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David Bashevkin: My Mental Health Journey



Our mental health series is sponsored by Terri and Andrew Herenstein.

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, David Bashevkin opens up about his mental health journey.

Through the lenses of therapy, comedy, books, family history, and positive influences, David shares the experiences that have shaped the way he handles mental health challenges today. In this episode we discuss:

  • Is religious commitment supposed to be the cure to mental health problems?
  • How can we deal with the need to be liked?
  • What enables happy people to be so happy?

Tune in to hear a discussion about how one might “become friends with themself” despite life’s difficulties.

Message from Dr. Sara Baris begins at 24:26.
Conversation with Grandma Millie begins at 1:18:30.
Conversation with Jay Richman begins at 1:24:08.

David Bashevkin, is the director of education for NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, and an instructor at Yeshiva University, where he teaches courses on public policy, religious crisis, and rabbinic thought. He completed rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, as well as a master’s degree at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies focusing on the thought of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin under the guidance of Dr. Yaakov Elman. He received a doctorate in Public Policy and Management at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, focusing on crisis management. He has published two books, Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, as well as a Hebrew work B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor (trans. In Anger, Remember Mercy).


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David Bashevkin:
Hi, friends, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring mental health. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. This series is sponsored by our dearest friends Terri and Andrew Herenstein. I am so grateful for their partnership and friendship—and may all those listening find the commitment to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Yiddishkeit to heal the broken hearts and bind up all of our collective wounds. Thank you so much, Andrew and Terri, for your friendship, partnership, and support.

It feels almost surreal to think that we are talking about the topic of mental health, and this is the first time that we are talking about it. I wouldn’t blame any of our listeners to say, “I could have sworn that you have already covered this subject.” We have not. We actually did this on the fly. A lot of these recordings were recorded during the war in Israel, which we have been covering since October 7th. And my commitment is that we are not moving on to a new subject. I’m actually still have some really exciting interviews related to Israel that will be dropping, so stay with us and pay attention if you want more of that.

But so much of what, at least I have been feeling on a personal level when these world-shaking events take place, and when you see so much atrocities and so much pain, when we know people who have buried children, who have buried family members defending the land of Israel and the people, the Jewish people, it is hard to focus on anything else, nor should we ever focus on anything else.

As I’ve mentioned so many times, we had a very different topic planned for after Yom Tov when we planned on dropping a new series. It was not mental health either. That was supposed to be after Pesach. That topic that we had planned on Jewish denominations, which I’m actually even more excited about now, we’re moving towards after Pesach, and now we’re going to talk about mental health. Because one of the things that I had been feeling during the war, which is still continuing, and there are still people sacrificed and still people losing their life, but one thing that I felt is that it almost felt too small or selfish to talk about anything else. And a lot of our own stresses, a lot of our own processing of our own lives ends up getting buried, rightfully so, deep into the recesses of who we are. We don’t feel comfortable complaining about how was your day on a Monday when you know that there are people who are risking their lives to defend the people in Israel.

Now part of that is normal and healthy. How can you complain about what is going on at work when you know what is happening? How can you pay real attention to our anxieties and personal depressions when there are people who literally have their lives on the line? A part of that, however, I think we can all agree, is deeply unhealthy. That it’s specifically during times when all of our attention is rightfully focused on world-shaking events, on events that shape and shake the very trajectory of the Jewish people and the world, we still need to pay attention to ourselves. We still need moments where our very sense of self and our interiority, our inner emotional health, is still being looked after and being paid attention to.

And I knew for myself, when events like this take place, I fully fall apart. I fully fall apart on a host of issues. A, there’s just the general empathy. There’s the sense that as somebody who’s more public facing, I don’t like having to process things that are very private about the Jewish people, about the state of Israel, about Zionism. I like having parts of my own processing that doesn’t have to be, “Oh, that would make a great episode. Oh, we should get them as a guest.” I want to be there quietly in the back with everybody.

And you’re not really able to do that, nor should I have done that. I think the right thing to do was to kind of come together, take the mic, and let’s talk about this together. But there is a part of myself that I don’t like that pressure of, okay, we need another episode. Say something. Keep it going. I’d much rather retreat into the recesses of my own life and not have to publicly process something which is so real and visceral and private.

And finally the last thing is that with all of the pressures that amount from my professional life, given what was going on, and all the scariness that is facing the Jewish people, you pay a lot less attention to what is going on in the inner cubits of your own self, of who you are. And a lot of that gets ignored. And a lot of us, I feel like, have plaque buildup.

It’s so interesting that we go to… I go to a dentist every three months now because my teeth are not all that great. They’ve been resuscitated, thank God, by Dr. Aaron Brody, who has a phenomenal practice in Englewood. I really have a great deal of… He didn’t sponsor this episode. He should, but he didn’t sponsor this episode. He could barely afford Netflix in his office so I can be distracted when my teeth are being cleaned. He’s really one of the greatest. I have a lot of Hakaras HaTov, a lot of gratitude to him because I had severe dental phobia. I have a lot of very real phobias that I’ve dealt with. I hadn’t seen a dentist for 10 years. I was genuinely too scared to go to the dentist. But we go now every three months to get cleanup, and there’s plaque buildup or whatever else happens.

And how often do we take a moment’s notice and take some time out to not just clean our teeth and pay attention to our teeth, we have yearly physical checkups. How often are we having emotional checkups? Unless you are in active therapy, most people are not really paying attention to their emotional health, unfortunately until it is too late, until they really need a much more serious intervention. And what I hope to talk about over the next few weeks, at least until Purim, is going to be an exploration of some of the main ideas in mental health that I have found uplifting, some of the professionals, some of the people.

I’m not just talking to mental health professionals. A lot of my own mental health struggles, which we’re going to be talking about today, have really been addressed and uplifted by people who are not necessarily professionals and not rabbis. They’re not rabbis and they’re not psychologists. They’re people who I’ve watched the way that they live their life and because of their own disposition, because of their own way that they’ve approached life. I don’t know anybody who’s had a perfect life or an easy life, but either because of the way they’ve handled it through their own immersion in therapy or because of their own way that they look through life, I have found extraordinarily uplifting.

And I never like focusing mental health conversations exclusively on things that are difficult, but I think it is absolutely crucial to talk about mental health issues. It demystifies, it brings light. And the way that I talk about it, that’s going to be today’s episode. I always like to begin a little bit more personally to kind of describe and paint a picture about my own journey and where I am coming at this. I did something very similar when we did a series on dating to share my own story with dating.

Now to talk about mental health and mental health issues, obviously there is some privacy and boundaries that are absolutely necessary, but I do feel, given my own journey, because I have been tending to my own mental health issues, both in a professional way and in noticing that I need to pay attention to this since I was an elementary school child.
And I think for me, at least as an introduction, there are really two foundational points that I would like to share. And then really what this episode is going to be is going to be five. I used to write a column for Mishpacha Magazine that was called Top 5. You could still buy the book from Israeli bookshop that collected all the columns. And I would write these little lists, top five lists. Most of them were, narishkeit, it was a humor column, but I got used into thinking of lists of five.
And what I really want to share to you on today’s episode are five kind of points in my own journey, not necessarily the lowest points, but how I have been able to address my own disposition to having really difficult time ever since I was a little kid, whether it was being able to fall asleep, that was the first issue that I dealt with. Whether it was being able to sleep over, that was the second issue that I dealt with. Whether it was the self-consciousness when my hair started turning white and that self-consciousness metastasized into some much more serious depressive episodes until my twenties when I had my first, I think major, major depressive episodes, to where I am now, which thank God I am surrounded by blessing.

That doesn’t mean that I am still not struggling in some ways, but it doesn’t feel like my mental health issues, a term that I do not like, are separate from me. It’s a part of who I am. It’s part of what I love about myself. It’s a part of what has been, I think, fully integrated into who I am. And that could change, but it’s something that I constantly pay attention to.
I wanted to begin with two general points. The first is what I think is sometimes the difficulty about talking about mental health issues, specifically when you are adjacent, when you are involved, when you are immersed in a religious community. I think particularly in the Jewish community, and even more so in the Orthodox Jewish community, there is a, I don’t know if I should call it a frustration, a difficulty, a longing that all of our mental health problems should be addressed by our religious commitment.

If only I was more committed, if only I had more emunah, faith, if only I had more bitachon, that sense of security in my life, then I would not have these mental health issues. If only I took it upon myself, I was more consistent and did better. The better Jew that I am, the better my mental health would be. And sometimes there is an element of truth to that, but more often what I have found is that that is not the right way to go about it.

I think very often our spiritual pursuits, as important as they are, as religious pursuits, our halakhic commitments, as important are they are, can sometimes obscure or distract from the underlying issues that are the very vessel with which we receive and process spirituality and religiosity and halakhic observance.

And if you pour into a broken cup, if you pour into something that has a hole in it, all of the spirituality in the world, all of the greatest rabbis, all of the greatest ideas, all the greatest books, all the greatest tishes, all the best farbrengens, all the most meticulous halakhic observance. And you keep pouring it in, but the cup and the vessel is broken, it will never feel full and it will never become full.

And there were periods in my life where I was pouring, pouring, pouring in spirituality, halakhic commitment, and I just never felt full. I never felt like I was advancing. And what I realized ultimately is that I needed to take a step back. That didn’t mean that I needed to stop observing Halakah. That didn’t mean that I needed to stop being religious or stop being spiritual, but it means that I needed to take a step back and create space and really allow myself to tend to the very vessel with which I was trying to fill up and feel that sense of fullness solely with my religious and halakhic pursuits.

And I think very often there is this latent sense of disappointment that our religious affiliations cannot solve all of our mental health issues, struggles, challenges. And I think for me, the starting point is that while there are foundational issues and while religiosity and theology and machshava and all of these ideas address what it means to be human and what it means to be alive and what our responsibilities are to one another and to God, sometimes we need a different language and a different frequency to actually mend the vehicle and the vessel with which we are meant to drive through and to accomplish and to succeed in this world.

It can be very confusing and it can be very distracting, especially because so much of the language that we use when we listen to rabbis, that uplift us, that inspire us, and we almost look back at ourselves like, “Why can’t that idea be the idea that saves me? Why can’t that d’var Torah, why can’t my connection to halakha, if it really is meant to uplift the Jewish people, why do I still feel this way in the middle of it?”

