Author, psychologist delves inside ‘The Israeli Mind’

Alon Gratch practices psychology in New York but was born and raised in Jerusalem, which puts him in a unique position to tell us how Israelis see the world. Indeed, as he writes in “The Israeli Mind: How the Israeli National Character Shapes Our World” (St. Martin’s Press), “I came to see that since I’d left Israel, scarcely a day had gone by that I was not somehow, however vaguely, aware of my Israeli DNA.”

Gratch’s book comes at an opportune moment. Never before have the distinctions between the world views of American Jews and Israelis been more fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran is the flashpoint: “At the time of my writing, no one knows if the West’s negotiations with Iran will slow down or stop its apparent race to develop nuclear weapons,” he observes. “Thus, in the next year or two, whether or not a deal is reached, the whole world will be watching Israeli behavior.”  

So Gratch assumes that the whole world has a stake in understanding what he calls the Israeli national character. Thus, for example, he seeks to explain why former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among other American politicians and diplomats, have characterized more than one Israeli prime minister as “aggressive, arrogant, defensive, unyielding, intransigent, obstinate, argumentative, rigid, brusque, bullheaded, unreasonable, negative, mistrustful, obstructive, disruptive, and provocative.” Gratch sums it up as a manifestation of “the unique Hebrew word davka,” which he defines as a “naysaying tendency to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.”  

Gratch may be a psychologist, but history, diplomacy and politics provide him with the key to the davka phenomenon and how it reflects the Israeli national character. “A quick excursion into Zionist history would readily explain why the Israelis needed to develop this type of naysaying defense mechanism,” he explains. The pioneers of the Jewish state said “no” to all of the failed coping strategies of the Diaspora and “no to the local Palestinians who didn’t want them there; no to the Arab countries who vowed to drive them out of Palestine; no to depending on foreign governments and their police forces for protection.”

In his search for the commonalities of Israeli character, Gratch is compelled to point out the long and sometimes bloody history of conflict within Zionism and the Jewish state. Even so, he insists that the naysaying of one Jew to another Jew is consistent with his findings. “In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that many Israelis on both sides of the political map agree on only one thing, which is that they have nothing in common with each other,” he writes. “But paradoxically, because both groups have emerged from the same polarized environment, they do, in fact, have a great deal in common in their psychological make-up.”

Using the tools (and sometimes the jargon) of a psychologist, he looks at two versions of the mythic Israeli narrative — “the old, religious chosen-people variant” and “the new, miracle-in-the-desert Zionist variant” — and declares them both to be a kind of narcissism. Yet he does not see the duality as wholly dysfunctional. “Both play a role in how Israelis interpret the world,” he writes. “To a large extent, they are also responsible for the Israelis’ extraordinary record of achievements, as well as their failures and their persistent, potentially tragic denial of certain Middle Eastern realities.”

Not every example in “The Israeli Mind” is drawn from geopolitics. He describes how he witnessed a lighthearted conversation in a Jerusalem coffee shop between a graduate student and a young teacher about classroom cheating. “Well, if I caught a student cheating, I wouldn’t view it as a negative,” the teacher said. “I would see it as an indication that he wants to succeed.” Gratch concludes: “The Israeli mind’s failures at empathy, its lack of regard for reality, and its relentless drive for success, all produce a predilection for cutting corners, bluffing, and lying.”

The values and behaviors that make up what Gratch calls the Israeli national character can be seen as a form of psychological self-defense. “Israeli psychologists … have noted that everyday belligerence in Israeli society is rooted in unconscious anxiety,” he writes.

“Ever fearful of suicide bombings, rockets, bad news from the front lines, and even car accidents — driving on Israeli highways can be unsettling — Israelis live in a hyper-vigilant state of mind, often exercising a first-strike option in anticipation of an attack. Collectively, they can’t quite believe that the miracle of the Jewish state will endure.”

Throughout “The Israeli Mind,” Gratch demonstrates a mastery of the delicate inner workings of the human mind and, at the same time, a profound insight into the epochal movements of history — a rare but essential balancing act. He is a compassionate but exacting observer of the Israel character at a moment of great peril and consequence. That’s why his book is not only a work of genius but also, and more important, a beacon of light and hope. 

