The Elephants in That Room
Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, social worker, Ithaca, New York*
I co-founded the agency for battered women in Ithaca, New York, and I’m convinced that my Jewish background brought me to do this. These women’s traumatizations were silenced, and so was the traumatization of my childhood. I was born in Berlin in 1924, and I didn’t have words for the Jewish condition. We had a lively, colorful family; we didn’t talk about anti-Semitism.
When I encountered Jean Baker Miller’s feminist work about subordinates and oppressors, it changed my life — how subordinates “know much more about the dominants than vice versa; they have to become highly attuned to the dominants, able to predict their reactions of pleasure and displeasure.” I thought, “Ah! The long practice of reading many small signals!” As a feminist therapist, I look at power: When a woman reports feeling depressed at work, is it a sexist environment? There were no bat mitzvahs back then, in my childhood, what does that tell a 13-year-old girl? When your brother gets circumcised and there’s a fuss, nobody made a fuss over you! Feminist therapy minimizes the power relationship within the client/therapist dyad, too: the client is her own best expert, she knows more about her life.
My mother was a defiant rabbi’s daughter who left home against her father’s wishes to study midwifery for two years in Vilna; she was very proud of studying human anatomy at a time when women were supposed to stay ignorant about their bodies. Mutti once delivered a child in a very poor household with nothing to wrap the baby in. She took off her slip and tore it up. Both my parents were rescuers; my father got every single relative to leave Europe. We were always taking care of people.
My first therapist, a non-Jewish male. One day, in the middle of our session, the once-daily train from New York to Ithaca came through. “Hear the train?” I said. He found that resistant: “What’s really on your mind?” He wanted to hear about my infant sexuality.
“Well, the train, damn it, from Berlin to Switzerland, before Hitler.” It was a huge disruption and I needed to talk about it; it brought up the wanderings of my family. Later I had a Jewish therapist, a feminist; his wife was the head of the N.O.W. chapter in Syracuse. With him, being Jewish was no longer the elephant in the room. I felt freer; we talked about Jewish things; it made a real difference. He’d throw in a word of Yiddish; it was very comforting.
Freud’s attitude to religion is still with us; an awful lot of Jewish therapists are anti-religious or non-religious, and we’re not sufficiently comfortable with spiritual matters. Among therapists who are uneducated Jews, there’s ignorance…however, I do think this is changing.
Transgenerational transmission of trauma? Absolutely; certainly for me. My parents’ experience of life in the shtetl, the daily fear, the pogroms, this colors everything I know. Jewish paranoia is rooted in a fundamental reality; it needs to be acknowledged. Understanding the transmission of paranoia has been a major task for me personally — learning to separate, to give up the generalization of fear. It’s the Jewish inheritance.