In August 2017, when neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Va., Rabbi Tirzah Firestone received calls from her worried congregants in Boulder, Co. who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, felt personally victimized by Nazis. They couldn't sleep at night. It seemed to them it was happening all over again.
“People would come in and say, ‘I don't even have anyone in my family who suffered this, but I know about this in my psyche, and this is terrible,’” Firestone tells PW. “‘I feel like I've been through it myself.’”
Firestone, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement and a psychoanalyst, knew that what they were feeling was something more personal than the horror an average person feels when they see Nazis marching. And this horror comes not from having been taught about the Holocaust, but from a subconscious, genetic level, she says. This idea is the subject of her book, Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma (Adam Kadmon Books, Apr.).
In it, Firestone looks at what she calls intergenerational trauma, or “the residue of our ancestors' overwhelming stresses and life events that they couldn't metabolize in their lifetimes,” such as the Holocaust or fleeing persecution. It happens on the individual and, Firestone believes, also on the collective level. And collective Jewish memories are in overdrive these days with the rise of anti-Semitism.
The extreme stress is transmitted to children in unseen ways, even through DNA, according to Firestone, and there has been some research that backs up this claim. DNA can carry memories of traumatic stress down through generations, according to new findings. And, specifically, descendants of Holocaust survivors have a harder time dealing with stress.
So, that's the problem as Firestone defines it. The next issue is the solution. Intergenerational trauma can be dealt with in healthy or unhealthy ways, she says. For instance, it’s unhealthy to operate on a hair trigger, or hang on to the trauma of our grandparents as if it were brand new from generation to generation, and never move beyond it. Instead, Firestone outlines a process of “body awareness,” or stepping outside oneself to observe what is being felt, and to take steps to change it using tools such as meditation or yoga.
On a communal level, the anxiety can be channeled into what is commonly called “Tikkun Olam,” or repairing the world, among socially conscious Jews. “We can see there are so many people that are suffering, and even suffering the kinds of things that we suffered as an ethnicity,” Firestone says. “Then we can begin to extend our capacity and start to help others. That's a natural altruistic impetus that many survivors have.”
This may also be why a disproportionate number of Jews become social workers, doctors, or other kinds of healers, Firestone says. “I think we can still do even better. The more aware we are, the more we can extend our awareness to the world.”
That is the main reason Firestone wrote Wounds Into Wisdom: to help encourage a next step, a way for everybody to move forward from trauma. Paul Cohen, publisher at Monkfish Book Publishing, the parent company of Adam Kadmon Books, said that while the book’s target audience is “first and foremost Jews, whose history has been so largely shaped by trauma, inherited trauma is something that affects everyone.”
“Our hope is that anyone would benefit from reading the book,” Cohen says. He notes that Firestone's book tour will include a conversation with feminist icon Gloria Steinem about inherited Jewish trauma as well as women’s trauma during an event in New York City on April 24. “Down the road, I think we'll see Tirzah making more of this kind of outreach beyond the Jewish community.”
“The main point is that that we can't change past events, but we can change the outcome of those events,” Firestone tells PW. “And we can't change tragic history, but we can choose the legacy that we want to pass on.”