And I think very often it is something so basic and so simple that the very vessel, the very glasses with which we look through are broken. And you need to take a moment and sometimes that may come at the expense of the commitment that you have accrued even though it’s leaking out from the sides of you, to take a step back and to create space and to be able to talk about who you are in your mental health as a person. And that’s really what this series is about.

Obviously, we’re going to be talking about the interplay between religion and our mental health and psychology and all these other things, but this to me is the foundational starting point. It reminds me in many ways of an idea I heard from Rav Mendel Blachman, who is a rabbi in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, sometimes affectionately known as KBY. I think I heard this from him in person. I may have heard it over from one of his students who’s a friend of mine. I consider myself a student in some ways, although I never learned directly in his yeshiva.

And he has an idea, I’m sure he got this from other Chassidic sources, but the famous Hasidic comma, what’s so beautiful about Hasidic sources is that they are not afraid. They have the confidence and creativity to insert commas where they’re clearly are not intended to be or to exist. But what I affectionately call Hasidic comma is where you place a comma in a sentence that changes the meaning of the sentence or really gives it an added layer of meaning, a new meaning. And I think this is something very beautiful in Hasidic interpretation.

And I heard from Rav Blachman once in a prayer that we were supposed to say every morning a very beautiful prayer that begins: You should always be the kind of person who has the awe of heaven, both in private and publicly. And it goes on to list all these things that a good Jews should have. He should admit to the truth and speak truth in his heart and wake up every morning and recognize God, et cetera, et cetera. You could look up the prayer. It’s a very beautiful prayer.

And I heard from Rav Blachman once that this prayer needs a Hasidic comma. And the Hasidic comma takes the sentence that begins: You should always be a person who has the awe of heaven, both in private and in public, and it puts that little comma after the third word. You always need to be a human being. You always need to be in touch with your own humanity, your own sense of self, who you are as a person, your own biases, your own dispositions, your own triggers, and to be self-aware of who you are as a person. And that is the starting point.

And then the other things, awe of heaven and everything else comes afterwards. Everything comes after that Hasidic comma. But to live a life and to have a Yiddishkeit that begins with: Pay attention to your own humanity. And I am very blessed. I asked them to come on. They’re not ready, maybe at a future date.

But I am very blessed that the role models of struggling and grappling with mental health issues, I grew up in a home where this was never swept under the rug. This was always something that was discussed, that was addressed. It was never something that we had to be embarrassed about or hidden about. And it really taught me two things. Number one, my parents are extraordinarily successful people. Thank God both of them are extraordinarily talented. And the first message that it taught me, and something that I constantly have to remind myself of is that the fact that you are struggling with mental health issues does not mean that you are not a successful person, that you can’t contribute in serious ways, that you’re some way a leper of the community. The exact opposite.

I can only think of one friend that I even know of. I can only think of one person really in my close orbit who has never even been in therapy. I can’t even think of that many people. But most people are afraid because they think it might brand them. They think it might put them at a distance, they might impede on their success. And God forbid, that is not the case.

And the second thing that I think is even more important is that the fact that you are successful, the fact that you have a great job, whether you are an oncologist or a top lawyer or a doctor or a writer or a world renowned anything is not, is not a panacea. That was an unnecessarily fancy word, I apologize for that. Is not some automatic snap of the finger guarantee that will address your mental health issues. Successful people, people whose lives from a distance seem fully together, they make a lot of money, they have great homes, great houses, they struggle in the same way as people who you look at, whose lives may be more obviously falling apart. But that inner humanity exists and pulsates in all of us and that we should not prejudge even people who from a distance look like, “Oh, they have it all together. Everything is going great for them.”

And I grew up in such a home, which I think from a distance, as I got older, I began to appreciate more and more how from a distance like wow, we really seem to have it together. And growing up, I think a lot of people have this, it was like it was chaos, it was functional dysfunction, it was everybody had that intense way of living. And thank God I am grateful for growing up at home knowing that there is no such thing as that, everybody has it together, everybody’s perfect, they’re not struggling with it, they’re not grappling with anything. No, we shouldn’t feel that way. And the closer that you get to people, if they’re open and they have that vulnerability and transparency, you’ll see there’s no such thing as that cookie cutter image of what a family or what a person or what a life should look like. And I think holding onto that truth is already a key that allows us to have more breathing room when we evaluate and inevitably judge our own lives.

So with that in mind, I want to talk about five things, for me at least, that I have turned to and used in my own mental health journey. I’ll give you the whole list now. We’ll come back to it, of course. And we do have an interview at the very, very end of this episode and a lot of clips, so stay tuned. I think this will be a very exciting episode.

But the five things I want to talk about is number one, therapy. Number two is comedy, but not in the way that you think. Number three, of course are books. Number four is family history and knowing my family history. And number five is finding, surrounding and appreciating people who have mental health. And I say mental health, they project a type of healthiness about their own life and paying attention to them and really listening to them. And those are the five things that I want to talk about in this opening episode.

The first thing I want to talk about is obviously therapy. And when I say therapy, I don’t just mean therapy and talk therapy, I also am including medication. When I was in fifth grade, I had terrible, terrible anxiety that did not allow me to fall asleep. I would stay up, and I remember in fifth grade even wondering how did I ever fall asleep in the past? Sleep issues have been perpetual in my life. They’ve gotten a whole lot better over the last decade or so. But really growing up and throughout my life I have had trouble sleeping. And that led to the first time, I believe the first time at least I remember, that I was ever brought to a therapist.

Didn’t fully understand what I should be doing there, but my mother pulled me aside and really had a foundational conversation with me. My mother knowing, given parents always have more information than their children, knowing that I was probably dealing with very real as of yet undiagnosed anxiety. And my mother took me to a therapist. I still remember what we spoke about at the meeting in therapy, had me close my eyes and tense up each muscle and think about a relaxing time. And I remember the place where I actually thought about. I was at a one trip that we made, that was also in fifth grade, to my bubby and zadie in Florida. I think we stayed at the Crown Hotel, I don’t know if that’s still around. And we were swimming in the pool in the back and it was one of the most relaxing parts. And they had me tense up each muscle and think about that. And they gave me medication. I don’t remember what medication that they gave me. I do remember that I was unable to swallow pills.

So this medication that was supposed to help me fall asleep, I almost choked on it. I began crying because I did not know how to swallow that pill and it couldn’t be crushed and it couldn’t be opened up, and it totally backfired. The medication that I was supposed to be using and swallowing every night to help ease the anxiety just gave me more anxiety because I did not know how to swallow it.

But my first experience in therapy was in fifth grade, and I’m very grateful for the fact that I was introduced to this as kind of a very normal way of addressing very normal issues. It was like seeing any other doctor. I was afraid of the other, the real doctors, but this was basically, in my mind, a doctor that would never give me a shot or a throat culture. I will sign up for that any day of the week to this very day.

But I realized that you need to start with talking about and opening up the door of allowing yourself the treatment of therapy and medication if needed, and obviously under the guidance of a professional. Where a lot of people insist on keeping this door shut even today. I don’t like the phrase, the stigma around mental health. I didn’t grow up in such a home. I probably could use more of a stigma around mental health because I feel fully comfortable speaking about it. But I was opened up to this idea because I was one time, very recently actually, visiting a community as a scholar-in-residence and on Motzei Shabbos we had an event that was all about mental health issues and how they relate to religiosity.

And I was the moderator of the event. I moderated this discussion between a incredible psychiatrist and a rabbi. And I remember in my introduction I mentioned that I have been in therapy and that it’s a part of my life and it’s not something that… I mentioned that, I didn’t even make a big deal out of it. And the rabbi stopped and he said, “Wow, look at how remarkable that is. Somebody, a figure, a public facing figure of the community, talking about their journey in therapy.”, to which the entire room applauded. And it made me so deeply uncomfortable, not because I don’t absolutely love getting a thunderous applause, I genuinely did not think that deserved an applause. And I thought that in 2024 we were not living at a time where somebody’s admission that they are in therapy or been to therapy should even be an eyebrow raiser.

And for some it’s not at all. For some, maybe it’s gone to the other extreme where people are just like, my therapist, I don’t know, they’ll quote their therapist as their baseball teams or whatever it is without any discretion whatsoever. But to me, at least communally, seeing a therapist to me, if you need one, is the same as having a primary care doctor, is the same as having a dental exam and something that you need. I feel very close to the two therapists who really got me through my twenties, and those are Dr. Mark Roberts and Dr. Sara Baris.

Mark Roberts, we’re going to hear about on a later episode where I talked to one of his patients, the person who actually referred me and told me to go speak to him. I actually reached out to him fairly recently around two years ago after Jonah Hill came out with a documentary on Netflix. It’s called Stutz. It came out in 2022, S-T-U-T-Z, Stutz, and it is Jonah Hill’s documentary film on his own therapist. His therapist I think has Parkinson’s. So he was getting a little sick. So he said, “I want to do a documentary on my therapist.” And I watched it. I thought it was so beautiful to see somebody who is so accomplished, an actor like Jonah Hill, take his time and create art based on his own experience in therapy, and it’s so loving and it’s so admirable, and it’s so real and raw.

I watched it and I immediately reached out to Dr. Mark Roberts, who I hadn’t been in touch with in many, many years, and who has retired from practice and said, “Hey, could we just talk? Do you have time to just Zoom or something?” And extraordinarily moved. We caught up for a little bit. I love that very personal sense of appreciation to a therapist.
The other therapist who I’ve mentioned before, particularly on the dating series, is Dr. Sarah Barris, who I’ve mentioned before, is the first person outside of my immediate family who I text anytime that I have a child. Because I believe my ability to have commitment and foster commitment in my life is a product of her guidance. I haven’t seen her in many years, though she’s still in practice. She’s an incredible human being and professional.

I invited her on to come on again, she’s reticent, but I do have a voice note that she gave me permission to share. We shared it once before during our dating series, and I wanted to share it again because I think the underlying issue that she spoke about in this voice note actually gets to the heart of a lot of what I’ve struggled with, not just with dating, but it’s a much larger struggle about life itself and how we approach life itself. So I wanted to share it again with you. This is a very brief message from Dr. Saara Baris.

Dr. Sara Baris:
Hi, this is Sara Baris talking about love and marriage. Love is not a commodity, a magic charm that makes us feel good, an emotional fix. Barry Schwartz, expert on the paradox of choice, highlights our consumer culture and that the abundance of options and multitude of alternatives lead to an illusion that there is perfection out there, rather than building and deepening a connection through one’s lifetime.