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

Kerry on the couch

We now join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lying on the couch in his therapist’s office:

Therapist: “When did you get back from Jerusalem?”

Kerry: “Hmm, I’m not sure. I ran out of Ambien on the trip so I’m a little sleep-deprived right now. But I think it was this morning.”

Therapist: “You take Ambien?”

Kerry: “You kidding? How else could I survive all these trips I’m making to Israel? This was my fifth one there since March. I think I beat Kissinger’s record from 1973.”

Therapist: “Why do you keep going there?”

Kerry: “Have you been talking to my wife? She’s always asking me that. I keep going to Israel because I want to go down in history. Not go down in history, but go down in history.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Ever since I took this job, all the smart people have been telling me to stay away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That it’s a snake pit — an impossible mission. That the Middle East is burning and there are other places that need my attention a lot more.”

Therapist: “Are they right?”

Kerry: “Maybe, but I don’t really care. I want to do what all my predecessors failed to do.”

Therapist: “Tell me about that.”

Kerry: “I want to do great things. I want to be better than everyone else. Like we’ve talked about before, I was never popular with the girls in high school. I was kind of awkward and gawky. So I compensated by doing a lot of things.”

Therapist: “Like what?”

Kerry: “You know, I would just work harder than everyone else. Chess club. Tennis. Debating club. Fencing. Wrestling. No challenge was too big for me. That’s the way it’s been my whole life — Vietnam, the Senate, the White House.”

Therapist: “But you lost the White House.”

Kerry: “Please don’t remind me.”

Therapist: “That’s what I’m here for.  How did it make you feel?”

Kerry: “You sure you want to get into this?”

Therapist: “Of course, it’s important. This is how we’ll get some real work done.”

Kerry: “Well, the loss killed me. I came this close to the top of the mountain. This close to being numero uno in the world. And I lost to a cowboy — to the big man on campus. It brought me back to my high school days … when I had to claw my way to compete with the cool guys.”

Therapist: “Tell me more about that.”

Kerry: “I crashed. I felt as if everything I had accomplished up until then was for naught. As if I’d been transported right back to high school, to being that awkward and gawky kid trying desperately to be popular.”

Therapist: “How did you deal with it?”

Kerry: “I put on an act. I pretended I was OK, even with my wife and kids. But inside, I was dying.”

Therapist: “How long did it last?”

Kerry: “Right up until I was chosen to be secretary of state earlier this year. That’s when I started getting out of my funk. Now I can get back that mountain I lost.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Look, even though I lost the White House, I have a chance now to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s nothing cooler in the world. Nothing more popular! I will work harder than ever to win it.”

Therapist: “But what if you don’t?”

Kerry: “Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “John, I don’t want to see you crash again. You need to feel OK inside so that the external losses won’t devastate you.”

Kerry: “The only way I will feel OK inside is if I win. And I know I can do it. I just know it. People are telling me that I’m banging my head against a wall — that despite all these trips and meetings, neither side is budging an inch. But I will wear them down, you’ll see.”

Therapist: “Why do you think you can succeed?”

Kerry: “Here’s something you don’t know, doc. In international diplomacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the holy grail. It doesn’t matter that thousands of people are being murdered all around there. All the eyes of the world are on the Jews and the Palestinians.”

Therapist: “So, what will you do?”

Kerry: “Look, the world is so obsessed with this conflict that they gave that terrorist Arafat a Nobel prize just for taking meetings! Now, if I can only get Bibi and Abbas in the same room, I really think I have a shot at the big prize. I’m only slightly exaggerating.”

Therapist: “Seriously? But what if you fail even at that?”

Kerry: “I’ll do what I always do — I’ll work even harder! I told you: Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “OK, John. I’ll see you at our next session. Get some rest.” 

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – Author-Baker Rises to Bimah — at Last

Joanne Rocklin is obsessed with food. On her 60th birthday, she began summarizing her life with the essentials: “I love to cook. I love to eat.”

