Opinion | Intergenerational Trauma Among Second-Generation Jews

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a young woman sits on a couch at an appointment with a psychologist
fizkes / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Gail Post

Like many Jews of my generation, I was raised to assume that danger lurked on every street corner. Although my immigrant grandparents rarely spoke of their tortured journeys to America, their trauma lingered through unspoken fear and suspicion. The Cossacks might return. You never know.

Of course, those Cossack memories would shapeshift into different forms. A busy highway, a doctor’s visit, that boy who picked you up for a date — all were fodder for worry, suspicion and potential disaster. Warnings were hurled like flares for even mundane events; pursuing an actual adventure might have stoked outright hysteria.

Many Jewish immigrants did not travel to America in search of prosperity; they fled persecution and sometimes certain death. Although they typically assimilated, the residual often unresolved trauma was frequently passed on to subsequent generations. These ancestors — my ancestors — forged ahead and made a life for themselves. Some continued to embrace their religious beliefs; others tossed their spirituality aside, but remained loyal to their cultural heritage. Still others, like my family, abandoned almost all ties to their roots, choosing assimilation above all else (hence my Anglicized surname). Regardless of their spiritual path, the children of these Jewish immigrants — and especially their grandchildren — often continued to absorb the residue of their trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is unconsciously, unwittingly transmitted across generations. Much has been written about children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, who have suffered psychological aftereffects in response to their ancestors’ horrific trauma. I would add, though, that the more “routine” migration of Jews to America in the early 20th century — fleeing anti-Semitic purges and pogroms — created a widespread culture of intergenerationally transmitted anxiety. The family legacy of fear and desperation seeps into the very core of one’s being, and persists long after arrival on Ellis Island.

First-generation Jews often maintained their parents’ pattern of avoidance, focusing on assimilation and attaining success in a country that was sometimes welcoming, and at other times, anti-Semitic and threatening. Fears loomed large, but were tackled through hard work and connection to the Jewish community. Any mention of their parents’ life in the shtetl, or the harrowing journey to America, was either dismissed, or referenced in hushed tones. Better to look to the future than dwell on the past.

Second-generation Jews, granted enough distance from the immigrant journey, can stop running and catch their breath. By virtue of their position in the family lineage, they become a repository or “container” for the unresolved and unexpressed emotions of their grandparents. In a sense, they are both “holding” and expressing the emotions that fresh-off-the-boat immigrants and their offspring could not access. As a psychologist, I have witnessed this pattern in my psychotherapy practice: Second-generation Jews often struggle with anxiety, fears and insecurity passed on seamlessly through the generations. Not every grandchild of 20th-century Jewish immigrants “holds” these unexpressed emotions, but typically, at least one carries this burden.

Psychologist Molly Castelloe describes how intergenerational transmission of trauma serves a purpose: It prevents a complete negation of the immigrant generation’s suffering, even if the trauma is unspoken. Instead, a child or grandchild senses the undercurrent of pain and is unwittingly “nominated” to “carry and communicate the grief of their predecessors”: “Transmission is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one’s parents.”

Castelloe also notes: “The child speaks what their parent could not … In rising above the remnants of one’s ancestors’ trauma, one helps to heal future generations.”

While there is some evidence that intergenerational trauma may be passed along genetically, transmission is typically tied to the family environment, unspoken messages that are conveyed nonetheless, and parenting limitations stemming from the trauma itself. For example, a parent may experience extreme, disproportionate anxiety about a child’s developmentally normal attempts at independence. This may instill guilt, ambivalence and fearfulness within the child, since seemingly “safe” situations are viewed as threatening.

Other times, parents who have been traumatized may be ill-equipped to calm and comfort their children. As a result, anxious first-generation offspring may perpetuate this cycle with their own children.

In an article describing trauma and parenting, Charles Portney notes that parents with a trauma history may have “difficulty modeling a healthy sense of identity and autonomy, appropriate self-soothing mechanisms and affect regulation, and maintaining a balanced perspective when life challenges arise.”

In other words, parents overwhelmed by trauma cannot teach their children how to calm themselves or cope with routine stressors. Lacking a trustworthy role model, children doubt their own instincts, and the world seems unpredictable and threatening.

The suffering and indignities generations of Jews have endured must be acknowledged, honored and expressed. Healing the pain of intergenerational trauma is aided by psychotherapy, spiritual guidance and family support. The following guidelines also help the process:

1. Learn more about your past. Understanding your ancestors’ struggles will demystify what was never previously acknowledged. Speak with relatives and connect pieces of the puzzle. Historical and genealogical databases also may provide enlightening information.

2. Develop compassion for your ancestor’s suffering. Appreciate the enormity of their sacrifice and difficult journey. They had neither the time nor resources to “work through” their emotional suffering. Develop gratitude for their sacrifices, which enabled you to thrive.

3. Acknowledge that your anxiety is real. The unintended transmission of your ancestors’ anxiety and suffering is real. It may be manifest in fearfulness, worrying or even low self-esteem. The compassion you grant toward your ancestors should be reserved for you as well.

4. Learn tools for managing anxiety. Even if your anxiety stems from your grandparents’ traumatic experiences, you still need to live with — and overcome — your fears. Get the help you need to calm yourself and reduce stress. Psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional is invaluable, along with meditation, spiritual guidance and the support of friends and family.

Gail Post is a clinical psychologist in Jenkintown in practice for more than 30 years.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you. This explains so much. I had done much of what you recommended. My mother was 7 when her family fled the 1921 pogrom in Bessarabia. I tell the story in a drawn story on my blogspot, art-as-activism.blogspot
    The story is titled “Trump the Cossack”.

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