This illusion leads to constant self-appraisal, rumination. Am I happy? Am I in love? How do I know that I’m feeling it? I look at the couples out there and they all seem happier than we are. Waiting for the one right person theory. Schwartz observes that, “People walk starry-eyed, looking not into the eyes of their romantic partner, but over their romantic partner’s shoulder, in case there might be somebody better walking by.” In this context, we are uncomfortable without a hundred percent certainty, not willing to take responsibility for our own emotional wellbeing, thinking that love will give me what I need.

On the other hand, commitment leads to cultivating versus finding. It leads to effort, investment and resilience.

Commitment helps us raise the threshold of staying in a relationship. We yearn for perfection in the context of being perfectly imperfect human beings. To be human is to be held together by scars and radiance. Real relationship takes audacity to dig deep into our own vulnerabilities, which can feel daunting. But if we don’t take the exquisite risk, we live with the challenge of not feeling authentic and we’ll have a hard time seeing ourselves with clarity. Real relationships involve some risky generosity. To be able to celebrate the greatness and to give the other person space and permission to be human. Commitment enables us to affirm resilience in our love.

Dr. Sara Baris:
… enables us to affirm resilience in our love, to affirm the thousands of slights that everyday life can make us prone to, have not reduced our capacity to deeply appreciate each other. We need to constantly renew our commitment to help jumpstart the potential of the relationship, to make space for ourselves and our partner, to keep our heart and mind open. And yet, it is important to not whitewash serious issues, especially if one’s own deep values, feelings of self-worth, and agency are diminished. We can’t take a shortcut or a spiritual bypass of sorts, where we prematurely transcend our human needs, leaving personal values and serious issues by the wayside.

Self-awareness and humility helps us to seek guidance from rabbanim and skillful professionals. So love begins where the movie ends. Building and deepening the connection is work that begins before marriage and continues for our lifetime. The ideals in relationship also develop over time. They evolve to incorporate new needs and changing challenges. So, love is an ability to cultivate not just a feeling, love is an action that involves care, commitment, responsibility, respect, trust, and playfulness. Yes, playfulness, deep mercy and light touch. So, happily ever after is a privilege and a blessing that comes with hard work, lifelong intentionality, and commitment. It is the holiest work and the ongoing grace that comes along with it is a boundless gift.

David Bashevkin:
The distinction that she mentions in the name of Barry Schwartz, who wrote that book, The Paradox of Choice, I think is something that I have struggled with my entire life and I see so many, particularly people who are in their 20s now, where we have access to more choice than ever, and sometimes become paralyzed and really being able to find a path for our own lives. I think part of the issue has to do with the success of the paths that we’ve actually already built, that we have this very clear path, particularly for those growing up in America, and I’ve discussed this so many times on 18Forty, that institutional path that takes you from kindergarten to elementary school and your elementary schools. Every community could list off what are the different schools and what they say about the families that’s in there, and then the right camps, and then the right high schools, and then we have the year in Israel, a phenomenon that I hope that we get to do a deeper dive on.

And then ultimately, you have your slew of colleges and their hills, or YU or Landers, and Touro and Stern and all that stuff. And we have this very clear path. And then, we’re kind of pushed out into the world to start building a life of our own. And we have this access to all this choice on our own. And the problem is for so many growing up now, because of the incredible success of our institutional paths, have deferred and almost our muscles in being able to make real choices and commit and build our lives, whether it’s our romantic lives, our religious lives, or our professional lives. We can become lost, what I call the Bermuda Triangle of your 20s, where in your 20s, we expect you to be able to make these choices about what you’re going to be religiously, what you’re going to be professionally, what you’re going to be romantically. And be able to make those choices with the same ease and smoothness with which you progressed from middle school to high school, which got you from 11th grade to 12th grade. That path is extraordinarily smooth.

And then all of a sudden, we step off of this institutional well-paved highway into the unpaved wilderness of our individual lives. And that can be extraordinarily challenging. And I think what she reminded me is that the angst and the anxiety that we feel when we step out and we actually are building our lives and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out is not a bug of life, but a feature of really being engaged in life. That we don’t approach our decisions as just a checkbox and we don’t approach our life as just check off your job title and your socioeconomic status and what shul you belong to, and then you are all set. But realizing that life itself is fostering commitment and creating something where the product of what you create, the life that you create through your decisions does not exist until you make those commitments.

And commitment is the fulcrum of life itself. And that so many become paralyzed with all of these choices because of the mystery, “Well, what are the Amazon reviews? What should I become? What should I be?” And we get all worried. And I know so many people who I meet with in their 20s who are like, “I’m not taking any steps forward until I figure myself out.” And sometimes that’s necessary, but more often than not, it’s not. More often than not, I said, “Don’t take a sabbatical from life itself.” You don’t need to stop making choices until you have yourself figured out, that is life itself, is figuring yourself out, and that itself can change as you progress. It is not like going from 9th grade to 10th grade where you have this very clear path where you’re going next. Life itself includes the mystery that only emerges, and we only get a glimpse of the resolution once we move into it, once we create it, once we build it. Doesn’t exist until we have the commitment.

It’s not like buying a car, where you can go to the lot and give it a test drive. Our lives are the product of our choices. And I remain incredibly grateful for Sara Barris. And really the first tool that allowed me to really grab a hold of some of the very real mental health issues that were paralyzing my progression in life was first and foremost, therapy and medication, obviously, under the guidance of very serious professionals, of people who are able to listen, understand, diagnose, and prescribe or talk through issues. But that has been absolutely foundational. After therapy and medication, the second thing that has been absolutely crucial, for me at least, has been the world of comedy. Many people know that I don’t just appreciate comedy. To me, at least, it gives me language and ideas to express feelings that I’ve had in my own life in ways that I haven’t been able to necessarily express on my own at different periods in my life.

I was recently on a different podcast. You could listen to it, but it’s not exactly 18Forty, it’s a very different vibe. I talk about why I went on in the episode itself, but I went on a podcast called Mislaibeled, hosted by Laibel Weiner and my dearest friend, Dovi Neuburger. But one of the things that I mentioned in the episode is my particular struggle with mental health and a lot of my anxieties, particularly as of late more recently, is the fact that I’m involved in a line of work professionally which does not have that clear path, or what seems to be a clear path. When you are a lawyer or a doctor, the path that you are about to walk on professionally and what it means to succeed, the vehicle for your success exists even before you step into it. What it means to be the head of a surgery department or have your own private practice, you know somebody has created that path already before you in that trajectory of what it means to be a successful doctor, lawyer, accountant, and a lot of those other professions.

Many people now, especially it’s not just me, are going into fields where the path for success, you have to build your own vehicle. And that, to me at least, has been a great source of my own anxiety. 18Forty is a large part of my professional life and it’s something that I had to build on my own. I never knew it existed. I never knew what it would be. Even after we had our initial funding, I remember the angst I had when 18Forty was first supposed to launch. It was supposed to launch in January of 2020, which is why our first series was on Talmud, coincided with the Grand Siyum on Daf Yomi. And, I had a very real depressive episode that was filled with panic attacks.

I could not get it off the ground because it’s just so scary to walk down a path that you don’t know where it goes. Is it going to fail? Is it going to succeed? Is it going to be okay? And I was frozen, we only launched in May of 2020, it was after COVID broke out. But that scariness of building your own vehicle can be paralyzing when you are watching others who seem to be going down much more well-paved paths. Now obviously, there’s always an illusion to this. I’m not saying that there’s no anxiety in being a doctor or lawyer or an accountant, but the unique anxiety that I, and many of this generation and more so in Generation Z, people who are emerging now in their 20s, really grapple with is the angst of being able, having the capacity to build your own vehicle.

And in that episode in Mislaibeled, I mentioned a documentary, that for me gave language to that experience. And it’s a documentary called the Comedian that stars Jerry Seinfeld, who’s well-known, and another comedian, Orny Adams. And there is this one scene in the Comedian where Orny Adams is sharing some of his professional anxiety in a very real way to Jerry Seinfeld. Now Jerry, he’s not a psychologist, he’s just listening. But the angst that Orny Adams is expressing is something that I have felt in a very real way, and it took me a very long time to have the perspective of Jerry Seinfeld.

And I wanted to share it with you now because this dialogue has been so instrumental in my own journey in mental health. Let’s listen to Orny Adams and Jerry Seinfeld in the Comedian.

Orny Adams:
And you get to a point, you’re like, “How much longer can I take it?”

Jerry Seinfeld:
Is time running out? Are you out of time?

Orny Adams:
I’m getting older.

Jerry Seinfeld:

Orny Adams:
I’m getting older. It’s odd. Listen, I’m 29, I feel I’ve sacrificed so much of my life. The last three years have been a blur.

Jerry Seinfeld:
Do you have something else you would rather have been doing?

Orny Adams:

Jerry Seinfeld:
You got other appointments or other places you got to be?

Orny Adams:
Not necessarily, but-

Jerry Seinfeld:
No, not necessarily.

Orny Adams:
I see all my friends are making a lot of money on Wall Street. I seen what-

Jerry Seinfeld:

Orny Adams:
I just see that my friends, they’re moving up and I’m worried that I’m not-

Jerry Seinfeld:
They’re moving up?

Orny Adams:
They’re moving up.

Jerry Seinfeld:
Are you out of your mind?

Orny Adams:
No, I’m not my mind. I just-

Jerry Seinfeld:
This has nothing to do with your friends.

Orny Adams:
I’ve upset you.

Jerry Seinfeld:
No. This is a special thing. It has nothing to do with making it or-

Orny Adams:
Did you ever stop and compare your life and go, “Okay, I’m 29, my friends are all married, they’re all having kids, they all have houses. They have some sort of sense of normality.”

Jerry Seinfeld:
Let me tell you a story.

Orny Adams:
What do you tell your parents? How do you deal with that?

Jerry Seinfeld:
What do you tell your parents?

Orny Adams:
Yes. How do you-

Jerry Seinfeld:
This is your… Your parents? Let me tell you a story about… This is my favorite story about show business. Glenn Miller’s orchestra, they were doing some gig somewhere. They can’t land where they’re supposed to land because it’s winter, snowy night. So they have to land in this field and walk to the gig. And they’re dressed in their suits, they’re ready to play, they’re carrying their instruments. So they’re walking through the snow and it’s wet and it’s slushy. And in the distance they see this little house and there’s a lights on in the inside and this billow of smoke coming out of the chimney.

