And yet who could dispute the fact that, when it comes to unabashed, even triumphalist declarations of collective neurosis, the Jews have had the market locked down for a long time — so much so, in fact, that they are the only ethnic group I know of that members of other ethnic groups will unabashedly declare to be suffering from collective neurosis. The relationship between the Jews and nervousness is by now so widely accepted that it barely registers. The Chosen People, at least in the American consciousness, are the very image of of anxiety.
But there is a fundamental problem here: it isn’t true. That anxiety all-star team, were it actually to be assembled, would contain at least a couple of Jews — Moses at third, say, and Franz Kafka in right — but plenty of gentiles would make the cut, too. As the self-appointed general manager I’d offer contracts to Charles Darwin, who suffered from debilitating insomnia and panic attacks; to Emily Dickinson, who “lived on Dread” and almost never left the house; to William James, who spent a decade paralyzed by uncertainty, and his sister Alice, a nervous invalid (I’d put them at second and shortstop, respectively, so they could talk to each other); and on the mound, Soren Kierkegaard, who made anxiety not only a way of life but also a central philosophical concept, declaring (with suspicious exaggeration), “The greater the anxiety the greater the man.”
In short, the Jews don’t own anxiety and never have. So why do so many people think otherwise?
The answer to this question, I think, is that we, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious. We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew — our hysterical clown.
When you think about the personification of anxiety — think quickly, without reflection — whom do you think of? If you are anything like me, what jumps first to mind are the great fretful Jews of American fiction and film: the harmless Tevye, portly shtetl hero of “Fiddler on the Roof,” foreshadowing decades of New World pathology to come with his Talmudic indecision (“On the other hand … on the other hand … on the other hand”); Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, the son of doting Newark Jews, raging to his analyst about his inability to reconcile his id and his superego, begging for help (“… it hoits, you know, there is pain involved, a little human suffering is being felt …”); the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, a nebbish idealist with a paralyzed will, nightmarishly unnerved by the conflict between his artistic ambitions and the vulgarity of Hollywood; and of course, above all, Woody Allen, in almost any of the 40-plus movies he has appeared in.
"Woody Allen" is a highly successful character invented by Allen Konigsberg, who was captain of his high school basketball team. He was making $1,500 per week in 1954 as a TV writer while still a teenager. (Woody Allen the character is to Woody Allen the entrepreneurial entertainer as Mark Zuckerberg the character in "The Social Network" is to the Mark Zuckerberg the billionaire.)
That Woody Allen churns out a movie per year, good, bad, or indifferent, suggests that his art might benefit from less self-confidence and more nervousness.