Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do Jews own anxiety?

There is a joke that goes something like this:

A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew walk into a bar.

"I'm so thirsty I must have a beer," the Catholic says.

"I'm so thirsty I must have a glass of wine," the Protestant says.

"I'm so thirsty I must have diabetes," the Jew says.

People – often Jews themselves – tell jokes about Jewish anxiety, or neurosis, because they know it to be true. Many Jews, myself included, must work hard to shake the feeling that something bad lurks around the corner. On screen, Woody Allen provides a perfect example. Years ago when I saw the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason on Broadway, he did a routine about a Jewish mother sending her child off in the car; it went something like this: "Call me when you get to the corner, call me when you get to the first traffic light..." concluding, of course, with "Call me when you get there." Sounded just like my mother.

You pick some of this up from your parents, but it runs deeper.

Whatever your symptoms, they probably signal a terrible illness.

If you've had cancer, the symptoms may very well signal a return of the cancer.

In an essay titled "Do Jews Own Anxiety?" that ran Saturday in the New York Times, writer Daniel Smith calls anxiety "the non-transferrable cost of being Jewish."

He writes, " As a Jew born since, say, A.D. 200, you are forced to live in a world in which you are — for perplexing, unfathomable reasons — not only the object of a widespread psychotic rage but also, as the very consequence of that rage, urged and expected to associate all the more strongly with your heritage. Indeed, you are urged and expected to act as a kind of personal repository for nearly 6,000 years of collective memory and as a bearer of an entire people’s hopes for surviving into the limitless future. You don’t want to be anxious? You don’t want to be neurotic? Tough. You were born into anxiety."

Still, he writes, Jews don't own anxiety and never have. He mentioned Emily Dickenson, who "lived on dread" and almost never left the house; William James, who was paralyzed by uncertainty for a decade; and Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote, “The greater the anxiety the greater the man.”

But Jews own a large part of it.

It is a pefect sunny day, and I'm not going to think about it anymore. Katie and I are going out to buy flowers for the garden, and then we will plant.

I hope I don't get stung by a bee.

I hope I don't get poison ivy.

I hope I don't get sunburnt...Oy Vey...enough already!


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! was just saying to my non-Jewish cousin that Anxiety (capital A!) must be genetic in our family...

so Anglican/Russian Orthodox/Dutch Reformed Protestant/Quaker and Jewish influenced here can attest to its being true for many of us human beings...dogs get anxious, so do cats...birds, etc. horses, etc.

Anywayl, just came back from an all day chemo session for my friend Barbara, who is Jewish, who remarked to her psychiatrist years ago when he asked -- "What is happiness>?" She replied "the absence of anxiety."
Great piece -- go enjoy your touch of Eden, and remember those who are never anxious must have had a lobotomy! or be on drugs!

Anonymous said...

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colleague who was doing a little homework on this. And he in fact ordered me breakfast because I discovered it for him.

.. lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thanks for the meal!
! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your site.
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Nelle said...

I have often described myself to doctors as having Woody Allen syndrome but truth be told my grandmother was like this too. If we were late she had already run several scenarios in her head which all ended badly. My one friend has told me more than once that there has to be Jewish genes in me somewhere. Perhaps.