In this Sunday’s New York Times, you may have seen the Week in Review front-cover essay by Daniel Smith. With the header, “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” it was low-hanging fruit for the paper’s editors to play up on the page 1, given that anything with Jews in the title is almost guaranteed to make the “Most Emailed” list. (Sure enough, on Monday, it broke the Top 10.)
The article tackled an interesting phenomenon in Jewish culture. Jews often champion themselves as the quintessential neurotic, anxiety-suffering type. While anxiety may be a condition suffered by millions, Jews like to claim that they, above all, are its chief victims—a fact, ironically, extolled by Jews even if anxiety is fundamentally an illness. Smith asks why this is, and comes up with a few noteworthy explanations.
He claims that, for one thing, Jews champion their anxiety the same reason that anyone group co-opts an otherwise unattractive stereotype: it exhibits ethnic pride. He rightly points out that just beneath the surface of the Jewish love of their collective anxiety is, most probably, a lurking anti-semitic slur.
As he writes, the Jew “might not bake Christian blood into matzos or conspire to control the global means of production, but he is, when compared with those around him, flawed — weak-willed, ill at ease, quavering and chronically maladjusted. In a word: inferior.” By claiming ownership of this stereotype, Jews, perhaps unwittingly, Jews have turned a vice into a virtue.
Smith also suggested that Jewish history—with all that murder, expulsion, and hatred meted against them—begs for a collective psyche that’s perennially ill-at-ease, anxious to the core. I didn’t find that explanation convincing—what people doesn’t have a history of suffering?—but I did find his last one provocative. He argued that Jews claim anxiety as their own because it suggests a kind of hyper-intellectuality. Anxiety, after all, is nothing if not the result of endless thinking and over-analyzing. If we suffer anxiety, it’s only because we think too much.
“When a Jew says he’s a member of the most neurotic tribe in existence,” Smith writes, “it’s a backhanded way of saying he’s a member of the smartest tribe in existence.”
Smith—who’ll have a new memoir about anxiety, “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety” coming out in July—ultimately argues that it’s time we give up this stereotype. And I think he’s right. It does Jews no good to claim themselves chief claimants of any characteristic, be it intelligence or anxiety. It not only gives anti-semites easy fodder, but also denies Jews the agency to make of themselves anything they please.
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