A Ritual Dismantling of Walls: Healing from Trauma through the Jewish Days of Awe

Flying Pelicans

Credit: Creative Commons/Charlie Stinchcomb.

Three pelicans soar in a synchronized formation high above the ocean. Massive and slightly awkward with their giant beaks and perplexing throats, they surprise me with their unlikely inevitability. I watch as their pterodactyl-like silhouettes fade into the horizon, taking with them their giant and uncomfortable beauty.

I am pulled into a recurring nightmare. I sense the presence of a man in my bedroom. I am lying in bed on my stomach and he is suddenly on top of my back. His weight bears down on me; I cannot move. His hands circle my throat; I cannot speak. I can barely breathe. My body goes rigid with terror, but my freezing does not reduce the pressure. I decide to twist and turn my body in inviting ways; perhaps I can seduce the threat into something else. I wake up. The man is still here, pressing down on me, hands on my throat. I wake up again. He is no longer on top of me, but his presence lingers in the room.

Holy Days

The Jewish Days of Awe revolve around the destruction and creation of two physical structures.

Watercolor Sukkah

“During Sukkot, we sit in the temporary sukkah, which is open to the sky,” Somerson writes. “We let go of the illusion that our walls can protect us from pain, disconnection, and death.” Credit: Olivia Wise (oliviawisestudio.com).

In midsummer, the Days of Awe begin with Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people since then. In the fall, we complete the cycle of the Days of Awe with Sukkot—a joyful celebration of our transformation over the previous two months by building and spending time in the sukkah, a structure with temporary walls and a partial roof, which we later dismantle. This journey of removing our walls is heightened in a concentrated form during the Days of Awe, but it is a circular process that we continually repeat over our lifetimes.

As I begin body-based therapy, the walls of my house—my body—start to crack open. My work with a somatic therapist begins the slow process of opening up spaces in my body that have been sealed shut. With each opening, more memories arise.

In massage, feelings of panic move out of my sacrum and fill my body with their revelations. My heart beats its way into my throat, and I fight the urge to retch. Memories suddenly line up next to each other precariously, like a row of dominoes just before the fall. I remember being at my best friend’s house in first grade. We’re lying on her bed. I tell her that I can only sleep on my stomach with my hands between my legs for protection. I recall the terror of waking up, over the years, from the recurring nightmare of being strangled. When I told my sister about the nightmare several years ago, she told me that Dad used to come into our room at night to drag her out of bed. She told me I pulled the covers over my head, pretending that it wasn’t happening.

Watercolor Depiction of Human Ribcage

This encaustic painting, titled Softening, depicts Somerson’s process of healing from within. Credit: Wendy Elisheva Somerson.

These memories from the past, stored in my sinews for decades, have found their openings. I have invited them in by making space for them in my body. Feeling my invitation, they have been lapping their brackish water against the wall, slowly eroding its function. Finally, our joint labor has created these openings, both holy and horrible. And my current panic can’t close the holes or send the rushing water back.

I dream that an invisible force drags my body into a horizontal floating position about a foot above the floor. I gaze down at the wooden floorboards. I recognize that I am in one of the bedrooms I grew up in, being given an opportunity to make sense of my recent memories. Salt is scattered across the floor. I reach down and sort through the salt granules by pushing them to the left and to the right on the wood, but no patterns emerge. I wake up. I feel as if I’ve been given a question that reveals everything and nothing at the same time.

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