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Conversation with Esther Perel

Psychologist asks, ‘What is it about the Jewish Family?’

By Cindy Mindell

Esther Perel

Esther Perel

Psychologist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Fluent in nine languages, the Belgian native is a celebrated speaker sought around the globe for her expertise in emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution and identity of modern marriage and family. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity, has been translated into 25 languages and received the 2009 Society for Sex Therapy and Research Consumer Book Award.

As the featured speaker at the Second Annual Saul Cohen Lecture, Perel will present “Inside the Jewish Family: Reconciling Commitments and Transgressions” on Thursday, Nov. 7 at UConn Stamford. The lecture series is sponsored by Jewish Family Service.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in New York with a multi-cultural clientele, and is an acknowledged international authority on cross-cultural relations, and culture and sexuality. She has lectured across the globe about emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution, and identity in modern marriage and family.

Trained and supervised by the legendary teacher Salvador Minuchin, she has trained therapists and crisis counselors throughout the world lending her expertise in wartime, post-war and refugee families.

Perel’s innovative models for leadership have won her an international clientele of corporations and non-profit organizations, including The Wexner Foundation, The Bronfman Foundation, The Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, AT&T, Johnson and Johnson, and New York University Medical Center. She is also a faculty member of New York University Medical Center Department of Psychiatry’s Family Studies Unit and the International Trauma Studies Program.

Perel frequently discusses family and intimate relationships on TV programs including The Oprah Show, The Today Show, and CBS This Morning. Her interviews have appeared in leading publications around the world including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New Yorker in the U.S.; Le Monde in France; Haaretz in Israel; Stern in Germany; and the Guardian and the Observer in the UK, among others. Her recent TED talk reached 1.5 million viewers within a month.

Perel spoke with the Ledger about the particular challenges facing the Jewish family and community, and how her work is informed by her unique background.

Q: You have described your childhood community of Holocaust survivors as a place where some survived and others thrived. How did that experience affect your professional path?

A: When I was writing Mating in Captivity and was interested in making a distinction between eroticism and sexuality, I made a connection that I had never made before. That helped me understand why I was so interested in writing about the erotic – not in the narrow sense that modern society has defined it, but rather that quality of aliveness, vitality, and vibrancy that animates us.

The Zohar and the whole tradition that follows is about how Jews have maintained their sense of aliveness in the face of adversity, trauma, fear, even death.

I asked my husband, Jack Saul, who researches victims of torture and political violence, how do you know that somebody is coming back from that place where you are half-dead or forgotten or dismissed? He said, once you see a person able to play, to take risks, to be creative, to trust and to love. You cannot play if you are in a state of vigilance, if you’re scared for your life. You have to feel safe and trusting to play; every parent and child knows that.

Creativity is a meeting with the unknown, so you have to feel that you are grounded enough to be surprised, to have something emerge that you didn’t expect, and risk is implied in there.

I began to think that play, which goes along with pleasure, creativity, and curiosity, brings me back to the community in Belgium where I grew up. We were 15,000 Jews and everybody was a family of survivors. Sixty thousand Jews were deported from Belgium and most who were there when I was growing up came after the war from camps, Siberia, and hiding.

I noticed in my community that there were different groups of people: those who did not die and those who came back to life. For the first group, morbidity was part of their homes, there was no joy or pleasure, because you have to allow yourself some freedom and unconsciousness in order to feel pleasure.

This was on an existential level, not just a sexual level, a way of being in the world: the ones who merely didn’t die didn’t trust, didn’t go out, didn’t make connections, and that led to isolation. The people who came back to life knew how to continue being alive in the face of adversity, fear, and death. My parents are part of that latter group: they came out of the war and wanted to meet life at its fullest.

I began to connect this realization with couples I worked with; I’ve been a couples therapist for almost 30 years now. There are couples who are not dead or are survivors and there are couples who are alive. When people complain about the listlessness of their sex life, they don’t necessarily want more sex, but they want to experience the renewal, playfulness, and connection that sexuality allows them, and that’s the connection to eroticism.

Q: What is your connection to the Fairfield County Jewish community?

