How am I Jewish Ask my therapist

The other day, sitting on the slope of Dolores Park in San Francisco, I stared at the dome of Congregation Sherith Israel gleaming to the north. The glint of light from the synagogue’s roof made me reflect on what actually defines my Jewish identity. There are the external trappings: the collection of Kafka’s short stories on my shelf and the klezmer discs in my stereo. But I wasn’t thinking about material things. What in my daily life is actively Jewish?

In the spirit of free association, my mind was drawn to my former therapist, whom I’ll call Dr. Finklestein. The good doctor always seemed as if he expected to walk out the door of his office and end up on the Upper West Side. He wore rumpled suits, had a fog of dark hair turning gray. The patent leather couch in his office was overstuffed and extremely comfortable.

Finklestein and I would dissect fairly minute aspects of my life in an effort to get underneath the surface of my emotional dilemmas. He would, inevitably, lead me back to discussions about early childhood. We would wrestle over the meaning of specific words and refer to numerous episodes from past sessions.

Bam! Like a revelation from my unconscious, there was my answer — my therapy sessions were actively Jewish.

There is no question that Finklestein epitomized a classic New York Jewish personality. But our dialogue resonated with something deeper in Jewish culture — the kind of back and forth that originated in discussions of the Talmud, or between a rabbi and a congregant.

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing the work of a rabbi to the work of a therapist. There may be some overlap, but the practice of interpretation — at some point in modernity — jumped from reading Jewish law to reading the unconscious.

Have you paid attention to what comes up in talmudic discussions? Scholars take a tiny verse from the Torah and transform it into a wide-ranging meditation on human nature. The classic commentators construct a Jerome Robbins-like dance with a single word or phrase. Then they bring their ideas back down to earth, to your life.

Then there’s the questioning. How many times have you had a Jewish conversation where a question was answered with another question? Therapists do the same thing, don’t you think?

Enough with the questions already. There’s another link between therapy and Jewish practice for me.

When I would finish my hour on the couch with Finklestein, I would often take a walk to get some air afterward. His office was around the block from the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and sometimes I would stroll through there. This was in the old days, before the beautiful new building, and I would especially enjoy the musty old institutional feel of the place. It reminded me of a temple. I would imagine myself engaged in some kind of class there, learning Yiddish or Jewish history. Learning about my past.

And it struck me that I had been doing the same thing in therapy — uncovering my own past in order to heal myself. I was trying to see what I didn’t know — how my family had affected my emotional development, shaped my actions.

I can see how learning Yiddish or even studying the Torah in a class with fellow Jews might be another way to heal myself, even part of a continuum that reveals how Jewish culture has shaped my actions. Rather than self-awareness, a sense of cultural awareness.

Finklestein and I would communicate with distinctly Jewish gestures — the shrug, the sigh — as if we were making it clear to each other that we understood that we were talking as Jews as well as client and therapist.

I consider myself a cultural Jew, which means I go to synagogue about once a year. As I think about the connection between Jewish culture and therapy, it’s striking how widespread psychology has become and how clear the link really is. Is it possible to think of therapy as modern Judaism’s third-greatest contribution to mainstream society?

One and two are, of course, the bagel with lox and slapstick comedy.

Jay Schwartz has superb mental health and can be reached at [email protected].