Gimme that old time religion

March 28, 2010 at 10:55 PM 4 comments

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Two years into my life as a single mother, I began seeing a therapist named Gertrude Falak.* Her office was on Central Park West and 86th Street, and street parking being what it is in Manhattan, I took an express bus from the Bronx to make my Wednesday 11:00 a.m. appointment with her. I got Gertrude’s name through a mother I met on the playground, a therapist-in-training who was studying with Gertrude and who thought she would give me a little TLC. All I wanted was not to marry the wrong man again, and if TLC would forestall a second mistake, I was all for it.

Gertrude was a white-haired Jewish woman in her early seventies with scoliosis so severe that one hip was higher than the other. This impairment, along with a Depression-era Bronx accent, made Gertrude the kind of woman I wanted to tell my troubles to. I talked to her about my ex and about an alcoholic playwright I met in a book club who said he would convert to “Judaism lite” if I married him. I told her about my parents, who were Holocaust survivors and observant Jews and, of course, the complications that go along with that family background. She listened to me talk about friends, work, writing aspirations and lack of money, and probably knew more about me than anybody else in my life ever did.

I liked Gertrude. Despite a first name that conjured up the two-timing mother in “Hamlet” and a surname that evoked the plenipotentiary instrument so central to classical psychoanalysis, she was more an adherent of Winnicott than Freud. That is, she believed that being a “good enough mother” was key to a child’s psychological well-being. She was less interested in looking at personality as a cauldron of erotic and aggressive drives.

Could have done with a little more skepticism

Like most people who wind up in therapy, I had my fair share of complaints about my parents. Yet it bothered me that Gertrude accepted my version of events without question. To her mind, the good enough therapist would make up for the absence of a supportive mother who would have made me feel “safe” and “valued.” The fact that I was an adult, the mother of a three-year-old child myself, and still expressing resentments toward my war-traumatized parents should have signaled some narrowness of spirit in me. But for Gertrude, my mother and father had not adequately loved me, and they were to blame for my ambivalence toward marriage and, it seemed, for everything from my height to my heart murmur.

I worried about so much unconditional support. Any other profession would require a more balanced approach to all the players in my family story. But who my parents really were and what they might have had to say about raising four children without the benefit of an extended family or community life didn’t interest Gertrude. I was her patient, they weren’t. She would go with my story, no matter how immature or one-sided it was.

Gertrude made it her mission “in the time we have together” to undo the damage my parents had done to me. She said the greatest damage to my selfhood came from Orthodox Judaism. Gertrude based her impatience with religion on her Orthodox Jewish relatives in Baltimore, who were punctilious about the Jewish dietary laws and Sabbath observance, but ruthless when it came to business and family relationships. The best thing she had ever done was cut them out of her life. Gertrude counseled me that I would be happier too if I ripped this Jewish weed out of my life. Our goal should be to help me become an open-minded, sexually experimental secular American Jew. If I happened to experience a yen for religion, there was always Unitarianism or secular humanism. Of course, with good enough treatment, I could become a completely self-actualized woman and wouldn’t need any of that rot.

The group went very well

In the two years I saw Gertrude, she pressed for me to join “group.” The group therapy she had in mind would put me in touch with supportive men and women. Ideally, I would continue my individual therapy on Wednesdays and join group on Monday evenings. I had an Oxford healthcare plan at the time that didn’t pay for any of this chatter. I was loathe to give up the individual sessions, which I liked in spite of Gertrude’s intolerance for Judaism, but my therapist was so convinced that group would catapult me into a plane of “fully realized potential” that I finally gave in.

Not counting Gertrude, group consisted of seven members — two men and five women. One man was a neurologist and a son of Holocaust survivors who wanted to divorce his wife; the other was a Brit who had phone sex with a girlfriend while his wife was in another room. All of the women were either contemplating divorce or felt shortchanged in their relationships with men. I gotta say that supportiveness — the selling point for group therapy — was in short supply here: The group members went at each other like jackals. The men disliked the women and the women disliked the men. They accused each other of cheating, obfuscating, lying, manipulating, backstabbing, shamming and covering up the truth.