A: I have worked with the Stamford and Greenwich communities several times before on different topics: intermarried, interfaith, and interracial couples; parenting in the age of anxiety, which touches on the modern family; the paradox of intimacy and sexuality. I have trained therapists at JFS and done a training for the directors and presidents of the Jewish federations. So I have engaged the community, both through the Jewish window and the family-relational expert window, as well as the windows of sexuality, even Judaism and sexuality.

I am seen as a bridge person – between the Jewish world and the larger world, between the mainstream and the edge, the academic and the popular, between cultures, since I’m not from here. In a broad sense, I look at how our era affects the way we relate on an interpersonal level – as couples, families, and professionals. What is intimacy today and how is it different than in the past? What is Jewish identity today and how is it different than in the past?

An idea that is clear, coherent, and profound often transcends context and environment, and offers a subtle reading of the world we live in. This affects all relationships: individual, family, professional, and community. A Jewish community organization is always a mixture of family and work combined, like a family business. Interpersonal relationships are different within the Jewish community: we treat one another the way people often treat their spouses – in a way that you would never treat anyone else. And when the pie gets smaller, when donations are down, people get scared and hold on more tightly.

Q: What is unique, particularly challenging, etc. about the Jewish family as opposed to others?

A: Other groups have similar experiences but certain behaviors, interactions, etc. have a flavor that is unique because they belong to the Jewish experience.

What is most interesting for me from the American Jewish-family perspective is the tension between coming from a totally collectivist culture and living in the most individualistic society.

We come from a tradition in which what happens to you affects me, in which we are interdependent in time and space: I am responsible for you because our group belief is so strong, and the need for connection is dictated by the group.

Judaism is a plural identity but America is a singular identity. Where we live is the most individualistic society on the planet, which values and teaches self-reliance, self-control, and self-sufficiency. It is a society that trains you to find out what’s right for me and what’s good for me; what do I want and what do I feel – and that’s very different from the tradition of “what’s right for me doesn’t exist without the consideration of how it affects you.”

For example, does an American-Jewish child go the playground or to Hebrew school on Sunday? Should kids decide or should parents decide? Where are the boundaries, what is the hierarchy, and who gets to choose?

Q: How can Jewish tradition contribute to American societal trends today?

A: There is a lot of discussion today around connection, compassion, and community – all concepts that Jews have had thousands of years of experience with. We could be tremendous cultural contributors to the social landscape of America, where people are aching for more community and connection and interdependence.

Some of the key concerns I address have to do with connection and interdependence, countering the devastating loneliness we feel here and the burden of going it alone, where you feel a tremendous triumph if something goes well but also that it’s your fault if something goes wrong.

Jews have major tradition and knowhow to create institutional communities of support and we have the relational mindset. How to become that kind of active community? A big piece of it is to know it. Many people don’t; there is an enormous number of brilliant Jews who are Jewishly illiterate, the result of leaving the religion as a teenager and only returning sometimes as an adult, if at all. We need to be able to speak about community as a Jewish language and not be embarrassed or ambivalent about it.

Q: In addition to your public presentation, you are also facilitating a seminar for Jewish communal leaders, “Boundaries, Power and Interdependence: Building Functional Communities.”  What is this about?

A: I will speak about the need within the Jewish community to belong and to be needed, the dichotomy of community as a place where we can feel both secure and free. I will look at how people deal with turf wars so that they don’t repeat themselves but rather build on and cooperate with and amplify one another’s work. We’ll talk about who has succeeded in doing so, the practices of excellence, those communities that use resources in such a way that it leads to a coherent whole.

How can we have a community where the people who want to be creative and innovative don’t need to leave, so that the community becomes a depository for innovation? Jews display tremendous creativity and innovation in other areas – so imagine if they could bring that energy to the Jewish community. It would be explosive!

Many of us stay wedded to the survivor mentality, which is defunct and doesn’t work anymore. But people will be scared to let it go because they’ve held on their whole lives to certain structures and institutions. We know from evolution that if you don’t change, you fossilize and die off.

Second Annual Saul Cohen Lecture: “Inside the Jewish Family: Reconciling Commitments and Transgressions” with Esther Perel, Thursday, Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m., UConn Stamford Gen Re Auditorium, 1 University Place, Stamford. Info: Jewish Family Service, (203) 921-4161; ctjfs.org.

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