January 18, 2023

Rupture & Resilience: A Conversation on Intergenerational Healing with Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone

By Madison Margolin

What would Judaism be without a communal narrative of trauma? Who would we be without the hardships that have shaped us—for the better? And how are all of us, in the present day, expressions of everything our ancestors went through? In a conversation with Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone, we explore these questions and beyond, investigating the ins and outs of both lived and inherited trauma, and our inherent capacity for healing and growth.

A rabbi and psychologist, Firestone is also the author of Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, with a foreword by trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté. Through her work and her writing, Firestone brings life and meaning to those who have experienced tragedy. The stories of such experiences can be bizarre, lending proof to the unexplainable: the parents of a little girl who suffered from anxiety, for instance, uncovered that the girl was suffering on behalf of a long deceased grandmother; and only once those generational wounds were addressed could the girl begin to heal.

What we uncover through trauma and ancestry work, Rabbi Firestone teaches us, is a deeper connection to self and to spirit. As the psychedelic adage goes, “the only way out is through,” and it is only through the deep work of collective and self-inquiry that we might arrive not only to a sense of healing, but to a higher wisdom shedding light on the mystery of it all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Madison Margolin

So, how did you begin working in trauma psychology? Where does your interest in this field come from?

Tirzah Firestone

As a psychologist and a rabbi, I have worked with many Jewish populations over the last thirty years. I myself have a second-generation Holocaust survivor’s background. My mother was German, and escaped Nazi Europe in 1939 on the Kindertransport. And my father was an American kid stationed in Germany during the war, more specifically at the Bergen-Belsen death camp when it was liberated in ’45. So both my parents carried profound traumas, which they never spoke of directly while I was growing up. I guess you can say that autobiographically, as well as professionally, the intergenerational healing work had my name on it. It became evident to me how Jewish people, like all groups who have been oppressed, carry the burden of unprocessed history in their systems, material that affects them and later generations deeply. These are epigenetic loads that influence personal and communal behaviors, as well as how people act on the world stage.

My work on trauma actually took off in Israel when I was doing human rights work with Rabbis for Human Rights and other human rights organizations. It hit me so strongly when I was there—as I visited Palestinian refugee camps, worked with Palestinian farmers, and met people living under the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank—that Israeli policies are the products of our history. And that if we had turned to feel, to grieve, and to metabolize our trauma more deeply, we might be experiencing a different reality in Israel|Palestine right now. Our trajectory there would have been radically different. My work is simply about connecting the dots between history and psychology, between the collective and the personal legacies that we all carry. After my dad died, I found his photographs locked away in a filing cabinet, the ones he took in the concentration camp. Seeing the horrors of what he had witnessed there in the death camp, I realized: Oh that’s why he parented us the way he did. That’s why he was so angry and doctrinaire, why his politics were the way they were. It was—at least in part—his unmetabolized trauma coming out sideways. And my heart broke open for him. I felt so much compassion and understanding.

MM

Nowadays it feels like trauma is something of a buzzword—which isn’t to diminish it, but to say that people are acknowledging it more than ever before.

TF

Yes, I think trauma is a word that’s thrown around too loosely. There are, as my friend and teacher Gabor Maté writes, little traumas that hit us all the time when we are blown away by life—even by reading the newspaper these days. But the deep indelible changes that happen when we’re confronted with dramatic events our nervous systems cannot cope with—those get stored inside us. It’s a life-saving mechanism to push them into the back room where they can wait until we have more resources to process them. But oftentimes they remain there for way too long, festering there, changing our physiology, our stance on life, our behaviors; then all kinds of symptoms start to arise from them.

MM

How does the experience of lived trauma differ from the experience of inherited or intergenerational trauma?

TF

The residues are very similar. For example, if someone violates my boundaries, it is normal to dissociate, to numb out emotionally, at least for a while. Unprocessed trauma can also cause hyperreactivity, or hypervigilance. You know, that zero-to-ten reflexive reaction that happens if someone looks at you the wrong way? To be hypervigilant is a life-saving mechanism, too, just like numbing out—but it can get entrenched in our nervous systems.

