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Meaning out of meshigas

I was 6 years old at P.S. 195 in Rosedale, New York and had the lead role as Little Red Riding Hood in my school play.  I remember my mom picking me up from school one day and sharing that she had good news. I clearly remember thinking that she was going to relate that my American born paternal grandparents, that I had been hoping would attend the show, had stated they would do so. Instead, she shared that she had spoken to her parents, my Holocaust survivor maternal grandparents, after not having spoken to them in some time. That one memory has held so much weight in my mind for so many years, and now looking back, it was so telling.  There were long bouts of silence between family members over many years and the mishigas (craziness) has taken me decades to unravel and accept.  As a child, I obviously could not comprehend historical trauma, family dynamics, and its profound implications.  Historical trauma can be defined as “massive trauma that… leaves its survivors with an experience which is difficult to convey. Not necessarily because the survivor was traumatized into silence, but because theirs was an experience so far beyond the normal that the distance between then and now seems insurmountable” (Alford, 2015, p. 264-265).

Fast forward to October 7, 2023.  The moment I heard that hundreds of people had been killed from my friend who had gone to shul without me that day and heard rumblings about the Israel massacre, I said ‘there’s going to be a war.’ I wasn’t someone who had carefully followed the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and Hamas and Hezbollah were not regularly on my radar, however I immediately intuited the severity of the situation.  In the days that followed and the nightmare that had ensued became a reality, I felt like someone had hijacked my being and kicked me in the gut and my neshama (soul) was shaken on a very profound level.  As the news reports became worse, my identity as a 3G, a third generation Holocaust descendant, became stronger.  Fears that had seemed inherent had dissipated in recent time and now they were back. I suddenly just couldn’t piece together what was going on.  My maternal grandparents each lost their parents and siblings because of the pure evilness of the Nazis.  How was it possible that almost 1150 individuals, mostly Jews, were murdered in 2023 in the State of Israel, a place my grandmother promised would always accept me with open arms?  And now hostages had become bargaining chips! The International Red Cross, whose tracing service meticulously found and sent me birth certificates and other precious family history documents years before of relatives that perished in the Shoah, was now not doing enough, as is still not doing enough, to ensure that the hostages from October 7th were getting essential medication and confirming that they were alive. Jews trusted so many Palestinians to work in their communities, to help with the land and the care of their families, and going on a killing spree was the reward?!  

I needed logic for what was happening. None would be found, but the words of Yair Lapid spoke to me and made me feel sane.  Lapid spoke in Germany in 2014 after a barrage of rockets had been fired that summer into Israel.

Why didn’t they [Lapid’s family persecuted by the Nazis] fight? That is the question that haunts me, that is the question that the Jewish people have struggled with since the last train left for Auschwitz.  And the answer, the only answer, is that they didn’t believe in… total evil, organized evil, without mercy or hesitation, cold evil that looked at them but didn’t see them, not even for a moment as human…critiques, perhaps more enlightened in their own eyes, prefer to blame us [Israel/the Jewish people] for what happens in Gaza because they know we are the only ones who listen.  They prefer to focus their anger upon us, not in spite, but because we are committed to the same human values which Hamas rejects – compassion for the weak, rationality, protection of gay people, of women rights, of the freedom of religion and freedom of speech…we will not board the train again, we will protect ourselves from evil. (Yair Lapid)

Like many Jews around the world, I started saying Tehillim regularly after October 7 and continue to do so for the safety of the soldiers and the release of the captives, and I called government representatives to ask them to advocate for Israel. However it didn’t seem like enough – I had to visit Israel.  After my plane landed in December 2023, I dragged my bags through the Mahane Yehuda Market, known as “The Shuk”, to find a sim card for my phone. I found the normalcy and the noise of The Shuk relieving – the familiarity seemed to temporarily overpower the stark reality that Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) were walking around with pierced wounds in their hearts and everywhere one turned, chain necklaces were sold with the “BRING THEM HOME NOW” slogan.  This was not the same country I visited only 3 months prior.  

I had started to pray for one of the captives in particular, Eitan Horn, soon after October 7th, but I realized while in Israel that I didn’t know anything about him.  As I began to read about him – 37 years old, abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7 along with his brother Yair whom he was visiting – I was completely overwhelmed.  I was standing in the Homeland of the Jewish people and barbarians are holding these brothers captive only hours away in a tunnel.  I also met the nieces of Eli and Yossi Sharabi, both being held captive, at a ladies challah bake – it was very moving and spiritually uplifting, and everyone attending left with a feeling of hope.  Unfortunately, since then Yossi has been declared dead.  