And they go up to the house and they look in the window and in the window, they see this family. There’s a guy and his wife, she’s beautiful, and there’s two kids and they’re all sitting around the table and they’re smiling, they’re laughing and they’re eating and there’s a fire in the fireplace. And these guys are standing there in their suits and they’re wet, they’re shivering and they’re holding their instruments and they’re watching this incredible Norman Rockwell scene. This one guy turns to the other guy and goes, “How have people live like that?” That’s what it’s about.

David Bashevkin:
I think that feeling of watching all your friends advance and it seems like they all have a clear path and you feel stuck and you’re taking all of this risk without even knowing if the vehicle that you are going to build is going to get you anywhere is something that a lot of comedians, a lot of entertainers, and I, as a podcast host, struggle with a great deal. People have asked me all the time, “Are you going to be doing 18Forty for the rest of your life?” And the answer is, “I have no idea.” I have no idea. We could shut down at the end of this year if, I don’t know, the budget implodes, we don’t do anything. I have no idea. I think a lot of entrepreneurs may feel this, that I’m trying to build something that doesn’t yet exist. I am building the vehicle and I don’t even know how far it will get.

And that is a professional concern if you’re healthy, but it can metastasize as it has for me many, many, many times, could just ask Mitch Eichen, the partner and the visionary who really was the first person who 18Forty doesn’t exist without, not only his support, but that initial phone call to me. He knows. He’s seen me fall apart in very real ways. In some ways, he’s also my therapist and he’s paused me and he’s told me, “David, you need to get help right now. You need to speak to somebody. This is too much.” And that angst and that pressure that you feel particularly in the public square and then feeling that public pressure is something that I’ve got a lot of consolation from listening not just to comedy and the joy of comedy, but listen to comedians speak seriously about their own struggles and the way that they relate to their own sense of self, which is why I literally say I am a student of comedy.

I’m not just saying that I follow comedy extraordinarily closely, which I do, but that I listen to the way comedians self-reflect on their own journey and their own career where they take this incredible risk to go out in the world and build a vehicle that does not yet exist, that they have no idea how far it will go. And there is a second factor that relates specifically, I think, to the world of entertainment, and honestly, to the world of education and even more specifically to the rabbinic world where so much of your success is contingent on being liked. So much of your sense of self is contingent. So much of your success is only possible if people like you. I don’t need to like my dentist. I definitely don’t need to get along or like my lawyer. I don’t really need to have a friendship with my doctor.

You don’t need to like them. You need to be able to trust them. They need to be professional. You need to be able to tolerate and stand them, but you don’t need to like them. There are some industries, and I am unfortunate enough to be in one as are many others, where part of your professional identity, you need to be liked in order to be successful. That sets up something very dangerous where every time you step in front of a microphone, you feel like you are recreating your very sense of self. That I don’t exist unless I am being liked. I am not a person unless I am getting that approval. And I know so many comedians who have spoken, I think quite bravely and poignantly, about that phenomenon of learning to extract their own sense of self and learning to extract who they are as people from their professional identity, even with the knowledge that their professional identity demands and requires them to be liked.

To be able to elicit an applause, approval, head nods, joy, laughter, whatever industry you may be in, whether you are a rabbi of a shul, whether you are an educator, whether you’re an entertainer, or whether you’re a comedian or any of those related fields, there is this sense of needing to be liked. And learning how to extract yourself from that while still being able to do your job, learning how to have a sense of self outside of the affirmation of the audience, I think is a lifelong journey and struggle. I think so many people have this in their communal interactions, “Who am I, if not someone who is liked?” And the people who taught me about how to talk about this, how to speak about this, are comedians. And that is why in the second thing that I want to talk about after therapy, now we’re talking about comedy. Allow me to share with you, I think one of the most profound dialogues, it meant a lot to me, between John Mulaney and Stephen Colbert.

This took place on Stephen Colbert’s show on CBS, and they had a very brief dialogue that sat with me in such a real way with John Mulaney who had just come out of drug rehab. He had this very clean cut image as a comedian, somebody who seemingly had his life altogether. Some people knew he had struggled with alcohol and drugs in college, but nobody would’ve ever guessed that he would relapse. He was happily married and then his life seemingly fully fell apart on a very public stage. And afterwards, he had a conversation with Stephen Colbert. I have no idea if this was rehearsed or planned. It did not seem to me. And I watch a lot of talk show interviews a lot. I watch a lot of interviews in general. They have an incredibly poignant dialogue that made an incredible impression on me, gave me language for my own life. And I would like to share it with you. Here is John Mulaney in conversation with Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert:
Do you have a lot of anxiety?

John Mulaney:
I do have a lot of anxiety.

Stephen Colbert:
And that’s why you don’t want anyone to actually ever truly know you.

John Mulaney:
Oh. That’s a really good question.

Stephen Colbert:
Thank you.

John Mulaney:
Is it okay if I take time? I know we’re on a network. Can I take time?

Stephen Colbert:
No, I got a cup of coffee right here. Just give me about 15 seconds on the clock, Jimmy.

John Mulaney:

Stephen Colbert:
While we wait for an answer, a reminder to our audience, John Mulaney has been asked the question, “Is your anxiety why you don’t want anyone to know you?”

John Mulaney:
From an early age, I tried to be funny for the adults. My mom said, “When you were a baby, you used to poke your head out of blankets.” And she said, “It was like you knew how to be cute.” She didn’t say it flatteringly. She was like, “It was weird. It was like you knew what you were doing.” I think I thought and feel still that I have to provide that in order for people to like me. So then the idea of, “Would they like me just as me without poking out of the blanket?” metaphorically, is a real thought or concern.

Stephen Colbert:
A follow-up question, Mr. Mulaney, at the crux of your answer, is the need to be liked. Do you think you’ll ever get to a stage where you can be yourself because you don’t care whether they like you or not?

John Mulaney:
I don’t mean to turn it on you, but how do you feel about that? Where are you at in your process? Do you have a process in terms of being in the public eye, being very funny, and coming home and facing Stephen in the mirror? Those 4:00 AM moments.

Stephen Colbert:
I have gotten to a place where I don’t want a lot from the audience other than to make them laugh and to make a connection that my internal anxieties, as I express them externally through the joke, when it makes them laugh, I have the sense of comradery and community that I’m not crazy to feel this way because they wouldn’t laugh unless they recognized it in somebody else. And it might be in the anxiety about life or death or about what happened today in the news. So there are a lot of people out there who I know don’t like me because of the sometimes divisive nature of the jokes that I make.

John Mulaney:
Oh, okay.

Stephen Colbert:
You know what I mean?

John Mulaney:

Stephen Colbert:
So if you know that’s happening-

John Mulaney:
That feels personal?

Stephen Colbert:

John Mulaney:

Stephen Colbert:
What feels personal is the connection I make with the people who do appreciate the jokes. And beyond that, I’m just doing my job and I wish no one harm. And if some people don’t like what I do, I don’t like that, but it’s not my problem.

John Mulaney:
Wow, that’s really great.

David Bashevkin:
Both John Mulaney’s admission of needing to be liked and thinking, even from a young child, that, “If I don’t make people laugh, then who am I? Will people still like me? Am I still serving my purpose?” I think everybody struggles with this on one level or another. Maybe it’s, “If I’m not smart, then who am I? If I’m not profound?, Who am I? If I’m not a successful doctor, if I am not wealthy, if I am not, fill in the blank, then what am I doing?” I think that is a very human and very real feeling. And I so appreciated Stephen Colbert’s answer even if it can easily be tailored or translated into our own lives. We’re not all hosting our own talk shows, but Stephen Colbert’s response, I need to just say, Stephen Colbert, who’s deeply religious and is a family man, and to me at least, his conversations about grief, his father died in a plane crash along with many of his brothers, I think that’s part of the reason why we have black boxes on planes, came from the death of Stephen Colbert’s family.

He’s one of the most profound people who I’ve ever listened to. I know a lot of people don’t like his contemporary politics, that is fine, but he is one of the most profound, thoughtful people I’ve ever listened to. I love listening to his interviews. I lost a fellowship once. I applied to some fellowship that was politically a little bit more right wing, and they asked me, who are my religious role models? I thought a creative answer and a true answer would be mentioning Stephen Colbert. And apparently, because he’s a little left-wing politically, that was the incorrect answer and I did not get it. That was one of the many fellowships that I was rejected from. But that experience and listening to comedians and entertainers talk about their own process and how they balance their mental health and even how they articulate their own anxiety is something that has resonated with me and why I consider myself not just a student of comedy, but in many ways a talmid, a student of comedians themselves because I think that struggle is so real and they don’t have the luxury of ignoring it.

And when they do talk about it, I think it is a tremendous service to the community and for their fans. And I think all of us, there’s nothing to be ashamed of to find profundity and wisdom within this world, which of course, leads me to number three. Number one was therapy. Number two was comedy. Number three is the world of books. It is no surprise to anybody who has been listening to 18Forty or anybody who’s met me or follows me on social media, books have been of my closest and deepest friends really throughout my life. The ideas and the relationships, honestly, that I formed with the ideas that I find in books have really uplifted me.

And I think particularly when it comes to struggles with mental health, finding writers and ideas who are able to articulate some of those struggles and solutions, it is not about just airing out what ails us, but really finding pathways where mental health is not about struggles, but it’s about being healthy and feeling healthy and feeling blessed and joyful in our lives, which at a point my life, and today is one of those days, I feel great right now. Thank God. The moment I said that I stopped feeling good. So never say that out loud. But finding out a way where mental health is not a dirty word, but a joyful word. And finding the books that really talk to you. Unfortunately, I will be honest, I have never found a book that talks about psychology and religion, particularly Judaism, that really spoke to me. To me, it’s the great white whale. Maybe I have two books in the works right now as we speak. Maybe the book that I do after that will be about the interplay of psychology and mental health and what it means to be growing up in the Orthodox world.

That book, to me, does not yet exist. And I feel bad saying that. And please, if you’re listening and you think that I overlooked a book, let me know. I want to know it. I want to find it. And I feel bad saying this out loud because I have some very close friends who wrote books that are wonderful and great but didn’t resonate in that way that this is the book that I have found that articulated the interplay between psychology and religion. A lot of times the books are like, Our Fathers, which is a nice, I don’t know, it feel sometimes like a nice parlor trick, but I want something that really integrates and talks about the interplay, about how those different identities interact with one another. And I haven’t yet found it. I am looking for it desperately, and I hope one day it is written by somebody. It doesn’t have to be me.

