Not exactly ‘happy,’ but handling depression


In Daphne Merkin’s new memoir, “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression,” the author recalls: “By the age of 8, I was such a traumatized specimen, such an anxious, constipated mess. … I cried inconsolably about everything … not to mention the raging insomnia that kept me up night after night.”

The primary source of her depression, she reveals, was her remote, rage-prone father and, especially, her mother, who was capable of “insidious cruelty.”

“I remember I used to stare out of the window of the bedroom I shared with my sisters, and think about jumping out,” Merkin, 62, said, speaking slowly and deliberately in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. It was at age 8 she was first hospitalized for her illness, in what would become several such stays throughout her life.

Merkin will discuss her memoir in conversation with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway as part of the Aloud series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Feb. 21. The book has already received laudatory reviews from major literary critics, including in The Washington Post and The New York Times, where it graced a recent cover of The Review of Books.

“This Close to Happy” flashes backward and forward in time to document Merkin’s struggle with her desire to commit suicide, even as she built a career as a novelist, essayist and critic.

The memoir took her 16 years to complete, in part because of her nagging fear that her illness might spiral downward, her recurring bouts of depression and the pain of reliving her fraught childhood, she said.

She persevered to counter the bias she believes still exists against those who suffer from chronic severe depression. The state is often considered “a fraudulent bundle of symptoms, an inflated case of malingering that everyone suffers from but that only a select, self-indulgent few choose to make a big deal about,” Merkin writes.

And so she aspired “to show the interior of the experience of severe depression, in a life that went on around it,” the author told the Journal.  If readers “could see someone who was ostensibly functioning, working at a magazine like The New Yorker, it could perhaps help relax the stigma,” she said.

Even before “This Close to Happy,” Merkin was already known for unabashedly writing about highly personal, and at times provocative experiences; her 1996 New Yorker essay about her penchant for sadomasochistic spanking, for example, raised interest as well as eyebrows.

“Of course I’ve written about many other things,” Merkin said. “But Freud said that art exists to disturb the sleep of the world. … And I’ve always felt I don’t have that much to lose by telling the truth. I’m fascinated by truth-telling. I think that comes directly from my family. We lived with a certain truth on one level and then a much darker truth on another level. We appeared affluent and sort of golden, but underneath it was all dark and deprived.”

Merkin’s mother, Ursula, who died of cancer in 2006, hailed from an esteemed German-Jewish family. Ursula’s great-grandfather was Samson Raphael Hirsch, who many consider a creator of Modern Orthodoxy.

Both of Merkin’s parents fled Nazi Germany with their families in the 1930s; Ursula traveled to Palestine and, at 29, to New York, where she met and married Merkin’s father, Hermann, a wealthy financier. 

Daphne Merkin grew up in a Modern Orthodox household and attended the Ramaz School yeshiva. But despite the religious observance, the servants and the family’s Park Avenue address, Daphne and her five siblings lived in an atmosphere of stark emotional and physical deprivation.

“There was … never enough food to go around and a pervasive feeling of hunger,” Merkin writes. The children wore ragged clothing and suffered at the hands of a nanny, Jane, who often beat and kicked them.

In the interview, Merkin surmised that her mother hired the blatantly unmaternal Jane because she didn’t want her children to feel closer to their nanny than to her. Ursula also had a sadistic streak: “I have written that I thought my mother was [the Nazi perpetrator] Ilse Koch,” she said.

Once Ursula even drew a series of swastikas on Daphne’s arm. “I guess a shrink could say that that was counter phobic — that she was warding off the Nazis by drawing [their symbol],” Merkin said in the interview. “But I would say that it was a complicated gesture. My mother could have a macabre sense of humor. And she had this sort of split identification as victim and aggressor — because there was a lot of aggression in her.”

As a girl, Merkin also chafed against her family’s Orthodoxy — partly because the religion felt rigid within a household that already had so many restrictive rules and partly because she wondered how a God could allow the abuse taking place in her own home. She slowly drifted from religious observance.

Even so, Daphne’s mother became her “everything,” because “if you don’t get what you need, you cling, and you hope for it to come,” Merkin said.

Despite her early-onset depression, Daphne went on to attend Barnard College, where she won the school’s annual poetry award, and to write for such publications as Elle, The New York Times and Vogue. She said she penned her 1986 autobiographical novel, “Enchantment,” to try to “fix” her relationship with her mother. Did it work? “No, no,” Merkin said, with a rueful laugh.

After Ursula died a decade ago, Merkin felt “a radical dislocation … as though the world had spun off its axis,” she writes in “This Close to Happy.”

Yet at the end of her memoir, Merkin sees glimmers of hope.  She writes that she has come to realize “the opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of approximate contentment, of relative all-right-ness.”

Since Merkin finished her memoir, she told the Journal, she had one severe depressive episode after she tried to wean herself off some of her medications last summer. She added that she has always felt “ambivalent” about taking pills, due to the stigma, the side effects and because even psychiatrists don’t know exactly how they work.

These days, she said, she’s back on her meds, is working on a new novel, about sexual obsession, and has only fleeting thoughts of suicide. “I hope [‘This Close to Happy’] will help people understand depression better, and that it will help those who suffer from it to feel less alone,” she said.

As for herself, Merkin added, “I guess there is something melancholy about me.  But with that, I am now melancholically moving forward.”

For more information about Merkin’s Aloud appearance, visit lfla.org.

Cures for age-old problems


When it comes to the health of boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 —  there’s both bad news and good. The bad news is that, try as we might, this generation cannot stop the march of time and will increasingly face chronic medical issues that tend to develop with age, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. 

The good news is twofold: Research demonstrates that boomers can significantly lower the risk of developing many of these health conditions by eating healthfully, staying physically active and avoiding tobacco. 

It also helps that scientists are pursuing a vast array of efforts to combat or treat these conditions. Here is a sampling of encouraging developments locally and in Israel that should give hope to boomers.

Heart disease

Heart disease risk increases significantly for those 45 and older, and it’s the leading cause of death for adults older than 60. The heart cannot regrow tissue damaged by a heart attack, but researchers are exploring how to help damaged hearts regenerate tissue, as well as creating materials to enhance heart function. 

At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, Professor Eldad Tzahor and his colleagues were able to regenerate heart cells in mice by temporarily activating a protein involved in embryonic heart development. “Much more research will be required to see if this principle could be applied to the human heart,” Tzahor said in an Institute bulletin, “but our findings are proof that it may be possible.” 

Dr. Ronen Beeri, director of Hadassah Medical Center’s Cardiovascular Research Center, is collaborating with colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to use gene therapy to replace failing heart cells. They are using viruses to transport specific genetic material into the heart cell.

A “cyborg heart patch” combining living tissue with integrated electronics has been created by Tel Aviv University professor Tal Dvir and doctoral student Ron Feiner. The material can expand and contract like human heart tissue, while regulating itself like a machine. “We expect this to move cardiac research forward in a big way,” Dvir said in a news release. He believes the patch, along with sensors, could be used to send data about the heart to a physician or even eventually to administer treatment, for example, by releasing anti-inflammatory drugs if it senses inflammation.

Here in Los Angeles, researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute have identified a possible way to address a common but difficult-to-treat type of heart failure that occurs when the heart muscle is so stiff that the heart cannot fill with blood. Laboratory rats with hypertension and this specific type of heart failure regained heart-pumping function after receiving infusions of cardiac stem cells.

Cancer

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, and 86 percent of cases in this country are diagnosed among those 50 years and older. A developing approach in cancer treatment called immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight the disease. 

At UCLA, investigators are testing an immunotherapy drug for advanced melanoma, the most aggressive and deadliest type of skin cancer. The drug “releases the brakes” on the body’s immune system, enabling it to recognize and attack cancer cells. UCLA is one of six national cancer centers comprising the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a collaboration launched this year to maximize the potential of cancer immunotherapy research. 

Weizmann Institute professors Yoram Salomon and Avigdor Scherz have helped to pioneer a new therapy for treating early-stage prostate cancer that involves using a laser in combination with a new drug, called TOOKAD Soluble. Patients receive the drug intravenously, then immediately undergo infrared radiation administered via thin optic fibers inserted into the cancerous tissue. The 90-minute procedure allows for treating large, deeply embedded cancerous tissues, and the minimally invasive approach appears to decrease side effects. 

At the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Dr. Gabriel Zada was among California’s earliest adopters and teachers of a new approach enabling the removal of deeply embedded (sub-cortical) brain tumors. The NICO BrainPath is a tool combining imaging and navigation technology with an instrument that’s about the width of a highlighter with a tip the diameter of a pencil tip. The instrument can gently spread brain tissue without damaging the cortex (gray matter) and brain fibers. “It’s a highly accurate way of finding and accessing deeper brain lesions while protecting all the important superficial layers,” Zada told the Journal. “Now we can get to tumors or blood clots in a safer way than we could before.” 

Type 2 diabetes

Boomers will be happy to learn that researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba report that having a daily glass of red wine helps people with Type 2 diabetes moderately reduce cholesterol and improve cardiac health. Individuals with diabetes are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and have lower levels of “good cholesterol.” Professor Iris Shai was principal investigator of the two-year trial, which also involved Harvard University and two European institutions.

Students in Hebrew University’s BioDesign program paired pressure-sensing socks with smartphones to reduce foot ulcers in diabetic patients.

Another challenge facing many people with diabetes is foot ulcers attributed to nerve damage that diminishes sensation in the feet. Members of the BioDesign: Medical Innovation program, created by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Medical Center, developed an innovative way to address this problem. Hebrew University’s Danny Bavli and doctoral student Sagi Frishman, along with Hadassah’s Dr. David Morgenstern created SenseGO pressure-sensing socks. The machine-washable socks register pressure and send signals to a smartphone app that can alert patients to problems, helping them to avoid developing foot wounds.

Depression

In the past year, an estimated 6.7 percent of the U.S. adult population — or about 1 in 15 — had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression affects around 6 million Americans ages 65 or older.

At UCLA, researchers are looking to the brain’s electrical system to develop and fine-tune treatment for depression. They are using an approach called neuromodulation, applying magnetic or electrical energy to modify the brain’s signaling processes. 

“Traditionally, we think of treating depression with chemicals that affect how individual nerve cells function,” Dr. Andrew Leuchter told the Journal. “The latest treatments … use a source of energy … to reset the mood regulating networks of the brain … and frequently restore normal moods in patients with depression.” 

One form of this treatment, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), involves placing an electromagnet on the scalp to pulse the brain’s mood-regulating area with electromagnetic energy. Leuchter says that about 60 percent of patients who failed to respond to antidepressant medication received “substantial benefit” when combining medication with this noninvasive treatment.

Researchers at Hebrew University found that targeting a certain type of brain cell, called microglia, may provide a new avenue for treating depression. Comprising roughly 10 percent of brain cells, microglia carry out immune system functions in the brain. Professor Raz Yirmiya and his team, along with researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that microglia also cause symptoms of depression in response to stress. Blocking the stress-response activation of these cells in mice halted their symptoms of depression. The findings, Yirmiya said in a media release, “suggest new avenues for drug research, in which microglia stimulators could serve as fast-acting anti-depressants in some … conditions.”

Alzheimer’s disease

Of the estimated 5.4 million Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease, all but about 200,000 of them are age 65 and older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of seniors with Alzheimer’s is projected to reach 7.1 million by 2025, a 40 percent increase over this year’s figure. 

By the time symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear, the patient may have been developing the disease for as long as two decades. At Cedars-Sinai, researchers are focusing on preventing the disease and detecting it early. The Cedars-Sinai Alzheimer’s Prevention Program includes an 18-month study looking at whether lifestyle changes can slow the buildup of amyloid plaque, the destructive brain plaque typical of Alzheimer’s, in patients with mild cognitive impairment or a family history of dementia. The program recommends lifestyle changes including eating a Mediterranean diet, exercising regularly, reducing stress and getting adequate sleep.

In addition, Cedars-Sinai researchers have developed optical imaging technology used in a device with potential to detect Alzheimer’s years before symptoms develop. The retinal imaging device detects amyloid plaques in the retina, which may precede the development of plaque in the brain.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Rambam Medical Center) and Harvard University are investigating the possibility of detecting Alzheimer’s via a blood test. They identified a specific protein found in high levels in individuals with cognitive decline. The next step will be to take these findings into clinical trials with the hope of eventually creating a “pre-Alzheimer’s test” to identify individuals who would benefit from early intervention measures.

