The Cairo-born French Jewish ethnopsychiatrist Tobie Nathan previously published a novel, “Who Killed Arlozoroff?” about the 1933 murder of left-wing Israeli political leader Haim Arlosoroff, as well as a book-length essay last year criticizing Sigmund Freud’s 1899 “Interpretation of Dreams.”
Now the ever-iconoclastic Nathan, born in 1948, has written his memoirs “Ethno-Novel,” to explain how he got that way. His narrative begins with the 1956 expulsion of Egypt’s Jews following the Suez Crisis by President Nasser, amid murderous anti-Semitic persecution. Before that, whenever his family celebrated Passover, Nathan was puzzled by the ceremony which thanked God for delivering the Jews safely from Egypt, since his family still lived there. After they moved to a humble northern Paris suburb, young Nathan found a country still “settling scores” over the Nazi Occupation where a different form of anti-Semitism reigned. In school, after Nathan announced that his family would be celebrating Passover by reading the Haggadah, he was mocked by a teacher and counseled by a school-friend, “Shut up! This is France. If you’re Jewish, you hide it.”
At about age 15 Nathan wrote a novel and submitted it to a local author, the Polish Jewish novelist and concentration camp survivor Anna Langfus (1920-1966). Winner of France’s Goncourt Prize for a 1962 Holocaust-themed novel which was translated as “The Lost Shore,” Langfus, whose heartrending novels deserve reprinting, encouraged Nathan, but died of a heart attack not long after. Nathan soon happened upon Freud’s writings, which he terms the perfect “reading for adolescents [since]… we were obsessed with sex, and Freud too!” Although he recalls studying Freud “with the same fervor that our ancestors studied the Talmud,” he was never tempted to become a strict Freudian, instead studying in college with George Devereux (born György Dobó to a Jewish family from the Banat region of Central Europe), a founding father of ethnopsychiatry.
One historian wrote: “If, metaphorically, Sigmund Freud was the father of psychoanalysis, Sándor Ferenczi was the mother.” If so, then every day is Mother’s Day for the analyst born Sándor Fränkel in northeastern Hungary to Polish Jewish parents in 1873 (the family name was later changed to sound more Hungarian). In January, Karnac Books published “Ferenczi and His World: Rekindling the Spirit of the Budapest School,” and in March, the DVD of David Cronenberg’s Freud-Jung film “A Dangerous Method” in which Ferenczi plays a key role, was released.
“Ferenczi and His World” underlines the irony that Ferenczi’s nurturingly maternal professional approach likely compensated for the absence of such qualities in his own mother Rosa Eibenschütz, whom he once described as “hard and energetic and of whom I am afraid…My mother had eleven living children – I was the eighth of them. Either I was too demanding, or my mother was all too rigorous, but my memories suggest that I surely received too little love and too much strictness from her.” In Hungary there was also too much anti-Semitism, and in 1918 Ferenczi wrote to Sigmund Freud about anti-Jewish riots: “It is a good thing that one has a Jewish and a psychoanalytic ego along with the Hungarian, which remains untouched by these events.” Ferenczi’s “Jewish ego” was strong, as he explained in a 1910 letter to a friend, noting that Judaism “permits total intellectual freedom and freedom of action. The Jews use this freedom to the full, and are more audacious, more unabashed, and more egotistic, primarily in the material, but also in the moral sphere.”
When Ferenczi died prematurely in 1933 of pernicious anemia, it was his moral side, as well as an unexpectedly poetic nature, that friends remembered. The Jewish editor Hugó Veigelsberg eulogized Ferenczi for single-mindedly “catching red-handed everyone he happened to be talking to… He was such a great scientist because he was, deep down, like his mentor Freud, the poetic type.” This led Ferenczi to focus on “little human details which only those experts on human beings, poets, tend to notice.” Author Sándor Márai concurred, in an essay published after Ferenczi’s death:
“[Ferenczi] knew more about human life than any of the soul searchers in Hungary before him. It’s my suspicion that he was a poet. Not that he wrote poems, mind you. But he knew what poets know: to feel out that something inexpressible in words, which is the real secret of a soul, a life.”
Listen to lecture tribute to Ferenczi on Austrian radio here.
Watch the trailer for Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” about Freud, Jung, and Ferenczi here.
In the English-speaking world, psychoanalyzing Yiddish, and the way it is spoken, is often done with a dollop of humor, as in “Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods” by Michael Wex, appreciatively reviewed by the Forward. French Jews, on the other hand tend to approach the subject comparatively soberly, as strict Freudians.
Max Kohn, a French psychoanalyst born in 1951, has authored key texts about Yiddishkeit and psychoanalysis, such as “Freud and Yiddish: The Pre-Analytical (1877 – 1897),” (“Freud et le yiddish: le préanalytique,” Economica Publishers, 2005). As an interviewer for SBS Radio Yiddish, Melbourne, he has chatted up a panoply of notables, including the Forward’s Itzik Gottesman.