Trauma can also produce a sense of overriding shame and isolation—because deeply, physiologically, we might feel we deserved the painful thing that happened to us—and this, too, is evident from many scientific studies. Even in the case of a car accident or a personal violation, we might believe inwardly: I am responsible; I must have called that upon myself. Another residue of trauma is a strange one: we reenact injury on ourselves or on other people. Trauma becomes cyclical and repetitive.

So that’s a long-winded way to say that the residues of trauma in the personal nervous system also show up in the family’s nervous system and get passed on intergenerationally. The residues are similar wherever they arise. From studies on collective trauma, it is now understood that historical trauma changes a people’s narrative or ethos and self-concept. And I think that has happened in the Jewish community because trauma has become such a central motif in our narrative. But we’re so much more than our trauma! It is just a part of our story. But we tend to get stuck on it.

MM

You say we are so much more than that, but I also feel like the story needs the trauma. I hate to put it that way, but for instance, every holiday is about how something traumatic happened, and how we persevered.

TF

Yes: “We fought, we won, let’s celebrate and eat!” [laughing]

MM

Yeah, exactly. I can’t imagine a Judaism without this narrative about the bad things that happened to us—even if it’s just so that, at the end of the story, we can say we survived. If we hadn’t been traumatized as slaves in Egypt, would we even have escaped and wandered the Sinai and received Torah? The way the religion unfolded is a result of trauma—and, I would say, post-traumatic growth. So what would Judaism be like without trauma? Would it be at all?

TF

Well, it certainly provides drama, yes. As a rabbi, I would say that absolutely, we have some other very unique gifts for the world that are not related to trauma. For example, pertaining to cycles of holiness—the cycle of shmita, of letting the earth rest, of Shabbat and letting our bodies rest—the idea that we are all completely connected, that even if you are very poor, you still are connected to the community—you still give and are given to. And Kabbalah gives us the mystical pathways of understanding God’s many faces, of Shekhinah: God being right here and now in our bodies’ pulsing energies. These are all profound gifts. But often our dramatic stories of suffering, of being in the ghettos and gas chambers, galvanize a lot more attention. It’s like a better movie.

So there’s this history, but also this residue that is really distorting our view of the world. It’s like living with a crack in the window, a very big crack, and everything gets fragmented or distorted—and that is onerous. We can change that. We can heal that.

“There’s this history, but also this residue that is really distorting our view of the world. It’s like living with a crack in the window, a very big crack, and everything gets fragmented or distorted—and that is onerous. We can change that. We can heal that.”

MM

So how do we heal trauma? Where does it start? I know it’s such a broad question.

TF

Well, the first thing is to identify the psychological tracks and trauma patterns that were laid down by our ancestors, by earlier family members, and understand their effects on our lives. Sometimes it becomes clear in a psychedelic journey. As a psychotherapist, I cannot even tell you how many people come and say to me, “I’ve done this journey, I’ve seen these things, and I have to work on them now that my eyes are open.” The ancestral healing work is deep, and there is now a global awareness that we can do this work to teach people about turning to face and study their ancestors, to understand them and what they went through, to create family maps to see the patterns of rupture and resilience. And to have more compassion for those who came before us.

I work a lot with ritual and ceremony, not necessarily with plant medicine, but helping people in deep meditation to turn to face their ancestors who either were cut off, died abruptly, or left with unworked or interrupted life stories. How can I say this? They’re still alive. Their energies influence us. I work in the dimension called the ancestral realm, the olam ha’avot, where we call upon these ancestors and work with them to help them heal, to help ourselves heal. Does that sound crazy to you?

MM

No, it doesn’t at all. It reminds me of when my mom did mushrooms for the first time. I trip sat her, and at the end, she came to this faith that everything would be ok. I’d never heard her say that before. I needed my mother to heal, on some level, so that I could too. So, this leads into my next question: when you talk about healing the ancestors or rituals that enable us to connect with ancestral healing that needs to be done, generations back, what does that look like in practice? Could you walk me through a ceremony?