Eye problems

The risk of severe eye problems increases significantly with age, especially in those older than 65. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, experts predict that rates of vision loss to double by 2030 because of the country’s aging population. 

Hebrew University Professor Uri Banin and graduate student Nir Waiskopf have developed an artificial retina that absorbs light and stimulates neurons. It is hoped that the wireless implant might be used in the future to create a prosthetic device to replace damaged retinal cells in those who are blind.

Bar-Ilan University researchers also are working on a way to help the blind to “see.” Professor Zeev Zalevsky, along with Sheba Medical Center professor Michael Belkin, have developed a prototype contact lens that processes digital images and translates them into tactile sensations. The cornea can feel these sensations, helping wearers form a picture of their physical surroundings. 

Also at Bar-Ilan, Dr. Yossi Mandel and researchers at Stanford University have developed a device that enables patients with glaucoma to monitor the fluid pressure inside their eyes using an implanted lens and a smartphone. The hope is that this technology will relieve the burden of visiting the ophthalmologist for frequent pressure tests, as well as provide a source of more frequent and reliable data.

Ghosts of exile, examined


Roger Cohen is an observer of Israel and the Middle East whose voice is especially commanding, and not only because he writes for The New York Times. As a former foreign correspondent, he is deeply experienced in the travails and troubles of the contemporary world. In “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” (Knopf), he brings his experience to bear in a rich and intimate chronicle that casts as much light on the world in which we live today as it does on the moving story of the Cohen family.

“My life has been spent crossing lines, gazing at the same picture from different angles in order to evoke it,” Cohen explains. “Memory is treacherous, as distinct from history as emotion from form. Every war is fought over memory.”

His family moved from the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia to South Africa in 1896, thus escaping the mass murder of Jews in their Lithuanian town of origin a half-century later. After World War II, Cohen’s father moved the family to Britain. Along the way, many of their ties to Jewish tradition were broken. “A cultural and spiritual vacuum resulted from this attempt to begin again with the mark and scar of each generational upheaval effected,” Cohen writes. “We came from South Africa and nowhere. Industrious and circumspect, we adopted habits of silence that cloaked the fortuitousness of our deliverance.”

The girl from Human Street, we soon discover, is Cohen’s mother, June. His father, as it happens, was born on Honey Street. “It was love at first sight,” Cohen reports. But the relationship between mother and son, which is the beating heart of this book, was not always so sweet, if only because it was overshadowed by her lifelong depression. “When a parent dies unhappy, there is something unresolved that keeps nagging,” he writes. “It took her death for me to realize the strength of her love and how, in the torment, I had loved her back.”  

But Cohen’s book is hardly a sentimental eulogy. Rather, he seeks to find the impact of history itself on his mother’s mental illness. “It was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the twentieth century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting.” Exactly here is the best measure of the author’s audacity and insight — he wants to place the private woes of one woman and one family into the context of the wider world in which they lived, and he succeeds brilliantly at the effort.

Cohen does not neglect the biographical details that his reader needs and expects. Indeed, he is able to extract huge meanings from seemingly mundane details. “In every old photograph, as Roland Barthes observed, lurks a catastrophe,” Cohen writes, and the same can be said of his fraught account of life in Lithuania, then South Africa and then London. For example, Cohen’s father, a physician, was prompted by his wife’s first suicide attempt to create a family tree with a black dot next to each ancestor who suffered from mania or depression. “Black dots abound.”

Cohen himself follows the same trail of clues. “June Cohen was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning,” he declares. “She had been blighted. I wanted to know why.” Acting on his own journalistic instincts, he finds his way to the admissions register for the mental hospital where she was confined for electroconvulsive therapy, and he reproduces the column where religious affiliation was noted; all but one is marked “C/E” for Church of England, but his mother’s entry is marked “Jew.” At this point, Cohen enters his own narrative: “I ran my fingers over the page and paused at ‘JEW.’ I wanted to take a soothing poultice to her face.”

It’s a clue to at least one of the afflictions that Cohen detects in his mother’s mental illness. “In mildewed England, there were no more Shabbat gatherings, no more beef on rye, none of that sunny ease where friends from the neighborhood popped in,” he writes. “One of her problems, although she never framed it that way, lay in how to be that whispered word — JEW, as she had been registered in the ledger of that British mental hospital — in the land of Lewis Namier’s ‘trembling Israelites,’ a nation whose message to Jews often seemed to be: Lose yourself to join us entirely, and even then fall just a little short.”

At one point in the saga, Cohen reflects on the tension between remembering and forgetting in Jewish history. “For centuries, in their wanderings, Jews remembered,” he muses. “Rather than disperse anonymously among the nations of the world, they clung with a singular stubbornness to a Messianic dream of return and to the rabbinical injunction: Zakhor! Remember!” And yet the price of sanctuary was the loss of memory: “With Jewish self-improvement had come forgetting, in Europe and in Johannesburg.”

Cohen’s self-appointed mission was to retrieve what had been forgotten in his own family, and in the pages of “The Girl from Human Street,” he has done so with real genius.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Stages of grief in the search for a permanent peace


Prophecy and predictions of apocalypse are staples of life in Jerusalem. The current outbreak of violence, against the backdrop of biblical landscapes and sacred sites, lends itself to both. Under circumstances like these, it is wise to recall the words of a biblical prophet who walked the land 2,700 years ago: “He who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.”

The causes of the current violence are complex. Some are acute, like July’s murder of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and the war in Gaza. Others are rooted in the daily lives of the city’s 300,000 Palestinians: a population adrift, disenfranchised, cut off physically and politically from their West Bank hinterland, ruled by authorities that are at best apathetic to their needs, and often actively hostile to their interests. Add to the mix the volatile gases of a holy site, the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, which has become the arena of choice for religious pyromaniacs of every possible persuasion, and there are conditions in Jerusalem for a perfect storm of violence.

The responses of official Israel to the crisis in Jerusalem have followed the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross model of the stages of grief, starting with denial: Don’t acknowledge the violence. Early on, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat urged the press not to report the violence. The second stage was anger: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to respond with an iron fist. He has been as good as his word, going well beyond the unprecedented, if understandable, massive security response. The starkest example is the demolition of the family homes of the dead terrorists, punishing innocents while every Palestinian in the city bitterly notes that no such step is taken against the families of Jewish terrorists. Other forms of collective punishment are meted out against the entire Palestinian population of East Jerusalem: Neighborhoods and roads sealed with concrete blocks and an Orwellian policy of “enhanced enforcement” designed to break the will of the Palestinian population — mass arrests of youth, lengthy sentences for minor infractions, fining parents for failing to control their children, parking tickets, fines for building violations and vehicle seizures.

In the past, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have not been the vanguard of Palestinian national resistance, nor have they been predisposed to violence. According to official Shin Bet statistics, during the eight years of the Second Intifada, Israel arrested only 270 East Jerusalem Palestinians for terror–related activities — fewer than Israel arrested in the West Bank in any given two-week segment of that period. For now, however, the era of Palestinian East Jerusalemites rejecting violent protest is over. Since July 2 — the day of the Abu Kdheir murder — more than 1,300 Palestinians have been detained, about half of those boys younger than 18. The change is not only quantitative: For the first time since 1967, the murderers who perpetrated the recent vehicular terror attacks and the slaughter at the Har Nof synagogue have become akin to folk heroes in an East Jerusalem that sees itself very much in the grip of a popular revolt against Israeli rule.

Anger, made concrete in Israeli efforts to break the will of the Palestinian population, is clearly prolonging, rather than cutting short, the violence. Based on the Kubler-Ross model, the next response from official Israel should be bargaining. One might expect this to mean promises from Israel to improve the lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, if only they behave. Like bargaining over grief, this, too, would  fail. Palestinians in East Jerusalem will not be broken, and years of experience shows they will not be bought. But in any case, under Netanyahu, there has been no bargaining, nor will there likely be. Netanyahu appears to believe that Palestinians in East Jerusalem must be subdued and defeated but never engaged.

In the next stage, depression, violence can be expected to abate, sooner or later. Palestinians tire of fighting; Israelis will tire of worrying. But even after a semblance of calm is restored, there will be no resurrecting the fragile pre-summer 2014 Jerusalem status quo. Palestinians in East Jerusalem have fully absorbed the message sent to them by official Israel these past months: You are an alien, hostile, ever-suspect population; if you fail to accept the docile, domesticated role we have assigned you, we will give you no quarter. In this context, any non-routine event — a provocation at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, an act of terror or vigilantism by a Palestinian or an Israeli — can reignite conflict.  

The final stage of grief, according to Kubler-Ross, is acceptance. In the Jerusalem context, acceptance means recognizing this truth: Failing a genuine political process that will address the inherent dysfunctionality of Israeli rule over the Palestinian collective of East Jerusalem, the countdown toward the next round of violence already has begun, even before the flames of the current one have been extinguished.

Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem attorney since 1987, is the founder and director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli non-governmental organization that promotes the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status peace agreement on the issue of Jerusalem.

Seidemann will present the talk “Getting Real About Jerusalem” at the Professor Gerald B. Bubis Lecture at Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, on Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. for more information or to RSVP: apnwest@peacenow.org or (323) 934-3480.

Comedy great Robin Williams hanged himself at home


Oscar-winning actor and groundbreaking comedian Robin Williams hanged himself with a belt in his Northern California home after he had sought treatment for depression, a coroner said on Tuesday based on preliminary findings.

Williams, 63, was found dead by his personal assistant at midday on Monday in a bedroom. He was suspended from a belt wedged between a closet door and a door frame, in a seated position just off the ground, Marin County's assistant chief deputy coroner, Keith Boyd, told a news conference.

“Mr. Williams' personal assistant became concerned at approximately 11:45 a.m. when he failed to respond to knocks on his bedroom door,” said Boyd.

“His right shoulder area was touching the door with his body perpendicular to the door and slightly suspended. Mr. Williams at that time was cool to the touch with rigor mortis present in his body,” Boyd added.

The official preliminary cause of death was asphyxia due to hanging, he said, and conclusion of the investigation is still weeks away.

Officials also found a pocket knife near Williams and superficial cuts on his left wrist with dried red material that matched what was on the knife blade. It was not yet known if it was his blood.

Williams had been open about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine and in the past months had entered a rehabilitation center to help him maintain sobriety. But many questions remained over what could have led him to take his own life.

Williams' publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said on Monday that he had been suffering from severe depression, and Boyd acknowledged that he had been seeking treatment without giving more details.

His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Williams was last seen alive by his wife, Susan Schneider, on Sunday night when she retired for the evening. She left the next morning around 10 a.m., thinking that her husband was still asleep.

Boyd would not say whether Williams had left a suicide note, nor if any drugs or alcohol were involved. The full toxicology report would take two to six weeks, he said.

In addition to his wife, Williams is survived by three grown children – daughter Zelda, and sons Cody and Zachary. Funeral arrangements are pending and his body has been released by the coroner facility in neighboring Napa County.

'THANKS CHIEF'

Tributes poured out from actors, comedians, politicians and generations of fans, including President Barack Obama who called him a “one-of-a-kind” actor.

A force of manic energy, Williams long ago established himself as one of the world's most beloved comedians, and took audiences on wild flights of imagination that often stressed one simple message: seize the day.

His improvisational stand-up routine broke all rules, whether he was giving a comedic account of a nuclear accident in the style of Shakespeare or grabbing a camera from an audience member and pointing the lens down his pants.

Ben Affleck, whose breakthrough role came alongside Williams and Matt Damon in 1997's “Good Will Hunting,” for which Williams won his only Oscar, said he was heartbroken.

“Thanks chief – for your friendship and for what you gave the world,” Affleck wrote on his Facebook page. “Robin had a ton of love in him. He personally did so much for so many people. He made Matt and my dreams come true. What do you owe a guy who does that? Everything.”

Spontaneous acts of tribute sprang up at landmarks from his career.

In Boston, scores of people jotted tributes in chalk to Williams near at bench in the lush Public Garden downtown, which featured in “Good Will Hunting”.

Mourners hung signs including “You will be missed” and “RIP Robin” on the wooden fence of the home in Boulder, Colorado, where parts of the intro credits for his breakout 1970s TV comedy, “Mork & Mindy,” were filmed.

