A man came to my psychotherapy office with his adult son. They were in business together but were having trouble. The father had done a lot for his son—raised him, sent him to good schools, invited him into a successful business—and yet the son was not at all grateful. In fact, the son seemed to undermine the father in a stealthy and passive way: He had made a series of damaging decisions that resulted in losses for the business.
There was, in their manner, a closeness between them. Yet the son’s acerbic and aggressive comments came out like small pipe bombs: “The business is only worth money,” he said. “It has no value to anyone besides you.”
I asked them who was paying for this session. The father raised his hand: “It’s on me.” The son looked conflicted. “It’s nice of my dad to want to pay,” he said, “but I feel he’s doing this for himself, not for me.”
The father was flabbergasted. “I would take a bullet for my family—especially for my boy,” he said. “That’s how much I want him to have!” He reminded me of those Jewish men of Phillip Roth’s Newark—insurance salesmen, shopkeepers, and the like. They are magnificent providers, while simultaneously they manage to annihilate themselves and everyone else. He went into a long wail about how he saw it as his job to give to his children. Finally, he turned to his son and said, “You are the center of my life.”
“Center of my life!” The son recoiled. “You are at the center of your life,” he told his father.
If genius is, as Jean Paul Sartre once said, the ability to invent new language to get out of a predicament, then this son had it. He not only knew he was right, he cleverly turned his father’s words around to get the point home.
Even though I am supposed to be neutral in these sessions, I couldn’t help but feel that the young man was brilliantly on to his father’s game. After all, I’d played the same game with my own father.
I remember being at the center of my father’s life when I was young. It’s not that my father told me this in explicit terms, but his eyes were always on me, and his ears were listening to me. “How’s my big son?” he would ask as soon as he came home—and he would actually wait for my response. Somebody thought my existence and my words were important. It’s probably how I got the chutzpah as an adult to write about my life: I grew up to think I might have something to say and that people might want to hear it.
I reciprocated, too, as a child—I listened to his words, maybe even to a fault. I had always thought this was “normal.” It was only many years later that I began to appreciate the particular intensity of my father’s relationship to me and why this might be so. Unknown to me at the time, I was feeling the heat of this intensity from an earlier generation: My father, an only child to his mother, had been at the center of his mother’s life.
One of the earliest memories I have was walking with my father to shul. I don’t think I was more than 3 years old, and the walk was just under a mile, which is a long walk for a very little person. My father would talk to me about God, the Torah, his life. I would hold his hand as we would negotiate the traffic and the weather, and I would listen. I remember almost everything he said to me.
This ritual would continue as I grew, him talking and me listening, and later me talking and him listening. His world was mine and mine was his. I took everything he said with deadly seriousness—his philosophy and his God and the study of his God. In one of our early walks, my father explained to me that in the Air Force (he was a veteran) the senior officer is on the right with the junior officer on the left (he quoted Maimonides, too, who said something similar), with synchronized steps a half-pace behind. Even though this was meant not as a directive, it was an ideal in my father’s mind, and I put great effort into getting this right. It wasn’t easy to synchronize my steps with his, and of course I could scarcely know that later in life, getting out of step with him (as every son must eventually) would be much, much harder and just as important.
In fact, to disappoint my father was unbearably painful even as it was inevitable. It was hard for him (and me) to see that despite everything, I was determined to be a little boy, not just a smaller version of him. By the time I was in middle school, I had an endless appetite for satire, gags, girls, lampooning, impressions, television and movie-watching, and a fascination with cars and war movies and baseball. My father “respected” these activities in his rabbinic way, but to my mind, he could not conceal his deep belief that these things were “unnecessary” and had to be tolerated.
Even though I was just “a kid,” feeling myself to be at the center of my father’s life may have primed or predisposed me to a certain religious way of thinking: that we humans were at the center of God’s universe. That God created the world for us and we were to give Him something in return: regard, worship, reverence, gratitude. What’s more is that we Jews among humans had been chosen for some extra purpose:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people … (Exodus 19:5) For you are a holy people to the Lord and the Lord has chosen you to be His people for his own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
One time toward the end of the school year, my father came home to find my friends and me engaged in a fierce water balloon fight. Seeing our frenzied mirth, his face twisted with rage. I don’t think I ever saw him this angry—it was as if Moses had come back from communion with God to find the Israelites cavorting with whores. He shut off the water and tossed away the hose and sprinkler as if they were the tablets, invited my friends to leave, and stormed into the house. Although it seemed like an overreaction by my father, I accepted his rage as “normal.” After all, I had been “chosen” by my father as the children of Israel had been chosen, and presumably I had been chosen for better than this hollelus, this orgiastic anarchy in the form of a water balloon fight.
I was therefore deeply intrigued when I started college and I came to study Freud, who proposed or suggested a world completely the opposite of mine. The great thinker asked us to consider a world where we are special to nobody. That specialness of feeling that we were at the center was a resistance to truth—the truth of our very ordinary existence. We could survive our illnesses and our appetites, Freud suggested, by speaking our truths without delusions. The beauty of psychoanalysis, I came to understand, is that we ask patients to sit down in our office and say everything that comes to mind, to speak as if they are not beholden to anyone. Not to God, not to their spouses, nor to their parents. Only then can we get to the root of what is in a person’s heart.
After I discovered psychoanalysis, I started to look at scripture with a different eye: Are we really at the center of God’s universe? Is God at the center of ours? Did God choose the Jewish people or any people? What does it mean to be the apple of His eye?
It is, after all, a human activity to place people at the center of our lives—a strategy, perhaps, to pressure the other person or the larger world to give us what we want: Instead of getting to know your frightening insides (and mine), I’m going to place you at the hub and my eyes will be upon you.
Could that have been God’s way of getting us to do what we don’t want, by flattering us, making us special by placing us at the nucleus of His gaze? Or was it as Freud suggested: Was it we humans who were the sneaky ones, by imagining God and humanity at the center and flattering ourselves?
If this was an apostasy at all, it was for me a village apostasy, contained within the shtetl of my mind. The oceans of sentiment that I had toward my father, his God, and by now my God, were so deep in me that the usual remedies for maladies of faith and love—abandonment, denial, desertion—were all but impossible.
So, far from throwing me into heresy, in Freud I found not a new religion, but an illumination of the old one: a religion of words—a belief in the power of words to change things, to reach each other. Yes, we had a deal with God, but it was a covenant with words, with a God who spoke and could be spoken to. We could complain to Him or about Him but our words would reach Him in the human language. And in turn, we would feel with Him a strange intimacy even as He is unknowable.
But Freud did change my thinking in one respect: After reading him, I came to understand just how fraught, how filled with ambivalence, being chosen by my father really was. It had burdened my connections with the world with a false sense of insularity and specialness even as it had given me an unshakable sense of belonging. Perhaps this is what all father-son, parent-child relationships were about: a vacillation, a back-and-forth between a blind covenant and a relational one—one that that uses words to create, shape, and renew a bond with the world and with God.
I thought of this theological point as the father in my office kept shaking his head uncomprehendingly. “I have no words,” he said again and again as he moved away from his son. The father, too, had been an only child to his parents, with whom he had a covenant without words. But his son wanted more. Indeed, he had no words because he couldn’t believe that everything he based his life on, his devotion, his gallantry, was perceived by his son as a trick.
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