I’m not a professional therapist. I’m not a licensed mental health professional. Somebody should find it. And let me just emphasize one more time because if I didn’t do it enough in the therapy one that we mentioned, it is crucial that when you seek therapeutic help that you find it from somebody who is a licensed mental health professional. That is obvious, but that does not go without saying. That is really important. Some very ugly things happen, particularly in our community, when you are seeking help, it’s okay to speak to somebody or speak to a lot of people, you don’t need to only find guidance and ideas from people who have PhDs or CDs or MSWs or counseling degrees. But if you’re doing real therapeutic work, you need somebody with a licensed counseling mental health degree. There is no question about that. But let’s go back to books.

There are two books that I want to highlight, both of which I think I’ve mentioned in passing at least one time or another. But they each, in their own way, have made a tremendous impact on me. The first book that I know I have mentioned before, and that is the book called Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom, who I’ve invited many, many times to come on to 18Forty. He’s almost 100 years old. He has not yet come on, but his book, and I just want to be clear, particularly the introduction to Love’s Executioner, there’s a lot of weird stories in Love’s Executioner, but the prologue I found absolutely life-changing. And I want to read the paragraph, particularly for the mental health series, that really, for me at least, changed my entire approach. And he writes as follows.

I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy. Number one, the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love. Number two, the freedom to make our lives as we will. Number three, our ultimate aloneness. And number four, finally, the absence of any obvious, emphasis on the word obvious, meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption I hope to demonstrate. And then he says in these 10 tales that it’s possible to confront the truths of existence and harness their power in the service of personal change and growth. And he goes through each of these four things and why they’re such fundamental truths. The one is learning how to deal with impermanence, the inevitability of death for each of us and those we love, which obviously, the terror of death for many can be paralyzing and we keep it out of our minds. I think the second one is absolutely foundational, the freedom to make our lives as we will. And he-

David Bashevkin:
Freedom to make our lives as we will, and he elaborates on what that freedom is all about. Because what he writes, it’s so powerful. Though the word responsible may be used in a variety of ways, I prefer Sartre, the great existential philosopher’s definition, to be responsible is to be the author of. Each of us does the author of his or her own life design.

We are free to be anything but unfree. We are, as Sartre would say, condemned to freedom. And that freedom can weigh heavily on us. That’s going back to that voice note from Dr. Sara Barris, where we can sometimes feel paralyzed from the amount of choice that we have. And be unable or unwilling because of the haunting feeling of what our unlived lives will feel like, because of that feeling that we don’t know what will happen after commitment. But ultimately, every choice, including not making a choice, will produce its own life and will produce its own result.

We are condemned to freedom, the freedom to choose. “Freedom,” he writes, I’m continuing, “Not only requires us to bear responsibility for our life choices, but also posits that change requires an act of will. Effort too is needed. You need to try.” And then he finally says, and this has haunted me forever and I’ve quoted it a thousand times, he ends that second principle with saying, “Decisions are difficult. Decision invariably involves renunciation. For every yes, there is a no.”

Each decision eliminating or killing other options. The root of the word decide means slay as in homicide or suicide. The heaviness of deciding, and how deciding can feel, especially when you have an unhealthy relationship with commitment, that deciding can often feel like you are cutting off a path. And you’d rather live in that ambiguous world where all of the possibilities exist is why so many become paralyzed in their own life, in their 20s or maybe a midlife crisis, where they start to wander and wonder about those unlived lives, what would be.

Maybe I should have done this professionally. Maybe I should have lived in this community. Maybe I could have had a different family life. Maybe I could have had a different professional life, a different religious life. And the way that our unlived lives and our decisions can continue to haunt us can compound the angst and anxiety of what it means to be alive. But ultimately, I think we need to be able to find the joy in deciding, and I think this is a very Jewish concept. And I’ve mentioned this before, where the very word to decide, livchor, bachar is the very same letters as the words charab meaning to destroy or decide, and its relationship to homicide or suicide is both an act of destruction and an act of building. The same way that the word bachar, meaning to choose in Hebrew, also is the same word as charab, meaning to destroy.

The only way to build is through the commitment and through the narrowing of possibilities of actually saying yes to something, and moving in and committing. The third principle he mentions is isolation, that ultimate aloneness. And he says about that one of the greatest paradoxes of life, that self-awareness breeds anxiety. Fusion eradicates anxiety in a radical fashion by eliminating self-awareness. The person who has fallen in love and entered a blissful state of merger is not self-reflective because the questioning lonely eye dissolve into the we. Thus, one sheds anxiety but loses oneself.
This is why therapists do not like to treat patients who have fallen in love. Love is not a passion spark between two people. There’s an infinite difference between falling in love and standing in love. Rather love is a way of being, a giving to, not falling for. A mode of relating at large, not an act limited to a single person. And I think particularly in the Orthodox community, a lot of that isolation is actually ameliorated in very healthy ways, and sometimes, and every community has people, it can also be unhealthy where people don’t have a sense of self outside of where I am vis-a-vis the community, where I am in my station, in my professional life.

And he ends this in the most beautiful way, something that I’ve quoted and my dear artistic friend, Ilan Bloch actually made a beautiful picture of. It says, “Even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.” That to me, even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby. To me, that is the mantra of what we’re doing here in 18Forty. Why we share with one another, why we build community. And what ultimately is the comfort to our aloneness.

I think that there’s an aloneness that even a religious person who believes in God, who believes that a God is always with them, has that sense of solitude and isolation. It’s what Rabbi Nachman begins the second section of Likutei Moharan with: Avraham was one. Avraham had a sense of isolation in his own life. And that even with the comfort of knowing God is with us everywhere, that God who speaks through us and within us in our lives, doesn’t mean that we don’t have periods where we feel that loneliness. And understanding that, and knowing it and not trying to distract from it like a child which Irvin Yalom himself writes. Children love saying, “Mommy and I are one.” And they holding onto your legs and being subsumed into your very body, that sense of being in the fetal position. And the comfort that that brings of turning back the clock, crawling back into the womb and feeling that sense of security.

There is a scariness, but also something comforting of being able to embrace and understand that there is an unbridgeable gap between the self and others. And it is our job to not cripple under that fear. And being able to find comfort, inspiration and productivity even within that unbridgeable gap. And to be able to find that comfort of the lights bobbing nearby. To know that as unbridgeable as that gap may seem, we are still in this together. And finally the last is no obvious meaning to life, which may offend some of our religious listeners, but I think he’s absolutely correct. There is no obvious meaning to life. We do not wake up to the voice of God every morning assuring us that we are on the correct path. We do not wake up and know with absolute certainty that the paths we are on are undoubtedly correct because we have a voice from heaven assuring us so.

I think no one is more in tune with the fact that there is no obvious meaning to life than the people who venture out, and through their own loyalty, their own faithfulness, say, “Despite the lack of obvious meaning, I’m going to continue as if there was obvious meaning.” Or, “I’m going to build and construct an obvious meaning and find a purpose for my own life.” And I think what Irvin Yalom says is absolutely correct, and why I think mental health overall in the Jewish community and even more so in the Orthodox community is actually higher than in so many other populations. And this is what he writes. The search for meaning much like the search for pleasure must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity. The more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely we are to find it. The rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers.

I hope the listeners who are struggling with this, and I meet with so many in person, who feel the weight, that heavy weight of that hyper rationalism of asking those questions and the meaning of the world and the universe. And they get stuck in those questions, and those are important questions, but you can’t get stuck in those questions. Because as Irvin Yalom reminds, meaning ensues from meaningful activity. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity, the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely we are to find it. And I know so many people who get frozen in the abyss of cosmic questions and they’re unable to build and infuse their lives with actual meaning because they’re so busy finding the bottom line answer for the meaning of the universe, which as we began with, there is no obvious meaning. We all have the same set of data. We all have, at this point at least, the information about what is the world, what is the cosmic universe, what is the purpose? What is the nature of man?

And there are different people reaching different conclusions. And the only recommendation that Yalom is urging is not a particular answer to that question, but how we approach that question. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity, don’t get stuck in the abyss of the question. The more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely we are to find it. And he finally ends this prologue, which again, it has stuck with me all this time. I think about these four givens incredibly often, he ends with something very sweet. We cannot say to them, “You and your problems.” Instead, we must speak of us and our problems, because our life, our existence will always be riveted by death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together. And this book and that emphasis, and as stark and as somber as those truths may sound, I think that for me at least in my own journeys of self-exploration, have been incredibly enlightening.
There’s a second book that I want to mention, I talk about it in a later episode in this series, that I think is absolutely crucial. And that thinker is of course Pema Chodron. I think that’s how you pronounce her name, maybe Pema Chodron. Her name is spelled P-E-M-A. And her last name is spelled C-H-O-D-R-O-N. And there are two books of hers that have had an incredible impact on my life. Just a little warning, one of the books used a little bit of language that comes from Eastern religion. It is not a religious book, it is a book about meditation.

I came to this book and to her thinking from Dr. Mark Roberts, who I mentioned earlier. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on 18Forty ever, I’ve certainly spoken about it. In my 20s I was asked to run a Yom Kippur service in Nebraska for the opening game of the Cornhuskers.

I was working at NCSY at the time, and I got a call in from Synagogue Services. They’re looking for a Rabbi who can run a game, because the opening game of the Cornhuskers fell out to be on Yom Kippur. And they wanted somebody to run a tailgating, Yom Kippur experience. Where obviously we wouldn’t be serving food, but for all the Jewish participants, we would have a room and a space where we can talk a little bit about Yom Kippur. And then others will go to the game, and I will have my Yom Kippur services alone.

There’s a lot to talk about what happened there. It was an incredible experience, and I still talk about it today. I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, because I felt like I was Yonah. I was running away from Yom Kippur. There’s a reason why I said yes to going to run a Yom Kippur service where I knew there would be no minion. And to almost take my own Yom Kippur experience and throw it into the wind is not something I would ever recommend.

But I was Yonah. I was running away from Yom Kippur. That’s the honest truth. And when I was going on that flight, which was out of LaGuardia, I had a panic attack in the airport where I broke down crying, uncontrollably crying, in the airport at LaGuardia. It’s always a little jarring to see somebody crying by themselves in an airport, wonder what the passerby’s thought was happening. Did that guy just get a middle seat? What did they think was happening?

