Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma
by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, PhD
Monkfish Publishing Company, April 2019
When I finished reading this illuminating new book, Wounds into Wisdom, by rabbi and psychotherapist Tirzah Firestone, I was struck by what incredibly complex and wondrous beings we humans are. Rabbi Firestone’s book is a beautiful tribute to that wonder and complexity, just as it is a comprehensive look at what is now known as traumatology—a field of social research that has evolved because of the ubiquity of trauma, tragedy, and catastrophe characterizing human experience over the past century. But Tirzah Firestone’s book is unique in the way she looks at the meaning of traumatic experience. Through the lens of her own compassion and empathy she sees real people, not as passive products of their traumatic circumstances, but as active agents of their own healing from trauma. This is not a mere self-help book, although it will be extremely helpful to those who have suffered traumatic events, but more importantly it leads all of us to consider the ways in which we and others are affected by trauma, and what this may mean for healing the world, for tikkun olam.
Firestone makes her case through the use of stories, interviews with people, and honest and open revelations of the trauma in her own family. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and her father became fanatically Orthodox after witnessing the horror of the concentration camps as an American soldier at the end of World War II. Her parent’s traumatic experience was transmitted to, and psychologically internalized by, their children. This legacy of trauma also led to the subsequent deaths of her two older siblings, Danny, from suicide, and Shulamith, author of the feminist book, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), from the ravages of mental illness. It was Shulamith’s death that brought to her younger sister, Tirzah, the “terrible gift” which became the impetus to further investigate the inner workings of the legacy of trauma in herself and others. This book is then both a labor of love as well as an intellectual tour de force.
The subtitle of the book, Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, refers to the particular Jewish experience of trauma in the 20th century. This experience includes primarily the Holocaust, but also the anti-Israeli attacks, with resultant military and civilian deaths, as well as what seem to be rising acts of anti-Semitism worldwide. One of the important points she makes here, drawing on the new science of epigenetics, is that trauma and its sequelae (dissociation, hyperarousal, isolation/shame, and repetition) are felt not only by those who directly experience trauma, but are passed on to their children, and grandchildren. This unmitigated intergenerational trauma, Firestone shows, has created in Israel, and in much of contemporary Jewish consciousness, a culture in which catastrophe has become the “unconscious organizing principle” (“Never Again will this happen to us!”), and a culture in which social victimhood, fear of continued persecution, feeling weak even with a mighty military and hi tech armamentarium, gives its bearers “hardened hearts”, leaving them unable to see “others” as sharing common humanity. In this context Israeli hypervigilance against its Palestinian neighbors, and the alarming tendency of Israeli military to over-react and brutally traumatize Palestinians, is still reprehensible, but understandable as an example of the repetitive aspect of unhealed social trauma, just as victims of sexual abuse may be more likely to sexually abuse others.
But the powerful message of Firestone’s book, and one that goes beyond the Jewish experience to the universal human experience, is that these aspects of intergenerational trauma need not be inevitable. Her interviews with parents who have lost children and have still become capable of moving beyond the psychological and spiritual consequences of their loss, show that it is possible to become free of the legacy of trauma. And it is here that this book delivers its unique and spiritual message—as Firestone recounts the ways in which people, including Firestone herself, have become healed. She writes,
“I have learned that we can recognize, choose, and redefine our own destinies, even in the aftermath of ruinous events. Humans are created with the capacity to heal from wreckage, transform fear into compassion, and turn tragedy into strength.”
She acknowledges, of course, that this is not an easy process, but one that takes courage, patience, and community support to sustain it. Thus, the Israeli parents and soldiers who can talk with others about their experiences are able to emerge from the victimhood which had narrowed their view of themselves and their world: “When we testify to evil and bear witness to others, we are reversing the process of genocide’s inhumanity.” Such witnessing led to Israeli groups like Parents Circle-Families Forum, composed of Israeli and Palestinian families who shared the bond of lost family members, a group created by Yitzchok Frankenthal after his son was murdered. She quotes Rami, a member of Frankenthal’s group, whose 14-year-old daughter had been killed in a Jerusalem bombing. Rami describes his transforming experience when, for the first time in his life he “met Palestinians as human beings. Not as workers for my people, not as transient people, not as terrorists, but as people who carry the same burden that I carry, as people who suffer exactly as I suffer.” Similarly, she refers to Shovrim Shtikah, Breaking the Silence, a group of veterans and reservists who share testimonies about their experience in occupied Palestinian territories. This reaching out beyond the boundaries of trauma- related isolation is a process that is accessible to all who suffer from trauma.
