[Paleopsych] Nextbook; Why are American psychologists wary of transforming your soul?
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Sun May 15 00:49:21 UTC 2005
Why are American psychologists wary of transforming your soul?
Andrew Heinze makes explicit an unspoken connection.
A gateway to Jewish literature, culture and ideas
INTERVIEW BY Kristin Eliasberg
From Freud to Ann Landers, Jewish psychologists and advice columnists
have been instrumental in shaping the collective American psyche, but
often took pains to downplay their background. And as a rule,
historians have avoided examining how the shared heritage of these
popular thinkers has affected the modern understanding of the self. In
Jews and the American Soul, Andrew Heinze argues that, whether or not
they were conscious of it, they share a moral sensibility grounded in
the Hebrew Bible.
Why write a book specifically about Jewish psychologists in America?
To show that Jews in the 20th century were central actors in the
development of American ideas of the psyche, the soul, human nature,
and so forth. People have been aware that there are a lot of famous
Jews--that's not surprising--but even among historians, there's no
sense that anything distinctively Jewish was conveyed into mainstream
American thought in such an important area as popular psychology.
Joseph Jastrow, Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, Joyce Brothers, Erich
You talk about many Jewish figures in psychological thought since the
1890s. What ties them all together?
The Jews involved in popularizing psychological ideas tended to say
things that they had in common but were not shared with non-Jewish
counterparts. For example, in the early 1900s they reacted much more
to mainstream ideas about intelligence and the degree to which
different ethnic groups might have different capacities and
personality traits. So many were immigrants and were fighting the
nativists who were using these psychological arguments to shut down
immigration. The Jewish thinkers seemed to almost have a consensus
against these hereditarian ideas. And what they said about the most
basic questions of human nature changed the American conversation.
Is there one thing they all have in common?
I would say a Jewish moral perspective--a specific Jewish moral
sensibility marching into the mainstream culture.
How would you characterize that perspective?
In a lot of ways it would overlap with a Christian moral perspective:
both read the Book of Proverbs, for example, which has moral
instruction. But it also exists in tension with a Christian moral
perspective. In the early years of psychology, there were tendencies
to almost euphoric views about how one can totally transform oneself.
The Jews didn't jump on that bandwagon; they pulled back and followed
a more guarded optimism. They didn't subscribe to those notions partly
because of the Jewish rationalist tradition, but also because they had
no model like the Christian conversion experience. Especially for
Protestants, there's a model of complete transformation--the Holy
Ghost can enter you and purge you of sin. There really wasn't anything
like that in mainstream Judaism.
The Jewish approach comes more from the tradition of musar, to keep
working at moral improvement. It's hopeful, but emphasizes
self-discipline and emotional self-control. The people I talk about
emphasized evil, took a slightly darker view about human nature. I
ascribe that to the basic Jewish historic sensibility--the
Inquisition, pogroms, the whole history of persecution.
How do self-proclaimed secularists--Freud, Adler, even Dr.
Joyce Brothers--fit this mold?
All of these people grew up in a world which was Jewish in important
ways. Many of them were immigrants or came from immigrant families;
some grew up in religious households. It's only after you introduce
those biographical details that it makes sense: These people were
raised as Jews. They may have become secular, but it's not like you
forget your parents or that you went to a Jewish school or studied the
Bible. What was really interesting with Freud and Adler was that they
were both fascinated and inspired by the Bible stories that they
learned in Vienna.
Joseph Jastrow was one of the first to really write for a mass
audience--was one of the first radio psychologists, had his own
newspaper column. Jastrow is a great example of someone projecting his
own perspective into the public. His father was a Talmudic scholar and
wrote a dictionary of Talmudic terms that is still in use. He was
also the brother-in-law to Henrietta Szold. In the secular guise of
popular psychology Jastrow carried on what rabbis used to do
traditionally--correspondence with Jews who had questions about how to
apply Jewish laws, how should you live, the right way to live.
You've said you had to be very careful not to overreach. Why?
Well, I could have decided to just write really speculatively, if I
had just gone out and said, "This is a Jewish idea, that is Jewish,"
maybe I could have written a best seller. But it was important to make
a dent in the way that people teach and write about 20th century
American history. Academics especially can be very wary about any
ascription of Jewishness to any of these ideas. Even with Erich
Fromm, who was a yeshiva bocher, Orthodox until he was 20, you
couldn't make more of a case about how completely Jewishly saturated
his whole perspective was. Yet somehow no one had ever really
emphasized that before. Believe me, I have gotten into trouble in
academic circles for trying to isolate this as a Jewish experience.
Some people were really bugged about the fact that I was singling out
David Hollinger pointed out that a persistent inhibition, based on
the legitimate desire to avoid ethnic stereotyping, has kept scholars
from investigating the ways in which Jewishness might have figured
into what intellectuals chose to write and talk about. Put into normal
language, there's one real good reason to be wary about saying this is
a Jewish idea and that's a Jewish idea: that was the kind of thing the
Nazis did. They posited that there is a German or Aryan consciousness
or mind or soul or psyche and a Jewish one and that they are
essentially different. Among Jews there is a hesitancy to talk too
much about Jewish influence. And this is even more true for historians
who are not themselves Jewish. Those are tricky waters.
Does this inhibition impede scholarship, or is it a good thing?
It can be good. For example, when I submitted some portions of the
book as an essay to The Journal of American History it was intriguing
to them, because no one had done this before in this way. But they
also raised serious issues. I was forced to actually prove what I
thought. But in another instance, the NEH refused my second grant
application. From the readers' comments, I got the sense some of them
weren't evaluating the credentials of the project but were going on
this off-the-cuff feeling that there's nothing Jewish here, why are
you singling out these Jews?
You organized a panel at the Scholars' Conference in American Jewish
History on the "crisis of relevance." What is that crisis?
Jews will generally come up in courses and texts when it's time to
talk about the big immigration between the 1870s and the 1920s, the
same time you talk about the Italians and the Slavs. What I was saying
is that in several areas of American history, and I single out the
economy and the growth of American culture and society, Jews have been
important in shaping the American experience, way out of proportion to
their numbers. But we know almost nothing about that.
Why do you think that is?
The burden of responsibility falls on scholars that are dealing with
the history of American Jews to make the case--not just talking within
Jewish intramural circles, but making the case to people who do U.S.
history in general. The people who do this work need to impress others
within the field, so that the ways in which Jews were involved in the
reshaping of American popular culture and intellectual life become
part of the larger American story, not just something that gets
recycled every year in the same Jewish venues.
What's your next project?
I switched gears completely and decided to move into fiction. I wrote
a coming-of-age story set in a New Jersey boarding school in the
1970s. The protagonist is a Jewish boy from a lower-middle-class
family who attends this elite school on a scholarship and becomes
involved with boys, and a few girls, from backgrounds very different
from his own.
Kristin Eliasberg has written about the law for New York Times, the
Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe.
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