The Therapist in Stalin

Every year for the last two decades, I have spent Rosh Hashanah in the town of Uman in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people come every year (over 50,000 in 2014!) to spend the Jewish New Year at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Chassidic Rebbe who passed away in 1810, but whose teachings and ideas have swelled over generations into a movement which attracts Jews of all stripes, backgrounds, and levels of observance.

But here, I don’t want to talk about Rebbe Nachman or his teachings. Instead, I want to focus on an experience that I had in that Ukrainian town four years ago:

Living in the town of Uman was a Jewish gentleman who must have been over 90 years of age. He would show up during the week that we would all be arriving for Rosh Hashanah, wearing his perfectly starched red army uniform. Most of the crimson chest area shone with all sorts of medals. The man was missing his left arm, having lost it in one of the battles he had fought.

He would sit in the center of attention, speaking to us in Yiddish. My friends and I enjoyed talking with this old Jew who had lived for many years in the town we would come annually to visit. We would talk about his memories growing up, his war experiences, and many other topics of interest. We would also give him “adin dolarov,” a dollar here and there, to support “our” disabled army veteran in his old age.

One time, while schmoozing, one of us mentioned something negative about a figure in Russian history. Stalin.

“Stalin was terrible man. He destroyed Yiddishkeit, totally obliterating Judaism in the Soviet Union … he was a mass murder who killed millions of people.”

Suddenly, tears appeared in the eyes of our Ukrainian friend.

“How can you say things like that?” he demanded in Yiddish. “Stalin was unzer tatteh (our father)! He fed us, he took care of us, he loved us, and he provided us with all our needs.”

We were dumbfounded. A Jew seeing Stalin in such a positive light? Had history missed something about Stalin after all? And if not, how could this elderly Jew be so moved over a dictator who had died some fifty years earlier?

Now, as a therapist in practice in the Jerusalem area, that story has come to represent some of what I’ve learned with my clients in our journeys together. It has helped my clients and me to better empathize with others because it so starkly shows that there really are two sides to every story, and each side is convinced that his perspective is right—no matter what “objective reality” or “history” might have to say.

In group therapy sessions, I’ve asked each participant to take a notecard and to write an opinion of theirs that would be considered controversial and that they doubted anyone else in the group would accept (e.g., “Stalin was a wonderful person.”).

Then, the anonymously written notes would all be placed into a hat, and I would ask someone from the group to draw one at random. It would be read aloud, after which half the group would be instructed to defend it, no matter what they personally felt about it, while the other half was to argue why the statement was absolutely ludicrous, even if they themselves believed it.

We would go through several of these notes and discussions, and then we would discuss what we had gained from the experience.

Once a group member—whom we’ll call Avi—came back a week after we did this exercise and told us that he had truly been able to implement what he had learned.  Avi’s neighbor was expanding his apartment and Avi, along with many others in the building, was sure that this neighbor was doing something very wrong by blocking his view of the skyline and having construction workers dirtying up the hallway all the time. As convinced as he was that he was objectively right, when Avi got himself to see things from a different angle, he understood that the neighbor doing the construction actually saw himself as correct in what he was doing. While this insight didn’t convert Avi to his neighbor’s perspective, he was at least able to recognize that his neighbor was not a bad person who was acting out of spite. Once he could see this, he was then able to deal with that neighbor from a different point of view, with an approach that could help, if not with the construction itself, then at least in being a better neighbor, understanding the opposing viewpoint, and being a more communicative member of society.

Objectively speaking, Stalin was a terrible, oppressive tyrant whom history has judged as evil, and rightfully so. And yet, understanding why others coming from a specific background might see him differently can help us understand better one another, as well as ultimately, ourselves.

About the Author
Ephraim Portnoy is a Social Worker, Rabbi, and Lecturer on the topics of interpersonal relationships and personal development. He can be reached at ephraim@ephraimportnoy.com
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