Is There Really Such A Thing As Jewish Anxiety?
I am 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 clear-eyed 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 website 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 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 six-page 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 misunderstood, 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.”
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.