I remember when the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof came out. And a few years later, the blockbuster movie with Zero Mostel. I remember being rather baffled, wondering who would name their kid “Zero?!” Especially when I felt like one. Fortunately, young Zero grew up to become a great and well-loved actor. And I did not remember a popular movie being like this, all about Jewish themes. It was kind of amazing and validating. Dad loved singing the songs, “If I were a rich man, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby, dibby dum!” I think they brought out the best in him, and he was never quite so jolly as when he was Tevye. He would belt out, “Tradition!” Made it sound almost as if tradition were a fun thing.
Lately, I found myself thinking about the intergenerational transmission of trauma and neglect and tradition. When taken simply as barren nouns: intergenerational transmission and tradition void of content, they are quite similar. Both are a repeated bequest through generations, a keeping alive across time of, well, something. However, one might be intentional, richly ritualized, even sacred, and laden with meanings. The other is compulsive, dysregulated, perhaps unconscious, even destructive and lethal. Each makes the dogged journey through time. And as we know all too well, they can even spill and mingle into some of the horrible legacies that, because of ancestral roots, can be hardest to excise and extinguish.
I was the child of two Holocaust survivors, who also each had their own iterations of profound neglect. My mother had a Northern German, intellectual, upper-middle-class mother who was coldly proud and proper. I don’t imagine much resonance there. And I am pretty sure my mother was raised mostly by nannies until Hitler blew it all apart. My father lost his mother before he was bar mitzva, while in the Shanghai ghetto. I don’t know much about his earlier years, except a story from an old family friend who remembers him running away from school in kindergarten. I wonder why… I have been the heiress to a bounteous bequest.
For so many reasons, I feel like a zealot; driven to awaken awareness, break the chains of intergenerational transmission, and disrupt the dysregulation of neglect moving through generations, wreaking havoc of all kinds.
It is complicated, however, the blur between legacy and curse. My father’s ferocious tenacity and determination are some of my most cherished gifts from him, and they certainly got me up some of the steepest climbs on the bike and some of the most daunting deadlines for my writing. It has kept me hanging in life-changing ways with some seemingly hopelessly rageful clients. It certainly also brutalized me growing up. And this is often a tangled mess inside of me.
My overwhelmed nervous system adapted to this spectrum of dysregulation by, among other things, rejecting most of the traditions as soon as I was old enough to make my own choices. Interestingly, however, all of the songs have stayed deeply grooved in the playlist of my hippocampus, and often visit uninvited. When I was asked to write about the intergenerational transmission of trauma recently, what immediately popped up in my mind’s ear, was a song I had not thought of in years, “L’dor Va Dor,” from generation to generation. I never even liked that song!
One of the most vicious expressions of dysregulation in my childhood was an eating disorder that almost took me down at age 12. I was most lethally anorexic in 1966-67 when there was little information, let alone help, and a poverty of any sort of understanding. Perhaps I was in some way trying to replicate my parents’ holocaust trauma or suffer enough to be worthy of existence. Who knows? But somehow, I was invisible enough to slip quietly under the radar so I could “do what I wanted.”
One well-honed anorexic trick was to control the food as much as possible by taking over the household cooking, which my mother was more than happy to have me do. So, I learned to cook. I made chicken soup every Friday from scratch. I learned how to roast a chicken to perfection. I learned to make challah and even bagels. I am grateful for this, as these have become the bequests, the gifts of inheritance I have retained. And whatever little bit of tradition I retain that I keep to this day (now that I am blessedly free of eating problems after decades of dogged recovery work) are the foods. The Jewish tradition of sharing food is something I continue, and it gives me great joy. And something about sharing food, giving and sending it to people I love, gives me an odd sense of organic connection, as my “handiwork” goes into their bodies. The recipes that span historical epochs and diasporic geographic wanderings of millennia seem to connect me with the best of my heritage, and sharing them was certainly a source of comfort and connection during the bitterest isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic. And continues to be. It is the best way I know to say “thank you!” and has made me many new friends in many places.
The perils of intergenerational transmission are well known. Resonating to a dysregulated brain, or pulsing alone into empty space, makes for all sorts of adaptations or bitter attempts at adaptation. My eating disorder was but one of a coiling chain of attempts: alcohol, sexual compulsivity, overwork, relentless exercise… Like a rat on a wheel, I kept at it. But my father’s determination commandeered me to stay the course, and I ended up with a pretty wonderful life. And the kind of faith and hope in the power of healing that enable me to shepherd some number of others out of the woods with me.
I am convinced that the vast number of “me too” victims and survivors can be at least somewhat explained by dysregulated, out-of-control nervous systems and poverty of information. Yes, we have grand dysregulations of power and gender inequality in this sorry world, but going upstream to deal with the dysregulation is at least one piece of the complex solution. But that is a gargantuan topic for another day!
In the micro, at least, I am committed to a no-blame paradigm. Certainly, neglect is a tragic failure that often springs straight out of the trauma experience: a failure of presence: attention, awareness and aliveness that, of course, fails to transmit to the hapless infant and child. It is not excusable, nor is the failure of at least attempting to heal. What would have happened if my mother had been blessed with the good therapy I have had and the evolution of ever more efficient and effective modalities, research and now even science? What would my life have been, and hers? We cannot know. But we must do better. And make safe, effective and tenacious healing available, even while we strive to make a larger world that is safe, regulated, and regulating. Meanwhile, if not for this rich inheritance, what on earth would I have to write about?
Oubao-Moin is based on a poem by Puerto Rican national treasure Juan Antonio Corretjer, and sung by one of my great heroes. Legendary Puerto Rican singer Roy Brown. It chronicles the chain of trauma and the legacy of the Taino people of the Caribbean.