How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.
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