In my experience, Catholics invariably treat God with respect. But Jews, a lot of them, act like God is a rich, blustering relative who’s chronically late to holiday dinners and is often unavailable when you need his help. There is a long, proud history of disgruntled Jews – Job, Jesus, Philip Roth, Larry Kramer. And of course, Woody Allen. Woody has been quoted as saying, “If God exists, the best you can say about him is that he’s an underachiever.”
My favorite Jewish joke perfectly captures that spirit of animosity. A Jewish woman named Esther is well into her forties when she finally conceives, and gives birth to a son whom she worships like the second coming of you-should-excuse-the-expression Christ. One day when she and the little boy are sitting on a beach building a sand castle, a gigantic wave rises out of the ocean, crashes onto the shore and sweeps the little boy out to sea. The distraught mother jumps to her feet, looks up at heaven and cries out at the top of her lungs, “God! You made me wait half a lifetime to give birth to my beloved son and now you have the nerve to take him back? Listen to me, ha-shem, you bring that boy back right this minute, do you hear me?” A moment later, another giant wave rises up out of the ocean and crashes onto the sand, laying the boy back at his mother’s feet. Esther looks down at her son and then back up to heaven.
“He had a hat.”
Now, that’s funny in a way that is particularly Jewish. Because Jews are Olympic Champion complainers—kvetchers in Yiddish—who can find fault with even the most positive outcomes. Let’s say someone gives you a Ralph Lauren pocketbook. Did it have to be brown? You win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Couldn’t it have happened last year when your father was still alive?
It is no accident that Freud was a Jew, because who else would know more about civilization’s discontents? We Jews have the therapy gene. I myself am a psychoanalyst. And I have had my share of mishegas. But that’s how it should be. If you are a fish, gefilte or otherwise, with a problem and I am a fish without problems, how am I going to understand your problem?
My cousin Estelle, my only living relative in Los Angeles, may she live a long and painful life, sent me a postcard announcing that she and her husband Jeremy, both Ph.D.s in psychology, were opening a new practice in therapeutic mediation. It just so happened that I had a patient, a high-functioning lunatic named Wilmot, who had a low-functioning lunatic brother named Sturgis, and the brother was driving my patient even crazier than he already was. I thought, “Perfect!” If anyone needed therapeutic mediation, it was those brothers, so I gave them my cousin’s name and number, not of course mentioning that she was a relative.
Two weeks later, I received a phone call around 9:30 at night and an unfamiliar voice said, “Eleanor?”
Nobody has called me Eleanor since I changed my name to Veronica at 15, nobody, that is, except my cousin Estelle. Even my parents called me Veronica and wrote their letters to Veronica, and left their life insurance policies to Veronica when they died.
“Who is this?” I asked cautiously.
“It’s Sturgis, Wilmot’s brother.”
“How can I help you, Sturgis?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I just wanted to thank you for referring us to your cousin.”
“How do you know she’s my cousin?”
“She told us. She told us all about you. She said you changed your name from Eleanor to Veronica when you were a teenager. She said you’re smart but very selfish and that you don’t like doing anything for your family that inconveniences you.”
I was stunned. Not because my cousin thought I was selfish, I already knew that, we’d had an argument after she kept asking me to chauffeur every geriatric Jew on the West Side of L.A. (and there are legions) to her house for the holidays, and I finally put my foot down. What stunned me was her total breach of ethics. Thanks to her, I now had this lunatic who wasn’t even my patient calling me at home to discuss my shortcomings.
“Uh, Sturgis, does your brother know you’re calling me?”
“He gave me your number.”
“That wasn’t very nice of him.”
“He’s pissed at you because your cousin and her husband spent most of our time arguing with each other about how to do mediation.”
“Well, they obviously took a little break from arguing to tell you all about me.”
“That’s true,” he said judiciously. Maybe Sturgis was really the high-functioning brother.
“It’s late, Sturgis,” I said, because I was damned if I was going to apologize to him for my cousin’s bad behavior.
“Well, nice talking to you,” he said.
“You bet. Nighty night.”
As soon as I hung up, I called my cousin. Her machine picked up.
“Estelle, I got the strangest phone call just now. One of the two brothers I sent you as a patient referral just called me and he seemed to know my whole life history, which he said you told him. When you get a chance, could you please give me a call? Thanks.”
I waited two days for her to get back to me before I called again and left a more assertive message.
“Hey, Estelle, it’s your cousin Veronica. You know, Eleanor? You must have been having a really bad day when you saw the two brothers I sent you because I heard that you and Jeremy argued with each other during most of the session. I was just trying to do something nice for you, Estelle, in response to your postcard about therapeutic mediation and I think you really fucked me over. How about calling me back and explaining why.”
She did not call back. The next day I saw Wilmot, who was twenty minutes late as usual. His arrival was boisterous and disruptive, as if he were being pursued by wolves. He moved like a snowplow through my office, his black hair thick and tousled, his intense, dark eyes bloodshot. He was wearing the same black wool suit he wore to every session, which made him look like a dissolute Hasidic rabbi. And he was bundled up enough for an Arctic expedition, his neck wrapped in a heavy knit yellow scarf, with a marled wool vest covering most of his dingy white dress shirt. He also wore fur-lined leather gloves, heavy black shoes that could have weathered a Minnesota blizzard, and one of those leather pilot hats with earflaps like the squirrel wears in Rocky and Bullwinkle. He was constantly worried about “catching a chill,” like some old lady, probably his mother, even though it was March and temperatures in Los Angeles rarely dipped below seventy.
