Hot Buttons for Jewish Women

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Scholar Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz explores four key issues that can not be dismissed when it comes to Jewish women in therapy.

by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

Note: The article below is an excerpt from an anthology called Jewish Women in Therapy: Seen but Not Heard edited by Rachel Josefowitz Siegel and Ellen Cole (Harrington Park Press, 1991). The excerpt is from a chapter called “The Issue Is Power: Some Notes on Jewish Women and Therapy” by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, who is a Jewish activist and scholar. Below she examines issues that are inherently part of the psyche of many Jewish women.

Jewishness is an intensely collaborative endeavor, to be pursued in a community of other Jews. Sometimes the work of re-approaching one’s Jewishness involves exploration, the nature of which may well be mysterious even to the explorer. In this work we feel excruciating vulnerability. We feel ashamed for not already knowing tradition, history, culture, language lost to us via assimilation. We feel exposed and foolish for wanting to encompass these things so little seen, much less valued by the non-Jewish world. We feel guilty for criticizing family and culture. Besides, given the pain—as well as the joy—with which being Jewish has usually bathed our families, our Jewishness is often buried under oceans of tears.

Here are some issues which I believe are especially intense for Jewish women, or have a particularly Jewish slant to them:

Children and family. The decision to have or not have children, the meaning of family—these issues have particular weight in the Jewish community, as in many other minority communities, especially those subjected to attempted genocide. The people’s survival has depended on the strong family, and on the woman’s reproductive performance. To take a simple example, the therapist who sees in a Jewish woman’s anguish about whether or not to have a child only a classic feminist dilemma may miss a dynamic of what even the client herself may be unaware.

On the other hand, Jewish families are probably as riddled with abuse and dysfunction as other families. Yet there is a myth about the close, happy Jewish family, that Jewish men don’t drink or beat their wives or sexually abuse their daughters. These myths make the reality hard to bear for the individual suffering in a non-ideal family. The anguish felt by many women about revealing family secrets is exacerbated by a sense that Jewish families in particular need protection. That we need to be better than the goyim. That by telling the truth we’re validating anti-Semitism.

Money. To many non-Jews, Jews are money. A friend tells me that whenever she mentions money in therapy sessions she feels intense anxiety, lest her therapist click into anti-Semitic stereotypes. Jews’ relationship to money is further complicated by the dramatic class shifts many of us have experienced in our own or in our parents’ lifetimes. Add to this a concept of charity deep in the Jewish tradition that is fundamentally different from Christian charity, as the notion of poverty is fundamentally different—neither a blessed state (Catholicism) nor a sign of damnation (Calvinism), but an unfortunate reality to be ameliorated, anonymously and without fanfare, by those who have more.

Alienation. The non-Jewish or assimilated Jewish therapist needs to consider that a woman who looks to her like a “normal white woman” has experienced in her own life or through her parents’ experience serious alienation and even danger from being Jewish; thus the question of Jewish paranoia asserts itself. Many of us were taught that the world is dangerous because the world is dangerous. A therapist who treats this fear as pathology seriously misses the point. A friend whose father survived the Holocaust tells of reluctance to mention Hitler to her therapist; her fear is that her deepest loyalty and rage, her commitment to Jewish survival and memory will be defined as pathology, therapized away.

“The Real Jew.” Any minority culture which has encountered the force of American assimilation has lost much of itself. Some Jews have lost more than others, and often we feel ashamed of this loss. Many of us have one Jewish parent, or received no religious education, or have a partner who is not Jewish. From a relatively homogenous culture, not so many generations back we have developed a term in this range of experience and relationships to Jewishness but without a corresponding sense that this range is valid, acceptable. Jews tend to feel judged by other Jews as not Jewish enough; this experience includes our own self judgment, and makes us either undermine our sense of self or turn from Jewish community, in an effort to avoid this undermining.

For more information or to purchase Jewish Women in Therapy: Seen but Not Heard, visit Harrington Park Press’s website.

About the Author

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s work on Jewish, anti-racist, feminist, and lesbian themes is widely published, and she has lectured and presented workshops all over the United States and Canada. She is co-editor of The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (Boston: Beacon, 1989). She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley.

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