On the Hollywood Walk of Fame, fans congregated around Williams' star, leaving flowers and candles to honor the actor.

“My kids grew up on 'Mrs Doubtfire',” said Erlinda Fantauzzi, referring to the hit movie in which he played a father who took on the persona of a tender British nanny to be close to his kids. “I feel so bad. He was a tortured soul and he died alone. He touched adults and children,” she said.

Interest in his film work spiked on Tuesday, with “Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” making it into the top 20 in the iTunes movie chart.

Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Scott Malone in Boston and Daniel Wallis in Denver; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Sandra Maler

We don’t live in Stepford


Not long ago, I showed up for a Friday night Shabbat service at Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Over the years, I have counseled a number of congregants whose adult children were saved by this addiction recovery program, and I wanted to experience Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual Shabbat service, which I had heard so much about. 

As I walked into a room crammed with several hundred people, I spotted one of my young adult congregants who had shared his struggle with addiction with me over the years. He gave me a big hug — it was clear he was grateful for the opportunity to share this part of his life with his rabbi. 

A short time later, I noticed a synagogue member sitting with her husband and two 20-something sons. I knew this family well and wondered what brought them to Beit T’Shuvah. Over the last 20 years we had shared moments of joy and sadness as well as a closeness every rabbi yearns for with his congregants. I wondered if they were there in support of a family member. When I finally caught the eye of the congregant, it was if she had been punched in the stomach; there was no joy in her eyes, only fear. I knew then that she was there for one of her boys. 

Toward the end of the service, when I made my way to the exit to get a little air, one of the sons left his seat to find me. He said it was as if God had brought me to him. He had not been at Beit T’Shuvah long, and he made his mom promise that she would not call me until he had contacted me first — thus his mother’s look of surprise and consternation. He was there for an addiction to prescription drugs. My presence, he said, was an omen that everything was going to be OK. By the time his parents greeted me after services, they had gone through the emotional journey of my presence — from the fear of exposure to the gratitude of sharing. As they greeted me with hugs, I could feel a sense of vulnerability and relief. 

Whether it is a troubled teen who is sent to a residential program or a 20-something enrolled in a rehab program for substance abuse, we live in a community in which our imperfections are too often kept secret, sometimes even from best friends. As a rabbi, I see many of the struggles of “good Jewish families.” Few families have the perfect life, and yet we live in a community that often wants to portray the so-called perfection of a “Stepford” world. 

There are many reasons why our kids lose their way. Depression, addiction and criminal behavior are a few of the issues our community faces. I have shared the struggles of families who took legal custody of a grandchild because their child’s drug addiction rendered them an unfit parent. I have cried with parents who listened to their out-of-control teen scream, “You are a terrible parent!” while being sent to a residential program. I have tried to give strength to mothers who had to lock their sons out of the house so they would hit “the bottom” necessary for the self-realization that they needed help. 

Mental illness, suicide and incarceration round out the list of issues grieving or struggling parents share with me in the confidence of my office. These are not families in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. These are not dysfunctional families. These are our families. But unfortunately, many of them keep their struggles a secret because of the guilt, shame and embarrassment they often feel. This occurs partly because that is our parental default — to blame ourselves — but it is also the result of a community in which families like to portray everything as perfect.

In truth, not every family is required to share their family secrets. They have no obligation to reveal their family struggles if they don’t want to, and it is none of our business. In other instances they want to share, but worry about how people will respond. Will they be seen as bad parents? Will they be judged as a dysfunctional family? Will everybody know? (Why is it bad news travels so much faster than good news?) Sometimes the struggles are a result of biology, and sometimes they are psychological. In some cases they are just issues of bad choices on the part of the child. But in all instances, the family can use our help in coming to terms with their situation and having the strength to deal with each day. There are some extreme cases in which the abusive or dysfunctional behavior of parents can lead to the problem of the children, but in our community this is often not the case. Not that we only have perfect parents, but rather we mostly have “normal,” imperfect parents. We must stop judging parents for the challenges of their children and instead provide the place to deal with their situation.

It takes families time to get to the stage where they can share. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, they must go through their own stages that will finally lead to an acceptance of their child’s condition. It is time for us to provide a safe and caring community in which people can share. A community in which the veneer of perfection is removed and the realities of family life become the norm. We must provide comfort to the struggling families as well as celebrate their successes. 

Some things I have learned in dealing with these families: Don’t try to fix the problem, just let them share. Don’t overreact, but be sympathetic. “What’s going on now?” and “How are you handling it?” are questions that allow the individuals to open up … or dodge the question. Don’t offer suggestions unless asked. Never say, “I know how you feel,” unless you have been in a similar situation and are willing to share it. Keep their family situation in confidence; it is their decision to share, not yours. Most of all, help them feel “normal.” The synagogue family I met at Beit T’Shuvah that night has not yet shared their family struggles with friends. It will take courage for them to “come out” and risk the exposure of not being a perfect family. But until they can, there can be no true healing.

I am not a psychologist or a therapist who specializes in these issues. My thoughts come from the experiences of dealing with many families struggling with these family dynamics. I only wish everyone could see what I see, to know that just about every family has confronted one of these issues. There is no need for guilt, shame or embarrassment; most of us have experienced something in our families, and we need to be able to support each other in these difficult times. Let us remove the false veil that shrouds the truth of our lives and perpetuates the myth that our families do not suffer these travails. In doing so, we can deal more honestly with each other and provide the strength and comfort necessary to deal with the realities of life. As we enter the High Holy Days, reflecting on our own imperfections and striving to be better, let us find the strength to acknowledge our imperfect families and begin to share the real struggles of real life with friends and community. 


Stewart Vogel is senior rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

I hear you knocking


Post-Palin Depression


A therapist I know — OK, since you dragged it out of me, my therapist — told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.

Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Judging from the number of unnerved post-Palin phone calls and e-mails that I got, I wonder why I didn’t think of calling her myself.

Why was it such a psychic downer? Movement conservatives might gloat that it was because Palin kicked Los Angeles liberals in the kishkas, made unanswerable arguments, strutted her Super Woman stuff, and — worst of all — signaled their inevitable defeat come November.

I don’t think so. For one thing, we all know that Election Day comes after the High Holy Days, which means there’s plenty of time before the book on McCain/Palin — the Book of Life, that is — gets written. Who shall win, and who shall lose is still (theologically speaking, anyway) up for grabs.

For another, there’s no evidence that the independents who were the key targets of her speech are buying what Palin is selling.

I don’t doubt that some people experience a presidential campaign as one long audition for the show that will be playing on their television sets these next four years. But I’m hoping that the 5 percent to 10 percent of undecideds in the 18 battleground states who will swing the Electoral College more resemble the savvy mass audiences of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” than voters for the next “American Idol” or the mob in “Coriolanus.” Why should a single performance by the governor of Alaska, or even several of them, bedazzle millions of otherwise skeptical Americans into throwing away their bull—t detectors? The historic disapproval ratings of the incumbent president are continuing evidence that the American mainstream has soured on the culture wars’ politics of group against group and the rest of the ressentiment at the heart of Palin’s message. So what accounts for the panic Palin provoked?

Part of it, I think, is that we catastrophize. By “we,” I don’t mean liberals. I mean the many functioning neurotics among us who think that a doctor’s every “hmmm” during a physical is a portent of tragic doom; who mentally extrapolate from routine family conflicts to irreparable ruptures; and whose pessimism is relentlessly fed by cable news, which — in order to hang on to our attention — portrays every freeway car chase as a potential shootout; depicts every global brushfire as the start of World War III; and shouts, “Breaking news!” so frequently that the scary music that accompanies it is itself enough to spike the nation’s blood pressure.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, though a few thousand years of expecting to be scapegoated, persecuted, exiled or killed certainly contributes to the melancholic gene Jews are known for carrying, the optimism of a Ben-Gurion or Sandy Koufax notwithstanding. No, this gloominess is a nonethnic worrywartism, arising from the fear and sensationalism fanned by politicians and news media alike.

This is not to say that putting Sarah Palin one melanoma from the presidency would mean good times. It would be more like James Dobson with nuclear weapons. But while her Rovian apparatchiks are stoking the worst among us with passionate intensity, it’s not inevitable that the best will lose all conviction in the voting booth.

When a political candidate convinces half a country to hope again, it’s a double-edged sword. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that wash our brains when we welcome the future instead of dreading it are as powerful as any drug. It’s like love. Unless you let your guard down, unless you permit vulnerability to trump cynicism, you rarely can get what you want. That’s why Howard Dean or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton were, for many people, so thrilling to support. That’s why hardened political operatives call that kind of enthusiasm “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That’s why, when the fall comes, it’s so painful.

But my therapist, if I understand her, has another take on this. She thinks that people identify too much with candidates. Their ups have become our ups; their downs, ours as well. And by identifying with them so closely, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable to outside factors, to forces we can’t control. And the more political media we consume — on cable, online, on e-mail, on radio, in print — the more we cultivate the illusion that we ourselves are actual political players, that our advice is urgently needed, that everything depends on our counsel.

I’m totally guilty on this charge. “Go negative!” I yell to Obama and Biden when I see them on my screen. “Put McCain on the defensive! Go after his strength! Make the POW thing irrelevant to the presidency! Destroy the ‘maverick’ charade! Call their lies lies!” But my tirades, instead of making me feel better, only underline my powerlessness to second guess the campaign’s strategy or reshape its tone and message.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every single citizen in a democracy. Registering to vote, giving money, going door-to-door, expressing our opinions: there is plenty that each of us can do, and the collective action that comes from that commitment can move mountains and make history.

But there is a difference between pitching in and hitching our psyches to the day-to-day vicissitudes of campaignland or to the news media’s breathless “narrative” of the horse race. One is about us, and it is within our power to control what we ourselves do. The other is about them, and it is a kind of annihilation to cede our identity and our well-being to people outside ourselves, whether those people be candidates and commentators — or audiences, critics, velvet-rope guardians, fashionistas, studio executives, admissions committees or that hottie over there at the bar.

As for me, I’m trying to unplug. I’m still reading the papers, but I’ve gone cold turkey — well, room-temperature turkey — on cable (except for C-SPAN and “The Daily Show”), blogs (except for a few), radio (except for NPR) and every other source of political news that I thought I was obligated to mainline in real time 24/7. If I fall off the wagon, maybe there’s some 12-step group for media addicts I can join, or a 1-800-TVDETOX hotline I can call. All this may make me a lesser media yakker, I know, but think of the dough I’ll be saving on therapy.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly, and his

Richard Lewis, comedian from heaven


The husband from hell. The uncle from hell. The comedian from hell. Richard Lewis is fully aware he has problems. And by the end of his set, his stand-up audiences know he has problems.

Known as comedy’s “Prince of Pain,” he is a comedian who feeds off his own neuroses and is doing his best to keep stable. A recovering alcoholic, Lewis has been sober for 14 years — an experience he wrote about in his 2000 memoir, “The Other Great Depression” (Public Affairs Books, $14.95), which has been reissued with a new afterword that reflects his progress as he continues to struggle with addiction.

Much has changed since the book’s original release seven years ago. The 60-year-old comic has gotten married, and he’s a regular on the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” With younger audiences coming to see his stand-up, Lewis decided it was time to update the book for a generation that follows blog posts about Amy Winehouse’s travails while blithely singing along to her hit “Rehab.”

“My career in stand-up has mushroomed greatly, thanks to ‘Curb,’ and there are a million younger people who are now college age and drinking,” Lewis said. “Being sober, I’m able to literally help other people save their lives.”

Lewis’s alcoholism surfaced in his 20s and 30s, driven by feelings of self-loathing. After completing several well-received TV comedy specials and landing a role opposite actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the sitcom “Anything But Love” in 1988, he was convinced he had his drinking and drug use under control.

“The more successful I got, the more convinced I felt that I could become even more successful if I had a few more drinks before I performed,” he wrote.

The highs and lows that fed his comedy began to blur, and Lewis walked away from stand-up and acting for almost three years as he continued drinking.

“My career was in suspended animation. Nothing worthwhile was going on, and I was too depressed and too addicted to booze by this point to make things happen on my own,” he wrote.