But anyways, I was in LaGuardia pacing back and forth outside, having a very real panic attack. I felt like the world was spinning. I was crying. I was in pieces. I was not in a good place at all. And I called Dr. Mark Roberts, and he had mentioned it to me before, and I never like using this term or word, but it has stuck with me all this time. He told me about mindfulness meditation.

Now, mindfulness has metastasized into a lot of other things. And I don’t like talking about it, because it became a buzzword. But the approach to mindfulness and what Dr. Roberts told me to do, and I still remember it, he said, “I want you to walk up and down the sidewalk at the entryway to LaGuardia, and I want you to just pay attention to your feet. And every time that you feel your mind wander or get nervous, I want you to go back and remind yourself of each step that you take. And just pay attention to your steps. Allow your mind to wander. But every time you see it wandering, notice it and return your attention back to your feet.”

This was a form of mindfulness meditation that he himself learned from his teacher, and one of his colleagues was this Pema Chodran. And he recommended her books to me. There are two books of hers that I found incredibly beneficial. The first is called The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, where she really lays out the terminology she uses, the how to become friends with yourself. How to not be frightened by your own thoughts. How to not allow that cascade of thinking to ultimately explode into an abyss of unhealthiness and brokenness. And how to function and not allow your thoughts to trigger you in this reactive way, where you feel like you’re trying to drive about in your day. And every hour or so, some intrusive thought comes in where you have to swerve out of the road.

Learning how to become friends with yourself is obviously a lifelong journey. But Pema’s books, the first is The Wisdom of No Escape, and the other is How to Meditate. It’s a book just called How to Meditate, has given me the tools. Not to say that I’m constantly in meditation, I am not a practitioner of any sort of Zen meditation. But that type of mindfulness that I learned back then, paying attention to your steps, or what I did with Dr. Roberts, learning how to pay attention to your breath. Or letting your mind wander and then coming back to your breath, sitting in that upright position, is something that, especially in points of very real anxiety that I have felt and continue to feel at different points in my life, has been of immeasurable benefit to me.

Because what it really does is you learn how to be friends with yourself. You learn how to be not so reactive to your thoughts, where when a thought comes in and it immediately metastasizes into so much more where you’re almost afraid of what’s lurking in your own head, you have these fears and triggers that all of a sudden your personality changes or you shut down. Or you get tired all of a sudden, that your thoughts are able to emerge and not distract, and not almost they grab ahold of the wheel. But we are all together in this, so to speak.

And you become friends with yourself, instead of battling yourself, instead of trying to distract yourself, you become, so to speak, friends with yourself. And those two books, the wisdom of No Escape and How to Meditate, have been of immeasurable benefit to me. In addition to the book that I mentioned previously, the prologue, again, I’m only taking responsibility for the prologue to Love’s Executioner.

So that’s number one, two, and three. And number four, and this is really important and really comes to the heart of a lot of what we do in 18Forty, is the role that family, and particularly knowing and understanding your family history, plays in your life. Now, I am not going to go into all of the very real details of my own family history in mental health. It happens to be my uncle, my uncle Alan, who I mention quite frequently, who I love lives in Bennington, Vermont.

He wrote a master’s thesis on my great-grandfather, on his grandfather, Eli Siegel. He actually changed the name. He had a very, very difficult life, and dealt with issues of mental health of the highest order. I don’t want to get into the details on this podcast, maybe we’ll come back to it on a different series, but I read through his master’s thesis or paper that he got. He himself is a mental health professional. I invited him on, I think it’s too much to talk directly to family on this. The one day I hope to do it, I’m desperate to interview my parents. That is the number one interview that I would love to have, because they are really my number one teachers.

But I think what gave me the most stability in my life, continuing on to today, is really understanding my own family history. And when I say family history, I don’t just mean mental health history. What has ailed the different generations, or my parents or my siblings, or my grandparents and great grandparents, that too, but really understanding the world from which I emerged. Understanding and knowing their personalities, knowing the personalities of my great-grandparents who I’ve never met, but I can do imitations of. Because I’ve heard my father do imitations of Eli Siegel … And he would also say, “Oh, so nice, so nice,” whenever he would see sheep. And still to this day with my family, whenever we see sheep, we say, “Oh, so nice. So nice.”

But knowing your family history is absolutely, absolutely crucial. It brings us back to a former guest that we have had on 18Forty named Bruce Filer, who we interviewed before our intergenerational divergence series a few years ago. Bruce Filer is a brilliant writer, and he wrote an article called the stories that bind us, which I return back to and read on my own every year at the Pesach Seder. Which is about sharing and telling family stories is actually the number one predictor of cultivating resilience in young children, because it allows people to grow up in a world where they feel and understand that they’re a part of something, they’re anchored in something beyond themselves.

And it ameliorates, it lessons, it comforts that aloneness that we sometimes often feel. And learning about the difficulties that your family has had, learning about the better times and the worst times that your family has had. I’m not just talking about your own childhood, I’m talking about what your parents have been through, what your grandparents have been through. He concludes the article, the bottom line, if you want to have your family create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from difficult ones, that act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

And I am incredibly blessed that I grew up in such a family. I think the most formative experience that I ever had with that was at the funeral of my great aunt, who we affectionately called Auntie Goldie. Auntie Goldie was an incredible person, and her funeral, which I believe was in Pittsburgh, was graveside. There were a handful of people there, myself, my father, my mother, they hired a rabbi. And I remember my father ended up getting into a fight with the rabbi. That’s a whole separate story. Because my father insisted, as you’re supposed to, as Jewish law demands, to actually take the dirt and bury my Auntie Goldie.

But I remember my father’s eulogy, his hesped, graveside for Auntie Goldie. And he said something absolutely remarkable that I think about constantly, that I’m so grateful to have parents and to come from a family of somebody who would say this publicly. There were people there, and my father said, he shared a little bit about her life, and he stopped and he said, “My Auntie Goldie had a period in her life, particularly in postpartum, where she had to be committed to a mental institute. She had to be hospitalized.”

And my Auntie Goldie was one of three. She had two sisters. One was my bubby and one was my Auntie Ada. And my father looked up and said, “My Auntie Goldie was the one who took the most care in actually addressing her mental health issues. And even though she’s the one who had to live the rest of her life having been hospitalized in a mental institution to deal with her issues, but she came out of it so much healthier.”

And my father almost looked up and was like addressing us, like familiarly, that what really distinguish our Auntie Goldie, who we grew up knowing as the most normal by a wide margin. She was the most upbeat, healthy. She was just absolutely lovely and wonderful. And having her and my uncle Paul, alav ha-shalom, both of them was like the number one child… We loved when they came over. They were so healthy and upbeat, and they had this lovely marriage. They lived in New Hampshire.

And my father looked up and said, “You want to know what made her such a joy? The fact that she dealt with her issues. The fact that she sought real professional help. The fact that she was willing, and there’s always some element of shame or defeat in being hospitalized for mental health issues.” But that’s what allowed her to spend the rest of her life with real mental health, being healthy mentally, being healthy emotionally.

And I saw her, she was very different from her sister. She was very different from my bubbie, each of whom had different struggles. But she was just a burst of joy and positivity. And to say this at a eulogy, which for many people may bristle you wrong and say, “Why would you bring up someone’s darkest times? We’re supposed to share their triumphs and their successes and their achievements. This is our final goodbye.”

My father was teaching me something. He was teaching us something, that this was one of her greatest achievements. This was one of her shining moments. The fact that she was willing to seek and find the help that she needed. This is not something to paper over. This was one of the crowning achievements of her life that allowed her to live a life that was so joyful and joyous. And that moment at that eulogy, at that levaya, has always stuck with me. And I am so incredibly grateful to grow up in a family, and every family has their own stories, but where we share these stories. And we’re not afraid of these stories. They’re not hidden in some closet somewhere where we never talk about it. It’s just the noise coming from the basement.

We don’t talk about Bruno. We don’t open up that box. We don’t open up that door. We don’t step into that room. We don’t go down the steps into the basement, which so many people live in. They have rooms that they don’t open in their own lives. But instead, what my father at least taught us in that moment is that the crowning achievement is actually seeking help. It’s not rehashing dirty laundry. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, but seeking the help that you need is what allowed her to have that crowning achievement.

And being able to tell those family stories is so much of what makes us who we are. So that’s number four, therapy number one, number two, comedy. Number three, books. Number four, our family history. And finally, number five, which brings us to our interviews, is recognizing and building relationships with healthy people. Making sure that our friends, and even the people who are almost like passing in in our lives, that we pay attention to them. When I say healthy people, I don’t mean people who have never struggled, but people who through their own struggles have developed an outlook on life that we find uplifting, that we find joyful.

Very often, we condemn ourselves for whatever reasons not to have the friends that we need, but the friends we’re supposed to have. And I’ve seen people go through life, and they hate their friendships and they hate the people that surround them. They’re being berated by friends. They’re walking on eggshells around friends. They’re not being nourished at all by their friendships. Because they’re the friends they’re supposed to have, not the actual friends that they need. And I think very often we need to pay attention in our lives, that the people that we surround ourselves by should uplift us and should give us joy.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t share sad times together and difficulty, and lean on one another, but it means that our friendships are not just for our social status, our friendships, and the people who occupy our lives. I’m not just talking about the people we grew up with in our friendships with, but the people who come in and out of our lives and make appearances in our lives. We should pay close attention to what they have learned. And I want to highlight two people. One is somebody who I’m extraordinarily close to, and the other is, I would say someone who literally passed by and really transformed the way I approach mental health.

The first is somebody who I tried to have a longer interview on. Her name is Millie Shapiro. She is nearly 100 years old. She is my Zadie’s second wife. After my bubby passed away, he married somebody named Millie Shapiro who lives in Baltimore. And the role that she plays, not just in my life, but the role that she plays in my family’s life, is not just our second grandma Millie, but somebody whose outlook on life and what she’s lived and experienced is simply jaw dropping.

She’s 99 years old. She has buried two spouses. She has buried a child who died of cancer. And she has a disposition towards life that whenever I’m around her, I sit next to her like you would imagine somebody sitting next to a Rosh yeshiva listening to the great mysteries of Torah learning or whatever it is. I sit with her because she is somebody who has experienced a great deal of life.

