The Neurotic Jew

The stereotype of the neurotic Jewish male, a character immediately identifiable as Jewish through his overt anxiousness and unrelenting self-consciousness, has not, as would perhaps be expected, been a source of shame for Jews.  Instead, the stereotype has become a tool of self-identification and source of humor. A potential explanation is that those most involved in the creation and maintenance of the stereotype have been Jews. Thus, unlike other stereotypes that have been propagated by non-Jews insidiously to inspire anti-Semitic sentiment, the neurotic Jewish stereotype is unique in that it has been created and maintained, up to the present day, by Jews, as a source of humor and as a marker of identity.

Woody Allen is perhaps most responsible for the characteristics of the Neurotic Jew as understood in modern American culture. The stereotype has been described as “a male with morose introspection, a fixation upon persecution and the Holocaust, with a restless, questing Jewish intellectuality.”  According to the film historian Gerald Mast, Allen “is the first great American film clown for whom being Jewish was not merely a hereditary accident but a way of life.” Allen’s idiosyncrasies and neurotic tendencies can hardly be said to be unique functions of Allen’s personality; they are understood as being particularly Jewish in nature and origin.  Allen’s films generally portray a close relationship between the protagonist and psychoanalysis. References to Freud, mother complexes, and bizarre sexual fetishes abound, to the extent that psychoanalysis itself appears as a member of the distinctive Jewish world of Allen’s construction.

Indeed, the world of psychoanalysis played a significant role in developing, or discovering, the stereotype of the neurotic Jew. Sander Gilman pays close attention to how psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud, developed the understanding that Jews exhibit particularly pronounced neurotic tendencies. Several reasons have been developed by analysts: some reasons point to Judaism itself as the fault, others on an accumulation of fears resulting from anti-Semitic sentiment from surrounding cultures.  Isidor Sadger commented: “the cause of this is the Jew’s addiction to rumination …which has been characteristic of the Jews for thousands of years.”  Freud and others subscribed to the belief that the etiology of Jewish neuroses is to be found in the sexual excess of Jewish men. Maurice Fishberg, a Jewish scientist, posited, “Being very neurotic, consanguineous marriages among Jews cannot be but detrimental to the progeny.” These “consanguineous” marriages were deemed “incestuous,” casting the stereotype among other stereotypes of Jewish insularity and clannishness.

The supposed relationship between Jewish neuroses and endogamous marriage was a fairly well accepted notion in Vienna before and during the age of Freud.  For some, this was a symptom of, and not the cause of, a Jewish neuroses that has its roots elsewhere. Unlike Fishberg, Freud gave less credence to genetics as the central cause of Jewish hysteria. For Freud, the primary cause was to be found in the act of circumcision: “The ‘primeval’ act of circumcision …pathologically marks the Jewish psyche, but only when the Jew remains fixated at an early stage of development analogous to the early stages of history during which the threat of castration was made.” For Freud, this problem was not only a singularly Jewish problem, but also evoked the hatred of others, which adds to the cholent of confusion, anxiety, and neuroses; “the castration complex is the deepest root of anti-Semitism; for even in the nursery little boys hear that a Jew has something cut off his penis…and this gives them a right to despise Jews.”

A related approach, though less libido-centric, attributes Jewish mental disturbances to a long history of anti-Semitism, proposed notably by A.A Brill: “The result of this distressing history was a tendency among Jews towards apprehensiveness, melancholy, excessive familism, overdevelopment of urban habits and living by the wits.” The proponents of this view effectively made a psychological connection between neurotic tendencies and the emotion of fear, in this case engendered over thousands of years of persecution.

Another proposed environmental cause of Jewish neurosis was Orthodox Judaism. Brill considered the rigidity, insularity, and suspicion of outside culture of the Orthodox communities as psychologically unhealthy.  The proposed solution to Jewish neurosis was assimilation into modern society.  Some thinkers did not view the process of assimilation as merely the sublimation of all that is Jewish to the behemoth of secular culture; many felt a cross-pollination would occur, and that secular society would benefit from a healthy dose of Jewish neuroticism. The most appealing neurotic traits to these thinkers were the overemphasis on the family, marked by the intense concern for the suffering of any member, and Jewish urbanism. As Brill explained in a radio broadcast, “The Psychology of the Jew,” from living in urban areas, “the Jew learned to control his feelings and emotions better than the non-Jew.”