In 1994, he entered a hospital emergency room, hallucinating from a cocaine overdose. After interventions and rehab, Lewis sobered up and reached a turning point when he was able to stand in front of a roomful of addicts and admit, “I’m Richard, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“I needed a higher power in my life to help me in sobriety, which led me to become more and more spiritual. I can’t be the captain of my own ship,” Lewis said in a phone interview.

In the book’s new afterword, Lewis revealed that while he feels better about himself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, his sobriety is still a day-to-day challenge. “The cold hard truth is that if I take for granted the progress I have made, I’m a goner,” he wrote.

Born the same year as the infamous “UFO crash” in Roswell, N.M., Lewis insinuates that his psychological and emotional problems could have resulted from the fact that he’s “not from this earth.” But his sense of disconnect could just as easily be attributed to his Jewish upbringing in New Jersey.

Lewis’ father worked as a kosher caterer, and the comedian said in an interview that the family’s refrigerator was regularly stocked with leftover melon balls rather than cold cuts. His mother, an actress, played most of Neil Simon’s Jewish mothers in the local community theater.

Lewis was the star of the youth basketball team at the local Jewish community center, and at sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Lewis met a tall, gangly kid: Larry David.

The two became fast friends a decade later, after they recognized each other as struggling young comics at New York’s famed Improv club.

Lewis says he became a comedian to fill the void left by his father’s death in 1971. The more he talked about his neurotic family onstage, the more popular he became.

While he can’t exorcize the memories of a childhood filled with emotional abuse and arguing parents, Lewis said he has learned he shouldn’t dwell on things he cannot change.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies,” he said.

To complement the book’s reissue, a DVD documentary follows Lewis during his original tour for “The Other Great Depression” in 2001. “Richard Lewis Naked” (Peaceful Chaos Productions Ltd., $19.95) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the stress and pressure of traveling from city to city for readings, signings and television interviews. Lewis said it was the hardest three or four months of his life.

“We were working on a bunch of stuff, almost unbearable, and she captured it,” he said of longtime friend and publicist, Michelle Marx, who shot the footage.

And much like Lewis’s stand-up routines, the documentary captures the humor that springs from the comedian’s stress as he prepares for on-camera interviews with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.

In addition to the documentary and the reissue of his biography, Lewis is also proud of another achievement. In October 2006, “The Yale Book of Quotations” recognized Lewis for creating the phrase, “the ______ from hell.”

Lewis claims to have created the line in the 1970s, fitting it into his stand-up act as he complained about the many people in his life who have caused him grief and annoyance — the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell, the landlord from hell.

However, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” rejected Lewis’ claim, which inspired his character’s quest for immortality in Bartlett’s in the third season “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode “The Nanny From Hell.”

According to a 2002 Entertainment Weekly (EW) article after the episode aired, Bartlett’s first began hearing from Lewis’ camp about “the ______ from hell” quote in the early 1990s.

“He had his lawyer get in touch with me, and they sent a couple of tapes,” Bartlett’s general editor Justin Kaplan said. But “I spoke to people who had been at Yale before the time of his first taped broadcast, who said [the line] was a common idiom.”

Depression grips Sderot as rockets continue to fall


A warm, late-autumn sun spills over empty swing sets and slides. The children of this working-class border town have no time to play. Listening for alerts of falling rockets from Gaza, they scurry between home and school.

It’s a routine that has intensified in recent weeks, with the number of Qassam rockets fired toward Sderot increasing. Even in the days after a fragile cease-fire goes into effect, the unease continues.

“My kids won’t sleep upstairs anymore,” said Sigal Avitan, 38, who grew up here and cannot imagine leaving — not even after more than 1,100 rockets were shot at the area in a little over a year.

“Every night, I have to spread out blankets on the floor of the living room. My two oldest sleep there; my two youngest sleep in my bed,” she said. “This is no kind of life. This is not normal.

“This morning, my daughter said she did not want to go to school, and I told her, ‘But there is a cease-fire now.’ She replied, ‘Yesterday there was also a cease-fire, and a rocket fell while I was walking to school.'”

A sleepy town of low-rise buildings and eucalyptus tree-lined streets in southern Israel, Sderot is comprised of a hodgepodge of immigrant groups — extended Moroccan families that first settled here in the 1950s and more recent arrivals from Ethiopia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

The wave of Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel that began in 1990 more than doubled Sderot’s population to 24,000. Residents describe it as a close-knit community, where people look out for one another.

Sderot is one of Israel’s many development towns. The concept of establishing towns in the rural periphery was created soon after the state was established in 1948, part of a policy to settle areas sparsely populated by Jews.

With little infrastructure or industry, many development towns floundered economically. They are sometimes shown as dumping grounds for immigrants, usually among the weakest socioeconomic segments of Israeli society.

Sderot is far, by Israeli standards, from the country’s more prosperous center. But in the last six years, it has found itself unwittingly on one of the front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Its location, about two miles from the Gaza border, has made Sderot an easy target for terrorists’ Qassam rockets. Before a surprise and partial truce went into effect about a week ago, fighting had escalated, especially in recent months, between the Israeli army and Palestinian terrorist groups. Two Sderot residents, both Russian-speaking immigrants, were killed in the past two weeks.

After Israel’s historic withdrawal from Gaza was completed in September 2005, the rocket fire that had been aimed mostly at Gaza Jewish settlements was turned to the next available target: Sderot and surrounding villages and farms. However, even in the five years before, rockets were launched sporadically at Sderot.

Residents say they’re frustrated by a feeling that they don’t matter to the government or the rest of the public. They feel stuck in a state of second-class citizenship, even as they put their lives on the line.

“Nation, be ashamed. You have forgotten us in this war,” reads a small, hand-printed sign taped to a pole along the roadside.

“This has become a depressed place,” said Hanan Klein, 24, who knows many people who have moved out of town recently. “Living here is like playing Russian roulette. You hear an alert, and the rocket will fall where it will.”

Business has plummeted at the hair salon where Klein works. Those with appointments cancel after a rocket scare. Others prefer to get haircuts and do errands outside of town.

Bloria Dadon, 55, owner of a small business in Sderot, wore a sign that read “Save Our City” at a demonstration by local businesspeople Monday.

“We want security and business; we don’t want pity or donations,” she said. “It’s been six years [of Qassams] and no prime minister has visited us even once.”

When Amir Peretz, a former Sderot mayor and hometown hero, took office as Israel’s defense minister, there were hopes he would at last champion the underdog town. But Peretz, a former trade union leader with scant military background, was criticized for his decisions in the Lebanon War this summer and has yet to recover politically.

Sderot residents support him as one of their own, but some wonder about his effectiveness.

Across a major road and open, yellowing fields lies Gaza. Beyond the border are the squat buildings of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, the towns from where the rockets are fired. It’s an area Israeli forces had retaken in the past five months prior to the cease-fire.

Longtime Sderot residents remember more peaceful days, when they shopped in those towns and enjoyed friendly relations with Gazan neighbors.

Sadia Cohen, 71, has been living in Sderot since he emigrated from Morocco in 1955. A retired electrician, he now does odd jobs at a local elementary school. Part of his work lately is to welcome the children to school in the mornings, hoping a smile and friendly question will help soothe them.

“We all just want to live,” he said of the people of Israel and Gaza. “But what happens? They shoot. We shoot. And we all sit in the middle and suffer.”

Meanwhile, Liron Maimoni, 24, steps out of a bridal salon onto an empty, dark street, her hair curled and her hands smoothing over a strapless dress of layered silk. She and her groom grew up in Sderot but did not consider celebrating here.

Instead, they ride in a ribbon-festooned car to their wedding — a safe distance outside of town.

Scenes from 50 years of marriage


An acquaintance of mine, the late screenwriter Michael Blankfort, wrote a book with my favorite title, “I Didn’t Know I Would Live So Long.”
 
If I were to write a sequel, it would be, “I Didn’t Know I Would Be Married for 50 Years, and to the Same Woman.”
 
Well, Rachel and I are marking our golden anniversary this month, surrounded — at least via e-mail — by three lovely daughters, three stalwart sons-in-law, and eight lively grandchildren, all, as Garrison Keillor would say, above average.
 
My wife was born and raised in Jerusalem, and that’s an important point. Before our marriage, I hardly ever dated Jewish girls, and when my friends expressed their surprise that I was tying the knot with Rachel, we would counter, “But she’s not Jewish, she’s Israeli.”
 
Readers with an Israeli spouse of either gender, or who have spent considerable time in the Promised Land, will understand what we’re talking about.
 
When conversation lags at dinner parties, people will sometimes ask how we met. I’m glad you asked, because there are actually two versions.
 
In the Hollywood treatment (currently in development), we met during Israel’s War of Independence.
 
Rachel had joined the underground Haganah at age 15, served in the Signal Corps (anyone here remember the Morse Code?) and survived the siege of Jerusalem. She was one of the last to communicate with besieged Israeli troops as the Old City fell to the Jordanians.
 
I had come to Israel from Berkeley as a volunteer and served in an “Anglo-Saxon” anti-tank unit.
 
In the movie version, I jump into a foxhole under a heavy barrage of enemy fire, landing practically on top of a beautiful sabra named Rachel — and the rest is history.Unfortunately, under the full disclosure strictures of this publication, the real story is somewhat less dramatic.
 
A friend, who had been my company commander in Israel, threw a party at his home in the Hollywood Hills, partly to welcome me home after a year in Spain.
 
It was a jolly affair, but I noticed — as single guys are apt to — a beautiful girl sitting quietly in a corner, her large expressive eyes taking in the scene.
 
I learned later that she had been sent by the Israeli foreign ministry to work at the consulate in Los Angeles and had been here for only a few months.
 
Anyhow, at the end of the evening, I made the bold move to ask if I could take her home. She answered yes, and I told her she would have to ride on the back seat of my motorcycle, and she responded with the 1950s equivalent of “no problem.”
 
Of course, when she told the couple who had brought her that she was going home with a guy she knew nothing about except that he traveled by motorcycle, her friends said no way.In a classic response, Rachel told them that she was a big girl and would make her own decisions.
 
I knew right then that here was a woman who would stand by her man, fight off Indians — oops, wrong movie.
 
As it turned out, rather anti-climactically, I had actually come to the party in my mother’s old Chevy, but Rachel had already proven her mettle.
 
Those who know sabras well are aware that they are a forthright breed, who speak their minds, and when they come to the States do not realize that social intercourse in this country is perforce larded with piles of b.s.
 
So Rachel is painfully honest, which sometimes startles her devious-minded husband, but fortunately it is her integrity and character that have been passed on to our children.There were other cultural misunderstandings. The day after our marriage, my dewy-eyed bride announced that she would make a special breakfast for me. I saw visions of pancakes, my favorite nourishment, with heaps of strawberries, blackberry syrup and whipped cream.
 
When I came to the kitchen, there was Rachel proudly displaying an Israeli breakfast bowl of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and other frightfully healthy stuff.
 
Rachel maintains that I surveyed the breakfast table and murmured, “This is just scrumptious, but I think from now on I’ll make my own breakfast.” I don’t know if this is true, but in any case — though my wife has become a renowned cook — I have made my own breakfast ever since.At my 80th birthday party at the UCLA Faculty Center, I told the assembled well-wishers that without Rachel, I would not be standing before them. That was not just a nice turn of phrase.Since adolescence, I had suffered from periodic depressions, but pulled out of them in a couple of weeks.
 
Some 20 years ago, the depression deepened month after month, until I descended into “the unrelenting horror of a complete biochemical brain meltdown,” as William Styron, who went through the same experience, described it. I still cannot imagine what Rachel and our children went through.
 
I had long therapy sessions about my childhood and the relationship to my mother, and kept going down.
 
After six months, I could take it no longer, swallowed a handful of pills, washed them down with vodka and lay down to die.
 
It was Rachel and my daughter who discovered my inert body, rushed me to the hospital, where I woke up 24 hours later with a pumped-out stomach and my wife sitting by my side.
 
Fortunately, the doctors at UCLA discovered that the depressions were caused by a lifelong imbalance of the chemical serotonin in my brain, an affliction not remedied by psychoanalysis but an appropriate drug regime.
 
On our 25th anniversary, I wrote a letter to Rachel, and everything I said then goes double now.

Oprah … Shoah … Shoah … Oprah


This is how naive I am: I never understood why Primo Levi killed himself. I’d long admired and devoured the works of the Italian chemist who wrote of his experiences surviving the Holocaust. When he committed suicide in 1987, at the age of 67, I couldn’t fathom it. Hadn’t he survived the worst? Hadn’t he transformed his suffering into art? Hadn’t the worst memories softened over time, the worst scars healed?