During an organized visit to Meshek 48 in Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, I heard Miriam Elazari speak.  Her son was at the pre-army yeshiva program, mechina, on Ofakim, a southern city in Israel. When he heard about the attack he ran out to help and was killed while on a roof.  I walked up to her after and said that her son’s neshama should have an Aliyah (the soul should go to a higher place in gan eden).  But I couldn’t step away after.  It was time to speak from my neshama and I expressed how I felt it was important to fly from the states to be there, in Israel, to support the Jewish people.    

Shortly after returning to the USA, I had the opportunity to speak one on one with the parents of Shani Louk, a 22-year-old German-Israeli woman, whose body was paraded through the streets of Gaza by Hamas militants in the back of a pickup truck.  Although her body has not yet been recovered, a crucial bone fragment was matched using DNA and it was determined that it is impossible for anyone to be alive without it.  Her parents sat shiva for her.  They shared how there were three individuals, including Shani, in their Israeli community who were killed on or shortly after October 7th. The support of the community has helped them to cope, and they have decided to focus on the beauty of Shani’s life as they try to heal.  I found simply being in their presence and feeling their strength, as they shared the gruesome details of their ordeal, to be a gift reminding me of the resilience of the Jewish people.

Fortunately, every day, as I work at the Holocaust Memorial of Miami Beach, I am reminded that good can triumph evil.  I am regularly surrounded by the tenacity, astuteness and strength of survivors, who speak to classes daily about their war experiences.  The story of one survivor in particular hit a nerve within me when she shared how when she was six years old and living in Czechoslovakia in 1944, her grandmother told her she would be boarding a train that evening with her grandmother’s friend.  This little girl would end up being taken to a convent and living with the nuns under an assumed name and having a communion.  Besides an aunt and uncle, she would be the only one to survive from her family.  She lived most of her life in Venezuela after the Holocaust, and for 70 years she never spoke about her experiences.  She was encouraged to start sharing her story after having lived in Miami for some years. 

Historical trauma, in conjunction with intergenerational trauma, the transmission of trauma between generations of a family and epigenetics, the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work, are concepts that have become more commonplace in the 21st century. I have tried to run from the trauma, but then I ultimately found myself face to face with it.  The reality is that it has shaped me and helped me to connect to my heritage, my people and to finding more meaning in life.  And as far as my family’s mishigas, I am reminded of the quote from the newspaper columnist, Regina Brett, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” In the same line of reasoning, Jewish wisdom and teachings emphasize empathy, compassion, and the recognition that everyone faces their own challenges.

My mother, Gd bless her and may she live until 120, often told me as I grew up that I was like Switzerland, a country that has a policy of armed neutrality in global affairs.  I always strived to understand a situation and the parties involved and did not take sides as often as would have been appreciated. Understanding and listening are crucial in social work, where one has to uphold the value and ethical principle to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person and “treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity… social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society” (Workers, 2017). However, in the political arena of world affairs, expressing even a smidgen of neutrality, especially after October 7th, and not standing behind Israel, seems preposterous. NEVER AGAIN is now.

Tomorrow, im yirtzeh Hashem, (Gd willing), I will present my grandmother’s story of survival to eighth graders at a public charter school in Miami, as a volunteer of 3GMiami, as part of a nationwide speaker training educational initiative called WEDU (We Educate).  Six million Jews being led to their deaths cannot be comprehended; perhaps one student hearing about one family who is forever affected might make all the difference to that child and the way she looks, hears and responds to the hatred of individuals unlike her/himself.

As Jews around the world finalize preparations for the upcoming holiday of Passover, which celebrates the emancipation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, may we have hope and pray that the hostages be freed and the current situation in Israel is quickly deescalated.

AM YISRAEL CHAI

Sources:

Alford, F. (2015). Subjectivity and the intergenerational transmission of historical trauma: Holocaust survivors and their children. Palgrave Journals, 8(3), 261-282.

Workers, N. A. (2017). NASW Code of Ethics (Guide to the Everyday Professional Conduct of Social Workers). Washington, DC: NASW.

“Yair Lapid’s (Israeli Finance Minister) speech in Germany.” YouTube, 25 Aug. 2014, youtube.com/watch?v=tTBhPsxKLaI

About the Author
Julie H. Bernstein, MSW, Wurzweiler ‘21, is a professional living in Miami Beach who works in the Jewish non-profit field.