Friday, April 3, 2020

Facing Trauma, Personal and as a People

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One measure of Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s elevated stature in the Jewish world is the fact that her new book has been heartily endorsed by such a long and diverse list of Jewish writers, healers and teachers, including Gloria Steinem, Susannah Heschel, Rodger Kamenetz, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Sarah Davidson and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, among many others.

“Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma,” a joint publication of Adam Kadmon Books and Monkfish Book Publishing Company, is the story of her self-appointed mission to retrieve and untangle the secrets in her own family, which includes both victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and to do the same for fellow Jews who have endured the Shoah, religious persecution in Russia and Iran, and the violence of combat and terrorism in Israel.

“Like many post-Holocaust families, my parents did not speak directly of these matters,” she explains at the outset. “Yet, there is an inner compulsion to know. ‘One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life,’ writes the late Professor Dori Laub, himself a survivor.”

Firestone is renowned both as a spiritual leader and a practicing therapist. Raised in an Orthodox family, she is the founder and rabbi of a Jewish Renewal congregation, Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colo., and she fuses the traditions of Kabbalah, the principles of depth psychology, and the feminine wisdom tradition into her teachings.

“Wounds into Wisdom” is based on Firestone’s conviction that the unspoken experiences and memories of one’s parents and other caregivers can be unconsciously transmitted into the minds of young children: Her father, for example, never spoke of his experiences as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen during World War II; only after his death did Firestone and her siblings find the photographs of the camp that he had hidden away in his files. Yet she insists that what he saw was somehow transmitted to his own children. “Trauma is embedded in the nervous system through all of our senses,” she writes.

She credits the “psychological health of the Jewish religion, where memory is sanctified and trauma is memorialized,” for allowing us to bear what might otherwise be an insupportable burden and to extract meaning from suffering that seems beyond understanding. Yet she recognizes and rises to the challenge of “go[ing] beyond an identity of victimhood.” Her goal is to guide her readers, both as individuals and as members of the Jewish community, to reclaim their dignity and agency without forgetting what they have survived. 

Not surprisingly, Firestone offers psychotherapy as a model for coping with trauma, both the intimate kind that can affect an individual — molestation, criminal violence, combat experience — and the collective kind that can befall a whole people. She urges us to disclose our secret suffering to “a safe witness” in a “safe place,” and she holds out the promise of redemption.

“Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s goal is to guide her readers, both as individuals and as members of the Jewish community, to reclaim their dignity and agency without forgetting what they have survived.”

“With a compassionate listener, we enter a circle of safety where we can slowly begin to trust again,” Firestone writes. “In this relationship, where we are truly seen and heard, we may begin to find meaning in our experience, and our humanity can begin to be restored after it has been stolen from us.”

The second half of her book is devoted to a kind of seven-step program for the treatment of trauma, ranging from “Facing the Loss” to “Taking Action.” Along the way, she identifies the obstacles that may arise, some of which operate at the molecular level and others that operate in history and politics.

Firestone warns, for example, that medication for dealing with anxiety and depression only masks the underlying causes. She writes, “[T]he residual images and sensations remain embedded in the nervous system, reminding people that they are still susceptible at any time to further triggering and that their inner state is still volatile.” 

Even more pointed is her caution against what she calls “hyperarousal,” that is, the tendency to overreact to a perceived threat. As an example, she points out how a prayer vigil over the 2006 war in Lebanon turned chaotic when one participant expressed the hope “that all sides, including Israel, ‘would act with self-restraint.’ ” The audience, which had been “stiffly prayerful,” turned suddenly noisy and bellicose. “This was a hair-trigger: Jews had been passive in the Holocaust. Never again would they be sheep led to slaughter!” Yet she insists that such a reflexive response can be dangerous, even fatal.

“Self-defense is an unquestionable right, for Israel and for any person or group that is under life-threatening attack,” she concedes. But when a threat triggers “the limbic response of an entire group, that segment of the human nervous system that is responsible for survival at all costs,” our ability to accurately perceive and appropriately respond to a threat can be gravely impaired. To show us an alternative, she quotes an Israeli man named Rami, whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

“This is not our destiny to keep on killing people in this Holy Land of ours forever!” Rami cried out to a group of fellow bereaved parents. “It’s not written anywhere, and we can change it. We can break once and for all the endless cycle of violence and revenge and retaliation. And there is only one way to do it. This is simply by talking to each other. Because it will not stop unless we talk.”

To her credit, Firestone does not promise a quick cure to the ill effects of trauma in life and trauma in history. “Healing from trauma can take years, sometimes decades,” she insists. But the long ordeal does not condemn us to a lifetime of suffering. That’s why she uses Israel, an embattled country where trauma is a common experience and a continuing one, as an example.  

“[E]veryone who lives in this tiny land has lost loved ones: sons and daughters, teachers and students, comrades in arms, relatives, and friends,” she explains. “Yet Israeli culture is far from morose. It throbs with life and vitality.” And she quotes an Israeli woman named Daniela on the survivor’s credo: “I will either live or I will die, but I will not agree to a living death.”

“Wounds into Wisdom” fairly glows with the light that sometimes emerges from a charismatic teacher, but Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is also hard-headed, plainspoken and, above all, deeply courageous. This is not a touchy-feeling self-help book; rather, it is a stirring call to action.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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