Book Review: Now You Can Limit the Power of Hidden Traumas

I strongly commend to your attention Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma (Monkfish Press) by psychotherapist and rabbi, Tirzah Firestone. The many personal and collected narratives she shares compel the reader to reflect in new and helpful ways upon one’s own life, family trauma histories known, and those perhaps dimly perceived–even long after the volume is read. Her writing style is beautiful. She demonstrates the importance of applying a core concept articulated by Yael Danieli, editor of International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma:

“Awareness of transmitted intergenerational [trauma] processes will inhibit transmission of pathology to succeeding generations.”

Is or was there a bump under the rug of your family story? Something you felt was unspoken and hugely significant? A personal trauma? Or, from the collective traumas of your people? Traumas that must be there, yet weren’t discussed? Rabbi Firestone cites Israeli traumatologist, Dan Bar-on whose research finds:

“Untold stories’ often pass more powerfully from generation to generation than stories that can be recounted.”

Rabbi Firestone’s father, like so many of her parents’ generation, as a returning soldier, did not discuss World War II experiences. Through her effort to heal and understand family traumas, when after his death the family found “photographs hidden away in his files: shocking images that he had taken inside the death camp…” She began to feel shifted, discovering:

“…the capacity to put our pain into context is key, allowing us to acknowledge its power, yet give it boundaries.”

And she continues: “Traumatic memory torments us and will own us if we do not contain it. But when we face and acknowledge it, it may be possible to convert it to something positive.”

Rabbi Firestone learned that children’s psychic borders are highly permeable. And she discovered the work of Dr. Vamik Volkan who “calls the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, image deposits. He maintains that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child, who then becomes a reservoir for the adult’ trauma images, which can shape the child’s life.”

She came to understand that her father’s “entire world had subtly organized itself” around the images from the war” and became able to write: “When I imagine the feelings of utter vulnerability that Dad must have experienced in the war, which he later overrode with bluster, rage, and incontrovertible opinions, I could more easily forgive his heavy-handed parenting.” Rabbi Dr. Firestone cites the work of Dr. Rachel Yehuda at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, that overwhelming trauma “resets and recalibrates multiple biologic systems in an enduring way.”

Seven Principles

Seven principles are derived from the interviews that Rabbi Dr. Firestone conducted. For example, in Principle Five “Disidentifying from Victimhood” one of the interviewees, an Israeli graduate student from Russia describes a trauma sense perhaps readers have too, especially in this age of resurgent anti-Semitism: “If we are not actively fighting, we will be erased from the face of the earth.” Another says: “It’s as if I’ve been running all my life.” America, Israel, Europe, South Africa and other contexts are addressed. She also looks closely at how to engage in this work without retraumatizing ourselves. She draws upon an IDF officer who shares that he learned from his grandfather that there are two kinds of Jews:

“One kind of Jew says: The Holocaust happened to us as Jews and we have to do whatever we can, with whatever means, to make sure it did not happen to us as Jews ever again…”

“…The second kind of Jew—and this is the kind of Jew that I want to be—is the Jew that says: ‘We were part of one of the hugest catastrophes that happened in humanity. We were one of the groups that were harmed from this, but not the only group and we now have the responsibility that this will never happen to anyone again.’”

Throughout the volume we meet those who show us ways of hope for the human future.

Incorporating Jewish Wisdom

In Wounds into Wisdom, Rabbi Dr. Firestone also applies Jewish wisdom as found in our sacred literature, for example:

“Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen. Had I not sat in the darkness, I could not have beheld the light.”–Midrash Socher Tov 22:7

And, from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning Rabbi Dr. Firestone emphases how Dr. Frankl turns to Nietzche’s words: “The survivor who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” She guides us then to ask: “Who am I now? What social and political conditions shaped my tragedy? What can I do to prevent this kind of suffering for others? What meaning can I make of this?”

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s Wounds into Wisdom is an important contribution not only for those affected and the field of psychology, it is also the newest entry in categories such as Jewish Healing, Jewish Cultural Healing, and Jewish Spiritual Healing. This volume will appear beside early works such as those by Rabbi Morris and Mrs. Tehillah Lichtenstein, founders of Jewish Science, Avraham Greenbaum’s The Wings of the Sun, and Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Contemporary works in the field of Jewish Healing include:

There are also specialized works such as Nina Beth Cardin’s Tears of Sorrow: Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources by Dayle A. Friedman and Barbara Eve Breitman, The Grief Journey and the Afterlife: Jewish Pastoral Care for Bereavement, by Simcha Raphaell Paul, Anatomy of a Tear: A Chaplain’s Stories of Life, Love, and Loss by Leon Olenick, and many more.

In Conclusion

Hopefully there will be a future volume for mental health professionals, Jewish spiritual directors, chaplains and other clergy that teach us more specifically Dr. Firestone’s methods of working with clients through this remarkable lens. The way she puts her balanced, carefully nuanced approach together gives us reason to embrace the trauma stories we can unearth. This gives us the material we need in order to get the context and understanding we need to work with ourselves and professionals like her to interrupt family patterns, possibly even those of epigenetic destiny, and reshape the trajectory of our lives, our families, of our people, and our relationship to all peoples. Wounds into Wisdom is a keeper.