This paranoid stereotype is no joke

November 24, 2016 23:22

Blame Woody Allen. Blame Sholem Aleichem. Blame Roth or Sorkin, or Seinfeld, or Larry David. Blame BT for Beattie. Blame them for sustaining the popular image of the Jew as someone who is neurotic, obsessive, a tad narcissistic. Someone who in the real world might well be grappling with a fairly serious mental health issue.

Think about it. Who is the Jewish man of popular culture? He's invariably a know-it-all, his intellectual superiority matched only by his condescension, but it's a mask. He is actually a worrier, plagued by insecurity - and able to talk anyone else under the therapist's couch. He's Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, Josh Lyman from the West Wing, He's the Harry who meets Sally.

The man gets off lightly. His anxiety is usually about deep philosophical questions.

The woman, on the other hand? She is Monica Geller or Golda from Fiddler on the Roof. She's a mother plutzing about her children's love lives - Marjorie Houseman in Dirty Dancing – or fretting inanely about whether everyone is full. She's usually a figure of fun, as preposterous as she is grating. She goes to therapy mostly so she can set up her niece with an eligible doctor.

I'm generalising, of course, and many of these characters are also erudite, funny and kind. Equally, it's clearly an American stereotype; though since American culture holds sway here, that hardly matters. In any case, we embrace it, this stereotype of a people prone to overthinking and obsessing. Rabbis raise a laugh during their sermons with a punchline about neurotic Jews. We make these characters the stars of our summer camp skits. We take being phobic as a badge of honour, a sign we are proper Jews, like our taste for smoked salmon and inability to reach six foot.

Why not? It's better than what was, when the prevailing stereotype was of the mercenary Jew, corrupt and on the make. Untrustworthy, but good with money. Meyer Wolfsheim, or Shylock, or Fagin.

Once, Jewish was shorthand for disloyal or suspect; no wonder we applaud this more flattering label.

And it's not necessarily an unfounded slur. Woody Allen characters are versions of the writer, so we are told; Roth spent years telling his own story. We recognise these women from our Shabbat tables, where potatoes are stacked so high you can't see above them; we well know these men who choose introspection over a trip to the pub. The stereotype is funny because it is true.

The thing is, though, that there are plenty of Jews whose anxieties don't fit the stereotype.

Full disclosure: I am one of them, having suffered from insomnia for more than a decade. I worry about falling asleep, staying asleep, getting enough sleep, or surviving without sleep. I worry about the amount I worry about this.

And while I can laugh at the neurotic Jew on screen, it's not funny for me, not when I'm awake in the small hours, my mind going a mile a minute.

I'm lucky enough not to have suffered other, more severe mental health issues, but I'd imagine they're not funny either.

My anxiety is not rational; it's not because of anything, not in any simple sense. And it's certainly not because I am a Jew, even if being Jewish gives you plenty to worry about.

Anxiety is a real issue for many of us, Jewish or not, along with a whole swathe of things connected with the mind and lumped under the mental health banner, from depression to obsessive disorders. Why are we parodying something that is painfully real for many of us?

The past year or so has seen a sea change in how Britain talks about mental health. The Jewish community must follow suit; around our Seder tables, in our schools, shuls and youth groups.

In some places, this is already happening. My worry - ha ha - is that every time we make light of anxiety or neurosis, every time we joke it is a Jewish trait, we risk suffocating that conversation.

Every time we joke about all Jews being in therapy, we make it harder for people to talk honestly about the fact they might be.

We aren't going to change Hollywood and, in any case, there's clearly a role for humour. Comedians like Ruby Wax have made great strides in talking honestly about these issues without making it a lecture. But it's a fine line, and within the community we don't always get it right.

The stereotype of the neurotic Jew might make us giggle, but this isn't always a laughing matter.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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