That’s the American way of grief: stuff happens, you get over it.

Maybe for some people, in some situations, that’s true. But the Holocaust is different, too, when it comes to memory. Its shadows darken and lengthen; its pain grows more, not less intense.

This may be the result of the process of recovering memory, something writers like Levi must feel compelled to do. When historian Iris Chang also took her life in 2004, at the age of 36, she left a note blaming her immersion in the horrid details of the Japanese occupation of China, which she chronicled in “The Rape of Nanking.”

But it’s not just a professional hazard. A study published in Israel in August found that elderly Holocaust survivors are “at an increased risk for a reactivation of the symptoms of trauma, depression and suicide.” The study of patients at a psychiatric hospital in Tel Aviv found nearly 25 percent of the Holocaust survivors studied attempted suicide compared to 8.2 percent among those with no World War II experience.

Or, as Elie Wiesel said at the news of Primo Levi’s death: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”

Just a month before Auschwitz Liberation Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, Oprah Winfrey selected “Night,” Wiesel’s own memoir of his internment in Auschwitz, as one of her Book Club books, guaranteeing that slim, searing volume a new audience of millions of people whose exposure to the Shoah might, until now, not extend beyond those clips of nominated documentaries they show during the Academy Awards. Boy, will that ever change.

I walked into Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade last Sunday afternoon and was confronted by a stack of “Night” a yard tall. And that’s the beginning: Oprah will accompany her Book Club selection with a televised visit to Auschwitz, guided by Wiesel, discussions on air with survivors and experts, plus additional readings and segments on the Holocaust.

Good for her, really. People are ascribing all sorts of nasty motives to Oprah for picking “Night,” such as the need to choose a real, factual memoir when her last pick turned out to be, at best, faction. Any way you can get the Holocaust and its lessons down the gullet of an anti-historical nation, good. Her challenge, I suppose, will be how she can she give her audience a taste and still leave them, as shows like hers must, with an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming and commercial-selling message. In an age and a format where every sorrow must have its silver lining, every tragedy its release, the Shoah is stubborn: there’s nothing therapeutic about confronting the Holocaust.

Last week I had dinner with Hannah Lessing, the woman in charge of the Austrian government’s reparation funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Lessing is vibrant, young, quick-witted (that means she laughed at my jokes) and articulate.

Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who with his wife, Susan, hosted Lessing, began his toast to her by repeating an old, tongue-in-cheek aphorism: “It used to be said that Austrians are Germans who don’t apologize.” But thanks to a series of proactive measures by the Austrian government — beginning with a much-belated statement of apology to Shoah victims in 1991 and continuing on to this week’s much-belated decision to return priceless paintings to their rightful Jewish owners (see story on page 14) — that perception has changed.

And for that Weiss also credited Lessing, the Viennese-born granddaughter of survivors. For more than 10 years she has traveled the globe, meeting with Austrian Holocaust survivors, collecting and processing their claims, hearing their stories.

Lessing said that success takes its toll. She and her staff of more than 100, “almost all non-Jews,” undergo regular therapy. Generations removed from the horrors of those years, they often find themselves unable to shake the darkness to which they’ve been exposed.

In “The Truce,” Primo Levi wrote of a recurring dream, in which he wakes up to find that his normal life is but a dream, and the reality is he is still in Auschwitz.

“I am in the Lager once more,” he writes, “and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, Wstaw?ch.”

I’ve found the more I read about the Holocaust, the more survivors I speak with, the less I get it. This is what the Holocaust is for the rest of us: a journey into sadness, with no end, no meaning, no exit. Welcome, Oprah’s Book Club members. Hope you enjoy the show.

To link to more information on Hannah Lessing and the Austrian claims process, see this article at www.jewishjournal.com.

Bebe and Me


A lot of people my age feel pressure from their families to get married, but I think my not being married is the only thing keeping my grandmother alive. Bebe often tells me she just wants to live long enough to see my wedding. I’ll say “I do” and then she’ll immediately keel over. It’s a lot to bear.

Bebe likes to pretend she’s open-minded and doesn’t care if I date non-Jewish women. I should point out that I am technically Jewish — both my parents were born Jews. I never went to Hebrew school but we did celebrate Chanukah — until the year we couldn’t find the menorah. Then that was that: Bring on Christmas!

People see my freckles and last name and are surprised to find that I’m Jewish. They say something like, “Come on, Dutch Jews?” I remind them of a book by a girl named Anne Frank and tell them the reason there aren’t too many Dutch Jews is because of a little thing called the Holocaust. I pretend to be offended, they feel horribly guilty; it’s a win-win. But honestly, I mostly embrace my Judaism as a party trick.

But to Bebe it’s important. I’ll call her to tell her I’m dating someone and she’ll go on her Semitic fact-finding mission.

“What’s her name?” she asks. Sometimes I like to mess with her.

“Christian,” I say. “Christian Hitler.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Is she nice?”

Bebe is in incredible health. She’s 87 years old but you’d never believe it to look at her. She swims laps three times a week at the Jewish Community Center and still rides the ancient stationary bike in her guest room. None of this prevents her from preparing for death.

The last several trips I’ve made to see her, she’s handed me blank labels and asked me to put my name on any items in her house that I’ll want when she’s dead. I refuse to do this; I think it’s morbid and tacky (and besides, how do I know which macramé throws will go with my future settee?). My sister and uncle have embraced this though — their names are on way too many things. I’m talking napkin rings and liquor bottles, and not even good ones. My other grandmother had her kids do the label thing before she died and I think it just ended up confusing her. She had Alzheimer’s and thought the coffee table was named Becky.

I guess if I were 87 I wouldn’t exactly be thinking about my 20-year plan, but I would try to leave my heirs out of it. Bebe is constantly asking me what my father is going to bequeath me. I’m not sure if it’s so she can try to outdo him, or if she just wants to make certain that I don’t end up with two chafing dishes.

Of course, for Bebe, mortality is a longtime companion.

She’s outlived every important relationship you can have in life: two siblings, two husbands, two parents, a child, a best friend. What’s left? Six grandchildren, alive and well and unmarried. Maybe that’s why she worries so much for us.

Whenever Bebe dies it will be the end of an era. She’s not the kind of lady who would have her portrait hanging over a fireplace, but she’s a matriarch nonetheless. She leads this family with the iron fist of guilt in the velvet glove of worry. How do you paint that?

When my mother, died, Bebe became my advocate, often the only voice of reason to counter my father’s short-tempered resolve. Even though she lived an airplane trip away in Louisville and was no longer his mother-in-law, my father knew better than not to listen.

Through the years Bebe and I have bonded over our two common enemies: depression and my father. Our relationships with both have gotten much better, and in a weird way I miss how we’d struggle through them together, comparing strategies, medications, and, ultimately, successes.

If I get a gig, it doesn’t count until Bebe’s seen it. Every time I’m on a set, I make sure to get a Polaroid of me in costume to send to her. Open the cigar box in the top drawer of her rickety highboy and you’ll see square photos of me in all my Hollywood glamour: as Waiter, Ticket Taker, Game Show Host, Usher, Man No. 2 — proof that I did a TV job she may never see.

Another thing she may never see is my wedding.

I don’t know if Bebe will be around long enough to experience the shock of me getting married. If so, I hope she can at least hold out until the reception. Incidentally, Bebe’s been single longer than I have, but I don’t give her a hard time about who she dates. I’ll have to mention that next time I talk to her.

J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

‘Bonkers’ Finds Humor in Hell


"I personally detest theater as therapy," Julianne Grossman said. "I don’t want to see someone ‘catharsis-izing’ all over me in an attempt to heal themselves."

Her mordantly funny monologue, "From Bonkers to Botox," chronicles her suicidal depression of 2002. But it is not, she repeats, not cathartic to recount how she swallowed rat poison, yanked her blowdryer into the tub and nearly leapt from the highest hotel in Burbank.

Since this self-described "nice Jewish girl from the Valley" was already healed when she wrote the play, reliving her angst onstage is painful.

And even if the theater lately has been overrun with anguished-but-funny monologues, Grossman,35, isn’t trying to ride the trend.

"I just want to help people suffering through depression see that they, too, can heal," she said.

The statistics she added are grim: About 300,000 Americans try to kill themselves yearly; one in 10 succeed while others are left blind from drinking things like Drano.

Grossman’s "great depression" began two years ago: she was a Drama-Logue-winning actress, a successful voiceover artist and a longtime member of Shomeri Torah’s choir. But she’d also battled what she calls "the depressies," minor funks that escalated after LASIK surgery left her in chronic pain and she suffered other problems in early 2002. When medications — particularly the sleeping pill Ambien — rendered her practically catatonic, Grossman prowled the supermarket for poison ("The pest control aisle was filled with options," she says in the play).

"Bonkers" also describes how she screamed in the ambulance, "I can’t go to St. Joseph’s; I’m a Jew."

Of why the piece is comic, Grossman’s co-producer, Diana Stein, said, "Hilarious things really did happen. In the hospital, Julianne’s dad really did say, ‘Didn’t you read the Ambien label? It specifically says, ‘Do not take with rat poison.’"

Grossman offers another reason: "One way this subject can become palatable is through humor," she said.

Plays through July 25 at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theatre. $18-20. For tickets: call (818) 753-7788.

Helping Your Parent Defeat Depression


Sally H., an 80-year-old Fairfax resident, recently fell into inconsolable sadness after her canary died. To her family, her intense and prolonged sorrow seemed out of place because Sally had only bought the pet a few months earlier.

“It was only a bird!” they said.

What her family didn’t realize was that the loss of her canary reawakened decades of unfinished mourning.

For most people, disappointments or worries can trigger the mildest form of depression commonly called the “blues” or the “blahs.” These gloomy moods often respond to simple interventions, departing as quickly and sometimes as mysteriously as they arrived. Not so with grief — the overwhelming sorrow
that accompanies the death of a spouse or a beloved pet, or a decline in health. Usually, over time, grief gradually diminishes. The mourner experiences shorter periods of intense feelings alternating with longer periods of better mood, but it may take a year or more before the worst is over.

For elderly people, mild disappointments and grief can set off depression. According to estimates from the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 750,000 older Californians suffer from depression each year. Put in another way, 50 percent of all seniors will endure a depression at some
point in their later years.

Depression can affect the entire family — but the family can also help intervene.

Washing the Blues Away

Engaging mom or dad in activities that they enjoyed in the past can often shoo away — or at least speed up — the demise of the blahs. A simple thing, like arranging a visit from a favorite grandchild or a close friend, can be effective, too.

You might try appealing to your parent’s “child within” by preparing a bubble bath or reading to him her, or putting on an old slapstick comedy and making popcorn for you to share. Inviting a senior who is in a funk to help you with your gardening, dish drying or sorting socks allows him or her
to contribute to the upkeep of the household while being distracted from his or her own low feelings.

Research demonstrates that mild or moderate exercise also has depression-lifting benefits.

Managing Grief

When the death of a loved one is the reason for the sadness, acknowledge the loss in as many ways as possible. Call frequently, send notes, visit and honor the departed with donations or memorials. Mention the deceased, recalling his or her special moments and pleasing personality traits. Talking
lessens the pain. Understand that your parent’s anger (directed at clergy, the doctor, God, the rescue teams and you) is likely to be a only a temporary stage in the grieving process. Don’t take it personally or argue about it.

Encourage your parent to find solace in spiritual, cultural, and religious practices. Provide extra attention during the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays that fall during the first year after the loss. Don’t discourage crying or suggest that she “ought to be over it by now!” Comments
like: “At least he’s not suffering any more” or “At least he lived a long life” do not help. Instead of saying “Call me if I can do anything,” make specific offers, such as “Can I pick up the groceries or cook dinner tonight?”

It’s extremely helpful to tell your grieving parent that anyone in the same position would be in similar emotional pain.

Healing Through Reminiscence

The older people get, the more time they spend reflecting on the past. This is a good and healthy thing to do. Reminiscence brings the past into the present and reminds an older person that he isn’t just an old man — he’s been a father, a businessman, a teacher and a darn good golfer. He is
loved and admired.

Should the remembering be filled with sorrow or regret, remind your mother that she probably did the best she could with what she had available at the time.

