On Jews And Patience

Yes, Jews and patience, not patients – that would be a whole other story, full of symptoms and ailments, hypochondriasis and hysterical demands. How to be a patient patient? It is not that easy, it demands resignation and acceptance, an understanding that people are working as fast as they can, that even experts have failings, and that there might be a distinction between wishing for something (a cure, for instance) and actually getting it. It means understanding that when something doesn’t happen immediately, it is not necessarily because someone is withholding it; it might just be that it is the kind of thing that can only happen slowly, or never at all.

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Patience does not on the face of it seem to be a Jewish virtue, although it also isn’t obvious that we never show it. After all, 1900 years of waiting for a homeland suggests an impressive capacity for holding doggedly onto hope (and are we sure we have got exactly what we wanted, even after all that time?). But impatience is rooted strongly in the Judaic soul. There are Biblical sources for this: Abraham for example, was pretty restless, striking out for new lands, wandering around, over-quick to follow a voice that told him to kill his son; Jacob could not settle because of trouble with his adolescent boy Joseph, and he too could not wait to get out of the dungeon and ended up stuck in there for an excessive time. And the Israelites, after liberation from Egypt, need only three Biblical verses to move from celebrating the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea to complaining that they are dying of thirst. (The old joke: ‘I’m thirsty, I must have a beer!’ says the German; ‘I’m thirsty, I must have some tea!’ says the Englishman; ‘I’m thirsty, I must have diabetes!’ says the Jew.)  It is hard to think of anyone in the Bible who demonstrates patience; irritability, impulsiveness, grabbing at opportunities, losing one’s temper – these are much more the norm.

Are we less patient than other people? Who knows? I haven’t the time to find out. We seem to be pretty fractious, fast-paced, living off our wits – though the antisemitic stereotype of scheming, secret Jews playing the long game in a tentacular way seems to suggest that others have regarded us as patient, and duplicitous, enough. Perhaps the famous ‘rootlessness’ comes in here: we haven’t had time to watch things slowly grow from the land; we have too often been packing and unpacking, starting afresh, skimming the surface in order to survive. And even though this, too, is an inaccurate stereotype, given the relatively long periods of settledness that Jews have also experienced, it is part of our self-understanding to visualise ourselves as others do, as transient, diasporic, always on the go. Thinking psychoanalytically about this, as Jews are wont to do, maybe it all stems from paranoid anxiety, which just because it is paranoid doesn’t mean it is not well-founded. You can only wait patiently for things if you are confident that they will arrive in the end, if you believe that the absence you feel is not permanent, that when someone goes away they will come back, that abandonment is not more likely than security and continuity of care. In other words, you have to trust your surroundings. When have Jews been able to do that?

Stephen Frosh is Pro-Vice-Master and Professor in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book is “Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions” (Palgrave, 2012).

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