A ri was the perfect stereotype of a Na-Nach-Nachman chassid. He had giant peyos, wore his tzitzis on top of his shirt, and never left home without a big white kippah and a huge smile. The highlight of his week was Friday afternoon, when he danced atop his friend Yitzi’s white van as they rolled through Jerusalem.
They’d blast Breslover techno music and Ari would throw CDs to onlookers while Yitzi sounded the shofar from the driver’s seat. Ari had a bad case of schizophrenia. Baruch Hashem, he had never hurt a fly, but he had a pretty good history of getting into trouble when he got off of his meds. This was a guy who had been arrested twice for using a public pond as a mikveh somewhere in Upstate New York. He’d been summoned to court for “disturbing the peace” while davening too loudly on the subway near Boro Park.
There had also been hospitalizations and different medications, but nothing ever worked perfectly. So when he told his parents that he was going to Israel for a while, they couldn’t really stop him. All they could do was try to find a decent psychiatrist for him in the Jerusalem area and hope for the best.Enter Dr. Freedman, who was happy to work with Ari. Ari happened to have a million ideas of his own and frustrations to air out. At our first meeting, I listened to him for a while and won some serious points when I let him know that I had just reread The Garden of Emunah by Rav Shalom Arush.
He was happy to hear this, and asked me what I thought of psychiatric medications. I told him the truth: They are sometimes overprescribed, but they can also be a lifesaver for folks who have struggled with serious mental illness. He asked me if I knew they were forbidden according to Breslover chassidus, and I told him that I disagreed, and I showed him a letter I’d received from a prominent Breslover rabbi who happened to be on my side of the debate.
Ari was convinced, and we settled on a treatment plan that included medications, therapy, and my promise to let him daven for my success as a “shaliach mitzvah for the sanity of Am Yisrael.” He’d continue to see me religiously every Thursday, and was able to enjoy his time in Israel without any arrests, hospitalizations, or other adverse events.
It was never boring working with him. There was the time when I was going to get falafel with my kids downtown when they noticed a few Breslovers jumping on top of a car outside the shop. I was laughing and enjoying it with my kids until I recognized Ari and decided we’d get schnitzel sandwiches one block over instead. Then there was the time that he showed up at my office with a box filled with 500 booklets of Tikkun Haklali and asked me if I’d feel comfortable with him distributing them to my patients. I didn’t. But in the end, working with Ari himself wasn’t too different from any of the other similar cases I’d had over the past few years.
What stuck out in my mind during his treatment was the first discussion I’d had with his father, a chemistry professor at a prestigious university back in America. His father was a proud Israeli, had grown up on a kibbutz, and cared about Yiddishkeit about as much as I care about Pakistan’s national cricket team or who was running for mayor in Kalamazoo.
Ari’s father understood the diagnosis of schizophrenia from a biological basis about as well as anyone I’d worked with, but couldn’t seem grasp his son’s religious observance until we’d talked it out. “He’s crazy, you know — not for the schizophrenia, but for the Breslov stuff!”
I agreed that it wasn’t an obvious choice for a kid who grew up in a secular house outside Atlanta, but I also didn’t think it was too crazy. “A lot of kids are becoming religious these days. Most Israeli families have at least one child or cousin in the family who is into Chabad, Breslov, or something similar.”
Ari’s father didn’t seem to care. “Don’t you think that his hyper-religiosity is a symptom?”
“A lot of times it is,” I said in reference to the mikveh experiences that had gotten him into trouble. “But Ari could just as easily have joined a monastery in Tibet, and you’d never have seen him again. Isn’t it nice that he’s landed with a group of guys whose biggest sin is being overzealous in their dancing?” And I really believed this to be the case. Baruch Hashem! Ari had found friends who didn’t encourage drug use or moving away from home and cutting off contact with friends and relatives. In fact, Ari loved to be at home for holidays (with the exception of Rosh Hashanah, when he went to Uman) to share with his family the newest teachings of Rebbe Nachman.
“But it’s all pathological! It’s not real Jewish observance, it’s not Torah for someone like him!” Ari’s father was clearly upset.
“Maybe yes and maybe no. I can’t know for sure. But I know that it’s meaningful for him, and that he’ll never go hungry, because wherever he goes, there will be a Breslover who wants to have him for Shabbos dinner. Isn’t that beautiful?”
Of course, I had my sympathies for the Breslover chassidus, but it was also the truth. Ari was a chronically psychotic man who had found his place in a community that wouldn’t judge him. He was with people who welcomed his eccentric behaviors. What could be better?
“I just wish he could be normal,” said Ari’s father. “Is that too much to ask?”
With all the stuff I’d read about college campuses these days and the things I’d hear from the news, I had no idea what normal was anymore. That being said, this wouldn’t have been an appropriate response for the moment. Instead I went with a time-tested line that had always done me right: “If he can’t be normal, at least let him be happy. He’s not hurting anyone, and his friends care about him. This is infinitely better than if he had run away to join a cult in San Francisco and fried his brain further with psychedelic drugs.”
“At least he’s got Jewish friends.” Ari’s father was coming around.
“And having kugel and cholent for Shabbos in Jerusalem is infinitely better than eating scorpions and frogs in Thailand with Israeli kids who travel there after the army,” I pointed out.
“Okay, already, I agree,” said Ari’s father. “But I’m not putting on tefillin with him when he comes back to Atlanta. That’s not my thing, it’s his.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “As long as you’re willing to dance with him on top of your SUV.”
Half a year later, I am truly grateful to say that Ari has stayed stable to date and that his father came around and stopped being so upset about the Breslov stuff. He hasn’t yet climbed to the top of his SUV, but Ari did convince him to put on tefillin a few times.
Whether he joins Ari in Uman this Rosh Hashanah remains to be seen. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 656)
Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Jerusalem. He serves as the medical director of services for English-speakers at Bayit Cham, a national leader providing mental health treatment and outreach within the religious community.