You can foster positive reminiscence by suggesting that your parent record his or her memories in a journal.

Work together on a scrapbook with photos, newspaper clippings, letters, postcards, greeting cards, sketches and poetry.

Create a video or audio recording of stories highlightingall of your father’s accomplishments and happiest moments.

Healing Through Igniting Interest in Others

Jim W., a 75-year-old widower who lives in the San Fernando Valley, struggled with depression for years, until he got all fired up about the city’s plan to bring down a half-dozen magnificent old trees. He quickly became too busy organizing sit-ins and protests to dwell on himself and his
losses.

Any time you can redirect your parent’s attention outward — even for a short time — you have made an inroad. Gently convince, cajole and persuade your parent to stay involved in the lives of family and friends, participate in a support group, or volunteer.

Recognizing Clinical Depression

Clinical depression is a deep melancholy that persists over weeks and months. It can become so severe that the senior’s health deteriorates as his ability for self-care becomes compromised.

A medical evaluation can determine whether illness or drug side effects are contributing to the problem. Once the doctor rules out those possibilities, he or she may suggest therapy with a trained therapist who can help the older adult gain a more optimistic view of life, enhance his coping
skills and put to rest things that have troubled your parent for decades.

Taking Medicine

Depression is an illness, not a character flaw. Don’t let your parent resist visiting the doctor for depression because he believes that he should be strong enough to overcome it himself.

Antidepressants for severe depression are effective in 80 percent of patients. Unfortunately, as discovered in a recent UCLA study, fewer than one in three depressed seniors had received treatment for their depression in the previous three months. Antidepressants generally take about two weeks to
begin to take effect, and it may be as many as four to six weeks before the elder feels better. In the meantime, therapy can help your parent learn more successful ways to deal with life’s problems. Most people do best on a combination of talk therapy and antidepressants. (In some cases, electroconvulsive therapy or “shock therapy” may be recommended. It sounds frightening, but nowadays it’s quick, effective and safe — and especially successful in treating elderly people whose depression doesn’t respond to any other treatment.)

Where to Turn for Help

Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles operates five senior centers. All five offer counseling.

“We do not believe that depression is an inevitable part of aging,” said Karen Leaf, director of the JFS Valley Storefront Senior Center. “We feel that older adults who are depressed can greatly benefit from individual and group psychotherapy.”

JFS offers groups for widowers, seniors with difficult relationships with adult children, caregivers (who are at high risk for depression) and general for-men-only or for-women-only groups.

Leaf urges adult children to be aware of depressive signs and be willing to suggest counseling to a depressed aging parent. She advises children to “speak from the heart” with “I” statements. For example, “Mom, I have observed that you are very sad and are losing weight. There’s a Jewish
organization that can help. People need some help from time to time, and you have a lot of things on your plate.”

If your efforts to get your parent into treatment are unsuccessful, Leaf cautioned, “You have to let it go, because ultimately, unless their safety is at risk, there are boundaries that must be respected.”

For more information on Jewish Family Service, call (323) 761-8800, to find the nearest center. Sometimes Medicare will cover the fee. If not, don’t worry — JFS operates on a sliding-fee scale.

The Center for Healthy Aging (CHA) in Santa Monica also provides help to depressed seniors and their families. CHA’s services include individual psychotherapy, group therapy and medication management.

There’s also senior peer counseling — a model program that has been replicated throughout the United States and abroad.

The program trains volunteer senior peer counselors to help other older adults over the rough spots. Peer counseling is ideal for depressed seniors who need emotional support but may be uncomfortable with the idea of using mental health professionals and services, yet are willing to talk to
counselors they perceive as more like themselves (for example, widows and former caregivers).

If your parent lives on the greater Westside and is reluctant to call CHA, you may call Dr. Amy Liston, at (310) 576-2550 ext. 217. CHA provides supportive services to the adult child and their elderly parent. There is a sliding fee scale.

The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA) employs geriatricians that are available to see their resident patients as frequently as necessary.

Laurie Manners, administrator of Grancell Village of JHA, explained that JHA works closely with a geropsychiatric group that provides both psychiatrists and psychologists. These mental health professionals address elder depression and other psychiatric needs for the JHA’s residents each week,
and are available for emergency services. Residents are helped using a variety of treatments (including behavior modification, one-on-one counseling, medication or a combination of these).

“We treat depression aggressively whether it comes from grieving, life events or transitions or other general living issues,” Manners said.

For more information about the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the
Aging call (818) 774-3306.

How to Recognize Clinical Depression

If your elder exhibits any of the following symptoms, he or she may be suffering from a clinical depression and should be seen by a physician:

  • Describes a feeling of “emptiness” or “hopelessness”
  • Shows lack of interest in everyday activities
  • No longer enjoys formerly pleasurable pastimes
  • Cries often, sometimes for no apparent reason
  • Complains about lack of concentration, faulty memory and trouble making decisions
  • Expresses feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Has thoughts of suicide or has made an attempt
  • Complains of headaches, backaches or stomachaches that don’t respond to treatment (when physical problems hide depression, the condition is called a masked depression)
  • Uses more alcohol, drugs and tobacco
  • Pays less attention to grooming and hygiene
  • Sleeps too little or too much, has trouble falling asleep and may wake up early, unable to fall asleep again
  • Appears tired and sluggish
  • Eats more or less than usual, resulting in significant
    weight gain or loss
  • Frequently becomes agitated, hostile, or disoriented
  • Adopts depressive positions and gestures (including sad
    facial expressions, being stooped over and staring across the room)

Dr. Rachelle Zukerman is professor emeritus at UCLA, a gerontologist, author of “Eldercare for Dummies” (Wiley Publishing) and a public speaker on aging issues. She can be reached at DrRZuk@aol.com.

Between a Couch and a Hard Place


We never feel quite so much ourselves as when we are seduced — a feeling no less intoxicating or sublime when the seducer happens to be a therapist, even when no sex is involved. In her latest book, "The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy," Bonnie Friedman sorts through the complex, confusing, ambivalent relationship between therapist and patient by way of her own psychotherapy, revealing the seductive "thief" to be Friedman’s trusted doctor, a fact that the reader realizes immediately, but that takes the author years to understand.

In 1993, Friedman published a slim, excellent book on the emotional aspects of a writer’s vocation titled, "Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life." In its eight lucid essays, Friedman offers not only a manual for writing, but, more importantly, advice on shedding the toxic emotions and negative voices that stop the writing from getting done. In her foreword, "Why I Wrote This Book," Friedman explains that she wrote for others the book that she wishes someone had written for her. And it reads that way: intimate, honest, liberating. What she doesn’t reveal, ironically, is the torturous process she experienced in writing the book. In fact, after she signed her contract for it with HarperCollins, she couldn’t write at all. That is where the therapist came in.

At the age of 32, happily married and living in Massachusetts, Friedman saw an important dream realized after getting a book contract — yet she had been unable to write for four months, a paralysis she details in the introduction to "The Thief of Happiness": "I’d cursed, wept, stared out the window, watched the yellow leaves twirl down from the London plane trees and the sky go lard white, holding back snow; scoured books by experts, even chanted affirmations, and nothing, nothing. The page stayed blank."

Desperate and depressed, Friedman got in touch with a therapist whom she’d previously dismissed as ineffectual. But at the time of her writer’s block, Friedman reconsidered. Maybe she hadn’t put enough into her own therapy to make it meaningful, she thought; maybe she should try again. Just two weeks after beginning treatment with Dr. Harriet Sing (a pseudonym), she began writing the essays that would become "Writing Past Dark." Too good to be true? Yes. Faustian? Sort of. It took Friedman seven years to extricate herself from the intense relationship that inspired her to write again, but one that also harmed her marriage and her closest friendships.

That Friedman’s book is a memoir about therapy might put off some readers. In recent years, the explosion of memoirs seems to have covered innumerable pathological behaviors, or minor crises best left private. The memoir is sometimes dismissed as a genre for the self-absorbed and self-pitying, yet "The Thief of Happiness" is neither.

Unlike such authors as Elizabeth Wurtzel or Mary Karr, in Friedman we have a likable narrator. There’s nothing grating about her tone and no self-indulgent psychodramas — no battles with cocaine, alcohol, sex addiction or manic depression. In fact, what’s most notable about the memoir is how ordinary Friedman seems. Her problems could be our own. As narrator, Friedman comes off as smart, self-effacing, compassionate and well read — just the kind of person you might like to call your friend.

Initially, the author feels empowered by her therapist, who enchants her with her "cobalt eyes," "cello voice," cool demeanor and Princeton doctorate. Soon after beginning treatment, Friedman admits that her therapist became "mistress of my soul, the queen of my unconscious. I worshipped — but how could I know this? — Dr. Sing. She possessed magic when everything else in my life was dull and degraded; she set the magic in my hands, in my pen."

Indeed, Friedman does seem to have been in denial about how much power she’d handed over to Sing. In "Writing Past Dark," Friedman writes eloquently about the necessary courage of making one’s own path through life. "Can someone give a map to you? Only you can write such a map," she writes. "I could choose my way or not choose my way. Nobody else’s way would deliver me into my own territory."

Yet Friedman was so obsessed by Sing — their relationship was like a "cult," as Friedman’s kind and patient husband, Paul, later told her — that she continued to see her regularly even after moving four hours away. When she told Sing that she wanted to hold their sessions by telephone, she was made to feel guilty. When she wanted to go on vacation with her husband, she was told that it would ruin the therapeutic momentum she had achieved. And when she wanted to terminate their relationship, Sing responded like a spurned lover: "Your very restlessness is a sign you have more work to do," Sing told her.

To her credit, Friedman neither glorifies her own character nor demonizes Sing. If anything, she forgives her therapist’s manipulative behavior to a frustrating degree. Friedman, who meticulously documented in her journals all of her therapy sessions, is a judicious reporter of her own missteps and embarrassing moments. Under the influence of her powerful doctor — "The more I praised her, the happier I felt," she writes — she began to shut out her best friends and to see her sister and mother as monsters.

At one point, Friedman writes, "They’re so dangerous, these therapists! They have no idea whatsoever of their power!" She adds that her perceptions have become "distorted, my nightmares run wild in the world." Here is one typically maddening exchange between the two women:

Sing: "But it comes from within you."

Friedman: "You always say that, but I was never like this before."

Still she’s silent.

Friedman: "You think I was like this before."

Sing: "Secretly, yes."

Friedman: "Frightened of my friends."

Sing: "Yes."

Friedman: "Angry at them."

Sing: "Yes."

Friedman: "You’re wrong. I loved my friends. They delighted me."

Sing: "I’m sure that was true, too."

Ultimately, the façade of the therapist’s perfection is chipped away; Friedman likens it to approaching a painting too closely and seeing "the sloppy brushstrokes." The spell is broken. "How had she become such a thief?" Friedman asks.

It is fitting that Friedman includes the adjective "extraordinary" in the subtitle of her book; her therapy was nothing less in terms of how controlling her therapist was, how much of herself Friedman lost over the years and how hard she had to push to recover. Yet the therapy was extraordinarily positive, too, which the author readily acknowledges. It seems that she needed to go through an intense, dependent relationship to assert herself at last. And Friedman does seem to have learned a lot from Sing, although it’s unclear how many epiphanies she would have arrived at without any therapy at all.

While perhaps not as incisive or stirring as Janet Malcolm’s brilliant writings on psychology and psychoanalysis (among them are "In the Freud Archives" and "Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession"), "The Thief of Happiness" is an impressive accomplishment and a fine addition to the existing literature on therapy. The moral of the story is that Friedman lost herself so that you don’t have to, and there’s much to learn from her wise and personal cautionary tale.

An Affair to Remember: Hollywood and the Jews


Oscar night is almost upon us, and there is considerable talk (and pride) about three of the chief contenders — Halle Berry, Will Smith and Denzel Washington — all of whom are black. But don’t be fooled: Hollywood and the film industry is still primarily a Jewish story, no matter who deserves and carts off the evening’s prizes.

No one ever said the story itself — about American Jews and Hollywood — was not complex. Founded by East Coast Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the movie industry had looked at first like a nickel-and-dime nickelodeon enterprise that catered to working-class American newcomers. By the time the movie entrepreneurs pulled up stakes and relocated to Los Angeles (roughly between 1907 and 1918) it was too late for the gentile business establishment to elbow its way to an insider’s place at the table.