TF

I can try. Every ceremony is different. And it’s not always in a shamanic dimension that deep healing sessions occur. Here’s an example: A woman in her thirties came to see me. She was born in this country, her family had escaped from Iran in the early ’80s when her mother was pregnant with her. She came to me because she had a seven-year-old daughter who had horrible separation anxiety and couldn’t leave her parents’ sight. Mom and Dad were going crazy because the kid wouldn’t go to school, wouldn’t have friends over. They’d gone to all kinds of counselors and nothing was helping.

Looking at her genogram (a multi-generational family tree), we opened up this profound story about how their Iranian family had escaped Tehran, traveling on opium bundles in a donkey cart to the Pakistani border in the middle of the night, and it went on like that—a very dramatic story. Looking at her family map, I asked her: “I see your mother’s parents escaped with your mom and dad. But what about the other side of your family?” The young woman answered, “I don’t actually know anything about them.” I told her to go home and ask. She did, and she got a strange response from her parents. Finally, after much probing, a terrible family secret came out: When they left Tehran, her parents left behind her father’s mother who was ninety-four years old and blind. They had been seeing the old woman every day and loved her, but they couldn’t take any chances that she might tip off her caregivers. So they just left without ever saying goodbye. The old woman died of heartbreak soon afterwards.

So here my client had unearthed this big family secret, full of shame and grief. It had been sitting as if fermenting for thirty-five years and finally emerged. Her parents finally opened up the deep pain that they had stuffed away. My client was ruthless; she demanded that they do a ceremony, have a memorial, drag out all the pictures. And in the process of this messy, chaotic family tumult, the little girl started to heal. Within three weeks, she started demanding to go to school, to see her friends. It was like something had broken open in her, and there was no more separation anxiety.

Sometimes doing the work of unlocking family secrets, of turning to face family pain—whether in an altered state, or just in the context of deep psychological work—can loosen the grip of intergenerational traumas. Magical things start to happen when you do the ancestral healing work, often very uncanny things.

MM

So, why is untying intergenerational knots in our personal and ancestral histories important now—with all the social upheaval and societal transformation around us?

TF

When we understand our own trauma history and the challenging historical patterns in our family lineages, we begin to understand the world more deeply. We begin to have more compassion for what our ancestors went through, and what other ancestral lineages have gone through. Whenever we bring awareness to bear, there is a lightening and a loosening that happens, something that frees and energizes us. All these studies in the fields of neuroscience and epigenetics show that the stresses of those who came before us can linger within us and be transmitted to future generations. In our era, it’s like history has caught up with us; we have to face it now and see how much unconscious behavior we are acting out, behavior that isn’t even ours.

What is this kind of hyperreactivity and violence, especially in the United States, this polarization, this hatred, this racism, this white supremacy—all of these things that come out and strike with a zero-to-ten intensity? They didn’t arrive just now; they have roots in the past, they started generations earlier. I believe that past traumas of inequality, war, displacement, poverty, and injustice linger in our systems. When we begin to look at ourselves through a larger lens, when we bring self-awareness to bear, we start to realize, “Oh, I’m so much bigger than my own self.” I know, for instance, the Great Depression and World Wars carry epigenetic residues that are evident in my system. Likewise, more recent collective social traumas in this country—of 9/11 and of all the mass shootings—have deeply imprinted themselves on the nervous systems of the young people who lived through them, and these traumas will get transmitted down the line if they’re not worked through.

“When we understand our own trauma history and the challenging historical patterns in our family lineages, we begin to understand the world more deeply. We begin to have more compassion for what our ancestors went through, and what other ancestral lineages have gone through.”

MM

It seems there are two types of traumas: the trauma we directly experience or inherit from our ancestors, and the second-hand trauma of hearing, say, horror stories of Holocaust survivors—those narratives of other people’s experiences that make us scared to move forward.

TF

One young woman shared that her very first memory was a recurrent dream that she had all through her childhood. Frequently, she would wake up crying and her mother would rush in to console her. Finally, at the age of three or four, she was able to tell her mother what she’d seen: In the dream, she was in a train station, and saw a man jump into the tracks and run after a train. She saw him running and running and running. But he could never catch up; he was screaming and crying.

As the girl explained the dream, her mother freaked out: “How did you know that story? I never told you that story. That’s exactly what happened to your grandfather. He came home, his front door was open, his family taken, and his gentile neighbors told him: ‘Hurry, run to the train station, you can catch up with the train.’ So he ran to the station, jumped off the platform into the tracks, and ran after the train, but could not catch up. And of course he never saw his family again.”

