Notes for a Psychologist

When I was growing up in Haifa I was completely unaware of the existence of psychologists, even though I knew there was such a thing as "child psychology," which in my perception was the reason I was denied all kinds of things that I wanted.

When I was growing up in Haifa I was completely unaware of the existence of psychologists, even though I knew there was such a thing as "child psychology," which in my perception was the reason I was denied all kinds of things that I wanted. "It could hurt you psychologically," my educator-mother told me when she explained why I should always prefer what I did not like to what I truly desired.

To prove her point, she would cite one of two contradictory examples: Cinderella's mother, about whom she learned from the fairy tale, and violinist Yehudi Menuhin's mother, about whom she learned, to my misfortune, in "Child Psychology 101" at the Levinksy Teachers College. She invoked the former whenever I wanted, say, to go somewhere by myself. My mother would forbid this, declaring that there was no way her daughter was going to wander about alone or be neglected, because she was not Cinderella's wicked stepmother. She dredged up the latter whenever she stopped my piano lessons or forbade me to continue taking part in Haifa Theater productions, on the grounds that she was not the ambitious, uptight mother of Yehudi Menuhin.

My father, in contrast, gave articulate expression to the rare arousal of his psychological sensitivity in an indignant protest that he would make in the form of a loud roar: "For God's sake - what's with you, have you gone off your rocker?" This rhetorical question proved effective in every situation and in the face of every person, even in reply to the question posed by our Holocaust survivor neighbor, who poked around in garbage cans and beat his son with a garden hose: "So what do you say, Livneh, should I kill myself?"

Because I was not aware of the existence of psychologists, I felt no need to hold back until I reached the age at which I would be able to convey my indignation to the people authorized to deal with sensitive complaints regarding relations between man and his parents. So, according to the testimony of my late mother, already at the age of two, before I learned how to shut my mouth with the aid of food, I would open the window of the "big room" (which at night became my parents' bedroom and in the daytime was called the "living room") and inform on my parents, from the heights of the third floor - in an area then called the "municipal workers' housing project," or "the project," for short - to the effect that, and I quote, "Everybody in the project, listen! Neri's bad mother doesn't give her ice cream!" And so forth.

My children did not spend their early childhood on the third floor, but rather on a ground floor, and even if it had been possible to open the big window of the porch that was closed and became a living room - there would have been no one to hear their grumbling. The result was that instead of being afraid of what they would say about me to the neighbors, I went through their childhoods with feelings of anxiety about what they would later tell their psychologists about me. Accordingly, whenever one of my deprived kids leveled a minor or major complaint against me, I immediately urged him to sit down straightaway and write a note "for the psychologist," so it would be easier later on for him to remember all the wrongs I inflicted on him.

Because, yes, from the role of daughter gripped by guilt feelings toward her mother, I tripped the light fantastic into the role of mother consumed by guilt toward her children. This, indeed, is the brief history of the Jewish woman: You are born and immediately feel guilty toward your mother, then you become a mother yourself and feel guilty toward your children, then you grow old and die.

So widespread is the feeling of guilt toward the mother who gave us the gift of life (even though we did not ask her to give birth to us) in Jewish culture that it might actually be a natural phenomenon, whereas the feeling of guilt toward the children is a necessary byproduct of feminism and of our decision not to use them as an excuse for inaction. In contrast to our mothers, we avoid the sweeping use of the term "for the children's sake," and even openly confess that we need something more in life than our offspring's happiness.

The feeling of guilt becomes a serious burden when we add insult to injury and instead of staying married, like our mothers, who survived bad marriages "for the children's sake," dare to break up the family and a far better marriage based on the hope of possible happiness and in the knowledge that we are thus placing our interest before that of our children's.

But feeling guilty is not the whole story. It's a lot harder to feel accused. Which is why I have been down in the dumps for the past week. It started the moment I finished reading "Al odot Yonatan," a clearly autobiographical novel by a young writer named Itay Ben Eliezer, who describes, in the first person, his childhood as the son of divorced parents. I found the book shattering precisely because it is so restrained and because it contains not an iota of guilt. The parents, and even the stepfather, who are described in the book are good people who maintain perfectly reasonable relations and have the boy's interest at heart. Their divorce was conducted in the most civilized way one could hope for, and in a face-to-face conversation, Ben Eliezer confirmed that he definitely had a good, happy childhood.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking that this book contains all the notes that, contrary to my advice, my children did not write to the psychologist.

1. Since writing here about the photographer on the kibbutz where I grew up - who wanted to take my picture with my back erect when I was 12, but got only a crooked smile - I have learned more about him. Karni Am-Ad, from Kibbutz Matzuva, told me the following: Once a fire broke out on that kibbutz and all the members rushed to put it out. Only the photographer stood aside, and with the camera that was always slung over his shoulder, tried to capture the flames in his lens. Asked why he wasn't helping, like everyone else, he replied: I am photographing history. I told Karni: I think that's a kibbutz legend, a folktale. To which he replied: Yes, but it says something about the man.

