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Let There Be Light!

Let There Be Light!

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Published by Nerdf@ce
A middle aged psychiatrist is introduced to the world of hassidic mental health.
A middle aged psychiatrist is introduced to the world of hassidic mental health.

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Published by: Nerdf@ce on Jul 17, 2011
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01/07/2013

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David Feuer is a practising psychiatrist in New York. He is working on a book drawn from his professionalexperience, to be published by Riverhead in New York. He lives on Long Island.Originally published in Granta, #74,http://www.granta.com/Magazine/74/Let-There-Be-Light
 
Let There Be Light!
By David Feuer
Rabbi Sternglantz showed up one day at my work place, a state-run mental facilitycalled 'The Hill. He was looking for a psychiatrist. Not for himself but for 'Vayehi Or', which theRabbi translated as 'Let There Be Light!' and which he described as 'only the second mentalhealth clinic ever to serve the Hasidic population'.I distrusted him instantly. It was a combination of his limp handshake and his longwhite beard, which covered the Rabbi's entire face except for a patch of pallid skin roughly thesize and shape of safety goggles. I admit, I have always distrusted those big white beards. Theyconfer instant wisdom and spirituality upon their bearers and as such they often serve as arefuge for scoundrels. But my distrust of Rabbi Sternglantz's beard was even more intense because of the way his beard contradicted his words, which were a disconcerting mixture ofOld Testament parable and New Age psychobabble. The Rabbi used words like 'cultural,sensitivity' and 'empowerment' and 'underutilization', mental health buzzwords that soundedfalse coming out of that mystical white beard.The Rabbi assured me that Vayehi Or was a 'highly professional' operation staffed by'highly professional' professionals. It was reassuring to hear that it was not some amateurmental health clinic staffed by amateur professionals. Rabbi Sternglantz further assured me that by early spring Vayehi Or would be moving from its current temporary location on GrantAvenue to its new 'state-of-the-art' building on Henderson Street that had been designed by aprofessional architect who specialized in mental health buildings. Again, it was reassuring toknow that the future home of Vayehi Or had been designed by a professional rather than anamateur architect. But in case I didn't believe him, the Rabbi produced from the pocket of his black coat a brochure on high quality glossy paper. On the front was an artist's rendering of astately three-storey brick building sitting on a stately tree-lined street. Both the building and thestreet looked more likely to exist in Savannah, Georgia than in Brooklyn. The lush landscapingmade it look like Paradise.While God had commanded the Rabbi to create Vayehi Or; the New York State Office ofMental Health was now threatening to take away Vayehi Or's licence to operate unless itprovided at least eight hours of psychiatric consultation per week. The Rabbi needed aconsulting psychiatrist, any consulting psychiatrist, and fast.Probably, the Rabbi would have preferred to find a Hasidic psychiatrist, butunfortunately there was no such thing. There were no Hasidic doctors of any kind sinceHasidim were forbidden secular education. There were a couple of ultra-Orthodox psychiatristsin Manhattan, but they were both 'big doctors'. The Hasidim measured a doctor by the size ofhis fee, and these doctors were too big to work at Vayehi Or, so Rabbi Sternglantz was offeringme the position. My first impulse was to say no. Not only was the Rabbi smarmy, but the
 
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Hasidim, I was convinced, wanted nothing to do with me. This conviction dated back to mychildhood summers in the Catskills.'Ah see dem!' Jeffrey Bender and I used to yell when we saw Hasidim walking along theroad by White Lake, near their bungalow colony. They looked dark and scary, like vampire bats, except that we heard that unlike vampire bats the Hasidim were terrified of blood. Thatwas why the Hasidic women soaked in hot water for ten days every month to remove all the blood. That was why the Hasidic men would not even shake the women's hands, just in casethere was a speck of blood left.We learned this fact from Jeffrey Bender's older brother Howard from whom we learnedall the secrets of the Hasidim. Howard told us that the men never shaved or got haircuts andthat the women shaved their heads and then covered their bald heads with wigs. He told usthat the Hasidim never ever took their clothes off, not even to go swimming or to go to sleep. Byfar the most unbelievable thing that Howard told us about the Hasidim was that they fuckedthrough a hole in the sheet. 'They're not allowed to look at each other.'At the time, my image of sex-derived almost entirely from a pornographic comic bookthat Howard showed us-was vague enough for fucking through a hole in the sheet to makeperfect sense. It seemed safer and more polite to avoid eye contact if you were engaging insomething that nasty.The secrets of the Hasidim, as revealed to us by Jeffrey Bender's older brother Howard,made the Hasidim even more mysterious to us. It was clear that the Hasidim didn't wantanything to do with me and that made them the centre of my attention. What's wrong withthem? I asked myself. But what I was feeling was, What's wrong with me? Why do they look atme like I'm dirt?The more they ignored me, the more time I spent spying on them. I eavesdropped ontheir unintelligible conversations and I monitored the garbled announcements that came blaringover their loudspeaker. I noted what they bought at the Kosher Korner supermarket across theroad and I charted each offspring and which adult it belonged to. I even gave the mostinteresting of the Hasidim names: there was Smelly Man, Red Beard, Little Head, Pizza Face,names like that. Between Memorial and Labor Day I gathered reams of data, but I learned verylittle. I was convinced that the Hasidim's juiciest secrets lay hidden from me behind thetowering wooden wall that completely surrounded their bungalow colony. Jeffrey Bender and I spent long summer afternoons scheming our way around that wall.We tried to peek between the slats, but the spaces were too narrow. We tried to peer over thewall, me standing on Bender's shoulders, but it turned out we were too short. We hatched aplan to sneak through the front gate at night but it turned out we were too chicken. We plannedto drill a peephole through the wall until we realized that we didn't have a drill. We brieflyconsidered a tunnel, which I thought was too dangerous and Jeffrey thought was too muchwork.In the end, the wall surrounding the Hasidim proved impenetrable. And from that timeuntil now, I had learned little more about them beyond what Jeffrey Bender's older brotherHoward had told me.
 
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But now, here was this Hasidic Rabbi not only inviting me to peep through the woodenwall, but actually trying to convince me to peep. There was, the Rabbi promised, a great andpressing need for psychiatric services among the Hasidim; a twenty-year backlog of untreatedmental illnesses. Why, just recently, the Rabbi said, he had treated an elderly Hasidic hatmanufacturer by the name of Goldberg who had become convinced beyond reason that themitral valve implanted in heart years ago was not the plastic valve that the doctors hadpromised but a pig's valve. No amount of convincing by Goldberg's doctors or his family oreven the Rabbi could convince him otherwise. Not even a special blessing of the valve by RabbiSternglantz himself could placate this Mad Hatter who, after demanding repeatedly that thispig part be removed from his heart, attempted to remove it himself with a penknife and a bottleof hydrogen peroxide. The resulting laceration-described to emergency room doctors byGoldberg's family as a 'shaving accident'-required more than thirty stitches to close. And thisGoldberg, Rabbi Sternglantz bragged, was only the tip of the iceberg.I was ripe for seduction. The Hill was feeling flat to me. It was time for a change, apsychiatric side-trip to somewhere exotic, and what could be more exotic than Vayehi Or; LetThere Be Light!My boss at The Hill, Chief Merkin, was surprisingly willing to lend me out to the Rabbifor eight hours per week. In fact, he almost insisted that I take the position. The Rabbi's localityfell within The Hill's catchment area and therefore Vayehi Or would be considered an 'outreachprogramme' of The Hill. It was a good PR move, and a potential bonanza of patients. And it was just the kind of innovative programme that might finally put Chief Merkin on the map.'I have a good feeling about working with Doctor Feuer,' Rabbi Sternglantz told me. 'Ihave heard only good things about him.' Exactly what the Rabbi had heard and who he hadheard it from he didn't say and I couldn't imagine, but it was obvious that the Rabbi and I hadwidely different opinions about my qualifications to work with Hasidic Jews. It was best, Idecided, so there would be no future misunderstandings, that I lay my cards on the table rightnow.'I don't know anything about Hasidic Jews,' I confessed-and, except for that businessabout their fear of blood and the hole in the sheet, this was true. For the Rabbi, my ignorance ofthe Hasidim was not a problem. In fact, he told me, it would even be an advantage. 'They willfeel less judged by you,' he said.'I'm not a practising Jew,' I revealed to Rabbi Sternglantz, and to this unsurprising newsthe Rabbi simply shrugged. Perhaps, I thought, if I spelled out for him exactly what my non-practising entailed he would not be so sanguine about it. Perhaps I should tell the Rabbi how Ino longer went to shul, even on the High Holidays, and how I always enjoyed a nice piece ofcrisp bacon, even on Yom Kippur. Perhaps I should tell him how when I wrote out the name ofGod I wrote out the entire word, God, instead of G-d; that I had not laid tefillin since my barmitzvah and that during the sacrilegious Sixties I had used my tallith bag for my pot stash andhad used my tallith as a scarf. At last, I laid my trump card on the table. 'I don't believe in God,'I confessed to the Rabbi. He smiled. 'That,' he said, 'is between you and G-d.'

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