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VICTOR WISHNA » Blog Archive » Letter From New York: Analyze This

Letter From New York: Analyze This

In China, this may be the Year of the Dog, but in New York, apparently, 2006 is “the year of Sigmund Freud.” So has it been declared by a number of local and global organizations, from the International Neuro-Psychoanalysis Centre to the Jewish Museum.

The father of psychoanalysis (and all its related cottage industries) would have turned 150 years old on May 6. Freud only set foot in New York once, briefly, on his way to a Boston speaking engagement in 1909. But perhaps in no other American city is the idea of psychoanalysis more deeply engrained in the…well, psyche than in New York.

This may be the city that never sleeps, but there are a lot of people lying around on couches. It’s safe to say that any New Yorker not in therapy knows one who is. The American Psychoanalytic Association - based, of course, in New York - discloses that nearly a quarter of its 3,500 members live and operate in the metropolitan area. “New York remains indisputably the cultural home of psychoanalysis,” Dr. Leon Hoffman, a former spokesman for the association, told the New York Times last week. He traces the profession’s grip on the city, in part, to the arrival of therapists who, like Freud, fled Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s and settled on grand boulevards like Central Park West - where many of their successors still remain.

So it wasn’t completely shocking when Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared May 6 to be “Sigmund Freud Day” here, with a proclamation that read, in part, “Anyone familiar with the work of Woody Allen could tell you that New York City has long been a leading center of psychoanalysis.”

How do you fit millions of people onto one tiny island? You shrink them. A “New York minute” is less than 60 seconds elsewhere; a therapist’s hour is really only 50 minutes. Coincidence? It also seems every issue of The New Yorker includes at least one cartoon about the topic - enough to fill a museum, or at least one funny exhibition. On the Couch: Cartoons from The New Yorker, another celebration of Freud’s big year now at the Museum of the City of New York, includes more than 75, dating back to the first one on the topic in 1927, and also features a display on Freud’s own analysis of humor based largely on Jewish jokes. Elsewhere, the New York Academy of Medicine is putting his drawings on display, while the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Jewish Museum are offering a weekly “Freud on Film” series.

Anyone familiar with the work of Woody Allen probably also knows that psychoanalysis has long been entrenched in Jewish identity (and vice-versa) - in Jewish stereotypes, cultural references, but above all, tradition. Thousands of years before Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, Joseph was out in Egypt doing it for real: When are seven fat cows more than simply seven fat cows?

For non-literalists of all denominations, the Jewish bible offers an abundance of examples of early self-analysis. When Moses appears before the burning bush and declares, “I’m not worthy,” was God really in the fire, or was Moses meditating on his own ability to lead? Was Jacob wrestling with an angel or an inner demon? These are not my questions - rabbis and others have been asking them for ages.

“Rabbinic thinking and psychoanalytic theory share some ways of conceptualizing our world,” says Rabbi Leon Morris, director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side. “Both rabbinic literature and psychoanalysis reveals that everything is connected beneath the surface - both assume that hidden meanings emerge from the process of interpretation. The interpreter or the analyst reveals these connections and applies them to the continuous ongoing life of the present.”

Four times in the last five years, Rabbi Morris has taught a class called “Psychoanalysis and Rabbinic Literature,” and next fall, the Skirball Center will offer a Beit Midrash experience specifically for psychotherapists - a weekly, facilitated discussion of biblical and rabbinic texts. “The ancient rabbis developed methods of interpretation that bear many similarities to the way in which Freud and his disciples understood dreams, language, and symbolism,” Morris says.  ”It may be that Freud gave modern people a new way of appreciating the rabbinic interpretive mind. In that way, the charge of Freud’s critics was correct - psychoanalysis is a Jewish science.”

Or, perhaps, it is “the Jewish art,” says film director Oren Rudavsky. At the just-concluded Tribeca Film Festival, the award for Best Made in New York Narrative Feature went to his film, The Treatment, which traces the adventures in therapy of a young New Yorker and his Freudian doctor. “I was drawn to the subject matter (based on a novel of the same name by Daniel Menaker) because of personal experience, and there is a Jewish link,” says Rudavsky, who has directed documentaries on subjects like Hasidim and the Holocaust. “The whole idea of psychoanalysis - you know, the traditional way of lying on a couch with the analyst sitting silently behind you - is about talking to someone who’s not there. That takes faith. You’re searching for something and you don’t really know what it is.”

Birthdays come and go - apparently even for someone who died in 1939 - but legacies perpetuate themselves, especially when so closely tied to traditions thousands of years old.

“I’m sure it’s in other traditions, too,” Rudavsky says. “But for me it comes from all these great biblical characters that you aspire to be like - you’re aspiring to make yourself a better human being.”

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