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Sobering Thought

Three cheers for depression.

by David Holzel

For years I've wondered about this malaise I feel. Some days ambition and drive drain from me like sludge, leaving only lethargy. Just getting out of bed feels like raising the Titanic.

And then I found out what's wrong with me.

I'm not a drunk. And if you possess a Y chromosome and personally participated in a brit milah, chances are you aren't either. More likely, something's getting you down. Really down.

That's because depression, my Jewish brothers, is as much our birthright as the land of Israel. Maybe more. In a breakthrough study, two psychiatrists at Brown University found that Jewish men have higher rates of depression than males with names like Biff Astor and Billingsly Thurgood III.

These smart researchers (both Jews) say they have a hunch why Jewish men are more depressed. It's because we booze it up less than those gentile members of the Fairfield Estates Polo Club. Is that because we don't turn to alcohol to release our sadness? Or because they didn't let us join the club?


This study may be a breakthrough, but it strikes me as a big waste of effort. I mean, they need to do a study to tell me I'm depressed? They could have just asked.

In any case, this theory is bound to shake up the image of the Jewish male. All this time we thought we had sensitive, soulful, contemplative natures. We were convinced women, Jewish and gentile alike, found our unmacho inclination toward introspection refreshingly attractive. Now we know the truth. We're not appealingly intelligent. We're just sober.

Where is this heading? Sixty years ago, the Nazis declared us degenerates. Now the psychologists are calling us teetotalers.

It won't stop with us, let me assure you of that my friends. It's like that old warning against the slippery slope -- "At first they said the Jews were depressed, but I didn't care because I wasn't a Jew." The Mormons should be in a panic. And the Black Muslims.

Sixty years ago, the Nazis declared us degenerates.
Now the psychologists are calling us teetotalers.


It's bad enough to equate Jews with depression, which Winston Churchill called "the black dog." (Churchill, by the way, was both a depressive and a tippler. Don't get me started.) The implication of sobriety reflects another Jewish experience -- that of being the Other. If you can't be one of the guys at Cheers, you just don't fit in, Yankel.

It gets worse. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko had a chuckle at our expense in a piece in which he dredged up every conceivable Jewish stereotype. "My first memory of being depressed?" he has a Jewish man saying. "I was about 8 days old and we had a party. We had a big platter of corned beef and potato salad." Blah, blah, blah. You know the rest. When I read this tripe, I wanted a good stiff drink. Unfortunately, I was a little low at the time and was in bed. So I stayed there.

Now, this connection between depression and sobriety isn't even a connection, really. There are other things that account for the anxiety and depression each generation of Jews bequeaths to the next.

Genetics, surely. And also the unremitting pressure these last 2,000 years to conform -- and to stop trying to blend in. To flee and to stay put. To be the best friends of anti-Semites. To lock ourselves behind gates for our protection, and to hand over the keys so we can't move about freely. To convert or leave. To serve 25 years in the czar's army and assimilate, or to die in the meantime. To be gassed and die now or to do slave labor and die soon.

The writer Gunther Anders summed up the effect Jewish history has had on the Jewish psyche this way:

"If a man does not know...what he may be suspected of, or why he is being accused, or whether or not he is tolerated, then all his energies will be consumed by an unremitting search for meaning."

It's 50 years after the Holocaust and they're surprised we're depressed? They're lucky we aren't drunk and pissed off.


Courtesy of Rte. 40 Scrapbook  

This piece is a collaboration with my best friend, noted psychotherapist and master of shtik, Glenn Hammel. During a phone conversation one night, Glenn rattled off a stream of one-liners while I took notes. Later, I filled in the blanks.