The Legacy of Jewish Trauma

It is now seven decades since the liberation of our people from the jaws of the Nazi death machine. Looking back and facing forward, we have cause for both profound humility and proud celebration that our people is alive on earth and flourishing in so many ways. It is also an opportune moment to study the legacy of our oppression. What are we taking with us into the future?

Untitled by Graham Lambkin. Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Jewish tradition has long understood that children bear the burden of their parents’ legacy. Twenty-five hundred years ago the Prophet Ezekiel said, “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” It’s not news that the aftereffects of unspeakable psychic trauma reverberate for generations.

Jewish historical trauma has left its positive marks: fierce determination, resiliency, and loyalty to our tribe, to name just a few. But the negative effects of our unresolved wounds remain as well, forming a protective blind spot, as trauma is wont to do. Anxiety, reactivity, and a tendency toward isolation are a few of its hallmark characteristics.

The Israeli psychologist Dan Bar On taught that massive psychic trauma becomes an unconscious organizing principle for people, and indeed, the Shoah has become an organizing principle in the Jewish community worldwide. But to what end? If trauma alone becomes our identity, and the world a suspicious other, then our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a downward spiral of subjective nightmares and objective hostilities. We will build walls around ourselves for protection, attract the hatred of nations, and fail to witness the suffering of children on the other side of the walls of our self-made ghettos. Spiritually, we will risk advancing the precious moral inheritance of the one million Jewish children whose lives were obliterated.

Alternatively, if our slogan is Never again for us or for anybody!, the Jewish story changes and we stand to be a light for the nations. There are many groups and individuals who are engaged in salvaging the Jewish ethic of loving the other as oneself, which Rabbi Akiva taught is the central hub of all Jewish praxis. They do this through face-to-face engagement across the wall of our inherited fear. Encounter, Parents’ Circle, Shorashim/Roots, Rabbis for Human Rights, Sulha, and New Israel Fund are all groups that carry the Jewish prophetic tradition forward. These groups should be supported, not only for the sake of fostering peace and democracy in the State of Israel, but to continue a positive Jewish legacy in the world.


Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is an author, a therapist, a member of Tikkun’s editorial advisory board, and founding rabbi of the Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado. She serves on the board of T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights–North America).

Source Citation

Firestone, Tirzah. 2015. The Legacy of Jewish Trauma. Tikkun

tags: Israel/Palestine   
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