Is the Black Dog Jewish

by Nov 23, 2017Articles

If ever the human psyche held terrible secrets, and untouchable emotions, the language of modern psychology has opened its dungeons and let those dark hounds loose. We now have words (‘manic depression,’ ‘bipolar,’ ‘seasonal affective disorder,’ post-traumatic stress,’ ‘post-natal,’ ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’) – and chemicals (‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,’ ‘tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine,’ ‘alpha-2 receptor antagonists’) – that can hook those nameless demons, cauterize them, splay them and even neutralize them. Science and the language to delineate it, have for now, rescued millions of listless, melancholic, insomniac, suicidal individuals from the grip of a condition Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog,’ more commonly known as ‘depression.’

Depression runs in my family like a rogue gene. My father has spent his life as a cartoonist making people laugh, propped up on antidepressants. He in turn inherited this condition from his mother, and it has been passed down through the generations with Jewish recipes and hand-embroidered tablecloths. Depression, like an STD, is one of those traits one does not blurt out in good company as a conversation icebreaker. It is a shame, a thing of which we oughtn’t to speak. Lest we get even more depressed. But to me, depression is fascinating. And I suspect more people suffer from it than we can begin to imagine. I can’t help but believe that thinking, feeling human beings don’t all experience a dark night of the soul, now and then.

In his biography of depression, Darkness Visible (Random House, 1990) William Styron says the word depression has ‘slithered innocuously through language like a slug, preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.’ It has become the modern term we use for a state of an unexplainable feeling of deep sadness. ‘Depression’ was first suggested as a term by American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer in 1905 and picked up by the medical community.

But melancholy, as it was commonly known, has plagued the human spirit from the earliest historical records of the Bible where David played the harp to relieve King Saul’s gloom. It is a condition that has affected millions over history and time, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’ Keefe, Eeyore (in AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books), Abraham Lincoln, Leonard Cohen, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Tipper Gore and (name some Australians). Depression affects people of all races, cultures and ethnic identities, and does not discriminate.

But I had a thought: were depression to claim an ethnic identity, let’s say Dreamworks decided to animate ‘depression,’ what would it look like? Arrogance would have a beret, a cigarette and speak French, just like greed would wave the star-spangled banner and sing ‘American anthem.’ But what of depression? My guess is that it would be kitted out with yarmulkes and tzitzit and they’d get Woody Allen to be the voice. The soul of depression, is, essentially Yid.

I began thinking about this when I was asked to deliver a paper at the Jewish Writer’s Festival in 2006, on the subject, ‘The Literary Representation of the Jew.’ To be honest, the topic sounded like a university English assignment and I’m a little shonky on the academics. So I began to trawl through literature, to look for a theme, a thread by which to weave a plausible ten-minute talk without making it obvious that I’d clearly been mistaken for someone clever.

What I discovered, was that most of the Jewish characters in literature I could find, were all depressed. They were gloomy. Mourning. Haunted. And so I wondered: are Jews a depressed nation?

When you look at it objectively, Jews have a lot to be depressed about. They are, as they have always been, a despised people, living always in the shadow of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they suffer from classic performance anxiety – being ‘God’s chosen people’ is harder to live up to than a parent with a degree from Oxford. Anyway, you only have to look where Joseph’s techni-coloured coat got him. No-one likes a tall poppy. As Tevya says in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘I know we’re the chosen people, but just for once, can you choose somebody else?’

 

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The very presence of Jews in the world keeps alive some of the most vitriolic human hatred that has spawned some of the worst atrocities of the past few centuries. Jews are always looking over their shoulder. They’re always wondering when next they’re going to have to pack up their tent and leave. For the Jew, the laying down of roots is always a complex ritual of uncertainty. If it’s outside of Israel, they’re in exile, outsiders who will one day overstay their welcome. If it’s in Israel, they’re busy with, in John Travolta’s words, Staying Alive, because their neighbours don’t believe they have a right to exist. Being Jewish is not very relaxing. This can lead to Prozac.

New Age theory encourages us to: ‘BE WHO YOU ARE.’ But the Jewish injunction is rather, ‘REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.’ Perhaps the greatest sin one can commit as a Jew is to (godforbid) forget who you are. Because Jews are a people whose identity is tied to their past, being Jewish is about never forgetting that ‘once we were slaves in Egypt,’ ‘once we were on trains to Auschwitz,’ ‘once we were without a homeland in the State of Israel.’

Yehudah Amichai, in Songs of Zion the Beautiful writes of this:
Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
That’s what it’s here for. Let the park in-memory-of remember,
Let the street that’s named for, remember,
Let the famous building remember,
Let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
Let the rolling Torah scroll remember.
Let the flags remember….
…. Let the dust remember.
…. Let the afterbirth remember.
Let the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens
Eat and remember,
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.

It’s a plea – a very Jewish, ‘It’s enough remembering, already!’ And why does Amichai say Jews need a rest from remembering? Because all that remembering makes you depressed.

Every act of remembrance is sad. Even remembering happiness is sad because it is the recall of that which has passed – a state of being that has come and gone. Jewish tradition ensures that even in the happiest moments, it is imperative to remember that that there has been sadness and loss – every Jewish bridegroom enacts a ritual of breaking a glass at his moment of supreme happiness. Jews are committed to remembering. If mourning were recognized as an Olympic sport, the Jews would walk away with the gold medals every time.

In Anne Michaels’ book, Fugitive Pieces, she writes:
It’s Hebrew tradition that forefathers are referred to as ‘we’, not ‘they’. When we were delivered from Egypt.’ This encourages empathy and a responsibility to the past, but more important, it collapses time. The Jew is forever leaving Egypt.

I think this is really the heart of it: for the Jew, the passage of time does not erase his history, but deepens the channels between past and present, engraving the memory more deeply, like the numbers scorched on the arms of ancestors who were herded into cattle trucks and gas chambers. To be a Jew is to remember. As a people, Jews are haunted by the spectre of genocide, of not-being. And because of this, the Jew is in spiritual exile, always longing for, moving towards the mirage of ‘home,’ either one that has been left behind because of pogroms, expulsions or fear of not-belonging, or towards one that never seems to exist. Nu, this is why Jews are depressed.

To Churchill, depression may have been best described as a ‘black dog.’ But I think there’s something far more Semitic about the soul that kvetches and agonizes about the meaning of life. To me, the oi-veyness of life is, surely must be, Jewish.

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1 Comment

  1. Vivien Arnold

    Interesting view and well written. I like your beginning especially.

    Reply

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