I’m sure that when you started Facebook, you thought it would be a cool project with some money-making potential. I doubt you thought it could serve as a tool for healing.
It’s been only 24 hours since we first made contact – through another contact on Facebook — but already, when I go to my inbox, the first thing I do is look for Abbe’s name. (She isn’t on Facebook.) I am excited and moved by our exchanges.
But more than that: Abbe wrote one sentence remembering the eight-year-old me of 55 years ago, the eight-year-old who had just lived through what I always considered to be the trauma of my childhood.
The child Abbe remembers doesn’t seem traumatized. Could it be I am more whole than I thought?
Here’s my story:
I’m eight, living in Jerusalem with my parents, Jews of Bukharian ancestry who had just returned to Israel from the US. (They had originally left Palestine with their fifth child, a nursing baby, for the US in 1939, only to get stuck there when World War II broke out, leaving four children in Jerusalem with relatives for seven years — but that’s another story.)
Sixteen years later, my father decides to move us back to Israel.
One day, my brother Leon, 18, who had been that nursing baby, is visiting from Brighton, England, where he has chosen to finish high school rather than moving with us to Israel. I adore my older brother, probably more than anyone in the world, so of course when I’m sent off to bed, I sneak back to eavesdrop just outside the living room door of our Rehavia apartment. My timing is perfect.
My parents are talking about a long trip they want to take. But what will they do with Ruthie?
“Why don’t you send her to that school in Switzerland where Ori went?” Leon suggests.
I don’t wait for their answer. I march into the living room in my yellow flannel pajamas, hands on hips, and announce: “I am NOT going to any boarding school!”
I am a little girl who is used to having her way and I have no doubt that I can stop this idea in its tracks.
“No, no,” says my mother. “We’re just talking.”
But before I know it, my mother, father and I are on a plane, then a train, then riding in a taxi through big wrought-iron gates. I see a tall building on the right, a big grassy area with dozens of identically dressed children playing on the left, a fence (which I later find out is electrified) surrounding it all.
I’m no dummy.
“I thought you weren’t sending me to boarding school!” I protest.
“No, no” says my mother. “We’re just looking at it.”
At some point during the tour we are given — I assume when I’m taken up to see the girls’ dorm — my parents disappear.
While my memories from the first half of the day – the hotel room, the train ride from Paris, the cab, the tour of Institute Ascher, the people we meet, the big, empty dining room with row upon row of tables – are still crystal clear, the second half – even the moment I find out that my parents have left — is a blank.
Ever since I became old enough to think about such things, I knew that this was the central trauma of my childhood. When I tell people the story they are incredulous. The post-traumatic fallout: I don’t really trust anyone.
And there is a voice inside me that whispers, most of the time just out of earshot, “Don’t get too happy.” I am always semi-consciously vigilant, always waiting for the other shoe to fall.
One of the first things I typed into the Google search engine when it came online was “Institute Ascher.” Nothing. I tried again a few months ago and lo and behold, an alumnus has started a Facebook page.
I admit that I was one of those people who was proud not to be on Facebook. I had all the usual criticisms – plus I didn’t need one more thing sucking up my time. But our internet specialist at Shatil, where I work, said, “You can’t write a piece about using Facebook as a tool for social change for the newsletter until you experience Facebook.”
It was the excuse I needed. It took me a couple of years to realize Facebook’s potential, and today I use it mainly as a community organizing tool and to spread information: Come to a demonstration against Netanyahu’s’ disastrous planning reform bill, a rally against a road that will destroy the Jerusalem Forest, a seed exchange at my home, a house concert.
As soon as I discovered the Institute Ascher page, I typed in a message. But the group only has a few “members” and none of them were there with me. A few days ago, I tried again, typing in the names of all the schoolmates I remember, including “Abby.” Daniel, the page’s founder wrote back, “Do you mean Abbe Stahl?” and sends me a link to her artist’s page.
I wrote to her and heard back immediately.
“I remember a lively little girl named Ruthie who learned languages almost instantly. Could that be you?”
Lively. Not depressed. Not repressed. Not sad. Not sorrowful. Lively.
I know I had been a handful for my elderly parents: strong willed, rambunctious, lively before Switzerland, and that afterward, I had become docile. “You’re a good girl now,” my mother had said when I was finally allowed to rejoin my parents back in Los Angeles a year later. “When I say go to bed, you go to bed.”
Years of on-and-off therapy helped me to entrench the idea that what my parents did was terrible (well, it was) and that the abandonment was traumatic. But I also know I either went into that year strong or it made me strong.
I created a family, have meaningful work, good friends. But the idea that I was scarred for life is such a part of me. I use it to explain away the mistrust, the avoidance of a deeper intimacy, the vigilance against disaster.
Abbe’s choice of that one word is doing its work inside me. I feel stirred up, freer somehow, excited at this new possibility.
“There are levels of trauma,” my psychotherapist friend, Bella, a founder of the Women’s Counseling Center in Jerusalem tells me. “Maybe you weren’t as traumatized as you thought.”
Here is my hope: That I’m not as injured as I believed. That ”lively” is my true nature. That I don’t have to be so afraid of what people will think, of coming on too strong. That I don’t have to make myself smaller, quieter, more docile, like I did when I came home from Switzerland. That lively is a good thing.
As I write these words, I feel a softening, an opening. At the age of 63, I feel new possibilities.
Thank you, Facebook.