Modern Mishpocha: Pesach teaches us about healing intergenerational trauma

By Jennifer Perzow

We know the importance of reading to and sharing stories with our kids. In addition to developing basic literacy skills, sharing stories transmits knowledge and culture l’dor v’dor (from one generation to the next). We use stories to teach, to entertain, and to help us appreciate what we have and where we come from.

Pesach is told as a story that begins with shame and ends with praise. Our lives often follow a similar trajectory. None of us get through life without our share of bumps and bruises. Some of them are ours alone. But many more, far more than we often realize, predate us – sometimes by many generations. It is each of our life’s work to identify, process, and hopefully transcend, the shame and trauma that we experience. This includes that into which we are born. This is partly to save ourselves from unnecessary suffering and also, most importantly, to heal on behalf of future generations. We all, whether we are parents or not, have a role to play in actively teaching children how to distinguish between their own ‘stuff’ and passed on trauma/issues that don’t belong to them but still affect them.

Our stories can define, destroy or strengthen us. It’s not the atrociousness of the story that dictates where we fall on that spectrum. Many people who have suffered horrible trauma and tragedies are able to transcend those experiences. Some people who have lived largely sheltered and protected lives are never able to feel true freedom and happiness. Just as we remember the journey from slavery to redemption on Pesach, we are often also slaves to our beliefs, the stories that are passed on through our families and our thoughts.

When we celebrate Pesach, we remember and hold space for the shame and trauma experienced by a generation that predates us by thousands of years. Pesach also teaches us about healing intergenerational trauma. The opportunity in trauma and shame is to transcend it. We tell the story of Pesach as we do because the ultimate message is one of freedom, redemption and transformation. Just as we now know that trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we also know that PTSD can lead to an amazing thing: post-traumatic growth.

Long before I became a parent, I knew that I wanted to understand and face as much of the intergenerational trauma that played role in my life, and those of my parents and grandparents. I had a (perhaps naive) desire to distill the pain, understand it, learn from it, grow from it and turn it into a rich fertilizer to pass on to my children. Something like a trauma superhero – trapping all the difficult, muddy stuff and transforming it into gold.

It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do. Sometimes there are no answers and all we can do is hold space even when what we really want are solutions. A friend recently invited me to join the phenomenal Facebook group Jewish Ottawa Helps! It was launched [by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa] in response to COVID-19 and really does highlight the heart and soul of the Jewish community in Ottawa. Therapist, and daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Esther Perel captured it so perfectly in a 2018 New Yorker interview.

“In terms of healing, what we do know is that pain is universal, but the meaning that we give to our pain, and the way we narrate our pain, is highly cultural and contextual. And there is nothing that helps us deal better with those experiences than our connections with others. Social connection is the No. 1 salve for most of the pain, and the hurt, and the trauma that we will experience. And communities that come together naturally will provide that kind of buffer.”