“Your cousin’s crazy,” he said, beginning to disrobe.
“I heard. Look, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Boy, does she have a hard-on about you,” he said, obviously enjoying this opportunity to torment me.
“Yes, I know. I’m really sorry.”
“She wouldn’t let her husband get a word in edgewise. I felt kind of sorry for him,” he said, stretching himself out on the couch like a sunbathing walrus, his elbows out and palms resting beneath his enormous head.
“Do I sometimes make you feel like you can’t get a word in edgewise with me, Wilmot?” I asked slyly. Goddammit, I was going to get some psychoanalytic interpretation going; I wasn’t about to let the whole patient-analyst relationship disappear down the drain because of my boundary-violating cousin.
“Are you worried that you’re like your cousin?” he asked just as slyly, hurling the transference interpretation back at me.
I was definitely feeling off balance, and Wilmot was reveling in my discomfort. He hated his mother, to whom he was pathologically attached, and I was experiencing the rough edge of his maternal rage dragged across my face like a handful of gravel. Just more transference, of course, but he had no intention of letting me interpret that for him. He just wanted me to feel the burn.
And that’s how the rest of the session went, me thrusting, him parrying, like Daffy Duck fencing with The Incredible Hulk.
“Don’t forget to bring my pink scarf back,” I said as he was leaving, all bundled up again as if his next stop was Nome. He had borrowed the scarf back in January when he realized that he’d mistakenly left his at home.
That night I left another message for my cousin.
“You’ve probably cost me my patient, Estelle, so thanks a bunch. What kind of psychologist are you to air your grievances against me with your (or should I say my) patient? I think you should surrender your license, Frau Doktor. You’re acting as crazy as your crazy father.”
Estelle’s crazy father, Lance (speaking of name changes, his birth name was Larzer) was a handsome, wild-eyed Russian engineer who was fired from every job he ever held and ended up marrying a rich widow who supported his mania and tolerated his chronic unemployment. And his mother was even crazier—Lena, a diabetic who, at the age of 88, against all medical advice, insisted for the sake of vanity on having her bunions removed and ended up a double amputee because her poor circulation had caused gangrene.
So it shouldn’t really have been a surprise to me that Estelle turned out to be a wacko, but it surprised the hell out of me anyway.
The day before Wilmot’s next scheduled appointment, he left me a message saying the usual things patients say when they quit. Thanks for all your help, I’m feeling pretty good right now, I think I’ll take a little break from therapy, yada-yada-yada.
I called him back and left a message of my own. You owe me for the last two sessions, Wilmot, and I need you to return the pink scarf you borrowed in January.
Later that afternoon, I received a letter from my cousin. It said, “Dear Eleanor, I am not at liberty to disclose anything that goes on in a patient’s session, as you perfectly well know. It’s private.”
I thought the top of my head would blow off, leaving only my ears and eyebrows. It’s private! What about my privacy? I stormed around my office like a madwoman, screaming at her, telling her what an airhead she was with her trips to Thailand and Turkey and China and all she could say about them was “very interesting!” I made reference to her cooking, which was inedible now that she had eliminated cholesterol. I said her daughter was the inspiration for Miss Piggy and her son had less charm than a moon rock. I told her that her friends were the most boring people I’d ever spent a meal with. I accused her of being jealous and competitive and a manipulative bitch who was always assigning tasks to people, as if we all worked for her, here, peel the potatoes for the latkes, go pick up Aunt Minnie who pees on the upholstery, and drive my father home—her demented father Lance who sang the same two lines of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof until I was ready to throw open the passenger door of my car and push him out onto the freeway.
I said every evil thing I’d ever thought about Estelle, but it didn’t dissipate my rage. And then I remembered that she and her husband Jeremy had come all the way up to Santa Barbara for my graduation from therapy school and paid for everyone who joined us for dinner, which must have cost them half a grand. What an ingrate I was, on top of being selfish. I seriously considered returning to analysis.
A few days later, I was finishing up with a delightful new patient a colleague had sent me when the signal light came on from the waiting room—startling me, since no one was scheduled for the next hour. As I led the new patient out, I noticed there was a McDonald’s bag with a large grease stain on the end table next to the love seat. Inside was a thank you note from Wilmot with a check for the last two sessions, some Halloween candy—mostly miniature Snickers Bars—and a scarf. It was not my scarf, however, which was bulky and rose-colored acrylic that a patient had crocheted for me last Christmas, but rather a cream-colored Ralph Lauren wool scarf with a delicate half-inch of fringe on both ends and the word “cashmere” on the label. I looked it over with frustration, even sniffing it, for fear it would smell like Wilmot, but it only had the greased beef scent of a Big Mac.
Okay, I thought, trying to reason with myself. You lost a patient, but now you have a new one who seems much better suited to analysis and who’s willing to pay your full fee. And you got the money for the last two sessions from Wilmot and a better scarf, much better really, than the one you lent him. So?
But I was still fretting, still not satisfied, still full of complaint, because—you know the punchline.