2. The photographer put the following proposition to the kibbutz: In the mornings he would take pictures and at night he would clean the public toilets. There are kibbutz members who remember him wandering the paths in the hours between night and dawn, wearing black boots and carrying a brush. After that, Karni told me, he would go about his photography work, which he pursued indiscriminately. Leaves, trees, passport photos, every large and small event, landscapes, fields - whatever. Hundreds and thousands of photographs. And photos of girls, I asked. Yes, photos of young girls, he replied.

3. In 1993, as was noted here, the photographer died at the age of 83 when he decided to walk the six kilometers back to the kibbutz in the dark from the regional council building, where he had watched a movie. Karni related that the photographer turned down an offer from a young couple to have a cup of coffee with them and get a ride back in their car. When he collapsed next to the gate of the kibbutz, the night watchman rushed out of his booth and leaned over him. These were his last words: "They forgot me."

4. When I was a girl, I thought that the photographer and his wife, who dragged her legs along the kibbutz paths, like his shadow, had no children. In fact, they had three daughters, Karni Am-Ad told me. They all left the kibbutz. One of them is no longer alive. When he contacted them with a request to talk about their father, they refused vehemently. During the period when they decided not to remain on kibbutz, people who left received only a modest grant. The mother, who stayed in touch with the daughters, tried to help them get along. With their father they did not speak a word. What were their relations with their father before the separation? Those who know will not talk about it.

5. Beneath the house of the photographer on the kibbutz, between the earth on which it was built and the cement floor, a space was formed that served as a storeroom and a hiding place. A member of the kibbutz who gained the trust of the photographer because he wanted him to exhibit his photos persuaded him to show him what was hidden there. Ten-thousand photographs and negatives, some of them completely ruined, lay beneath the house.

Also lying there were photographs of naked young girls.

One of the remarks a religiously observant person hears most in his life is "Let me tell you what bugs me most about religion ..." Usually the speaker begins by praising Judaism and its ways: "Listen, Judaism has really beautiful things to offer. The shiva [week-long mourning period], for example, is utterly enthralling." Then comes the bit that irritates them. For example, this unnecessary prohibition on traveling on Shabbat. Why? Who needs it? Or all this gobbledygook about "fruits of the sea." A complete nonstarter.

I have a great many responses, believe me, but sometimes I too get the urge to say what bugs me most about religion. It happens almost every day. You are standing and reciting a prayer that is important to you, that speaks to you and which you had planned to recite with total intentionality - and suddenly it's over. You felt nothing. That is, you were definitely concentrating, but on completely different things: the kids, the bank account, why there is still no replacement for the Channel 2 news anchor.

A brief explanation is in order for those readers who by chance do not pray. In contrast to the Sukkot lulav (palm branch), the Shabbat candles or the tefillin (phylacteries), prayer itself is a non-physical commandment. It is difficult and challenging spiritual work. For the greatest rabbis and for righteous people, those for whom prayer is a way of life, it may be easy, but for a rank-and-file Jew, it is very hard to recharge the prayer with new meaning each time. But that is exactly what the person is required to do. Someone once wrote that good prayer should be like a train journey: the landscape doesn't change, yet at every moment you see it from a different vantage point. So it is in prayer: The text is the same text, but a person journeys all his life, he does not stand in one place, and on each occasion he is meant to experience the prayer from the inner point he has reached.

That's the theory; now for the reality. I come to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, recite "Nishmat kol hai" ("The breath of every living being") - one of the most meaningful prayers - but feel nothing. And then, on Monday evening, while on the treadmill at home, clad in shorts and an undershirt, at the third kilometer, I hear via the iPod the song "Nishmat kol hai" - the same words - sung by Shlomo Carlebach, and am suddenly seized by tremendous excitement and potent intentionality: "The breath of every living being shall bless thy name, O Lord our God, and the spirit of all flesh shall ever glorify and extol thee, O our King. From everlasting to everlasting thou art God. But for thee we have no King, Deliverer and Savior to rescue, redeem and give sustenance and to show mercy in all times of trouble and distress; yea, we have no Sovereign but thee" [translation from "Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book," Rabbinical Assembly of America and United Synagogue of America, 1984].

And the Jew goes nuts. Why? Because on Shabbat, when this prayer is part of the service, I wanted it so much, I absolutely craved it, but it just didn't happen. And now, of all times, on a treadmill in shorts - suddenly it comes? That, people, is the most annoying thing about religion.

According to a sample poll I conducted, I am not alone. Other observant Jews also find it easier to connect with God while cooking, driving, shopping, even while doing the dishes, with Jewish music in the background. For just that reason I recently decided to change my approach: When the Shabbat morning prayer arrives as you're running on the treadmill Monday evening, just to flow with it. If not on Shabbat, let it at least be on Monday. Athletic prayer is fine, too.

