This month marks exactly five years since my first monthly column for j. Happy anniversary to me.
Believe me, I’m shocked. Back in 2002 I never thought I could conjure five years worth of personal Jewish stories to tell. Everything up until then just seemed like, well, my so-called life, and bore no particular import.
Now I’ve gone and blabbed the whole thing.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you know all about me and my ex, my son, his glitzy bar mitzvah and his fancy-shmancy job. You know about my youthful penchant for rock ‘n’ roll and about my quotidian adventures on BART. You know about my wonderful girlfriend, Robyn, and our many pets, all living together in Albany in what we call Happy Colorful House.
As for my Jewish backstory, you know about my parents’ Ellis Island pedigrees and their Yiddish-accented socialism, about my late-blooming religious awakening and stormy tenure on a temple board. You even know of the prayers I’ve whispered in good times and bad.
For a private person, I’ve revealed quite a lot about myself in these columns. Sometimes I wonder what ever possessed me to do so.
I have to figure it’s due, in part, to some common human impulse — more pronounced in childhood — to shout out “Look at me! Look at me!”
Of course, once people actually look, it isn’t always so great. For sure, some columns elicited complimentary notes and e-mails, but I have been called out plenty of times, too, and often deservedly so.
I wondered if there might be a uniquely Jewish explanation for this impulse to spill all. To address that, I turned to Estelle Frankel, an Albany-based therapist who practices what she calls sacred narrative therapy.
She describes herself as a “holy listener.” Estelle encourages patients to recount their life stories and, through the telling, develop a sense of becoming the author of their own lives.
“Say you were the victim of something or other growing up,” she said. “When you tell the story, you might begin to discover that some of your strengths also derive from that event, so its meaning is re-contextualized. You are no longer the victim but the master of your fate.”
The sanctity comes into play because, as Estelle explained to me, we each have a calling, a reason why we are here. Sacred narrative therapy is about listening to the call of the soul.
What’s Jewish about that? Everything.
“It’s no surprise that Freud was a Jew,” Estelle added. “We are a storytelling people. Eli Wiesel said God created the world because He loved stories.”
She also told me the Hebrew roots for the words meaning “story” (sippur) and “illumination” (sapir) are the same. It’s where we get the word “sapphire.” So from a Jewish perspective, stories illumine our paths. Ever notice how the Torah does not launch right into a litany of mitzvahs or commandments? Instead, in the beginning, there are stories.
Ever the therapist, Estelle added one more psychological element: You can’t really know yourself until you open your mouth and say (or write) what you’re thinking.
So true. When I start a column, I rarely know where it’s going, nor do I know how to get there. It’s the opposite of writer’s block: There are unnervingly few obstacles in the way. I usually just trust my typing fingers and go.
Where I will go in next month’s column, or the month after, I have no idea. Something always turns up. Deadlines see to that. But whatever I write about over the next five years, I’ll try to keep Estelle’s insights in mind.
Clearly, writing this column is part of my own soul’s call.
It’s like that old Chassidic tale about Reb Zusya, who once had a frightening vision of heaven. His students, confident in their master’s piety, couldn’t imagine why Zusya would feel so upset.
Trembling, Zusya said that the angels in his vision did not ask him why he wasn’t another Moses leading his people out of slavery, or another Joshua leading them into the Promised Land.
Instead, the angels asked him, “Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?”