By the middle of twentieth century, several studies had been carried out demonstrating that Jews had higher incidence of psychoneuroses than the non-Jews. A study carried out by Leo Srole shows that the Jewish rate of neuroses and character disorders was about three times as high as that of the Catholics and Protestants. This data may give the appearance of corroborating the conjectures of Freud and other psychoanalysts. It is important to stress, however, the nature of those assessments as conjectures, mere guesses, that, however reasonable, remain inconclusive.

Let us consider what the function of the stereotype of the Jewish neurotic has had for its proponents.  It seems that it can be reasonably assumed that the main function of the stereotype for the psychoanalysts was explanatory, and not malicious or anti-Semitic. It is important to bear in mind that the psychoanalysts and later psychological writers who gave birth to the stereotype of the neurotic Jewish male were primarily trained medical professionals who dealt with patients exhibiting the features of the neurotic Jew. Thus, the explanations for the stereotype, however questionable and speculative, stem from the perceived reality of a Jewish predisposition towards neuroses, and not from anti-Semitic fabrications.

It seems as though, in the last century, the social function of this stereotype has changed significantly, as it now fulfills the task of injecting humor into Jewish life and into the self-understanding of Jews. The films of Woody Allen, both past and present, are perhaps the greatest example of this phenomenon.  Allen’s brand of self-conscious meditation, the self-consciousness of his own self-consciousness, casts Allen as both a distinctly human figure, and as the source of the howling laughter of millions, Jews included. Allen also served to replace the “Dickensian stereotype of the money-counting Jew” with a modernized image of Jewish intellectuality.  Perhaps the greatest successor to the Allen legacy is Larry David, whose recent work as creator and protagonist of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” perpetuates the image of the Jew as a high-strung neurotic, perpetually involved in circumstances, frequently involving caricatured representations of non-Jewish that provide ripe avenues for the flourishing of David’s characteristic brand of expressive anxiety.

The work of Judd Apatow, most notably “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” provides examples of the recent construal of the neurotic Jewish male stereotype. Judd Apatow’s directorial work features a cast of Jewish writers and actors who are unabashedly Jewish as well as self-conscious and anxious. As is common, the function of the neurotic Jewish male stereotype in these contemporary cultural expressions is principally comedic. Indeed, the entire stereotype of the neurotic Jewish male has been more or less confined to the genre of comedy.

Another recent revival of the stereotype was found in last year’s best picture nomination “A Serious Man,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.  While the film’s portrayal of Jews did raise a few eyebrows, the film was generally well received both by Jews and non-Jews.  The protagonist, Larry Gopnick, is reminiscent of the neurotic Jewish stereotype. He is an intellectual, fraught with moral anxieties, with a searching restlessness that does as much to raise the sympathies of the viewer as it does to make her laugh with glee.

The stereotype of the neurotic Jewish male received its original spark from the writings of psychoanalysts and other psychological writers. These writers theorized that the explanation for the perceived neurotic tendencies of the Jew lie in either the historical mistreatment of Jews or in the psychologically unhealthy aspects of Jewish tradition. There are statistics to support the fact that Jews are particularly prone to neuroses, but this does not confirm or deny the theories proposed by Freud and subsequent writers. The social function of the stereotype has changed; for the psychoanalysts, the function was explanatory. For later filmmakers, including Woody Allen, Larry David, Judd Apatow, and the Coen Brothers, the stereotype has been a source of humor and a marker of Jewish identity. Unlike other, more malicious popular stereotypes of the Jews, the stereotype of the neurotic Jewish male has been subsumed by Jews as a source of cultural heritage and pride.


In Features. Tagged Jews, neurosis, stereotypes.