But it’s her passion for writing that has enabled her to come to terms with her life and her faith. The author of 20 children’s books, including her renowned “Strudel Stories” (Delacorte, 1999), is about to complete a chapter in her own life that many young Jews today take for granted. Rocklin wraps up two years of studies with Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ adult b’nai mitzvah program when she ascends to the bimah for her bat mitzvah on June 24. As she delivers her d’var Torah, she will share with the congregation the ways her past life connects with the discoveries she’s made about her Jewish self.

Although Rocklin is a clinical psychologist by training, her desire to write proved disruptive early in her professional life. The opposing tugs of two careers left her feeling unable to immerse herself fully in either profession. Factor in a divorce and the death of her mother, and it’s easy to understand why Rocklin craved the serious life changes symbolized by her upcoming bat mitzvah.

“I look Jewish, I eat Jewish. I felt Jewish, but I didn’t know anything about my background,” Rocklin said.

Her search for a congregation led her to Temple Emanuel, where Rabbi Laura Geller encouraged Rocklin to learn the liturgy by singing in the choir of the New Emanuel Minyan. With husband Gerry Nelson, whom she’d met through a personal ad in The Jewish Journal, she also joined a couples havurah built around discussions over potluck meals. During one havurah get-together, Rocklin demonstrated her newly developing challah-baking prowess.

But even before she discovered Temple Emanuel, the kind of study that leads to career achievement was always central to Rocklin’s life. As a young woman in Montreal, Rocklin studied to become an elementary school teacher. After moving to California in 1976 with her first husband and two sons, she studied for a doctorate in clinical psychology and soon established a practice focusing on the needs of children and families.

Yet a love for writing continued to gnaw at her. Before long, she was juggling family responsibilities, turning out children’s books in the morning and seeing patients in the afternoon. When divorce left her a single parent who needed to earn a living, a high-octane lifestyle became all the more essential.

Soon after Rocklin and Nelson married, he persuaded her to ease back on her workaholic tendencies. So she followed her heart and became a full-time writer.

The inspiration for “Strudel Stories” struck one day while Rocklin was browsing through Joan Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America.” She spotted a reference to a Vermont woman who baked strudel with her children and grandchildren, sharing family stories while pounding and stretching the dough. The anecdote led Rocklin to invent a tale of three kitchens — one in czarist Russia, one in Brooklyn after World War II and one in present-day Los Angeles — in which strudel is made and stories are shared. Within this framework, Rocklin delicately introduced her young readers to Yiddish bubbemeises, Russian pogroms, the aftermath of the Holocaust and Jackie Robinson, as well as the joys of cooking with family.

Not long after the publication of “Strudel Stories,” Rocklin’s mother died. In her grief, she decided to make some changes. Rocklin told her husband it was time to move out of their condo and into a house. She also wanted a dog and a vegetable garden — and she wanted to join a synagogue.

Her b’nai mitzvah classmates include 14 women in various stages of life, from a young newlywed to an 83-year-old grandmother. They’ve studied Torah trope with Cantor Yonah Kliger, pored over the words of the sacred text with assistant Cantor Judy Greenfeld and rabbinic intern Pearl Berzansky, and even gone for a ritual dip at the University of Judaism’s mikvah to prepare for their upcoming rite of passage.

It’s only recently — since discovering the pleasures of Torah study for its own sake — that Rocklin said her workaholic side has truly relaxed itself.

In contrast to her former self, Rocklin no longer feels that a garden is a waste of time unless it produces vegetables. Instead of pouring all her energies into her writing career, she’s also embracing dawdling, taking tea with friends and playing with her cats. She’s begun a regular monthly volunteer stint at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center along with her golden retriever, Zoe, fulfilling the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick).

Last November, all of Rocklin’s new life lessons were put to the test when some suspicious spots were found on her lungs. There was a six-week period during which she made the rounds of labs and doctors’ offices, trying not to be overwhelmed by her glimpse of “another world … the world of the sick and dying,” she said.

When her chances looked bleak, before thoracic surgery confirmed that her problems were minor, all she wanted to do was bake bread.