The imprints of those experiences were so deep in the grandfather that his granddaughter carried his nightmare. But it was not just a nightmare. It was actually her grandfather’s story. How does that happen? Science hasn’t caught up with the transmission of nightmares yet. This girl, who is in a 3G group (for the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors), said that dreaming ancestors’ dreams was actually fairly common in her group.

MM

They say that trauma lives in the body; can post-traumatic growth and healing also live in the body?

TF

When we do our work, when we turn to face our legacies and get conscious about them, our bodies can change, our physiologies can change. I just finished Gabor Maté’s new book The Myth of Normal, and he shares research about how our personal work can change the expression of our genes, in terms of our resilience, our stamina, our capacity for life. These studies show that we can turn our trauma legacies around. I have seen that in our bodies: literally, our diseases can change, our transmissions to our children can change. I’m sure you’ve experienced that when your mom does her work; it shifts things in you energetically, right? It ripples out to you?

MM

It did for a minute. I mean it’s funny with psychedelics—you have this realization and then the question is, how much does it sink in? How do you harness these moments of healing? It’s not enough to just do mushrooms, feel connected on some level, say “I’m gonna be okay,” and then forget three months later. The question is what does it take, practically speaking, to really tune into the nervous system in order to be different, to be well—or just stam1 to be?

TF

It takes a lot of work. It means changing psychological constructions and habit formations that may have years, decades, and generations behind them. A feeling of unsafety in the world, feeling like a victim, or a constant sense of scarcity—these are things that may have no basis in reality at all. You may actually be safe, even wealthy (relatively speaking), you may have everything you need, and yet you feel these things. It’s a continuous process of dipping into some deep unconscious realms. That’s called depth psychology. And these are the realms where the ancestral work goes, where the intergenerational healing work goes.

MM

How do you embody the feeling or knowledge that you’re safe? And how does the framework of Judaism and spirituality serve as a healing modality?

TF

Well, let’s talk about safety. The world is very unsafe and depending on where you live, and who you are, it’s really important to acknowledge that. There is a lot of racism and white supremacy, unexpected eruptions of violence, accelerating climate chaos, and so much more. So yes, unsafety is a reality. And feeling safe in one’s own skin, and in one’s own nervous system, requires working with trauma residue to get a sense of self-regulation and inner settledness.

For me, Jewish wisdom is a place of deep safety—because our ancestors went through so much and still maintained a connection to Spirit that prevailed through centuries of persecution. Being able to take strength from inner faith and connection to something greater than ourselves, even in the midst of a world gone bad, is part of the legacy I take pride in. Prayer is another superpower we all have; it opens up energetic channels to unseen realms that are available to us all the time.

“Being able to take strength from inner faith and connection to something greater than ourselves, even in the midst of a world gone bad, is part of the legacy I take pride in. Prayer is another superpower we all have; it opens up energetic channels to unseen realms that are available to us all the time.”

MM

So, I really love Rebbe Nachman, and I feel like his Chassidis2 has a lot to do with using difficult experiences to launch us into the highest connection with G-d. While I would hate to say that we need to undergo these traumas to feel connected, it’s almost like experiencing fear, the fear of walking the narrow bridge, is part of the process—of learning to, and having no other choice but to cleave to G-d. So it makes sense that the treatment of trauma involves going through the experience, working through that fear. You can’t just cleave, or embody dveykus3 without really going through it. In the psychedelic world, they say the journey is the medicine, rather than the substance taken or whatever happens at the end of a trip.

TF

In twelve-step psychology, they talk about hitting bottom and then breaking open, there is a shevirat ha-kelim.4 This happens when you suffer profoundly, and you realize you’re falling, but that there’s something bigger than you. It is a terrible paradox that I hate to admit, because, if you have kids, for example, you know they’re not going to deeply mature if they don’t suffer. You don’t want them to suffer, you pray that they won’t suffer. But it’s only through suffering that we really transform. And that’s the paradox that Rebbe Nachman’s whole Torah is based upon: how to keep your heart open in hell, how to walk the narrow bridge and not give way to despondency. And I think that’s part of this conversation, too: How do we become bigger than our trauma? How do we disidentify from our trauma history and grow into the enormity of our beings, our capacity as human beings? I talk about that a lot in my book—how to disidentify from the victim narrative, and also from the narrative of chosenness. That’s another big topic.