In the second part of her book, Firestone delves deeper into the healing process. Such healing includes a willingness to face the losses endured, an ability to overcome the numbing aspects of defense against trauma and allow the pain of trauma to be felt, finding an empathic community of emotional and psychological support, resisting the call to blame and dehumanize, and resisting the identity of victim. As this healing work progresses, and with the support of others with similar experiences, people are able to transform the meaning of their own and their ancestors’ trauma, and thereby transform themselves. And it is here that Firestone describes, I believe, a profoundly humanistic and dialectic process, involving the relationship between social consciousness and social being, which she describes as a paradox:
“Trauma changes us in permanent ways. But we have a choice about the outcome of our story. We can bemoan our fate as victims…or we can recognize our pain and follow the circumstances of our lives into unforeseen directions and new meanings. We can ask: What does this terrible wound inspire me to do that I would never have thought to do otherwise?”
Firestone is speaking here of the creative acts by which human beings, while products of their circumstances, change these circumstances, and thus change themselves. She is able to view human activity in this way because she appreciates the power of human agency in making change. Agency, as Firestone defines it, is “knowing that you have at least some ability to shape your circumstances.” Again and again in this book, Firestone recounts examples of people creating their own identities, as they searched for larger meanings in their experiences, to “make sense out of a senseless thing”, as they became agents of their own histories, in spite of their horrific traumatic experiences. I could not help but be reminded of the Hegelian expression: “In the midst of degradation, the revolt against degradation.” This dialectic perspective can be found in writers and poets, like the American playwright, August Wilson, when he wrote, “Confront the dark parts of yourself and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” Or from the Sufi poet Rumi, “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” It is harder to find such a dynamic perspective, however, in most contemporary political or social change theory.
A Word about Tone
There is another unique aspect of this book, which is intertwined with the dialectic lens with which Firestone views trauma’s human impact—and that is her intellectual humility and ability to listen to her subjects. In almost every instance of an interview she prefaces her findings with “I learned…” She listens, primed no doubt by her own family’s tragedies, and she learns. With her subjects’ stories, she reminds us that we are all part of humanity, and that we will continue working for a better world. She ends, “as so many people have taught me along my journey, our wounds can yield a new wisdom, release hidden sparks of light, and open up unexpected paths to the future. I have seen it with my own eyes.” Rabbi Firestone has emerged as a moral leader who has come through the eye of her own life’s needle, and who is thus able to see a future beyond tragedy.
What we can learn
In reading this book, and in addition to appreciating the complexity of our lives as social beings, I was struck, too, with how endemic, no, epidemic, social and collective trauma has become in this country and in this world. I think of the World Wars, the multiple assassinations of political figures, the trauma of 9/11, of terrorist attacks, the loss of lives in contemporary wars raging over the earth, of the brutality with which immigrants and their children are treated, the violence and normalization of racism and sexual abuse, the repercussions of gun violence and mass shootings, the environmental catastrophes from floods to fires to hurricanes, leaving millions bereft, homeless, and without hope–not to mention the trauma inflicted by capitalism itself, through the trauma of poverty, job stress, alienation, and fatigue. And I begin to see, informed by this book, how so much of what we take as normal behavior is in fact mass and collective PTSD, the behavior seen in victims of trauma who have not yet claimed their own agency in making change. Thus apathy, cynicism, distrust, fear of “the other” have become normalized. Not surprisingly then, when people are so numbed and suffering trauma from whatever cause, they are more easily manipulated by authoritarian power, by anyone who claims to make everything better (as in Make American Great Again). Aside from Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, it appears that most contemporary movements for social change have neither appreciated the importance of trauma’s impact upon people, including the proponents of change themselves, nor really appreciated the potential of human agency in moving beyond trauma’s confines. Most social movements still see people defined by their circumstances, of class, of race, of gender, groups to organize, to educate. As one writer has pointed out, “Putting a narrow focus on gaining power through politics runs the risk of ignoring our communities, and those we claim to fight for…(we need a ) “trauma informed socialism which can prioritize the building and rebuilding of strong, connected and trauma informed communities…” (Josh Lown, “The Revolution Must be Trauma Informed,” in Socialist Forum, December 2018). Contemporary social movements have much to learn from Tirzah Firestone’s book, in its content and its methodology, from the humility which underlies its brilliant insights into how people can change. To quote the British Marxist, E.P. Thompson in his essay, Socialist Humanism, we must become willing, as Rabbi Firestone has, “to walk among the people, to listen to them…and to have a touch of humility before their experience.” Rabbi Firestone teaches us how to listen, to ourselves and to others. Her book should be read by everyone who wishes personal healing and the healing of this traumatized world.