicts at the heart of Jewish life. In a round­table con­ver­sa­tion fea­tured in Mo­ment mag­a­zine in 2013, Rabbi Sh­mu­ley Boteach de­scribes the com­pet­ing forces for­ever act­ing upon Jews: “Since Abra­ham said, ‘I am both an alien and a res­i­dent among you,’ the Jew has ex­pe­ri­enced an in­escapable du­al­ism. On the one hand, we are the most in­flu­en­tial na­tion that has ever lived, de­liv­er­ing to the world its God, its com­mand­ments and its be­lief that all hu­man life is equal and of in­fi­nite value. On the other hand, we are peren­nial out­siders, shunned and mis­web­site

un­der­stood, vil­i­fied and os­tra­cized.” A sec­ond rabbi, Laura No­vak Winer, ties anx­i­ety to our God-given free will: “As con­scious and con­sci­en­tious hu­man be­ings, we all face po­ten­tial anx­i­ety about our work, about how we are per­ceived, about our ca­pac­i­ties. When we ex­pe­ri­ence those feel­ings, we are wit­ness­ing the strug­gle be­tween our yet­zer tov, in­cli­na­tion to do good, and

yet­zer hara, evil in­cli­na­tion. Anx­i­ety is the ex­pres­sion of our fight to choose to do what is right and our worry about not reach­ing that goal.”

In his 1948 es­say, “The Ever-Dy­ing Peo­ple,” the philoso­pher, au­thor and pro­fes­sor Si­mon Raw­id­ow­icz draws a line of anx­i­ety through es­sen­tially the en­tirety of his­tory of the Jewish peo­ple. The fear he de­scribes is some­thing deeper than mere hypochon­dria; his the­sis is that, for cen­turies, Jews have col­lec­tively been dogged by the sense that we’re mo­ments away from ex­tinc­tion.

“He who stud­ies Jewish his­tory will read­ily dis­cover that there was hardly a gen­er­a­tion in the Di­as­pora that did not con­sider it­self the fi­nal link in Is­rael’s chain,” he wrote. “Each al­ways saw be­fore it the abyss ready to swal­low it up. There was scarcely a gen­er­a­tion that while toil­ing, fall­ing, and ris­ing, again be­ing up­rooted and strik­ing new roots, was not filled with the deep­est anx­i­ety lest it be fated to stand at the grave of the na­tion, to be buried in it. Each gen­er­a­tion grieved not only for it­self but also for the great past that was go­ing to dis­ap­pear for­ever, as well as for the fu­ture of un­born gen­er­a­tions who would never see the light of day.”

In the cen­turies fol­low­ing the de­struc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple, al­most ev­ery lead­ing Jewish poet and scholar con­sid­ered him­self the last of his kind, and Raw­id­ow­icz wrote: “His To­rah was the end of To­rah; he had writ­ten the con­clud­ing page in the great book of learn­ing of the na­tion; when he will have re­cited the shema for the last time, the To­rah will ei­ther re­turn to Si­nai or be dis­carded as a use­less ob­ject in the cor­ner.”

This trend is vis­i­ble in “deep and in­ces­sant lamen­ta­tion that fills our lit­er­a­ture of the past 2,000 years,” and in the “feel­ing of frus­tra­tion, waste, and hope­less­ness” that “has per­sis­tently ha­rassed the minds” of gen­er­a­tions of Jewish thinkers. Cer­tainly, sim­i­lar feel­ings were present in the cul­tures of an­cient Rome, and in Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, he ac­knowl­edges. “Yet... it has nowhere been at home so in­ces­santly,” he wrote, “with such an acute­ness and in­ten­sity, as in the House of Is­rael.”

At the end of my re­port­ing, I was left with two un­de­ni­able con­clu­sions: There is scant em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence that Jews are more anx­ious, and yet, at the same time, the idea has over­whelm­ing cul­tural mo­men­tum. The ques­tion about the Anx­ious Jew trope is — to bor­row an ar­guably anx­i­ety-based mea­sur­ing sys­tem of yore — is it good for the Jews?

In that 2013 round­table ar­ti­cle from Mo­ment, Chabad Rabbi Shais Taub says that the stereo­type has had a neg­a­tive im­pact over­all. “We helped sell the stereo­type of the neu­rotic, hypochon­driac, self-ab­sorbed Jew,” she wrote. “Many of us made a liv­ing at it. But what price was paid by the grand­chil­dren of the au­thors, co­me­di­ans and ac­tors who sold the world this shtick? The price is that many of us now be­lieve it. And we lack the cul­tural con­text to un­der­stand the grain of truth that was dis­torted into a twisted im­age of what Jewish life is and was.”

To oth­ers, though, the idea of Jewish anx­i­ety may not be such a bad thing. In “The Ever-Dy­ing Peo­ple,” Raw­id­ow­icz spins our col­lec­tive un­easi­ness into some­thing life-af­firm­ing. “A peo­ple dy­ing for thou­sands of years means a liv­ing peo­ple,” he wrote. “Our in­ces­sant dy­ing means un­in­ter­rupted liv­ing, ris­ing, stand­ing up, be­gin­ning anew.”

To him, our col­lec­tive anx­i­ety has been a source of strength. Jewish his­tory, he wrote, rep­re­sents a “phe­nom­e­non that has al­most no par­al­lel in mankind’s story: a peo­ple that has been dis­ap­pear­ing con­stantly for the last two thou­sand years, ex­ter­mi­nated in dozens of lands all over the globe, re­duced to half or third of its pop­u­la­tion by tyrants an­cient and mod­ern.” And yet Jewish life still “ex­ists, falls, and rises, loses all its pos­ses­sions and reequips it­self for a new start, a sec­ond, a third chance — al­ways fear­ing the end, never afraid to make a new be­gin­ning…. There is no peo­ple more dy­ing than Is­rael, yet none bet­ter equipped to re­sist dis­as­ter….”

Saxe sug­gested that even if Jewish anx­i­ety is un­proved in clin­i­cal tri­als, it might still be seen as a re­flec­tion of pos­i­tive traits. Part of what makes Jews dis­tinc­tive, he said, is how much we care about other peo­ple, the world, and the fu­ture. “And,” he told me, “In this

farkakte world that we live in, that’s a healthy re­sponse, not an un­healthy re­sponse.”



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