By the 1930s, the industry was generating great profits, despite the Depression. It had also become highly personal for the Jewish moguls running Hollywood. There’s a story Neal Gabler recounts (in his book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood") about Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, holding movie star Mickey Rooney by the lapel and shaking him. Mayer was furious: "You’re Andy Hardy," he shouted. "You’re the United States. You’re the stars and stripes. Behave yourself. You’re a symbol."

Part of Mayer’s anger, of course, had to do with business. Rooney, still in his late teens, was the star of the "Andy Hardy" series of films, the No. 1 box office draw at MGM. Rooney’s escapades with women were liable to tarnish his image and send ratings down. But much of the anger also had to do with Mayer’s vision of America as an innocent, pure nation.

It mattered little that he was a ruthless studio head and businessman. The America he was projecting in films, and that he idealized, was a glorified land of promise and happy endings, of small-town family life brimming with virtue and filled with a mythic Western past. And it contained no Jews.

In the late 1930s, Mayer’s salary was the highest in the nation. However, he was still considered an outsider by the wealthy non-Jews of Los Angeles. He joined the Hillcrest Country Club, all of whose members were Jewish, because no other club would admit him.

Mayer and his fellow studio heads took this to heart. They bought into the rejection, viewing themselves as somehow socially inferior to the upper-class gentiles they longed to join. But in business, they prided themselves on being a step ahead, very much attuned to the popular culture. Except for the first talkie film, "The Jazz Singer," which was seen as a bold experimental gamble, Jews were considered bad for the box office and were excluded as characters in films and in the portraits of America that were projected, while Jewish actors were forced to Americanize their names.

When "Gentleman’s Agreement," a film dealing with anti-Semitism, was finally made after World War II, neither its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, nor its director, Elia Kazan, was Jewish.

All that changed in the middle of the 20th century, both with the demise of the studio system and with the advent of television. Today, actors and actresses keep their own names, even when they sound Jewish (e.g. Alicia Silverstone, Adam Sandler, Richard Dreyfuss). Some, Gwyneth Paltrow for example, even make a point of extolling their Jewish heritage; in her case, on her father’s side of the family.

Many films today contain Jewish characters, often military officers, doctors, lawyers, judges and academics, as well as upper-middle class couples; some films have Jewish themes or central characters (e.g. "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Schindler’s List") and three documentaries about Jews, produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier’s Museum of Tolerance, have won Academy Awards in the past six years.

It is no secret today that many agents, writers, entertainment lawyers and film producers are Jewish. British screenwriter William Cash lashed out at what he identified as "Jewish Hollywood" in the 1990s. He claimed that writers he knew attempted to pass as Jews hoping this would give them an inside edge. No one disputed the story, though most critics indicated that Jews and non-Jews competed on an equal playing field. It was craft and talent, not ethnicity, that secured a writing assignment.

Nevertheless, it has been this sense of a Jewish presence, a Jewish sensibility, within the popular culture that has helped reshape attitudes toward Jews in America. The themes of television’s sitcoms and dramas, while not Jewish, are often reflections of a modern, urban liberal point of view (think "The West Wing," "ER" and "Friends" today; "All in the Family," "Seinfeld" and "Brooklyn Bridge" in the past). It is no accident that Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan attacked television and films for debasing our culture. Violence and sex made the headlines, but they believed the point of view they were assailing was one held by liberal and secular Democrats. Some Jews in Hollywood saw the attacks as thinly disguised anti-Semitism.

Buchanan and Quayle aside, it is interesting to chart the path that led to the turnabout in attitudes toward Jews in America, to analyze what caused the 180-degree turn that propelled Jews from being outsiders to insiders in America. There is certainly the Holocaust and the horror and guilt that accompanied it; the end of university quotas, both for students and professors; the emergence of Jews as lawyers in major firms and as law school deans in prominent universities. All of these played a role in admitting Jews to the American establishment.

But the imprint of culture — both popular and high culture — on a society that turns often to entertainment and art for both leisure and class status cannot be overestimated. During the second half of this century, we have seen the rise of Jewish writers in America — Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Rebecca Goldstein — all of whom have functioned as our nation’s Mark Twains and F. Scott Fitzgeralds, our successors to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. We are, after all, a nation that proudly exports culture — along with Coca-Cola and jeans — to the rest of the world.

Domestically, the impact has led to a different outcome. Films and television have affected all Americans and, in the process, have helped integrate Jews into America. They have also introduced Jewish words, style and feelings into our national identity. Ironically, it is the last thing in the world that Mayer and the other Hollywood moguls desired. They wanted their America simple and small-town innocent — and without any tribal relatives.

Come Oscar night, we might recognize the unintended consequences of the world they helped create. We Jews are perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the dream industry. And whether or not Washington, Judi Dench or Ron Howard are Oscar winners, it does not alter the profound role that Hollywood has played — and continues to play — in the lives of America’s Jews.

Spartacus’


"My Stroke of Luck" by Kirk Douglas (William Morrow, $22.95)

Five years ago, Kirk Douglas, the legendary tough guy of 84 movies, decided to end his life.

A stroke had left him speechless — an actor’s worst nightmare. A painful compressed spine reminded him constantly of an earlier helicopter crash. A pacemaker was implanted in his chest and his knees were giving out.

In a deep depression, he spent his days "in a black cave far down below the surface of the earth." One day, he took a gun from his desk drawer, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth — and bumped it painfully against his teeth.

He said "Ow!" and pulled the gun out. Then "I began to laugh. A toothache delayed my death. I laughed hysterically," he recalls. Then another thought struck him — a suicide would be such a mess for the housekeeper to clean up. He put the gun away.

Douglas describes the episode in his new book, "My Stroke of Luck." His latest literary effort illustrates both the actor’s despair and the saving humor that helped pull him through.

In a recent interview in his art-filled but relatively modest Beverly Hills home, the 85-year-old Douglas spoke about the book, his life and his return to Judaism, before embarking on a two-month book tour of the United States and Europe.

The actor has taught himself to speak again — slowly but distinctly. His famous dimpled chin still juts out, and with a mane of long white hair he could pass for the movie version of a Viking or biblical patriarch.

Asked about the book’s title, with its seemingly ironic double meaning, Douglas responds that he means it when he talks about "a stroke of luck."

"For all the stroke stole from me, it has given me even more," he says earnestly. "It has led me to a great adventure and changed me into a different person — and one I like better than the person I was before."

Douglas’ earlier persona, during a long Hollywood career, was notorious for its egocentricity — even in a town of mammoth egos — his epic womanizing and his self-chosen role as a loner without real friends.

He firmly believes, and details in his book, that these traits and his lifestyle, as much as the later physical disabilities, led to his deep depression.

Douglas credits his new outlook, and survival, to the love of his wife, Anne, and four sons; his immersion in Torah study, and the gratification of reaching out and helping others.

His new attitude was affirmed and symbolized by his second bar mitzvah, celebrated on his 83rd birthday. In his speech to an audience of Hollywood celebrities, Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) declared, "Today I am a man … but it takes time to really become a man and assume your responsibilities in this troubled world."

After studying with a considerable number of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis ("I know more rabbis than Jews," he writes), Douglas has evolved his own brand of somewhat irreverent theology that mixes spirituality, with an actor’s appreciation of the great dramatic scripts inherent in the Torah, and a touch of humor.

An example of the latter is cited in the book when Douglas recalls his decades as a non-practicing Jew. However, he writes, "I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked in movies, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach."

Douglas’ good deeds have found expression by underwriting several playgrounds in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, AIDS and homeless projects and a $2 million theater now rising opposite the Western Wall, where worshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism and Jerusalem.

The veteran actor looks forward to starring with his son, Michael, and grandson, Cameron, in a film this year. "It’s about a dysfunctional family," he says, "but then every movie nowadays seems to be about dysfunctional families."

At the end of "My Stroke of Luck," written in Douglas’s characteristic colloquial and anecdotal style, the author appends six rules in an "Operator’s Manual" for coping with a stroke, or, for that matter, with life.

Among the rules:

When things go bad, always remember it could be worse.

Never, never, give up. Keep working on your speech and your life.

Pray. Not for God to cure you, but to help you help yourself.

Turner Classic Movies will screen 22 of the best Kirk Douglas movies on four successive Mondays in February.

Guide for the Depressed


The High Holy Days are a time for contemplation, a time to give thanks, to repent for the wrongs of the past year and seek forgiveness from those you may have hurt and especially from God.

But what if you’re not feeling either grateful or repentant? What if the past year has been fraught with difficulties, loss, illness, even pain? Whether you blame fate or your enemies or even a Higher Power, you may find yourself dreading worship services this year and contemplating ways to get out of attending entirely.

For those who are genuinely going through a spiritual slump or those who simply can’t face another seemingly purposeless High Holiday season, here are some suggestions to putting the meaning back into the mitzvah.

Put the Past in Perspective

Part of what may be contributing to your negative feelings surrounding the holidays is what Rabbi Stewart Vogel, rabbi of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and co-author of The New York Times bestseller “The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life,” calls “the nostalgia factor.”

“It’s what we [rabbis] have to look at first: how do these days play out in the memories of people? What do they remember from their childhoods? That’s the so-called baggage they bring in,” he said. “We can help them with their comfort with the liturgy, with Hebrew versus English prayer, especially if they remember some of the prayers already and are comfortable in synagogue. But if they have memories of the holidays as the longest, most boring and drawn-out experience of their lives, where they understood nothing of what was going on around them, that is going to have an effect.”

If you suspect the nostalgia factor, whether positive or negative, may be part of your present problem, perhaps it is time to create new memories. If you have always gone over to your parent’s home for Rosh Hashana dinner, invite them over, instead. If you are still attending the same shul that you did as a child, try a different one.

Even synagogues have to shake things up once in a while to keep services meaningful, Vogel said. “Over the last few years, we’ve instituted this tradition where at the end of Yom Kippur we open up the ark and allow people to come up [on the bimah] for personal prayers,” he said. “It has transformed our service into a drama of engaging God at a very personal level.”

Do Your Homework

For the reluctant shul-goer, advance preparation can make a significant difference in getting through the holidays. Reading texts such as “The Jewish Holidays” by Michael Strassfeld or Shimon Apisdorf’s “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” can help put one in the right frame of mind. The latter book contains a number of exercises and anecdotes to make the experience of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur more personal. If you need your spiritual vitamins in smaller doses, Web sites like those of Aish HaTorah (www.aish.com), Chabad (www.chabad.org) or Project Genesis (www.roshhashanah.torah.org) all contain inspirational articles aimed at reaching the mind and rousing the spirit.

Try Another Route

For some people, a quick review of key traditions or discovering a new insight into the holidays is enough to get their motors running. However, if you’re a more tactile person and all the navel-gazing associated with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur makes you want to book yourself on the next plane to Bora Bora, try reconnecting through other paths. Bake a honey cake — get lost in the aroma of the spices, the feel of mixing the ingredients and the rich taste of the completed work. Feel grateful to have the means and the ability to partake of such bounty (and maybe prepare an extra loaf for someone who does not). Or take advantage of our Southern California location with a walk on the beach. Barefoot, if you dare. Let the sounds of the ocean help you to remember your connection to the creation.

Take a Giant Leap

Maybe what needs changing isn’t just our perspective, it’s our entire way of relating to God, according to rabbi and author Shimon Apisdorf.

“Oftentimes we get stuck in a relatively undeveloped relationship with God,” he explained in a recent interview. “We have this picture in our mind of a Big Daddy in the sky whom we ask, and He is there to provide. To see the totality of our relationship in those terms is missing a broad concept. The question to ask is, what if God knows better than I what is good for me? What if God is trying to help me grow, to become a richer or deeper person by giving me these challenges? If we just step out of our feelings of being upset and tried a different hat and asked, What if He know more about me than I even know myself? … Just asking that question may give us a whole different way of relating.”

Give Your Expectations a Break

Sometimes you just have to trust the process.

“Spiritual ups and downs are just like ups and downs in other areas of life,” said Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea. “There’s so many things we question. But I think the questions help because, after you ask, if you’re really committed to getting an answer then your answers will be stronger and deeper.”

