I was eyeing this book up in the Feldheim bookstore in Geula for a few weeks, before taking the plunge to buy it. Depression and anxiety are topics that are very close to my heart, and I have some strong views on what’s causing these issues, and what can help cure them.
On the one hand, a book dealing with this topic from an orthodox Jewish perspective sounded right up my street – but only if it was really going to be a spiritual treatment of the subject, and not just a ‘take these pills, the Rabbi says its OK’ pseudo-frum cop-out. (You see, I told you I have strong views on the subject…)
The long and short of it is that I bought the book, and the first story seemed to underline that I’d made a mistake: the book seemed to be pushing drugs as the way to go. My heart sank. But I kept reading and boy, am I glad I did.
What I hadn’t realized is that the book is actually an anthology of different people’s experiences of and beliefs about, anxiety and depression. The book’s editor, Tehilla Edelman, has skillfully woven together a tapestry of different voices, stories and outlooks to create a thought-provoking, inspiring and broad-based spiritual reflection of an authentic Jewish response to anxiety and depression.
Yes, some of the participants are very ‘pro’ drugs, (and a couple of the professional contributions on the subject made me want to gag), but other people were just telling their stories of how drugs had genuinely helped them get out of the spiritual pit they were in. For someone with an opposing view, it gave me a very healthy and valuable insight into why people opt for medications, and why in some instances it may actually be the correct approach.
No 'one size fits all' approach
But part of the book’s great beauty is that it isn’t partisan about approaches to depression and anxiety. Together with the standard 'take anti-depressants' approach, there was also a wealth of essays by individuals and professionals describing radically alternative approaches to mental health, too.
Writers described the energy psychology approach; the ‘Innate Health’ approach; the CBT approach; the talk to God approach, the ‘completely fall apart on the inside and let God pick up the pieces approach’ to dealing with anxiety and depression. So many people shared how their struggles with anxiety and depression had forced them to dig deep, and work much harder on their connection to God.
Some contributed a poem to the anthology; others an interview, still others a searingly-honest account of what was going on internally as the depression took hold, while the outside was still busy wearing it’s smiley face and pretending everything was fine.
Probably my favourite piece was the one entitled ‘Soulful Mania’ by Chana, where the writer described a nervous breakdown she’d had as a young, secular adult in university, and how that ultimately prompted her to search for a much more meaningful, God-aware reality.
She writes: “What I’ve come to learn is that the states of altered consciousness that I experienced were not at all mental or delusional. Somehow, through my sleep deprivation, I had broken through the mechitzah (some call it ‘filter’) that usually seperates our seemingly mundane, this-worldly existence from a higher realm of conscious awareness where all is really unified and interconnected.
“I’ve learned through using hisbodedus how to return to and ‘touch’ those previous states of heightened awareness and what I’ve come to call God-consciousness, but in a balanced, healthy and… resourceful way.”
Chana’s words spoke to me in such a profound way, and one of the biggest presents of reading the anthology is that I came to appreciate just how many amazing, wonderful Jews over the past few years have been struggling with profound spiritual matters, and having to deal with a secular approach to their mental health that views matters of the soul as a symptom of psychopathology.
'Delusional' for believing in Moshiach
In case you think I’m exaggerating, one dear friend of mine was given a formal diagnosis of delusional disorder for admitting that she often thought about Moshiach coming. And yes, the psychiatrist who made the ‘diagnosis’ professed to be an orthodox Jew. My friend is extremely spiritual, and has been struggling for years to deal with the fallout of being a very sensitive, spiritual soul in a harsh, materialistic world.
As Jews, I think we probably experience that dichotomy more profoundly and more painfully than any other people in the world, and I welcomed the essays that pointed out that so many of humanity’s ‘mental issues’ are actually rooted in the soul’s spiritual struggles to come to terms with the world, and its place in it.
A book about achdus
I highly recommend this book on just about every level.
The personal stories and poems were often inspired prose, but the opportunity to read real people’s accounts of their real struggles with depression and anxiety – without the simplistic explanations or overdone religious moralizing that all-too-frequently accompany these types of stories in other formats – was a tremendous experience.
As someone who’s interested in mental and health issues professionally, I also found the varied input from others in the field to be very eye-opening and useful. I had no idea there were so many religious Jews trying to find different approaches to finding solutions to the problems of depression and anxiety that involved God.
When I finished reading, I realized that even the contributions that I’d found tainted by the medical establishment’s arrogance and over-reliance on drugs had been a very necessary part of the mix, just as the foul-smelling galbanum was needed to complete the ketoret, or incense that was burned in the Temple.
This book is many things: compendium of experiences; repository of practical advice; but perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a book of achdus and unity. It brings together some wildly different, and at times even contradictory, ideas about the correct, authentic Jewish approach to anxiety and depression into one superbly-written volume – and that more than anything is its greatest strength and contribution.
I’m discovering more and more cool things about the Jewish book scene online. Recently, I stumbled across the Jewish Book Carnival, which encourages different Jewish authors to post up reviews of Jewish books on their blogs.
Each month, a different blog hosts the Carnival (I signed up Emunaroma to host it in March, ceteris parabis).