And I think very often we don’t spend enough time listening to these kind of people who have really had these transformative experiences. Not to say that they’ve had perfect lives or great lives or easy lives, but they fully confronted life itself. I interviewed Millie, a lot of it is hard, just the audio quality is very hard because I wasn’t able to get down to Baltimore. I hope to be there, God willing, she should live and be well for her 100th birthday, which is coming up quite soon.

But I spoke to her and had a brief conversation when she was, I believe 99. Because of a health issue, she had to have both of her legs amputated. And she continued. And I spoke to her, I had a long conversation with her. And I want to share some of the snippets of that conversation that we had together. Because I think just listening to her, and her voice, at least to me, is so soft. And there’s an upbeatness. She’s from the south, so she’s got a little bit of that southern twang on her. But what she’s lived through religiously, Jewishly, she’s a treasure of humanity and she’s a treasure of the Jewish people. Here is brief snippets of our conversation with Grandma Millie.

Grandma Millie:
I find that I don’t have to burden other people with my problems, and I’m trying to work through everything that is bothering me. Now, I had to go through a lot of soul-searching before I had my leg amputated. And I kept going from one crisis to another, and then I said, “Look, if I don’t have it done, I could be poisoning the rest of my body. So what’s the point of arguing about it? Let’s get it over with.” And let’s see how I make out.

And everybody was giving me confidence. In the long run, you will get a prosthesis. You’ll learn how to walk again with this, and you’ll be okay. Well, I listened with a half an ear. I don’t know whether I’m going to be okay or not, but I’ll see. I’ll certainly take that into consideration, but I don’t know that I can even explain to you what I was feeling. I just don’t know how I could explain.

David Bashevkin:
She’s just an incredible person, and she should continue to see joy and nachas in her life. The story that stands out to me is my Zadie was not the easiest person in the world. He was a very tough, he was a military guy. And I remember one time, one of my nieces, his grandchild, I think it was Rebecca, came to see him. And he wasn’t the most physically affectionate, a hugger and all that stuff, and it wasn’t really his style.

I gave him hugs, but he didn’t know how to play with little kids. That wasn’t really where he shined. He was great with when you get a little bit older and you can have conversations with him about life. And even the very message that he reinvented his personality. He got married when he was 80, and they were married for 14 years together. I remember he one time, Rebecca was a little baby. It was two, three years old. And saw him, and I don’t know, oh, she needed her diaper changed.

And I think my zadie was like, “I’m not changing that diaper.” And I remember Millie said in the sweetest voice, I may be butchering the story. She says, “Go on now. Go on now, Bill, you could do it. Come on now, Bill.”

And that softness and that little southern twang in her voice, “Come on now, you can do it.” The softness which she said it was somebody who had the thoughtfulness of life in a very instinctive ways. And I think everybody has people like this in their lives, or I hope has someone like this in their lives. And just very often we don’t take the moment to really appreciate them.

There’s somebody else I want to highlight, and this may be jaw-dropping. It is not somebody I’m incredibly close with, but somebody I admire. And it’s an incident in my own life, almost like that daily struggle and grind of life, who snapped me out of being overwhelmed and suffocated. I think that’s the word. Sometimes at the end of the day, you’re so suffocated by all the responsibility.

David Bashevkin:
I think that’s the word. Sometimes at the end of the day, you’re so suffocated by all the responsibilities and emails and you come home fatigued, and really pulled me out of it. We talk about this incident, but I’ll set it up. It was a Tuesday night. I teach on Tuesday nights in Yeshiva University and I came home and it must’ve been, I don’t know, close to 10 o’clock at night maybe. I was meeting with students. I was exhausted and I was wiped and I was not in the mood. I don’t know if any of you, if we’ve ever interacted, everybody has periods, “I’m not in the mood. I’m not in the mood. I don’t want to be your entertainer. I don’t want to be your clown. I don’t want to talk about how things are going. I want to rest.” I always say, “I need 20 minutes.” That’s what I say. “I need 20 minutes just to re-anchor myself.”

And I was coming home and I saw somebody standing outside of my door and I said, “Oh my God, I’m not in the mood.” And he greeted me with such joy and with such upbeatness it made me furious. I got even angrier. There’s one person you don’t want to talk to, is that like upbeat, happy clappy, smiley guy when you’re doing it. And I said, “What do you need? What can I help you with?” He’s like, “Hey, I’m here to sell your wife toilets.” He’s a toilet salesman. I said, “Oh my God, give me a break.” He was unfazed by my own personal miserableness and bitterness, just unfazed. And I thought I’d wear him down and he’d also be miserable and bitter, he’s here to sell a toilet at 10 o’clock at night or whatever it was.

But he wore me down and before I knew it, I started to feel more space, more like I was breathing easier. And I looked at him, we were sitting around the kitchen table. He had his, I don’t know, a toilet catalog. We were getting a new toilet for the bathroom in our bedroom. And I looked at him and I said, “How do you do it? Why are you so happy right now? It is 9:30 at night, it’s the end of the day and you are here at an individual customer’s house to sell them a toilet. I understand why you shouldn’t be mean or rude. You got to close the sale. Why are you so happy right now? How do you sustain that?” And most people, when they get a question like that, they’ll brush it off, they’ll dismiss it or they won’t really hear how real and desperate I was for a real and sincere answer.

But I could tell this was a sophisticated and thoughtful and very special person and a holy person. And I don’t use that term lightly. There was a holiness because he gave me his real answer. And that’s the answer I want to talk about in this conversation. And that is our brief conversation with somebody who is incredibly special. Some of you may know him.

He lives in Teaneck. He’s not a celebrity, he’s not a mental health professional. But somebody who in the everyday-ness of life met me at my very worst. I was not in a good place. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was tired, I was exhausted, I felt suffocated, it was the end of the day; and looked at me and was able to talk to me with this joyousness of life itself that pulled me out of it. His name is Jay Richmond. You may know him. He’s not a celebrity, he’s not famous, he’s not a mental health professional. He’s a regular guy, and that’s why I found him so holy. And I want to introduce this conversation and what he responded to me for why he was so upbeat. Because it gave me pause and I hope you listen with that same pause. Here’s our brief conversation with Jay Richman.

It was actually a day that felt a little bit like today. I had a really, really tough day. I was exhausted. Yesterday we went to the Israel rally and I came back very late. My baby, Gavi, has one of these daycare illness, couldn’t sleep the whole night, up the whole night with the kids. Wake up in the morning, kids have a new bus driver, I have to drive the kids to school.

Bus driver misses their stop, I am strung out. And now we’re sitting at nearly the same exact time as the first time that we met. I’m exhausted. I am strung out. I am edgy like I’ll snap at any second. And the first time we met was after that kind of day. I finally come back to my house and I see you, my dearest friend, Jay Richmond, standing on the steps and I’m like, “Who is this guy?” I didn’t know who you were, I didn’t know why you were there, I had no patience. And I projected a little bit of it and I was just like… I’m a nice guy, I wasn’t mean, I wasn’t malicious. I wouldn’t say I was rude, but I was not joyful.

And I came in and you’re sitting there, you’re bopping around. I was like, “What do you here?” And I don’t mean to be blunt, but you were here, it was probably nine o’clock at night, past nine, to sell my wife a toilet. And you are chipper as a chipmunk. You are happy as ever. And I looked at you with a tinge of almost like cynicism, but I looked at you and asked you the following question, “How are you so happy? Why are you in a good mood? It’s nine o’clock at night and you’re here flipping through a toilet brochure with my wife picking out a new toilet for our master bedroom.” And the craziest thing happened, which is you took my, I don’t know, cynical question or question of frustration and you gave me a real answer. What was the answer you gave me that night?

Jay Richman:
Well, I guess the answer was is that I have a special needs brother and I value every single day that I’m able to function as a normal human being. And once you get past that, then any day and every day seems like a bonus. First of all, I want to interrupt you for one second. I want to thank you for asking me to be here. I’m just a regular guy and as you said, all I do is sell toilets. It’s amazing to me that you found my answer so amazing.

David Bashevkin:
It stopped me in my track. I’ve been thinking about it. This is two months ago, three months ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. For real.

Jay Richman:
Again, I have to interject and say it’s strange that I gave any answer because I never discuss my brother with anyone. I came home and I told my wife that I spoke to you about my brother and she says, “You don’t talk about your brother to anyone.” And I felt just very comfortable. I know your background. I have two children who live in The Five Towns and every time we go across the bridge, it’s a two-hour trip. We turn on your podcasts and all your people who you interview are always so amazing. And here I am, I sell toilets and I do. That’s what I do. But again, I guess that was a life changing event. When you wake up every morning and you see someone-

David Bashevkin:
Tell me how you grew up with this, because I know… When I was thinking about it, there’s a comedian who had a big influence on my life, huge, and his name is Gary Shandling. There’s a documentary called the Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling. And the entire exploration of Gary Shanling’s persona is in the shadow of a brother. His brother passed away at a very young age but had disabilities, and it shaped the entire trajectory of his life. I’m looking at you, fully regular guy. I happen to know your son because when I was at NCSY Kollel, he led my haburot, and he married a Lawrence girl who grew up literally around the block from me. But what really shocked me was your a regular guy and I could see your mental health seemed intact, you didn’t get frustrated easily. It caught me off guard that you gave such a real and sincere answer to what is normally just an off the cuff. So tell me a little bit when you growing up, is it older, younger-

Jay Richman:
My brother’s three years younger than me. Things are different today, you have to project back 60 years. We lived in a town called North Bergen. There were no Jewish or even non-Jewish places where we could take my brother for schooling. So my parents really watched my brother in the home, literally, for the first 50 years of his life. They didn’t really-

David Bashevkin:
Five zero?

Jay Richman:
Five zero, right. He went to Hacks for two weeks in the summer, which was I guess even later on in life. Otherwise my parents were with him 50 weeks a year, 24 hours a day, watching him, taking care of him. And when you’re living with somebody like that and you see you have the ability to be more, so I always push myself to be more. And I guess just as an aside, I also am one of the shlichei tzibur in Bnai Yeshurun for Yamim Noraim.

David Bashevkin:

Jay Richman:
And I guess I started when I was maybe 30, 31 years old. And naturally when you’re 30, 31 years old, you think very much about yourself. But in a similar vein, which also affects me tremendously. One year, one of the woman from our shul said, I’m going to take you to Hackensack Hospital to the Children’s Cancer Ward and you’re going to go there before Rosh Hashanah and tell them that you’re going to Daven in for them and make them better.

