Culture, Justice, Politics

Therapy and the Jewish Left

by Danya Lagos
“Now, how’s that for good to the last drop? How’s that for a good boy, a thoughtful boy, a kind and courteous and well-behaved boy, a nice Jewish boy such as no one will ever have cause to be ashamed of? Say thank you, darling. Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex. Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what? What have I done now? Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say I’m sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences. Refusing! And she is after me with a broom, trying to sweep my rotten carcass into the open. Why, shades of Gregor Sarnsa! Hello Alex, goodbye Franz! You better tell me you’re sorry, you, or else! And I don’t mean maybe either! I am five, maybe six, and she is or-elsing me and not-meaning-maybe as though the firing squad is already outside, lining the street with newspaper preparatory to my execution.” — Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
In Portnoy’s Complaint, arguably the defining book of the modern Jewish-American literary Canon, Philip Roth launches into a full-on confrontation of the debilitating cultural malaise that is the cult of “goodness” – or, rather, a highly individualized and internalized cultivation of agreeableness, at whatever cost. This is the key ingredient of suburban assimilation, of first and second-generation immigrants, of “making it” – a meticulous pursuit of not only acting “good,” but a codependency marked by a strong confessional tendency, where even your innermost thoughts and desires must be attuned to the needs of others – who force you to allow them into a contrived and intense intimacy, making you answerable to them, for everything.  It rings all too true for me personally since I read it 2009, even though it was published in 1969. While the figure of Jewish mother takes the majority blame in Portnoy’s Complaint for the smothering regime-cage of “goodness” as the ultimate redemption of the world, it is difficult to ignore its lurking presence in other people and spaces as well.
As someone committed to revitalizing and mobilizing the Jewish Left, I feel that I must call attention to the tendency for this cultural malaise to take over, each and every time, in basically all the spaces that we try to create intentionally progressive Jewish spaces.
Frankly, and first of all, the heightened concern with “creating” “spaces” is often the first thing that is in the way. For many of us 35 and under who have grown up in a fortunate time of unprecedented Jewish communal resources being devoted to keeping our generation continuously programmed continuously in special cohorts of people doing really special work, it is difficult to imagine a world without “opening circles,” “closing circles,” “check-ins,” having professional staff or volunteers dedicated to ensuring our comfort at each step along the way, and constantly seeking to avoid conflict. This is not really the way the rest of the world works after high school. Furthermore, certainly, many on the New Left especially have enshrined the idea of “intentional space” as the be all and end all of activism, but if we look back historically, the groups that have really brought about the social transformations they were looking for had very little patience for trying to build utopic meetings where every discomfort of theirs could be addressed and ameliorated, and were willing to participate and contend with what is often a brutal world insensitive to our discomfort – hence why we are activists. This can all be very smothering, and trains us to look inward, and make sure that everyone is following the rules of “open space technology,” whatever that is, rather than looking outward. Let’s get rid of it. Let’s instead focus our gatherings on concrete plans for direct action and mobilization, coming up with platforms and policy statements, networking, building a movement that can enact change here and now, rather than building a great consciousness-raising session that everyone in attendance will find personally inoffensive.
Which brings me to my second point. We must quit our obsession with elevating trauma and meta-trauma to be the main topic and subject of the Left. I will confess – I am traumatized by several things in my life that should have never happened. You are probably traumatized about things in your life that should have never happened. We are all traumatized by things that take place in this very cruel world. We should deal with trauma in healthy and productive ways – through personal means and through broader political action. Yet, however helpful it might be towards finding eventual points of commonality and inspiring action, airing this trauma must not become the central focal point of our gatherings. Spaces that deal with trauma are important, absolutely, but especially out of respect for people dealing with trauma, they are not the same spaces that can deal with the deep, rigorous, and no-taboos-allowed  conversations and debates that must take place in order for meaningful political and direct action to take place.
As we finish off the American Labor Day, its placement in September rather than May itself a marker of just how defeated and off the mark we are as a movement in this country, let this be a time when we all stop worrying about being so “good.” Let this be a time when we consider alternatives to building spaces that demand eggshell sensitivity and personal purity regimes. As we enter the second week of Elul, let this also be a time when we wake up a bit earlier and more resolutely from our sleep to take stock in what there is left to do, but instead of wallowing in our collective brokenness, let us instead direct our planning towards taking decisive and concrete steps to repair the world.
 Danya Lagos is an incoming PhD student in Sociology at the University of Chicago and recently studied at Yeshivat Hadar.

One thought on “Therapy and the Jewish Left

  1. Holy cow! I didn’t realize that the younger generation was as screwed up as how you describe. As someone who was involved in Jewish youth organizations in the late 60s/early 70s, I can assure you that the powers that be were much more subtle in their attempts to control us. Maybe we just thought we were more independent, but in the Jewish youth organization I belonged to, we had very little direct control, and for those who didn’t like what control there was, we set up our own organizations independent of the “Jewish establishment,” which what actually a term of insult at that time.
    As far as obsessing about the idea of “trauma,” especially of the psychological type, this is something about which one should be very skeptical. Some people can be “scarred” (or are they really scarred?)from trauma that might not be really trauma. Fora example, my Daddy yelled at me (and maybe belittled me some) for not getting straight As and not being a super jock like he was. (no matter that I was a total klutz). Sure that was “traumatic” to me, and probably helped provide income to various shrinks who helped me with this, but come on, it’s not like my Dad beat the crap out for me because my grades were bad and he didn’t disown me because I don’t like sports. Sometimes, I think the “trauma” stuff is just a way for the people who might have a claim to be “traumatized” to push other people around.
    I am really concerned now about the way that my children have been manipulated by the Jewish establishment. Don’t let them push you around. Stick you your beliefs, you have my support, at least.

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