About a year ago, my acupuncturist, who isn’t Jewish, told me she wanted to start working on my ancestral trauma. Jews, she said, have been conditioned to be ready to get up and go. That was causing me to have a lot of deeply rooted anxiety, she said. It was profoundly impacting my nerves. I got home and realized that even though I’ve never experienced homelessness, even though I’m a fourth-generation American Jew on both sides, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt fully settled where I live. Maybe in my life.
Case in point: I feel like my family and I have been preparing for this pandemic my entire life.
The first emails my father sent alluding to any kind of flu pandemic were October 10, 2019. At 7:58 p.m., he replied to a family email my mother sent about getting flu shots. Four minutes later, he started a new thread to my mother, my sister, and me. The email had one line — the Wikipedia link for “Spanish flu,” the 1918 pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide.
At first, he was cautioning us against the prospect of a potentially deadly flu season. Then, by January and February, it was clear — the rumblings of a potential epidemic that were beginning in Wuhan, China, he suspected, would become a worldwide pandemic. The message: prepare.
Now that I find myself stuck at home with a dozen cans of beans, several bags of protein-infused gluten-free pasta, two bottles of Clorox, a canister of Lysol wipes, alcohol swabs, Oscillococcinum (a homeopathic flu medicine), and more, I can’t help but interrogate and pause: How much does this have to do with my Jewish ancestry and intergenerational trauma?
I’ve been scrupulously watching and experiencing this pending pandemic unfold. I’ve seen people panic. I’ve seen people ignore it and not feel phased. I’ve myself panicked. I’ve myself brushed it off, seemingly unmoved. But by now, all concerts, festivals, and sports leagues are shut down and postponed for the foreseeable future. At first, many governmental officials said this panic was overblown, including – despite his first White House press conference – the president himself. Quickly, local and state governments are getting on board. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes for Health, and experts across the nation and world are telling us that this is bad. It’s big. And it’s going to last for a long, long time.
I’ve been over here — for the most part — making moves. Not just the last few weeks or months. For most of my life. I can’t help but wonder if that’s because, with no direct connection to the Holocaust, as far as I know, I still grew up with a father telling me to always be ready to go.
I grew up preparing not only for the potential that I — as a Jew — might be rounded up for extermination at any moment, but that also, as an activist, as an artist, as someone deeply committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world) and dismantling systemic oppression, that at some point, in order for us to actually find our way back in the Garden of Eden with some semblance of consciousness to never, ever, ever treat each other and our earth with such wretched, unconscionable, nasty behaviors ever, ever again, we might have to find ourselves up against an evolve-or-die moment from which we have to change.
We are at that moment. We’ve arrived.
But to get to wherever it is we’re going, we also have to heal.
Researchers and experts have long studied the impacts of multigenerational and inherited trauma. Dr. Yael Danieli, a New York-based clinical psychologist in private practice, is the Director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children, and Founding and Acting Director of the International Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. “In many ways, the Jews are hyper-sensitive to cataclysmic events,” she says. “And that didn’t even start with the Holocaust. We were thrown out of countries millennia ago. And we adapt in a variety of ways.”
In her own writing, Danieli talks about the various ways families and survivors adapt different “adaptational styles.” She says any descendants of a survivor of any catastrophe “has at least the fantasy of repairing the world through their parents and themselves. The implication here: You don’t just ‘inherit trauma.’…If your mission is reparative, not only do you expect the world to be scary, you also believe profoundly that it’s your job to repair.”
Danieli has worked primarily with survivors, not only of the Holocaust, but also those from Rwanda, South Africa, Bosnia, and Indigenous populations around the globe. “There are more people today who are multi-generationally traumatized than those who are not,” she says.
My sister Natalie, a Chicago-based psychotherapist in private practice, told me, “Trauma is passed down and some scientists believe it’s passed down through genes, and that if it’s not passed down through genes, it’s passed down through a behavioral cycle.
“The fears and anxieties and mindsets people experience with traumas — that are not being addressed and healed — often are incorporated into parenting or family relationships by then passing that down to future generations.” She added that much of therapy helps people heal from traumas that were passed down to them. That’s what can break the cycle.
Of course, our traumas — and where they come from — are as multi-faced as we are. It must be viewed with a “multidimensionial” lens, according to Danieli. “The full picture is complex, and we have to respect that complexity. But it also enriches us, because it shows us various paths of vulnerability, various styles of resilience.”
So this isn’t just my Jewishness. I know there are other factors at play. Like how much does my preparation have to do with my spiritual ideologies and beliefs about the divine, the universe, and the world? My radical politics? My wealthy class upbringing? My paycheck-to-paycheck adulthood as a full-time freelance artist? My white privilege? My anxiety and mental health? My camp counselor survival skills? Or, most likely, some nuanced combination of all the above.
What I do know is that on the road to world peace — and of course, you know, surviving this pandemic literally, economically, emotionally, mentally, and morally as best we can — we also have to heal.
I’m tired of survival. I came to this planet to thrive. I think — at our core — we probably all did.
So, I am hopeful that, while we work individually, collectively, and communally to survive this pandemic, which will undoubtedly require adopting an entire new way of experiencing and treating this planet and each other and living our lives, we also dig into the depths of what made us the way we are. What are the ancestral traumas we can leave behind? What are the survival skills we’ve learned and gained that we can keep? What’s the safest way to move forward from here?
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