This year I have watched four gripping pieces of film and television about the relationship between therapists and their patients: The Shrink Next Door (2021), The Patient (2022), Stutz (2022), and Shrinking (2023). After watching these programs it struck me that each of them had something else in common. Like the field of psychology, each program was brought to life by Jews.
For generations, our society has stigmatized therapy and mental illness. That cannot be undone in one decade, with one TV show, or with one article. But when looking at the relationship between Jews and mental health, there is a rich history. To be Jewish is to know trauma and from that, ways of healing.
Jewish thinkers were fundamental in the early stages of psychology. Sigmund Freud and many of his peers, Joseph Jastrow (the first American to receive a doctorate in psychology whose father, Marcus, published the first English Talmudic dictionary), Abraham Maslow (renowned for developing his eponymous “hierarchy of needs”), and all but one of the founders of the Gestalt school of thought, were Jewish.
Jews were at the forefront of psychoanalysis, and now the connection between therapy and North American Jews is on full display on the most viewed medium of our current generation: the screen. To what can we attribute the placement of Jews at the leading edge of psychology, both at its foundation, and now in popular culture? A 1982 study by social psychologists E.J Rosen and F.M. Herz found that when compared to other ethnicities, Jews regularly express their emotions verbally. Our history of being ghettoized has made Jews physically and emotionally closer and more comfortable talking to each other about the misery of oppression and the worries of everyday life.
As far back as the Torah, Jewish literature has shared stories of distress. After a disastrous war is waged under his leadership, King Saul orders his men to take his life to avoid dying at the hands of his enemies. Many Jews have concluded that suicide in this and all its forms is a sin. Still, many early rabbis, including the esteemed Maimonides, had compassion for those suffering from suicidal ideations. Proverbs 12:25 advises, “If there is anxiety in a man’s mind, let him quash it and turn it into joy with a good word.” This is a simplistic approach to mental health by modern standards but is early recognition of the omnipresence of anxiety in the human experience.
The dramedy Shrinking was co-created by Brett Goldstein, the Jewish comedic actor and writer known for Ted Lasso. It stars half-Jewish actors Jason Segel, who grew up with “a little bit of everything” including a Bar Mitzvah, and Harrison Ford who has said, “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” The pair play partners at a psychiatric clinic, and through their sessions and personal lives, the audience sees just how prevalent suffering is, not only amongst seekers of therapy, but among therapists themselves.
The Shrink Next Door is also a dark comedy, but it tells the heart-wrenching true story of Marty Markowitz (Will Ferrell), the Jewish CEO of a garment company, who, over the course of 30 years, was brainwashed into giving his money and livelihood to his psychiatrist Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf, played in the series by Jewish actor Paul Rudd. Ike, the son of Holocaust survivors, not only abused Marty’s trust but that of hundreds of Jews, including several high-profile rabbis, who donated funds to his fraudulent charity. In an interview with Paste Magazine, showrunner Georgia Pritchet said the following about the show’s sensitive portrayal of Jewish life in New York: “I’m not Jewish. But I filled my writer’s room with people who are . . . Jewish. And that was invaluable. This is certainly part of Marty and Ike’s experience . . . So I’m glad I had those voices in the room so we could [ensure the story] was authentic and treated with the respect it deserves.”
While The Shrink Next Door explores a complex therapist-client relationship with a sense of levity, The Patient uses a far heavier tone. Fortunately the psychological thriller is fictional. In it, psychotherapist Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) is kidnapped by his serial-killer patient, Sam (Domnhall Gleeson), in a desperate bid to curb his murderous tendencies. Through flashbacks, we learn about the animosity between Strauss’s wife, who is a Reform cantor, and son, who is baal teshuvah (a secular Jew who turned to Orthodoxy later in life).
In a captivating episode entitled “Kaddish,” Alan tells his captor that he would like to recite the mourner’s prayer for his wife but has forgotten the words. Sam prints out the words for Alan, and after killing a man in front of him, Sam shockingly inquires if he should recite the same prayer.
Stutz is also an intimate portrayal of the doctor-patient relationship, this time in the form of a documentary. The film’s subject is Phil Stutz, a Jewish psychiatrist who has devised a unique methodology of therapy that has reportedly changed, perhaps even saved, the lives of many of his patients, including famed Jewish actor Jonah Hill. Hill made the film to bring Stutz’s approach to the broader public. His mission is rendered even more pressing by Phil’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Phil is also Jewish, and the film explores the doctor’s successful tools, his upbringing in New York, his personal demons, and Jonah’s.
Shrinking, Stutz, and The Patient show us psychiatrists who are eager to serve their patients to the best of their abilities. They do not rely on a one size-fits-all approach to wellness. Instead, they let the unique needs of their clients dictate their methods.
Jewish tradition is similarly malleable to the mental and emotional needs of the individual. In Judaism, life is paramount, and religious laws are not enforced if they abate someone’s physical or mental health. According to the Talmud, men must adhere to all 613 biblical commandments upon their thirteenth birthday, but they are exempt from this responsibility if found mentally unable. And Judaism supports abortion when a fetus endangers the physical and mental health of the mother. As drafted by Rabbis Levushei Mordechai and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, current Jewish law dictates “Sometimes pregnancy can jeopardize the mother’s mental health. In such a case, some [legal scholars] rule that even those who adopt the restrictive approach would permit abortion since mental illness can be life-threatening and cause one to become suicidal.”
From these two examples we can see how at times Jewish teachings can prioritize mental health, but many Jews continue to suffer in silence. It is important for us to collectively understand that suffering is part of the Jewish experience and so is seeking help. These shows shed a light on that. And while it’s not nearly enough, I hope it’s a start.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin is thrilled to serve Community Synagogue in Port Washington, Long Island. Ella was born in Jerusalem and raised in Toronto, Canada, where she received her Bachelor’s in jazz voice at the University of Toronto. She received ordination, and her Master’s in sacred music, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Ella’s passion is healing and uplifting communities of all ages through prayer.