A few years ago, I thought up Blue Braid, a Jewish feminism discussion group, for one purpose: to talk about Jewish anxiety. (So I’m anxious to explain that this joke is a slight exaggeration, and there were a few other purposes. Such as: to have a Jewish feminism discussion group.)
6 months into Blue Braid, our next meeting will tackle this topic. It’s tricky, broaching epigenetics, contemporary medical culture, the genocides in our history, gender norms, the cartoonishly neurotic filmmaker formerly known as someone we admired (Mr. W. Allen), and then the conversation stops as we all think about what he’s accused of and how such accusations have not prevented post-accusation production deals, post-accusation reviews in elite publications, and post-accusation ignominy for his former family.
I’ve been joking about Jewish anxiety for a little while, responding to a variety of party chats:
- It’s my son’s first time at sleepaway camp!
- I cannot ride roller coasters!
- But is it safe?
- I don’t know what’s up with my allergies lately!
with a single punchline:
- You must be Jewish.
And my kind friends laugh. Because we all think of anxiety as a birthright as much ours as having an opinion on Israel, googling latke recipes and feeling confused about assimilation. And also, probably because I tend to be friends with people who share to at least some degree my barely repressed edge of furious worry (or worried fury?).
But then I browsed the readings for this upcoming discussion. Blue Braider Samantha Bainbridge put together a group of essays that complicated my belief in the Jewishness of anxiety.
In fact, my Sicilian Catholic grandmother was the one who first taught me to worry. We had a family joke about her rosary beads, which she “did” in some mysterious, comforting way when she was concerned for our safety. Sometimes all night long. The joke was “Grandma did her rosaries.” It’s funny in context.
And her daughter, my mom, Jewish while I was a child but Catholic before and after her marriage to my dad, engages in an anxiety so masterful it constitutes its own language. A native tongue. While my dad’s mom, Yiddish-speaking daughter of a Cleveland tailor, seems to have been about as worried as a golden puppy.
Speaking of China, what is the Tiger Mom stereotype but a (racist, sexist) projection of anxiety? What about that storied, fierce, elitist competition for Manhattan preschools? Anxiety is gloriously universal–especially lately.
So like all generalizations, the Jewishness of anxiety seems to be bogus. We shared bagels and Seinfeld. We can share white knuckles too.
Still, for the Jewish people who experience this mental chaffing that was until somewhat recently called neurosis, this vague fear menacing under every day–anxiety feels specifically Jewish. Our history is defined by eras of violence, marginalization, and genocide. Our grandparents were survivors, or knew survivors. We were taught very young about centuries of oppression.
Death, or at least a hateful slug and slur, seems right around the corner, no matter what corner we approach. We all learned that, if we learned about Judaism.
However, if we equate Jewishness and anxiousness, we feed some common anti-Semitic stereotypes about us as weak, too weak to have stopped the Holocaust. We may inadvertently teach our kids that Judaism is nothing but victimization.
And we may just worry too much. It doesn’t help! Really, it doesn’t. Or so my therapist says. I remain skeptical.
Elizabeth Freudenthal is a child health policy specialist for the state agency that administers Colorado Medicaid. She’s been an academic, a journalist, a nonprofit advocate, and a barely reformed know-it-all. She’s a proud alum of two local Jewish philanthropic leadership programs, Roots and Branches and Transforming Conversations. She founded Blue Braid, a Jewish feminism discussion and networking group. She bakes whole wheat muffins on the regular for her family in Denver and blogs on the irregular at Thinker for Hire.
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