This month, it’s being hosted over on the Fig Tree Publishing blog, and you can read this month’s different reviews for yourself HERE.
Another exciting website I just found is called frumjewishbooks.com, which reviews all sorts of different literature, fiction and non-fiction, that’s appropriate for the frum Jewish reader. You can take a look at the site for yourself HERE.
And if you know about any other suitable online forums for Jewish books and Jewish authors, then please drop me a line and let know.
UPDATE: Free Kindle promotion for 'Becoming Yaelle', by Dassie Dahan is currently live, which means you can get the book free from now until Oct 16, and then again on Oct 18. You can download it at the following link:
The Unfinished Diary is an unusual holocaust-era book, as it was written in hiding by the author, Chaim Wolgelernter, who was sadly killed a few short months before the war’s end. The diary was smuggled out of Poland and kept safe by Chaim’s younger brother, David. He passed it on to Chaim’s only surviving child, Feivel, on Feivel’s wedding day, and it took another 30 years’ or so before the Wolgelernter family was ready to get to grips with the diary, and start the process of getting it published.
Before the war, Chaim Wolgelernter was a Chassidic Jew, wealthy textile merchant and budding writing. He lived in the uber-Jewish Polish town of Dzialoszyce, where 80% of the residents were Jews. When the Nazi war machine arrived in town, Chaim’s family was instantly decimated: he lost his oldest child, a girl aged 3, and his sister-in-law in the first round-up and deportation.
Unable to ‘pass’ as a non-Jew, Chaim’s only hope of surviving the war was to stay in hiding. Together with many of his extended family, Chaim fled from one temporary refuge to another, as the avenues of escape continued to narrow and disappear as the Nazis made helping Jews an offence punishable by death.
The book is a chronicle of Chaim’s efforts to keep himself and his remaining family members alive (he was ultimately survived by his wife and son, who successfully went into hiding as non-Jews for the duration of the war), and to keep his faith intact in the face of the unthinkable.
Given the circumstances it was written in, the lucidity of the diary is stunning; it shows that even the grimmest of physical circumstances failed to extinguish Chaim’s inner strength and moral clarity, even as the noose started to tighten around the collective Jewish neck in Poland. If you can call a first-hand eye witness account of the decimation of Polish Jewry a ‘riveting read’ without somehow detracting from it, then I guess that epitaph applies to this book.
I’ve read a lot of holocaust stuff, and what made the biggest impact on me as I read this book was the author’s own deepening understanding that the Jewish reliance on their non-Jews neighbours’ ‘humanity’, and their own financial assets, to save them only hastened their destruction.
Questions without answers
On innumerable occasions throughout the Diary, Chaim records many instances of apparently dependable, honest, compassionate non-Jews who solemnly promised to keep Jews hidden, or to provide them with some other form of help in return for their valuables, only to renege on all their promises as soon as they had the cash or merchandise in hand. Often, the first people to inform on the Jews were the very people they’d handed their valuables over too.
In one particular poignant entry, Chaim laments that the Jews allowed their hope to blind them to the true character of their Polish neighbours, and their own terrible situation. Maybe, it would have been better for the Jews to have destroyed their own property and goods, instead of enabling it to fall into the hands of the enemy?
70 years’ later, who is really in a position to ask those questions? 70 years’ earlier, no-one was in a position to really answer them.
Difficult questions abound in the diary, like: if the Jews in hiding were ultimately going to be killed anyway, once their money ran out, wouldn’t it be best to just give themselves up in the first place, and spare themselves the additional suffering? Or, how could a man who walked miles to dunk in a mikva every day die without Jewish burial and the spiritual purification process known as tahara?
And this, posed by Chaim’s brother David, guardian of the diary: If you had a small vial of poison in your pocket and you’d just lost all your family and were still on the run and in mortal danger from the enemy, what was stopping you from swallowing the poison and joining them?
Ultimately, what stopped David from killing himself was a dream where his recently martyred father appeared to him, fortified him, and gave him the will to continue to live.
A chronicle of survival, faith and rebirth
Like many holocaust books, The Unfinished Diary is not easy reading. What sets it apart though, is that it’s very publication – by the martyred author’s surviving relatives – tells a poignant tale of Jewish survival, faith and rebirth. For me, the very fact that Chaim Wolgelernter’s writings and hopes came to fruition, albeit 70 years’ after his own death, softened the harshness and suffering of the story.
The diary itself ends with a tragedy: the murder of the author and 7 of his other family members, probably by the Polish peasant who they’d been paying to hide them. But the book ends on a note of redemption, with the reinternment of the victims’ remains in Jerusalem, by his son and grandchildren.
Again, if you can have a book written about death and destruction in World War II that somehow uplifts you and enlightens you, then this is it. The supernatural terribleness of death camps like Auschwitz sometimes blinds us to the fact that Jewish suffering and death came in many other shapes and sizes during the Holocaust.
Just as faith could be broken instantaneously by the gas chambers, it could also be gradually worn away over many months of years of hiding in caves, cellars and pig-stys. But The Unfinished Diary proves that faith could also be tempered and burnished, even in the most difficult circumstances, by Jews who continued to cling on to God while experiencing the worst imaginable ‘mundane’ suffering.
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