Rocklin said she finds paying attention to the details of a bread recipe just as challenging and as fulfilling as the study of Torah. Following a 30-page recipe by La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton, she has learned to savor each stage of the complex process that turns a homemade starter into a warm brown loaf. For Rocklin today, life is all about taking time to smell the challah.

Baking “slows you down,” Rocklin said. “Bread is an amazing thing. It’s just flour, water, and yeast … and it becomes alive.”

Our Decency

“At the moment of conception,” says the Talmud, “an angel takes the drop of semen from which the child will be formed and brings it before God. ‘Master of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop?’ asks the angel. ‘Will it develop into a strong person or a weak one? A wise person or a fool? A wealthy person or a poor one?’ Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the angel ask God if the soon-to-be-formed person will be wicked or righteous?

Why not? Because the rabbis believed something that neuroscientists and psychologists have made unfashionable. The rabbis believed that we — not our genetic make-up, not our environment, not even God — are responsible for our moral choices. The genetic fix might be in when it comes to how tall or strong we will be, perhaps even how intelligent we might be, but not how decent we might be. Our decency, is up to us.

Rabbis have been divided for centuries as to whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test in this week’s Torah portion when he agreed to climb a mountain with his son, strap the boy down on an altar of stone and prepare to plunge a crude, iron blade into his chest. I for one am not conflicted.

When the angel calls out to stop the slaughter, the Torah is saying that although others might sacrifice their children, Jews do not. The Torah rejects Paganism as our moral benchmark. Abraham failed the test. Jews must have a different and — although it’s impolite to put it this way — a higher moral standard. For 3,000 years, we have believed that our decency is up to us.

Today, in America, a lot of people believe otherwise. Why? Because in many ways the highest ideal in America is freedom, and for many, that has come to mean the freedom to worry only about what is best for them. What makes me “feel good.” What makes them “happy.”

What happens when we follow this most unJewish of all paths through life? It’s not the big things that will go wrong — murder, rape — most of us understand how immoral they are. It’s the little things that begin to disappear when we worry only about ourselves — things like civility, decency, courtesy.

As psychologist Aaron Hass puts it in his book “Doing the Right Thing,” “generosity becomes replaced by reciprocity.” Instead of reaching out to others in kindness for its own sake, we start to ask what we will receive for the assistance we are about to render. We stop giving freely of ourselves and we start keeping score. Or worse.

What’s worse? Something Hass calls “cheap empathy.” It goes like this: Someone we know suffers a loss — a lost job, a lost marriage, a lump in the breast, a pain in the chest, the lost life of a loved one. We watch, we listen, we even call, but what do we say? We say the seven words that add up to cheap empathy — “Let me know if you need anything.”

When we say “Let me know if you need anything,” we place the burden on the one who is suffering. Our job as friends, as human beings, is to anticipate the needs of the suffering, to think about what we would need if we were in their position and then to provide it without being asked. So many of us offer cheap empathy, hoping we won’t be taken up on the offer.

Here’s a simple story about a congregant in a colleague’s synagogue. He was an important attorney. He rose to the highest levels of leadership in the Jewish community — even to the point of being involved in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, this man was retired. To fill his time, he volunteered a couple of days a week as an ombudsman at a local nursing home. It was his job to handle complaints and be an advocate for the residents and their families. It was at the nursing home that my colleague bumped into the former attorney.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said to his rabbi “I used to be an important person, and now, here I am at this nursing home. But rabbi, do you see that man over there? Yesterday, when they served him his lunch they put half of a cantaloupe in front of him and 30 minutes later they came to take it away. I stopped the woman removing the tray and I told her, “This man has had a stroke. He can’t eat a cantaloupe like that. You have to scoop it out for him.’ So she did scoop it out into bite-sized pieces.

Then, the man slowly lowered his spoon, placed one piece upon it at a time and gently brought them to his mouth. “Rabbi, ” he concluded, “watching that man eat his cantaloupe yesterday was one of the finest moments of my life.”

No keeping score. No worrying about what he would get in return for his kindness. No “Let me know if you need anything.” No excuses. Just anticipating; finding a way to be kind to another. Just a single decent act. A simple recognition of a simple truth: that our decency is up to us.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, Inc.).