The burdens of intergenerational Jewish trauma

There’s a new book, just coming out that I hope every Jew, everywhere, will read. It’s that important.
The author is Tirzah Firestone, a psychotherapist who’s also among the newest and sometimes controversial breed of our spiritual leaders: a Jewish Renewal rabbi. Her book is entitled “Wounds into Wisdom,” subtitled “Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma.”
When I see “trauma” in a Jewish book title, I immediately think “Holocaust.” And in this case, I was right. But also, very wrong. Let me explain.
When Firestone was 25, she had a nightmare that foreshadowed her learning of its truth — that a full 15 years later, her Austro-Hungarian grandmother and all her family, had died in the Shoah. Such silence can subtly transmit that untold burden to its younger generations.
But before the knowing came the trauma’s after-effects. Firestone was one of six children, each of whom went off in a different direction, breaking away by various means to escape the home life structured by something they knew nothing about. Basically, all ran from the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle of their parents, who tried to re-create for them Jewish lives of earlier times: marriage with homemaking and motherhood for the girls, yeshiva study and scholarship for the boys. Rabbi Firestone calls this “the paradox of survival.” They learned, firsthand, what is central to this book: “How often hardened hearts were the tragic byproduct of wounds incurred long ago and never healed.”
She connects and applies her learning to those who, having experienced other forms of trauma, consciously or unconsciously repeat or re-enact them. “Abuse victims tend to attract abusive situations,” she said. “Veterans of war re-deploy. And, entire ethnic groups can find themselves again and again under attack, fighting back endlessly.” This latter gave her new eyes, new understanding, when an Israeli friend did something to help him overcome the loss of his daughter to a suicide bomber. He joined a group of Jews and Palestinians who lost children in the ongoing conflicts, to fight their pain and grieve together.
There is hope along with great sadness throughout this affecting book. Firestone left the religion she knew, with its obedience-demanding practice in the home of her youth, then returned to it in a newer, more forgiving form, to become both a practitioner of psychotherapy and a rabbi in the most modern stream of today’s American Judaism. But she does not tell us the most important truth of all until the end of this book. I wonder if that telling — this most painful story of unresolved intergenerational Jewish trauma — is why she has written this volume.
The author’s brother Daniel, 10 years her elder, was their parents’ dream-come-true: a first-born brilliant boy, schooled from his earliest days in traditional Judaism, in its ancient wisdoms and revered texts, a pride-maker whose future in Jewish scholarship was assured. And then, he left. Not having ever known anything outside the world of Jewish scholarship, he wanted to explore that other life for himself. The head of his yeshiva tried to reason with him, but finally, angrily, gave a warning: “You will die by age 30.” And after tasting other appealing religions and finding them not quite so tasty, he died a suicide — just past his 30th birthday.
Tirza Firestone’s conclusion shocks me. She posits that all Jews suffer trauma just because of who we are, from the burdens we carry as God’s “chosen,” from the responsibility for survival inherent in our Judaism, from the inescapable knowledge that we are charged with that survival, because it is the reason for our existence, not as individuals, but as the people of which every Jew is a part. That the past, for each of us, in our families and in our faith, never really disappears.
What do you think about that?

Leave a Reply