So the combination of living with my brother, who I saw was very, very low functioning-

David Bashevkin:
Was limited.

Jay Richman:
Right. And when you go to the hospital and you see these people who are counting on me, who am I? I sell toilets. They’re counting on me to Daven. So my whole life took on a different perspective because I felt that I had to be somewhat of a role model, whatever that means; that I had to project myself in a way that I can be positive, I can be productive, and I wanted to contribute to society in any way I can.

David Bashevkin:
I’m just curious. The same story could be told in another way where you have a brother who has disabilities, who’s limited, and your parents have to spend so much of their attention and their time on this brother. There’s another story that could be told where you grow frustrated, resentful, and you it shapes you in a very negative way. What do you attribute the fact that you looked at this situation and interpreted it in your life in such a positive way?

Jay Richman:
That’s a very good question. I have to say that my parents were my role models because again, there’s a lot of frustration with a situation like this, as you said. I never heard my parents ever once yell at my brother that he wasn’t able to do something or that I never heard them talk amongst themselves to say, how did we get stuck with this situation, when—

David Bashevkin:
Never, they never complained?

Jay Richman:
Never, never, never. And again, I felt that’s the thing. I felt I had such a good life. I really did. My parents gave me whatever I more or less I wanted. And I felt that I owed it to my parents to be the best that I could be. And I feel that I owe whoever I encounter, the ability to say nothing is insurmountable and you can overcome anything.

And I never felt that my brother really hurt me or harmed me or made me feel like I was depressed or something. That’s why when I saw him, if anything, that’s the whole point. If anything, he made me want to rise to be even better because I see, I wake up in the morning, he is at a certain level and he can never be more than he is. Maybe if he had more training now, thank God, we have all these services and education, so you can bring more out of somebody with limited ability.

But in the old days, I would say that he’s around a 5-year-old level of, he can say singular words. Thank God he can dress himself and he can shower himself, but that’s about all he can do.

So when I have the ability to wake up and be as productive as I can, I say thank you God for giving that beautiful ability and I want to be as productive as I can. I want to be the best that I can.

David Bashevkin:
Tell me a little bit about the role that your brother’s able to play in your life now. Are you able to visit him? Is he able to recognize who you are?

Jay Richman:
Now he’s living in a Ohel home in Far Rockaway, which is great because I have two children who live out there now.

David Bashevkin:
Right there.

Jay Richman:
So I go there as much as I can. I don’t know if he has even a sense of… My parents passed away. He may say mommy, daddy, but he doesn’t really say that. When he sees me, he knows me, he hugs me. I love him, I hug him. My wife goes in the old time, she sees the love that I have for him. But I don’t even know if I saw him once a day, once a week, once a month, once a year, if it would affect him emotionally, I don’t know. And I don’t know if anybody knows, but I try to visit him every time I go out to visit my kids. I guess even thinking now, I thank God that he’s in a home where they take such good care of him. My parents worked so hard, but they were too protective of him. They didn’t even take him to doctors because they’re afraid that doctors wouldn’t know how to handle somebody like that. And again, project back 55 years…

David Bashevkin:
It’s a long time ago.

Jay Richman:
Right. And it wasn’t so common.

David Bashevkin:

Jay Richman:
Okay, so when my brother finally got into this home, and actually it’s funny… not a funny story, but I guess my mother had a stroke and my father had one of his feet amputated. So we had to have find a place for my brother and we just, luckily, there was an opening in this Ohel home in-

David Bashevkin:
He had been living with them until that point.

Jay Richman:
Until my mother had a stroke, my father’s foot amputated. He could have moved in with me, but I wasn’t equipped necessarily to have him in my home. So a miracle came about, by someone who helped me find this place. Thank you very much. Now he’s in a beautiful home. They take care of him every day. He does some outsourcing work. He leaves the house every day, does some work in some capacity. It’s a Jewish home. So we love that. He does mumble some words, he loves… We used to take him to shul every Shabbos, he would go to shul every Shabbos, that was his one outing.

And he loves the shul. He talks about the Torah, he talks about Sukkos, he talks about Simchas Torah and he loves that. So I’m happy he’s in a Jewish home. I feel good that my parents at least, before they passed away, they got to see that he was in such a wonderful place.

David Bashevkin:
You had mentioned that you don’t usually talk about him. It’s not regular for you-

Jay Richman:
No, it’s not regular, it’s never, it’s never-

David Bashevkin:
And you hesitated a long time before even agreeing to come on. I asked you, you said let me think about it. You were very kind, always, thought about it, and then you agreed. Can you articulate why it’s something that you so rarely talk about, if in fact it’s something that is just beneath the surface of who you are?

Jay Richman:
That’s a good question. I guess 50, 60 years ago, having someone special needs sibling, I didn’t know how to interact with my friends, I don’t know if they were used to seeing somebody like that. I guess I could use the words embarrassed. Now I’m embarrassed that I’m using the word embarrassed.

David Bashevkin:

Jay Richman:
But I guess that I could say that I’m embarrassed. And even in terms of, let’s say, when I was dating, or even my friends when I went to camp… I lived in New Jersey, most of my friends lived in New York, nobody ever came to my house. None of my friends, except for the people who lived in my immediate community, who knew me from shul, knew my brother from shul, high school friends never came over.

David Bashevkin:
They just didn’t know from him.

Jay Richman:
They didn’t know. Right, I never brought it up. And even people now, my best friends, I don’t discuss my brother. Maybe I should. I guess I have a lot of guilt because I do love him. I guess that’s my issue that I just don’t necessarily know how to integrate-

David Bashevkin:
No, I don’t think it’s an issue because you discussed it. I’m just curious, going back to that night, do you have any idea why you decided to tell me that night? Did I look that bad to you?

Jay Richman:
No. See, that’s the thing. I don’t know who you normally interview. I have tremendous respect for you, and I know you have a beautiful open heart, and that’s the truth. And I’m saying this in front of whoever’s listening to you. I just just felt, “You know what? You’re such a good guy. You will understand where I’m from.” That’s basically why I told you. And I guess plus the fact I sold you a toilet. You live on this side of town, I live on the other side of town, maybe I’ll never see you again, so whatever you think of me doesn’t make a difference. It’s not like I see you every day and how is it going to affect my life and something like that.

David Bashevkin:
I just want you to know it is something that has stayed with me. And even talking to you now, I find it deeply comforting because you need reminders in life. It’s not enough to say, have gratitude. Have gratitude, appreciate that. But when you’re in a really dark place… And I wasn’t in the darkest place, but you’re strung out, you’re edgy, like I was. And I’m edgy at the end of the day, I’m a human being. And you hear somebody, you have a cadence to your voice that’s very welcoming and very cheerful, give you a sincere response to an otherwise, “Why are you so happy?” It is transformative and it transformed me and I am just so incredibly grateful that you shared it with me that night because it’s something that stays with me to this very day, and I’m incredibly grateful for you coming on and talking about this.

Jay Richman:
I’m very honored that you invited me. Look, today’s one interview, you do tremendous interviews with a lot of really chashuv important people who have something to say. I think to myself, “Hey, if we wouldn’t have had that meeting, you wouldn’t even see me, you wouldn’t have known me.” So I’m happy we had this slight interaction. And this is again, this is for everyone who’s listening, you never know what you’re going to say, you never know what you’re going to do. And that’s why, Jay Richmond, I like to present myself always in a positive, positive way because you never know it’s going to come back to haunt you or in this particular case, it’s an honor for me to be here. So thank you very much for inviting me into your home.

David Bashevkin:
If anybody ever asked me, how are you so happy? How are you in such a good mood? I don’t know if I would have the capacity to have the answer, but to hear a real sincere answer from somebody, to hear something that is real, that is honest, that is really addressing it, it struck me in a very real way. You can boil it down to a sense of gratitude for life. I am not advocating to start a gratitude journal. I don’t have a gratitude journal. I don’t do that daily in my life, but it gave me pause and it transformed me. I mean that quite honestly. That conversation that we had on that Tuesday night so many years ago, and that’s why I invited him back and that’s why I look at him as a role model.

And that’s why I wanted to conclude my fifth prong in my own journey through mental health and finding healthiness in my own mind, which we began with our talk about therapy and medication. We spoke about comedy, we spoke about books. We spoke about understanding and embracing your family history. And finally, having those healthy people in your life, whether they’re people who are showing up in and out to sell you a toilet, whether it’s your Zayde’s second wife, whether it’s a lifelong friend and I’m grateful to have many of them, to pay attention to them and to allow them to enter your life.

And I think with all of this, you’re not going to solve anything because mental health is not a problem in my mind that needs to be solved. It’s not a question, it is us. It is who we are. It’s what I think about every time somebody says, “You’re not acting like yourself.” And my immediate response after playing a game, what does that even mean philosophically?

You’re not being yourself today is a nonsensical statement. It’s the understanding of learning how to really become friends with yourself, to realize that even in our off days and even in periods of darkness and loneliness, to learn how to integrate that and feel a holistic sense of self.

I want to end with something very simple and very basic, but to me at least, it’s the only statement that has ever given me a tool, something very practical, that I’ve taken in my life and continued. And it’s something that I heard really from two people. I heard it once from my friend and former guest at 18Forty, Gary Gulman, who has an incredible special that I’d recommend everybody watch on HBO, called The Great Depresh, where he talks about his own mental health journey. It’s a lot funnier than this episode. Gary’s the one who introduced me to this thinker, and I also later saw it in a documentary called Unstuck in Time, and that is the great writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut was a fantastic writer. He was not a mental health professional, and he has this one quote that has always stuck with me where he says, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” I’m just going to read it again. “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Because that reshapes our memories. Very often the memories and the traumas that shape us most are our bitter memories, our bad days when we want to curl up into fetal position. And to pay closer attention to when we actually feel great and feel good, to pay closer attention to when we actually feel happy and to actually notice it.

And I try to articulate it. It’s not the same as a gratitude journal. I don’t keep one of those, but to actually say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” It can reshape the memories. It can reshape the way that we look back at our lives and can reshape the way that we look at each moment. And to actually notice and figure out what makes us happy, to take those brief pauses and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So thank you so much for listening. This episode was edited by our dearest friend who’s done such incredible work, Denah Emerson. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt, so if you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You can also donate at It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play in a future episode. That number is 516 519 3308. Once again, that number is 516 519 3308.

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