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r. Freedman, I don’t know why I’m wasting my time here. You’re never gonna get it.”

That was certainly an encouraging icebreaker, I told Seth, my new patient. Still, he’d been sent to me by his parents, so he had the decency to tell me a bit about himself and how he ended up in my office.

Seth came from a relatively normal, assimilated Jewish family in Chicago, but by high school, he’d already gotten into his share of trouble. The few detentions he got for gambling were soon outshined by 12 months of probation for selling drugs in the parking lot outside a local concert venue. Seth’s dad knew a good lawyer who was able to erase most of Seth’s record and get him into a decent state university, but he just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. He used a false ID to buy alcohol, and had charges pending for credit card fraud — he’d booked vacations for his friends in Cancun using a Visa registered to Mr. Edward Cho from Montana.

With this latest episode, Mom and Dad wanted to try something new and shipped Seth off to Israel to study in the overseas program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, hoping he’d stay out of trouble. But of course, trouble exists in Israel too, and soon enough, Seth was facing disciplinary action for running up a bill at the campus restaurant using the credit card of some random guy from Tel Aviv named Dudu Zomer. As part of his plea bargain to avoid expulsion from the program and the country, Seth was compelled to have a psychiatric evaluation — which was where I came in.

And apparently, I looked like a boring, middle-aged, chareidi guy who “just didn’t get it.”

“I mean, well, you’re like a pretty religious guy and you guys don’t always get this stuff,” Seth said, trying to explain himself.

Believe me, sometimes I wish I were the tamim Seth pegged me to be.

“You’d be surprised what kinds of patients I’ve merited to work with over the years, Seth. I used to work in a detox center in South Boston, which means I had every kind of tough guy, local mobster, and lowlife New England has to offer enter my office door,” I answered him.

Seth sat up a little straighter and looked a bit more interested.

“And, I happen to be a licensed forensic psychiatrist, which means that I’ve seen criminals who have done things to make you triple-lock your door and sleep with a baseball bat under your pillow. Whether or not they were crazy, these guys had been charged with bad enough stuff to make the front pages. Not just that, but I was privy to every single gory detail. It was my job to determine whether or not they were safe to leave the state psychiatric hospital to stand trial.”

“Whoa,” said Seth. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, psychiatrists can do all sorts of cool things. One of my mentors back in the day was a psychiatrist named Dr. Mufson, whose father-in-law was the house accountant for Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.”

“Who, the famous Jewish mobsters?!”

 “You got it. But Dr. Mufson always used to joke that his clients were so much more interesting.”

“So, you’ve worked with murderers and stuff like that? Pretty awesome!”

“Pretty scary,” I said. “But it paid the bills and helped me to learn to be a better psychiatrist.”

“So what do you say about me? Am I crazy enough to plead insanity?” he chuckled, a bit too hopefully.

“Actually, it doesn’t look that way to me right now. Are you depressed, anxious, psychotic, addicted, or anything like that?”

 “Nope.”

“And you’re not getting any secret personal messages from the prime minister, you’re not in the Norwegian secret service, you aren’t a reincarnation of any prophet or anything like that?”

“Nope.”

 “Then you’re fine, Seth.”

“That’s it?” he asked.

 “Sure. I’ll write a letter to the university for you right now saying you’re as sane as can be.”

“Thanks, Dr. Freedman,” Seth said quietly and then sat twiddling his thumbs as I took out my pad of paper and began to write a letter slowly enough to allow him to start talking if he wanted. This boy could definitely use some help, but only if he desired it.

“Dr. Freedman?” he asked. I looked up and nodded to encourage him to continue.

 “What’s the deal then? You don’t want to tell me anything? No wisdom? No Torah quotes or anything? Aren’t you religious? Aren’t you a psychiatrist? Isn’t there something you want to tell me?”

“Sure, Seth,” I said. “What do you want me to tell you?”

“I don’t know. Don’t psychiatrists have comments on their patients’ thoughts, hopes, dreams, actions, behaviors?”

“Of course we do,” I responded. “Do you want me to tell you something insightful?”

“I guess. Why not?”

“Okay, here goes: I’ve worked with a lot of different folks over the years and have seen plenty of people with serious mental illness, and also plenty of people without any psychiatric diagnosis who just keep on making bad decisions. When I look at you, I see a young man who falls into the second category.”

“Is that a compliment?”

 “Does it have to be, Seth?”

 “I dunno.”

“Well, you don’t strike me as particularly mentally ill, but you’re certainly not using your brainpower in the right way. I mean, a guy who is smart enough to steal credit card numbers has got to be smart enough to work as a government-employed computer hacker against Iran.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you’re a smart kid and doing this kind of stuff is just getting you into trouble. Is a vacation in Cancun really worth going to jail?”

“I guess not. I mean, definitely not.”

“You know,” I told Seth, “I once met a guy who worked for the FBI. He got his job because he was busted for counterfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars and they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Ten years in prison or come to work as a federal agent.”

“No way!”

“Yep. Smart people can use their brains for smart things or dumb things. I mean, if you don’t want to work for the Feds or your record is too messed up for you to join the CIA, you could still use your brains to make money in a kosher way — frequent flyer miles, cryptocurrency, hotel points… all sorts of stuff.”

“And you’re gonna teach me that stuff?”

“Nope. That’s not my job. My job is to help you stay out of trouble by turning your criminal instinct into a proper, legal, and effective business mind. It’s actually a chassidic principle — turning your evil urges into productive tools for success.”

“So you’re going to help me to be a smart business guy using Jewish wisdom?” he asked incredulously.

“It’s either that or I recommend they haul you off to jail,” I said, pointing to the letter in my hand. “Your choice, Seth.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 729. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem.  Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.