Despite the astonishing efforts I made to deny them, my ancestors were incontestably alive within me—with all their foibles and fears. Just as my grandparents’ values had coiled down the twisted ladder of their DNA to me—love of the written word, Jewish education, and heavy food—so had the pain and injury of being a Jew been transmitted to me.
When I was twenty-five I dreamt of a slender Hungarian woman in a fur coat. Actually, she was a naked skeleton in a fur coat. The dream came at a time when I felt paralyzed by guilt. On the surface my life was thriving. I had a good job, and had just moved in with my new boyfriend. But I couldn’t enjoy any of it, couldn’t allow myself to buy a teapot or a new sweater without feeling I was betraying someone.
The boney woman in the fur looked at me and spoke in a thick accent. She said:
Dahlink, don’t be a fool! Don’t you think we would be enjoying our beautiful things if we could?
Suddenly the room was filled with many richly clad Hungarian ladies. I had interrupted their tea party. Now they were all looking my way. I knew they were dead, yet they were somehow beautiful and full of life. It was as if they were yelling at me:
Do you think it helps us that you suffer? Not at all! Live the life we could not live!
It took me decades to understand my family’s tragedies: a brother’s suicide, a sister’s psychosis, the callous cutting of ties between parents and siblings, between siblings and each other. What made us so volatile, so unloving?
I had no idea that my family’s intensity had anything to do with a trauma response, that the aggression and force that my parents employed were—at least in part—a clumsy cover to the fear and dread of annihilation that lay at their core. The puzzle I inherited was far from obscure. I had only to decipher the clues.
My father was a born-again Jew from Brooklyn serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps when he met my Orthodox refugee mother. Young and wide-eyed, Kate had just made her way out of Germany on the Kindertransport. Soon after arriving to the US, still faltering in a new language, she met Sol—handsome, mustached and in uniform. They married shortly thereafter.
The imagery of the Zohar is outrageously colorful. I am speaking of the 13th century
masterpiece central to Kabbalah. Here in sacred surreal story form, we learn from an angry angel that our purpose on earth is:
- to turn darkness into light
- bitter into sweet
- to assist God to unite with the gazelle, that is, the Shechinah, the divine feminine who has been lost in exile.
Throughout the Zohar we have this profound and radical idea: that God—though infinite, the totality of consciousness and more—is not quite whole. One main reason: God is masculine seeking His feminine, feeling side. You might say this is a projection. Or you might say that we humans reflect the Creator’s own cosmic imbalance.
Understanding Kabbalah in the light of depth psychology has been a lifetime pursuit for me. Both draw upon a simple premise that beyond the physical reality shown to us by our five senses there exist unseen dimensions, or force fields that exert their gravitational pulls upon us.
In my twenties, I dreamt of walking in an old European city at night. The cobblestone street led me to a towering old Jewish synagogue. Awed by its enormity, I circumambulated the edifice, but it was surrounded by a wrought iron gate and bolted shut.
Finding no way in, I finally gave up and started to walk away. Alas, a cobblestone in the street was askew and I tripped and fell to the ground. There in the dark, grappling to come to my feet, I felt something sticking up from the beneath the stones. I pulled out two items. First, an old parchment scroll, hand-scribed with fiery Hebrew letters.
And second, a thick volume of the collected works of C. G. Jung.
The dream came during a period of deep disillusionment. I had been raised in a rigidly Orthodox household and felt that Judaism—at least the patriarchal ways it had been transmitted to me—could not take me to the places I needed to go. I was for all intents and purposes, done with Judaism.