I was honored that my article in last week’s edition of the Queen’s Jewish Link, titled - An old fashioned approach to the condition of ADHD, was critiqued by Warren Hecht who is a distinguished member of our community. In my article I stated the view that ADHD is a modern-life problem in that modern life stripped away the cohesion and intimacy of the nuclear family and hence children are growing up intellectually and emotionally less grounded and less focused. Mr. Hecht replied in his article that while he agreed with me that modern approaches to the condition, which we know as ADHD, treated primarily with medication or with ‘specialized education’ curricula are not advisable, he offered his unique view that society should allow such children to eventually find their way and niche in life and the problem will work itself out with maturation and natural growth. This is how Mr. Hecht himself overcame ADHD, as he describes himself as a child being antsy and fidgety but ultimately growing out of the problem to become as we all know a wonderfully productive and successful person in adulthood. In his case, this obviously was a terrific approach but I’m sure that there are many cases of ADHD, much more severe than was his experience, where just waiting for the child to grow out of it, is probably not enough.
The reason I’m continuing the conversation about this subject is because I feel that this leads into the overarching discussion about modern life in America vs the culture that our parents or grandparents experienced in the Shtetle. Naturally, solid data about Shtetle life is scarce, hence much of what we know is confined to what we know through ‘mesorah’, for lack of a better word, or through the impressions of writers during that era.
Mr. Hecht argues that Shtetle life was nothing for us to envy and evidence of that is that millions of Jews emigrated from the old country to come to America.
However the reason for the great migration had nothing to do with an inferior quality of family or spiritual life - rather it had all to do with the severe condition of anti-semitism. In late 19th century Russia, for instance, Czar Nicholas II decreed with the May Laws of 1882 that Jews must convert to the Orthodox Church and to become overall like their fellow Russians in language and dress. If they refused, they were ordered to sell their businesses and houses. Pogroms against the Jews ensued with the tacit support of the Czar. It was the goal of the Czar to convert one-third of the Jews, to force another third to leave Russia and to starve the rest. Three quarters of the migration of 1881 to 1914 consisted of Jews who thus fled from the Russian Empire. Of those who did not migrate, many did not because they believed that America was barren spiritually. "The New World stands on three things: money and money and again money. All the people of this country worship the golden calf” is a quote of the times. With the rise of Fascism in Germany, those who had the foresight to see ahead and had the opportunity, left before the war and those who couldn’t leave and survived the Holocaust, of course had no more future in Europe.
So is there any credence to the notion that America worships a golden calf of materialism? We know that where there is opportunity there is temptation and the fact is that there are too many headlines of corruption and embezzlement, even among the Orthodox, splashed across newspaper covers. We hear of too many cases of molestation of children. Divorce rates in the Orthodox community is constantly rising. Drug use among modern Yeshiva youth is a real problem. Young people have unrealistic expectations of prospective marriage partners and it is becoming harder for people to find life mates. Young people don’t have the same reverence for the older generation or for the state of Israel as they traditionally had. There is anecdotal evidence that young people don’t have the same respect for the sanctity of a shul as they used to have. There is a discernible lack of midos among yeshiva youth today, which is an assessment that I’ve heard from yeshiva insiders as well.
These sociological phenomena are a product of our time. We have to recognize that modern life and its emphasis on materialism has its shortcomings. The fragmentation of the family unit, the luxury that allows all members to pursue their own projects and activities saps the strength from the core family unit. The advent of ADHD should not be viewed in isolation of other recognizable mental or emotional disorders. Humans are social beings and without a strong and caring family unit people lose the element of stability. Mr. Hecht says correctly that even in healthy and loving families ADHD can occur in children. However just because we don’t have the ultimate answers about mental and emotional well being doesn’t mean that basic proven and common sense principles don’t apply. Gambling, drug and sex addiction, violence or anger issues, compulsions of stealing and cheating, impulsive shopping and spending problems, inability to hold a job or be a responsive spouse or parent and ADHD - these are all mental health issues and for the vast majority of cases, stem from cracks in our psychological foundations that were formed from an unhealthy childhood or upbringing.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, roughly 25% of the adult American population has some form of mental disorder. And as we have heard from a psychologist who gave a lecture at the Young Israel of KGH, the Orthodox community is no less affected than the general population. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders are the main ones, schizophrenia comprising about 1% and ADHD is an estimated 4% even among adults 18 to 44. Perhaps this is how a culture of dependance on the government has grown so strong in our day. In the Shtetle there was no Section 8 housing and welfare - families had to be focused on the important things and were there for each other of necessity.
Am I saying that we should all sign up for a Shtetle life? No, but I think that we should not be so arrogant as to think that we have nothing to learn from a Jewish culture that was in existence for a thousand years in Europe. I don’t think it’s radical to say that we can always reflect on whether materialism is getting a hold on us. Rabbi Wallerstein said in a recent Chazaq event, that when religious Jews care more about the vintage, expense and flavor of the wine at the Seder than they care about the spiritual flavor of the Seder itself, then we are in trouble. It’s not radical to say that yeshivas and shul Rabbis should talk more about midos and hakaras hatov than laws of kashrut. Yes, I’m saying that our need for Ritalin, Zoloft and Prozac would be diminished if we subscribed more to values such as humility, respect for others and caring for our families and neighbors they way they did in the Shtetl.