Two-thirds of the way into the session, Gertrude pointed out that I hadn’t spoken. Of course I hadn’t. I was mortified by my entry into group hug hell.

“I think we’d all like to know how Barbara feels about us,” Gertrude said.

I said, “I feel I stumbled into somebody else’s Thanksgiving dinner.”

Gertrude asked the others how they felt about what I just said. This was going to be bad.

A woman named Karen swished her foot back and forth like a mermaid’s tail. She said, “I can’t stand her.” She disliked my blonde hair, my thin figure, my silence, my way of talking, my intelligence and my comment about Thanksgiving dinner.

Like any good rabble rouser, Karen wanted followers. She canvassed the others to find out who else couldn’t stand me. All but two agreed with Karen. With a bit of arm-twisting, I felt they could be drawn into the playground too.

Gertrude sat at the twelve o’clock point in the group. She had an imperious smile. Group had gone very well.

Welcome, stranger

After the first session, Gertrude called to talk to me about my hazing. She assured me that every group has trouble assimilating a new member and promised the mood would change for the better as time went on. But nothing thrilled Karen more than letting me have it. The parrying back and forth between Karen and me was so impassioned that one of the men insisted that we liked insulting each other.

In my seventh session, when Gertrude asked the neurologist and me to talk about being children of Holocaust survivors, Karen and her coven said they really resented us taking up so much time to talk about something nobody cared about. When you are in the presence of outright meanness, it’s time to call it quits. I never went back.

As it turns out, I am part of a group that meets every week. It’s the Sabbath table. The weekly get-together on the day of rest is based in part on the Jewish value of hakhnasat orhim, or hospitality. People get together to eat a lavish set of entrees, bless their children, talk about the week, books, movies or politics and sing zmiros, Hebrew songs that celebrate the day and the meal. I have hosted many Sabbath dinners and lunches and have attended the Sabbath meals of friends and family. The best things about these groups is the food and meeting new people.

A sort of paradise

I do not want to give the impression that every Sabbath meal is a pastoral. All too often you have guests who turn shrill or silent or stoney-faced because they don’t know how to talk to people whose ideas about Israel, Jewish practice, family, marriage and life overall do not gibe with their own. I have witnessed fanatics just about stone each other over the coming of the messiah. I have heard Republicans skewer Democrats — and vice versa — as being naive, idiotic or both. I have watched husbands and wives degrade each other. I have seen married men go into a rage about the height of the mechitza, the low wall that separates men and women in an orthodox synagogue, and then fended off their unwanted advances.

But whatever character flaws people bring to the Sabbath table, the ideal remains to get dressed up, welcome people into your home and put your best self forward as a guest. In fact, the social mores of the Sabbath meal are the exact opposite of Gertrude Falak’s group, where the goal was to strip yourself — and others — of every superego incumbrance that civilization has dared impose on you. The Sabbath group exists to protect the social politesse that our forebears put in place to keep us from tearing each other’s hearts out and then roasting them over an open fire.

And you don’t have to be Jewish to believe that kindness is psychologically superior to boorishness. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently  some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the  misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. . . The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether  without it. “

So, in one corner we have Gertrude Falak’s group therapy, where her uber-ruffians are happy to grind you down into a pile of salt. In the other, we have that old time religion, with all its fallible, annoying human beings, slurping chicken soup and spearing a second helping of brisket. I’ll take “all that rot,” thank you, because at the end of the week, that’s where I will find twenty-four hours of TLC.

* All names in this blog post have been fictionalized.


Bob Newhart’s group therapy participants were cranky but lovable.

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Entry filed under: Judaism, Religion. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Rest in peace, Stewart, wherever you are The marrying kind

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Harriet Jackson  |  March 29, 2010 at 3:32 AM

    Kudos to you for leaving group therapy. Been there, done that, with similar results of finding and paying for hell.

    • 2. modestine  |  March 29, 2010 at 7:29 AM

      It struck me as a pagan ritual: The group needed a sacrifice — so they went after the newcomer. Ewwww!

  • 3. Sara Bennett  |  March 29, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    I always have the same thing to say – I love your pieces.

  • 4. Pesha  |  March 29, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    You’ll find more Shalom at a Shabbat table than at group therapy!


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