Zoe Strimpel

Let’s bust the myth of Jewish hypochondria

The Woody Allen cliché does not apply to most Jews in real life (even if it does apply to myself)

June 29, 2023 11:38

To me, it’s always been a source of terror and, if I think about it — which happens more than it should — disbelief that human consciousness is tethered to fallible flesh and blood. I was three or four when I began sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night with the shock of mortality. I was closer to ten or 11 when I intermittently panicked that I had symptoms of cancer: my temples once hurt, and I somehow ended up with the family doctor peering into my eyes to reassure me there were no signs of a brain tumour. Other upsetting catastrophic convictions followed, and have never stopped. The rational middle ground where the worst possible outcome isn’t the most likely — perfectly accessible to me in other domains — is simply impossible for me in the realm of health.

So it’s hardly a surprise that my friends and family know me as a hypochondriac. Those who have had to bear the brunt of my panics get annoyed with me quite quickly now. They roll their eyes. They remind me that I have always done this. The less impatient refer to my “health anxiety” rather than my hypochondria, while I feebly insist that as I get older, the chances of something actually being wrong grow. Yes, yes, they say, and get back to their lives.

There is an idea that hypochondria is quintessentially Jewish. Along with the love of bagels, sons’ excessive attachment to their mothers and being bad at sport, Jews, it is assumed, are prone to excessive health worry. Woody Allen has been a key figure here, of course: his classic role, played with naturalistic flair, is as the hypochondriac ex-husband in Hannah and Her Sisters. And some Jews, particularly American Jews, lean into the stereotype.

“I don’t know if it’s coded in the DNA of the Jewish People™, or if you become a hypochondriac via osmosis from growing up in a city,” writes the New York-based comedian Kate Schulman in a blog post headlined To all the Jewish Hypochondriacs Out There. “But it seems that a lot of my fellow hypochondriacs are both Jewish and have been to a deli and wondered what would happen if someone were to have a heart attack and smack their head on the case of cold cuts.”

But the reality is that Jews, at least in my experience, are not particularly prone to hypochondria. What we are prone to is an unreserved form of familial love and concern, which can sometimes take the form of intense questions about wellbeing and health. There are obvious reasons that we worry about these: thousands of years of experience have taught us on one hand that danger lurks everywhere, and on the other, that the only thing we really have is our physical persons, since possessions might be ransacked or have to be abandoned.

The Jews I know, including my parents and a friend who actually has breast cancer, may worry or feel down from time to time. But hypochondriacs? Absolutely not. Aside from myself, not a single Jew I know takes every twist and turn in their health as a sign of cancer.

Even when something looks or sounds quite concerning, and I am secretly panicking on their behalf, not one of them adopts my approach of total blanket obsession and panic until the issue has been resolved. Sometimes they even let things like work, or other commitments, get in the way of making an appointment to see a doctor. And their approach to waiting for test results — including biopsies — is stoic. “No point worrying about it,” says one friend. Don’t get me wrong: the same friend stays up worrying at night, including about health, but exclusively in terms of how her baby son would survive if something happened to her.

The “Jewish mother” stereotype in the domain of health particularly fails to apply in my case. My mother, a microbiologist by training, is the most impatient of anyone with my health terrors and does not hide her frustration with what to her is now nearly 40 years of worry that this time it’s definitely cancer. Or sepsis. Or HIV. Or tetanus. I sometimes ring her up to ask if I can eat this or that food item that has been left out of the fridge overnight, accidentally, or something well past its sell-by date — and she’ll quickly calculate an answer based on how fast bacteria grows. It’s hardly Woody Allen.

In fact, I can’t help but wonder if a more fitting stereotype for Jews is stoicism. We’ve had to put up with so much and the sense I have always got from my Jewish elders is that they have far greater fish to fry than worry about uncontrollable bodily events. Indeed, there is a wisdom and pragmatism among Jews, especially older Jews, that gets less airtime than the Woody Allen stereotype.

That’s not to say we aren’t terrified of untimely death or suffering. It’s also not to say that Jews don’t suffer widespread anxiety (though whether this is really more than other groups is hard to say). But I don’t think we indulge health terror any more than the next person — and perhaps less.

My own tendency to panic about the worst bodily outcome is about my fear of death, and of dying, which is a fairly human thing. But for its somewhat hysterical manifestation, blame me, not my people.

June 29, 2023 11:38

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive