The Arty Semite

Do Jews Win the Anxiety Sweepstakes?

By Micah Kelber

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Dan Smith

Dan Smith’s second book, “Monkey Mind,” is a warm and painful look into his life-long struggle with anxiety and paradox. The same dogged interrogation of his psyche which antagonizes and often undermines him is redirected here in service of understanding and healing. What results is a patient, emotional and often funny catalogue of how he became such a mess of insight. The Arty Semite caught Smith on a good day, as he was gearing up for the book’s July 3 release, and as he made his daughter lunch.

Micah Kelber: I called you from a blocked number. What were you thinking before you answered the phone?

Dan Smith: I get excited by blocked calls because it means something official is coming through. I get anxious when someone I know is calling and then I might have to talk to them longer than I want to and then I have to worry whether they hate me when I get off the phone.

Who is the least anxious person you know?

Woody Allen. I am not pulling your leg. After seeing the documentary that recently ran on PBS, I was struck by how staid and stable he actually is. He has an ability to compartmentalize. Although he is the best at portraying anxiety, he is not actually anxious. Also, anxiety paralyzes a person. He has been a stand up comedian, written books, made excellent films — the guy never stops working and that is because he is able to push away his concerns. Discipline is the antithesis of anxiety. His anxiousness is a pose. I certainly don’t have the ability to compartmentalize. I have one compartment and it is a mess in there.

Are Jews more anxious than other people?

Jews are not more anxious than other people, but they are far better at presenting elements of anxiety. The Jews have done a fabulous job at illustrating and dramatizing the problems of anxiety. That said, Jews are predisposed to have a good grasp of anxiety, because the experience of anxiety is so close to the style of the disputation argumentation, self argumentation, paradox, constantly hashing things over and looking at things from every angle, the way Jews do. Also, anxiety is something useful in keeping us protected from threats. Many years of experience of being threatened has led us to spend more time considering the predicament of exile and persecution, making us anxious, but also able to respond to the threats.

What threats do you feel personally?

Carcinogens, toxins in my food, the threat of failure, the threat of success, the threat of dying.

What brings you relief?

Cognitive Behaviour Theory (CBT), which helped me to form new habits of thinking, habits that don’t lead me down the path catastrophizing, perfectionalism, or the melodramatization of petty concerns. Also, Zen meditation, which asks you to be vigilant and aware of your thoughts, to be mindful of what is in your head, instead of letting your impulses rise up. The difference between the two is that opposed to in CBT where you are asked to take the thought and question it, scrutinize it, and apply logic to it, in mediation you take the thought and let it go.

If one instructs you to let go and the other instructs you to interrogate, aren’t you creating a paradox within yourself, which causes anxiety?

Yes, I have often worried about my attraction to these two disciplines that are at war with one another and that by using both of them I am causing myself anxiety. I comfort myself with the thought that the common thread between the two of them is the practice of mindfulness — the most important ingredient in mitigating anxiety. Anxiety happens so quickly, automatically. You feel a sensation in your body that happens because you have spoken to yourself — you have made yourself that. There is a causative act, and being aware of that is the most important thing. Whether you learn to diffuse those anxiety-provoking thoughts by learning how to let go of them or by applying logic may not be as important as being aware. I think that’s an important point and I haven’t exactly squared the circle yet.

Another paradox?

What are you trying to do to me? A figure of speech!

What is your definition of anxiety?

A state of nervous readiness. Normal anxiety is a state of readiness because a threat is real or imminent. Useless pernicious anxiety is a state of readiness where the threat is vague, non-existent, or completely out of your control.

Are there things that bring everyone anxiety?

Death is probably the one patent universal anxiety — but to be anxious about death is useless. And most people experience anxiety about how they are perceived socially, except for maybe Bob Dylan and Queen Elizabeth.

What kinds of anxiety are you most drawn to?

The aggressive, combatative ones — the ones that aren’t ameliorative. The Philip Roth kind that rails against the condition it is in. It is a muscular form of anxiety. The one that says, “I am confused and I am pissed about it and I am angry at you for making me anxious.” I want to be a good boy from my ethnic background and I want to be a mensch and still I want to be free.

Since the Germans seem to have a word for everything, is there a German word for the anxiety one feels when meeting a German?


Your book is very funny, but also painful. Does seeing people enjoy your book bring you anxiety?

Anxiety is the only funny mental disorder. It’s absurd — it can destroy lives and relationships but it destroys them with utter logical absurdities. It’s like a monster in a bad B-movie. It seems terrifying but the fangs and the fur are all fake, they are all paper maché.

What will you do for your daughter if she suffers from anxiety?

I will tell her it takes daily effort and there is nothing that I as a parent or anyone can do for her. There is nothing truly productive that someone else can do for someone who has anxiety. A person can give guidance and empathy but the solution is individual. This can be a painful thing for a parent who wants nothing more than to ease a child’s suffering.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Monkey Mind, Micah Kelber, Interviews, Dan Smith, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.