Sigmund Freud described himself as a “Godless Jew.” Freud made heroes of “Semitic conquerors” like Carthaginian general Hannibal. Speaking before Vienna’s B’nai B’rith Lodge in 1926, Freud attributed his special gifts to two Jewish traits: freedom “from many prejudices that hampered others” and a willingness “to take my place on the side of the opposition.”
Then why did Freud downplay his parents’ Judaism, and obscure his own knowledge of Hebrew? I believe it was to reinforce his claim that psychoanalytic science owed no debts to religion.
Freud’s family arrived in Vienna from Galicia in the east, and like many Jews, were despised by Viennese antisemites. Freud wanted to ensure the safety of his own child — psychoanalysis — from antisemitic slanders. To protect his movement, Freud recruited prestigious non-Jew Carl Jung. But Freud’s perceived betrayal by Jung was traumatic; it cured him of “my last predilection for the Aryan cause.” In an intimate letter, Freud wrote, “We are Jews and remain Jews” because men like Jung “will never understand or appreciate us.”
Freud’s American Jewish admirers were legion. Some may have been predisposed to psychoanalysis by A Bintel Brief in the Forvertz, the popular column that read almost like a Yiddish version of Freud’s “talking cure.”
When visiting the US for the only time in 1909, Freud was ambivalent. He appreciated Americans’ “open-mindedness,” but criticized America as uncivilized with indigestible food, insufficient hotel lavatories, young women who were too bold, and young men who dared to call him by his first name.
Yet with the blessing of Harvard philosopher William James and the dedication of Jewish popularizers including Isador H. Coriat and Adam A. Brill, Freud became an American icon. During World War I, some Americans criticized psychoanalysis as Austrian or German “devil worship”; but the US Army used psychoanalysts to treat “shell-shock.”
Post-World War I, Jazz Age youth adopted Freud’s gospel of sexual liberation, and his cause was also embraced in Hollywood. Freud died in London in 1939 a refugee from Hitler, but psychoanalysis’ influence did not fade despite attacks on Freud’s “Viennese Talmudic” methods.
After World War II, Jewish Freudians such as Rabbi Joshua L. Liebman offered grief counseling to soldiers’ widows, as well as Holocaust survivors. Popular books combined Freudian concepts with Hasidic tales. Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber both became best-sellers.
Since the 1960s, Freud’s influence has been challenged by Eastern mysticism, behaviorist critiques, and new drug therapies. But in contrast, there has been a boomlet in studies of Freud’s Jewishness and psychoanalysis’ Kabbalistic roots. Now the question is being asked: Can the rediscovery of this “Jewish Freud” help to revitalize 21st century Jewish identity?
Wary of a modern Jewish state in Palestine sparking Arab-Jewish violence, Freud nevertheless told Hans Herzl: “Your father is one of those people who have turned dreams into reality.” Freud accepted election as a Board Member of the Hebrew University. He remembered a dream in which Theodor Herzl (with whom he corresponded) told him of “the necessity of immediate action” to save the Jewish people.
Did psychoanalysis have “a hidden Zionist theme” as claimed by psycho-historian Peter Loewenberg? And what would Freud have done if he had lived until 1948?
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).