Originally from Boston, Tova Feinman spent three years with the Peace Corps in Kenya before moving to Pittsburgh to attend graduate school at Pitt. Around 1995, the now-retired research scientist and author started going to sessions with a doctor later dubbed “The Singing Psychiatrist” – John Yaakov Guterson.
Guterson has launched a website packed with videos espousing his beliefs about life’s purpose, mental health and the human condition. And, yes, he sings. But Feinman has seen him for 28 years and counting for other reasons.
“Sometimes his answer to a dilemma is a soul answer and not a psyche answer,” said Feinman, who lives in Squirrel Hill and listens to Guterson analyze the Torah portion and sing popular music at Chabad services on Shabbat. “[His website] is not just for people who are mentally ill. It’s for all people who have struggled with the ups and downs of life.”
“I stayed with him,” she added, “because he sees treating mental illness as more than just medication and psychotherapy.”
Guterson grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington before teaching high school history and coaching basketball in Boston, he said. Later, he attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, met his wife, Amy, and migrated to Squirrel Hill. They raised four children together.
Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh was “foolish enough to let me in” for his psychiatric residency, Guterson joked. He later worked at the now-closed Braddock Hospital.
Today, Guterson runs a behavioral health hospital in Wilkinsburg as well as a private psychiatry practice on Murray Avenue.
It all started with a minyan.
As Guterson was trying to gather a minyan in his Squirrel Hill home years ago, he heard that Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Altein was trying to gather a minyan as well. They joined forces and, before long, Guterson would preview content between aliyot at Chabad services, as well as sing popular music — such as Billy Joel and The Beatles. Nowadays, he even sings Taylor Swift.
“People said, ‘You know, Yaakov, you should let other people know about this,’” he laughed.
Guterson started filming videos for each aliyot in the Torah — he made about 300 of them — and shared them on Facebook and YouTube. A website, thesingingpsychiatrist.com, soon followed.
“I’m not trying to be an evangelist here,” Guterson said. “But the Torah lends itself to incredible psychological and psychiatric insights.”
The website, which includes a trove of videos cataloged by topic, also has a blog, “Rambling on the Psych Ward,” and a weekly Q&A session, Guterson said.
Guterson goes back to his training at WPIC to talk about “the big, huge gap” in psychiatric thinking — there is no talk of nurturing the human soul.
“What’s lacking in the training and what’s lacking in what psychiatrists do … is helping people feel alive and helping people be aware of their soul,” Guterson said. “We all have a soul. We all have a yearning for transcendence, the chance to connect with something higher than ourselves.”
Altein said Guterson continues to be an indispensable part of Chabad services: Between aliyot, he provides insights on upcoming Torah readings.
“He is coming with the layman’s approach — it’s not the rabbi talking,” Altein said. “He’s singing to the congregation. They do know the songs and they love it. Sometimes, they break out in song. It adds a meaningful and wonderful element to the service.”
Feinman knows all about it.
“I’ve watched him evolve over 28 years — and he is remarkable,” said Feinman, who has written a book about Guterson’s teachings. “I love the way he weaves psyche, soul and medicine. It’s seamless.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.