Goor said part of the problem today is unrealistic expectations of what the High Holy Days can provide. “I think some people dread it because it is not easy, and it’s not meant to be easy. We’re in a world where we want everything done fast. But the reality is that there is no ‘instant spirituality.’ To have it work, you’ve got to give it time.”

Patience, a different perspective and the willingness to include nontraditional ways of celebrating can all help improve your High Holiday experience. Above all, Apisdorf said, if you want to have a meaningful Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, you’ve got to be proactive.

“If I had to go to a synagogue where the prayer book was written in Chinese and the ritual taking place reflected a culture I had never encountered before, it might be an interesting experience once, twice maybe. But 27 times?” said Apisdorf. “It’s not realistic to expect from people who are not used to Jewish approaches to spirituality to come in cold, open up a book and feel this instant connection.

“You’ve got to do something. Go to a Jewish bookstore and spend some time looking at what’s on the shelf. Ask for help. There are adult education classes going on in every city; call one up and say ‘Hi, I’m Pam and I hate Rosh Hashana. Is there anything you can do to help me?'”

“For over 2,000 years, Jews have found profound inspiration from their heritage. If people make the effort, there is always something there to be discovered,” Apisdorf said.

Leading With His Left


Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman’s art-filled home on a quiet, verdant Brentwood street is a world away from the gritty industrial world in which he lived as a child during the Depression and again as a young man on the cusp of World War II. But it’s his experiences in that world of assembly-line workers that led him to the rabbinate and to his 52 years in Los Angeles.

Leo Baeck Temple will honor the man who became its first full-time rabbi in 1949 at Friday night services May 4, celebrating Beerman’s 80 years of life and his boundless commitment to social justice and liberal Judaism.

"We grew up together," Beerman said of the Reform synagogue, which had been founded the year before he arrived, newly ordained, from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It was the only congregation he served during the 37 years before his retirement in 1986.

Beerman was outspoken on issues such as civil rights, workers’ rights, the war in Vietnam and Mideast conflict. "Our synagogue became known as a place where these issues were engaged and openly discussed," inviting speakers that included Daniel Ellsberg and Cesar Chavez, Beerman said.

Under his leadership, the temple radiated "a wholesome atmosphere of ideas," he said. "Not everyone agreed with my views, but I think we established a relationship of basic trust."

"He was speaking against the Vietnam War before I even knew what the Vietnam War was," said John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up at Leo Baeck. When Rosove took positions that could be controversial, he said, "I knew [Rabbi Beerman] had stuck his neck out long before I did."

Beerman said his Jewish identity was "nurtured by my experiences, being a child of the Depression, seeing my father cut down by the Depression." He was also a witness to the struggle of local workers to unionize and improve their lot in life, and he came to see being a Jew as carrying a responsibility "to enhance life for the least of God’s children as well as the greatest."

Beerman spent most of his childhood in Owosso, Mich., about 20 miles west of Flint; his was one of seven Jewish families in town. Owosso had an active Ku Klux Klan — black folks couldn’t stay in town overnight — and, growing up, Beerman heard the occasional anti-Jewish epithet or remark.

But, he said, "growing up in a small town was a magical experience…. You felt yourself embraced, part of a definable community."

In 1941, several months before Pearl Harbor, Beerman took a break from his studies at Pennsylvania State University and returned to Michigan to work in an auto-parts factory that had been retooled to produce machine guns. That’s where he met up with a more virulent anti-Semitism: Some co-workers with whom he’d become friends dropped him when he mentioned that he was Jewish, and as word got out, other workers picked fights with him. "It was the experience of anti-Semitism that prompted me to think about the rabbinate as a place for me, because [prejudice] deprived me of this circle of friends," Beerman said in a television interview.

Curious about what caused hatred against Jews, Beerman began to read through the books on Jewish history and philosophy in the local public library; this research, in turn, sparked a desire for more formal Jewish study.

The current situation in Israel causes him great pain. "I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive to the rights of the Palestinians, [but] I have always believed that Israel accepted a basic contract, and the basic condition of that contract was that this land was meant to be shared," he said, calling Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories "destructive of the values that had gone into the making of Israel."

Nor does he sound particularly optimistic about how the conflicts will be resolved. "It’s tragic what these two peoples feel compelled to do to one another," he said. "It brings out the worst excesses of nationalist thinking on both sides. The only thing to hope for is that something is happening that none of us knows about."

But only an optimist signs up for as many causes as Beerman does. He’s involved with Jewish and interfaith organizations opposing the death penalty and supporting sweatshop workers, the anti-nuclear movement, medical ethics — and peace in the Middle East. He protested the Persian Gulf War and has fought for affordable housing and protection for the homeless.

Sanford Ragins, who was Beerman’s associate rabbi during the tumultuous 1960s and is now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck, told The Journal that Beerman’s passions informed Ragins’ own activism. "He knew Judaism was not something you kept locked up in the ark," Ragins said.

"At an early age, I remember being spellbound by his sermonizing," said Rabbi Carla Howard, who grew up at Leo Baeck and currently serves Metivta, a Jewish contemplative center on the Westside. "I was coming of age in the late ’60s, in the middle of this cultural explosion of values, and he was a voice that helped shape my values."

Beerman has known tragedy during his later years, having lost his first wife just after his retirement and an 8-year-old granddaughter to a sudden, undiagnosed ailment. But he says he looks forward to each new day with his second wife, Joan, and his children and grandchildren, with whom he regularly shares Shabbat.

And he still inspires congregations. "He is a rabbi’s rabbi," Rosove said. "[Listeners] melt under his words, even when they don’t agree with everything he says, because he speaks from a deep, prophetic place."

Leo Baeck Temple will honor Rabbi Leonard Beerman at services May 4, 7:30 p.m., 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.

Winona Ryder– Girl Interrupted


At first glance, the author Susanna Kaysen and the actress Winona Ryder have little in common. Kaysen, who is in her 50s and the author of several well-received volumes, grew up upper-middle-class and Jewish in Cambridge, MA and is the daughter of an economics professor. And Ryder, the movie star, spent many of her formative years in a Northern California commune, the daughter of a Jewish hippie intellectual who often chatted around the kitchen table with poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD guru Timothy Leary.

What the two women share, however, are dark memories of childhood’s end; a time in their late teens when each descended into severe depression and landed, for a while, in a psychiatric hospital. Kaysen eloquently wrote about her experience in her best-selling memoir, “Girl Interrupted” — a book that Ryder’s rare book dealer father, Michael Horowitz, chanced to give her in galley form in 1993. At the time, the actress was emerging from her own two-year crisis, and Kaysen’s book was the first she had read, from a women’s perspective, that articulated her own sense of “feeling you are going crazy.”

Which perhaps explains why Ryder became obsessed with the novel and, subsequently, used all her Hollywood clout to bring the story to the screen. It took all of six years, and the actress, who is also making her producing debut, persevered despite the emotional toll. Ryder’s youthful anxiety attacks returned during the three-month shoot at a real psychiatric ward, one that strongly resembled the grim, brick structure where Kaysen was incarcerated in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the Oscar-nominated actress endeavored to finish the film, which, because of the personal connection, she regards as perhaps the most important of her career.

The waiflike Ryder, who has enormous, intense brown eyes, has explained that she did not have to conduct research to portray Kaysen. By the time she was 19, she was in the midst of an identity crisis, the result of virtually growing up on screen, and was suffering from paralyzing insomnia and anxiety attacks. She was exhausted and overworked; there was a painful and public breakup with her first love, actor Johnny Depp, and most troubling of all was that she could not describe her feelings even to her loved ones. “And then, of course, actors are not allowed to complain,” she told the Journal, with a thin smile. “When actors complain, it sounds a little nauseating.”

And so Ryder checked herself into a psychiatric ward, a “stark, bare, scary place where they take everything away from you,” but left a week later, feeling that the stay had not helped her. It was only slowly that she recovered, with the help of a good psychiatrist. But her memories of the experience, she says, were invaluable as she brought “Girl, Interrupted” to the screen.

During the recent Journal interview, Ryder said she has been influenced by another Jewish girl, interrupted: A Russian-Jewish cousin, also an actress, who looked like her and was about her age when she died in the Holocaust. It was Ryder’s grandmother Horowitz, who is now 99 and a resident of Brooklyn, who first showed her the photographs of the young woman and the other relatives who died in the camps. Sometimes, she has said, the dark-haired cousin has been almost like a spirit guide, perhaps as much an influence on her life as Kaysen. “I learned about my family history when I was of the right age to hear about something so tragic,” she says, softly, “and it has been a very big part of my life.”

“Girl, Interrupted” opens this week in Los Angeles.

Singles


I’m not mental. Really. I’m not manic-depressive,hypomanic, borderline schizophrenic or psychotic. I don’t hear voicesor imagine I’m being followed by Marie Osmond. I don’t have tics or acompulsive need to wash my hands or avoid cracks in thesidewalk.

Like a lot of people, I could just use someone totalk to. That’s all. I figure it can’t hurt.

After all, my family is like a Who’s Who of mentalillness.

When I read about a study that indicated thatAshkenazi Jews have a higher incidence of depression, I wasn’tsurprised. Relatives on both sides of my family have spent short andlong stays at various mental institutions. “Grandma had to go awayfor a coupleof weeks,” and “sometimes Grandpa doesn’t like to get outof bed,” and “there’s the mental hospital your Uncle Marty was in,”are things I heard while growing up.

So far, save a few bouts of garden-varietymelancholia, I seem all right. But with genetics like mine, you can’tbe too careful. That’s why I’m on the hunt for a goodmental-health-care professional.

Since relocating to Los Angeles, I’ve had notrouble finding a hairdresser, a reliable dry cleaner and a woman whoadministers an almost painless bikini wax. After just about a year ofliving here, it finally seems time to track down someone who willgladly listen to my problems for money.

But how?

In my mind, I picture a sort of therapist datinggame. I line them up and toss off a series of questions: TherapistNo. 1, if you were a vegetable, what would you be? Therapist No. 2,if I were to have a nervous breakdown at 3 a.m. and call you at yourhome, what would you do? Therapist No. 3, if I were to use humor inthe course of discussing my life, would you laugh? Or would you juststare blankly and ask why I feel the need to joke?

I’ve heard that getting a referral is the way togo, but from whom? It’s not the kind of question you want to ask justanyone. I’ve gingerly approached the subject with a fewacquaintances. Sometimes, people hand over the name of a trustedtherapist without flinching. Other times, I can just see themthinking, “I had no idea Teresa was mental.”

I’m a little leery about referral agencies eversince my experience with 1-800-DENTIST. I called, asking for afriendly, experienced dentist in my area and ended up with a palsiedoctogenarian whose 1950s dental machine was dinette-table yellow andprobably about as sterile as a deli counter in Kabul.

I go see “Beth,” the therapist of a friend ofmine. Beth’s office is conveniently located and her building has freeparking, so I’m really hoping for the best.

I don’t want to say she wasn’t nurturing, but itwas like talking to the Great Santini in a flowing pants suit.

“Are you always this nervous?”

“No. Only when I’m about to have my head shrunk tothe size of a pea by a woman with the demeanor of a drillsergeant.”

Well, that’s what I said to myself. What I said toher was, “Do I seem nervous?” Perhaps I was thinking about the checkI was going to have to write. She informs me that I need “deep” work.I think she means deep into my pockets. She assures me that many ofher “industry” clients become outrageously successful under hertherapeutic tutelage, and I am enticed by her self-proclaimed Midastouch. Still, I doubt she is “the one.”

Lots of counselors and counseling services don’teven return my calls. I’m feeling rejected. The whole process makesme needy and insecure, the very qualities I’m trying toameliorate.

I press on. I’ve got people asking people to askpeople for their people. It won’t be long before that perfecttherapist, sort of a cross between Barbra Streisand in “Prince ofTides” and Judd Hirsch in “Ordinary People” comes along.

Those feelers are out there. Just last night I gota call from a perspective therapist.

“So, why are you seeking therapy?”

“Oh, you know, the usual stuff, who am I? What amI going to be? What’s it all about? Why is Marie Osmond followingme?”

“What?”

“Just a joke.”

“Why do you feel the need to joke?”

And the search continues.

It won’t be long before that perfect therapist,sort of a cross between Barbra Streisand in “Prince of Tides” andJudd Hirsch in “Ordinary People” comes along. Above, Barbra Streisandas she appeared in “The Prince of Tides.”

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomethingcontributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

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