And then, after the song ends, after the thrill of the words "Therefore, the limbs which thou has fashioned for us, and the soul which thou hast breathed into us, and the tongue which thou hast set in our mouth, lo, they shall thank, bless, exalt and revere thee. They shall proclaim thy sovereignty, O our King" - I wipe off the sweat with a towel, tuck the undershirt into the shorts, for dignity's sake, and say in my heart, "May it be thy will that this treadmill be as important to thee as though it were my seat in the synagogue, and this iPod as though it were a prayer book, and this towel that is wrapped around my neck as though it were a tallit, and may the thrill I felt in this song be as important to thee as though it were a prayer at its time and its place."

And then I go on running.

"Surprise!" Anat from the front penthouse nearly had an anxiety attack when she opened the door to her home and found everyone she had escaped from during the day standing there. As always on her birthday, this time, too, she'd decided to turn off her cell phone and lose four kilos by evening.

The day began at 5:30 in the morning, when she went out for a run on the beach, from the Dolphinarium to Metzitzim Beach, climbed up the Reading power station's smokestacks, vomited from dizziness due to a fear of heights, and returned home. This activity would wipe out about a kilo, a statistic that disappointed her a little, but she still had the whole day ahead of her so her mood was okay. At 7:30 she took the kids to school - carrying them, plus their backpacks, on her back, which should have been good for another half a kilo; at 8:30 she drank a liquid-adsorbing parsley shake that pleased her by taking off another 200 grams.

She went to her "Power Bikram Yoga" class - a strenuous lesson that takes place in a sauna to promote extreme perspiration - by bike, with Mrs. Esther Bendel, the Holocaust survivor from the first-floor front, who was late for her appointment at the doctor and was in urgent need of a lift, riding on the back. Anat let her off at Balfour, climbed up to Rothschild and then went down Hashmonaim to Ha'arba'a Street, arriving just on time to hook up to the infusion and oxygen mask that would protect her from the sourish smell of sweat coming from her fellow practitioners of Bikram yoga.

Isolated from the surrounding stink, and spritzing herself with a refreshing Evian water spray, Anat felt a wave of supreme pleasure for every gram that dropped off of her, be it via calories or fluid. She would have managed to shed another whole kilo during this hour if the stench hadn't intensified so much that it penetrated her sealed mask. Anat sprayed some non-environmentally friendly air-freshener on her sweating neighbors and was thrown out of the lesson before it was over. To her horror, the scale indicated just another 800 grams lost.

Still a kilo and a half away from the gift she'd promised herself for her 39th birthday - which had already been celebrated countless times at this point - she returned to Yad Sarah the oxygen tank she had borrowed "for my sick grandma" and set out on a hike toward Jerusalem. "I'm Vicki Knafo, I'm Vicki Knafo," she repeated, urging herself on, as she marched up the Ayalon Highway and then merged onto Highway 1, convinced that her struggle with excess weight was just as important as the struggle of single mothers for their rights.

Around Ramle-Lod she was joined by other women who thought a new protest movement was forming, but she shouted at them that she was not in the Sephardi Rainbow Coalition and said they should leave her alone. She explained to them the true purpose of her arduous march and they helpfully directed her to the nearest druggies' den, assuring her that "coke really kills the appetite, you'll be amazed to see." Anat is a girl who has her head screwed on straight. At that very moment she decided to give up on the exhausting ascent to Jerusalem, bought a few grams and took a cab back home.

With only about a half a kilo standing between her and the completion of her mission, she opened the door to her house planning to take a quick shower and go out for a "fat-brewing ritual" - a new Indian therapy at the alternative clinic that just opened in Neveh Tzedek.

"Surprise!!" She heard the collective scream, and at that moment it sounded like the bloodcurdling laugh of a demonic talking scale that had just discovered that its owner had gained half a kilo.

"You're not mad at me, are you?" Yossi asked, pressing a glass of champagne into her hand.

"Of course not," she said. "I just need to go to the bathroom for a second."

On a cloud of cocaine and champagne Anat embarked on a round of air-kisses. Ido and Razit from the third-floor rear had brought as a gift a DVD tape that the Mizrahi video artist had put together from the films of Hana Azoulay-Hasfari. Rivka Melamed, the anthroposophic psychologist from the second-floor front, was totally drunk and kissed her peddler-boyfriend whenever Amnon, the husband from whom she was separated, and the supermodel, passed by her line of vision. And Assaf from the third-floor rear made Anat a gift of a "gray water" recycling kit, composed of used shower, sink and laundry water that could be used to clean toilets and water plants.

"You didn't get me a present?" Anat pressed close to her husband up on the roof, unable to take her hands off him. "Well, actually, I was thinking...," he mustered his courage, "that you and I ... and the supermodel ... I talked to her already and she's totally cool about it."

Yossi didn't think it would be this easy. Soon afterward, in the supermodel's bed, on a diet of coke and on condition that there be total darkness so no one could see her body, Anat went wild like a rodeo rider, trying to drop that last half a kilo. The supermodel couldn't keep up with the pace. She barely managed to turn on the infrared camera, to show her psychoanalyst to make him jealous.

"Four kilos! I did it!!" Anat screamed when she came, as Yossi wept for joy. "This is the most beautiful birthday I've ever had," he said through his tears, and kissed the supermodel.