There is a certain pageantry about Jewish holidays in New York City. It is Monday morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and teems of well-attired families make their way down the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The city looks on as its Jews stride unabashedly in yarmelkas and hats, holding hands with their children or pushing strollers. On the way, friends shake hands or embrace; the air is filled with purposeful celebration as the Jews spread out to their various places of worship.
By ten o’clock I am inside the cavernous synagogue, looking down on the dais from a 100-foot balcony, feeling practically giddy. This year I am not leading Rosh Hashana services, but have the incredible luxury of sitting in the pews, weightlessly carried by the expertise of others. Thrilled, I wrap myself in my holiday prayer shawl, and observe. (This may be the closest I ever come to being an observant Jew.)
With a kind of dual consciousness, I pray intently while also noticing waves of emotion surging and falling away within myself. Elation, boredom, moments of gratitude, and then, suddenly, like tripping into a fierce and unpredicted weather pattern, gales of tears. They sneak up on me as our voices join to sing the oldest, most classical prayers.
It was the smallest thing really. A little bump on the road. I was driving north on I-36 yesterday when I saw a little clod hit and spun around by the car in front of me. As I passed I saw more clearly: the tiniest bunny stunned by the blow, upright in the center of the opposite lane, its eyes wide with shock, looking into mine. For that one split second as I passed him, our eyes locked.
I made the quickest U-turn possible and raced back. But this is a heavily populated highway. By the time I arrived a minute later, the bunny was nothing more than a soft pink mass.
Collateral damage, I thought. Nobody’s fault. The product of a racing world. But my thoughts kept returning to that last glint of life, the wide eyes peering into mine. They kept talking to me about the vulnerable underbelly of our world.
How do we relate to the suffering all around us, if indeed we even see it? In my safe rural world it’s the rabbits and frogs that I find on the road, a deer or owl maimed by a speeding car. These creatures remind me that not far off lies a world of children living untenable lives, families on the run, homeless people with grave illnesses. Not whizzing by, but taking them into my heart, their eyes open me to the wider circle of helplessness that is part of life.
We have veils over our eyes, perhaps for good reason.
We are nearing the end of our ancestral pilgrimage now. Here I am in front of the Volksopera in Vienna between the feet of the Wicked Witch of Oz, proclaimed dead and powerless amidst bells and revelry.
But the Witch is not dead. Evil is still afoot.
We saw many commemorations to the dead on our short journey through Central Europe. At each stop on our way—Prague, Terezin, Uhersky-Brod, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna—we learned how lives much like our own were disrupted, how unfathomable atrocities occurred. Decades later, museums and commemorations arose. Iron shoes nailed on the shores of the Danube, walls filled with carefully calligraphed names, gold-squares set at the doors of houses—all beautiful attempts to ring the bell of awareness, to awaken us to cognizance, to give a semblance of honor to those who could not be saved.
Is this human cycle inevitable, I wonder? Deport, Kill, Remember, Repeat.
Will we be doing the same in twenty years time for the Muslim families who are currently crossing continents looking for sanctuary?
My sister and I have seen a lot. But as I walk the streets of Central Europe looking at historical markers, I have found myself asking: What are we not seeing here? What is not in this picture?
This morning my head is swimming at the remarkable events that unfolded yesterday in Uhersky-Brod—a verdant, sweet-smelling town in the Carpathian Mountains of the Czech Republic. This is where our great-great grandparents Moses and Tzilka lived and bore their children, so we rented a car to come see what we could find.
My sister and I were happily taking photos of ourselves in front of town hall (notice the splendid countryside in the background) when a man named Michael approached us. A native of the place, Michael not only knew English but was familiar with the history of his town. On our map Michael showed us where the old Jewish neighborhood and cemetery once stood. “Of course there is not one Jew left,” he said, “but across from the big Janacek brewery is where they once lived.”
Sure enough, in the woody hills across from an enormous beer factory we found a country synagogue, with a big padlock on the door. Through the window we could see an empty floor, on the wall a photographic exhibit behind glass.
I write this from a train, rumbling through the Czech countryside on our way to the tiny towns where our grandparents and families lived and died.
Yesterday, a day spent at Terezin, the Ghetto/Concentration Camp Terezin that held over 55,000 Jews. Terezin was not a death camp, per se. And there is no way to compare Terezin to say, Auschwitz or Matthausen, where hundreds of thousands were brutally tortured and gassed. Terezin was its own special animal—a transport center from which “unusable” Jews would be shipped east to their death. But it also provided the Nazis with a propaganda front to show the world (like the Red Cross) reasonable Jewish habitation. (It actually looks like a little village, and indeed it is a fortress originally built in the 1780’s to house political prisoners.)