MM

Well maybe they’re the same narrative, different sides of the same coin.

TF

That’s right. That’s the question: What were we chosen for? Why did we survive? What are we here for? It’s certainly not to get stuck in survivor’s guilt, but to ask the bigger question: How can we use our suffering, and this incredible legacy of persecution, to empathize with others, to really be a light in the world? It’s not about specialness; it’s about having a sacred obligation, a sacred privilege.

MM

So, how can we draw on trauma and fear as a source of wisdom and revelation? How can we learn from our own experience as its own kind of source text for growth, healing, and insight?

TF

We can turn to face the experience, to understand it, to feel it, and remember that we are bigger than a story of pain. As human beings living in this time, we get so contracted and so identified with the terrible things happening to us now. We are bigger than that. And I think that’s one of the reasons the Torah of psychedelics is so popular right now, because it expands our consciousness. We get to see a meta perspective.

MM

That’s why I love “psychedelic” as a metaphor. Whether or not it has to do with taking a substance externally, it describes a particular process. And you can go through that process through studying Kabbalah, through hitbodedut,5 just by yourself. The vehicle is almost irrelevant. It’s like if you’re at the mountaintop, who cares how you got there?

TF

Oh G-d, it’s so nice to talk to you because you’re right in the place, in the holy Tzfat. And it’s wonderful to speak about the intersection between Yahadut,6 spiritual practice, psychedelics, and trauma.

Our traditional pathways to mysticism and to transcendent realms have broken down for many who’ve left institutional Judaism. As the prophet Amos said in Torah: “Days are coming when people will be starved, but not for bread and water alone—rather, for consciousness, for wisdom.”7 And that is happening now. People need direct spiritual experiences and are not finding them in the conventional ways; they’ve become cynical and disaffected, or they’re not going to meaningful services, or they’ve just fallen away from traditional pathways that have stopped working. And so there is a mass exodus—you could say entrance—into the door of mysticism. It is not just studying Kabbalah, but actually accessing those places that the mystics speak about. And when we go to these deep places, we start to feel what is in our bodies, the legacies transmitted to us that have been tacit, unspoken. They’re alive—those transmissions of history, the transmissions of wisdom, too, the transmissions of resilience. Remember, it’s not all negative. Our ancestors bring us powerful stuff!

Footnotes

  1. A word in Hebrew that means, among other things, simply.
  2. Ethos and teachings of loving-kindness.
  3. Literally cleaving (to G-d)—a dedication to spiritual practice, or a quality of clinging to the Divine.
  4. Shattering of the vessels.
  5. A secluded form of personal prayer in which the practitioner speaks freely to/with G-d in their own language, with their own words, about their life and dreams and struggles.
  6. Judaism.
  7. Amos 8:11.

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, PhD, is an author, Jungian psychotherapist, leader in the international Jewish Renewal Movement, and renowned Jewish scholar and teacher. Widely known for her groundbreaking work on Kabbalah, depth psychology, intergenerational trauma healing, and the re-integration of the feminine wisdom tradition within Judaism, Rabbi Tirzah lectures and teaches nationally about spiritual and ancient wisdom practices that are honed to assist us at this critical time in world history. Her latest work, Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma (Monkfish, 2019) is the recipient of the 2020 Nautilus Book Award (Gold) in Psychology, and the Jewish Women’s Caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology 2020 book award. www.tirzahfirestone.com | @tirzahfire

Madison Margolin is a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life. She is the cofounder of DoubleBlind Magazine and has written for publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vice, among others. Also a cofounder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and host of the Set & Setting podcast on the Be Here Now Network, Madison has traveled from cannabis farms in Northern California to underground ceremonies in Brooklyn to the shores of the Ganges River and all over Israel|Palestine, reporting on the role of entheogens in religion, culture, and healing. Find out more about her work here, or follow her on social media.