But the place still reeks of suffering. Behind the pretty façade, the living conditions were horrendously cramped, full of lice and bedbugs, typhus and dysentery. 58,000 people were stuffed into the space of 7,000. Hygiene, food, and medical care was so paltry, that 33,000 died there. And 8,700 of these were children.
My sister and I had an exuberant day in Prague today, on our feet for nearly seven hours as we drank in the sumptuous sites of the Prague Jewish Quarter. Jews lived here in the thousands from the Ninth Century, with an abundance of synagogues—six beauties still stand—and a rich culture that seems to still vibrate with life along the cobblestone paths. Seems to. So much life abounds: thousands of tourists from around the world—kids in baseball caps and elegant Asians, Spanish speakers, Italians, and Brits pour in to see the gorgeous tile work of the Spanish synagogue, the Chevreh Kaddisha (sacred burial society) and most famously, a courtyard where 12,000 gravestones stand and lie at all angles demarcating Jewish culture that thrived here from the 1400’s.
This is a picture of my little girl. Her name is Emily and she just turned 30.
I remember looking into these eyes for hours at a time. They were like windows into some heavenly place, a clear and unfettered world that I myself once knew.
Our wide-eyed world gets clouded over all too soon. There are family narratives to contend with and unspoken secrets that we inherit. The world that is wide and endless and full of possibilities begins to shrink.
When I arrived here, the Holocaust still loomed like a cloud of terror over our house. It did not take long for that unnamed fear to coagulate into attitudes and stances. In a thousand ways we were taught to resist, refuse, reprove an untrustworthy world out there. Yet still, to do well in it, to outsmart it, and never to allow Hitler a posthumous victory.
All of this translated into our little bodies. My siblings and I adopted postures that variously defied, defeated, or caved to the odds that awaited us. Like plates of armor many layers of effort veiled our childlike brightness.
It is well known that the borders of a child’s psyche are highly permeable. Like the feelings that echo between people—what we now call mirror neurons—mental images can be transferred from parents and other adults to younger generations. Although actual memories are not transferred, it is not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit, that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.
Mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—and the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation, becoming part of the internal reality of descendants. Imagine seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground. These are experiences that rarely dissipate. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma at the liberation of Buchenwald—what he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people: These all became part of my visceral inheritance.
If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I had a friend who—even while in our orthodox high school—began to gamble. He would sneak out at odd times, as if under some mysterious spell, to go bet on horses, blackjack, anything at all. Later he found out that he had an uncle (whom he had never met) who was an incorrigible gambler. He had died young and apparently never finished his game. My friend seemed to have picked up his hand!
All of us carry the imprint of our ancestors, their wisdom as well as their pain. It’s part of being in the human family. For years I ran from this truth. I felt the willies when I thought of the weirdness in my lineage and didn’t want anything to do with it. Now I am learning to face my ancestors—and by this I mean all who have gone before me, like my brother and sister who died young. I am learning to call them by name, honor them, and even ask them to be my allies.
Throughout our lives we store thoughts, emotions and past memories below the floorboards of our conscious minds. And not only our own, but also the stored material of our parents and grandparents live beneath the surface of our awareness in what I call the ancestral realm.
A beloved teacher of mine in the world of Jungian psychology once told me this dream:
I am in an unrelenting storm of whirling energy. Everyone is panicking, running about helter-skelter, desperately seeking shelter or escape. Every so often, a bolt of blue electricity tears through the crowd like a buzz saw, threatening anyone in its path. In the midst of the pandemonium I stop to notice that this spiral nightmare is like a crazy amusement park ride, and that everyone has a seat. I quickly find my own and climb into it. No sooner do I click into my place then everyone around me stops running and finds their own seat. Things slow down. The blue bolts of lightning soften and stop and calm takes over.
How like the world these days! Faster and faster we spin, breathless to keep up, to outpace what feels like an inevitable calamity ready to strike at any time. When we are out of our seat, our center, askew from the ground of our being, the world around us can be too much to bear.
But if we—like the dreamer—can take a minute to stop, notice, and click into our own selves, come back down into our authentic place, we may notice that the world around us responds in like measure.