Delving Into Jewish Roots for Source of Her Epilepsy

A Writer's Traumatic Search for Answers

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By Merissa Nathan Gerson

Published November 17, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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I later learned that my theory of my own body was grounded in Jewish history. I read J.H. Chajes’s 2003 book, “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism.” It described postwar Safed, where rabbis prostrated themselves at graves and used touch and prayer to heal and liberate quaking, “hysterical” women from their postwar trauma.

There was a shamanistic role these rabbis played, an earth-summoning, a healing, a connecting, an extricating. They were exorcists, and they were needed because the inhabitants of Safed were emerging from a slaughter, a war. Safed was the reorganization of a previously destroyed society. From disaster came the girls’ physical and emotional malady and their need for religious healing.

Was I so different from these girls? I was flailing. I was emotionally off-kilter. I was the emergent female in a world patched together after a disaster. I, too, was the postwar Jewess seeking healing. In discovering Jewish exorcisms, I found an ancient tradition of addressing trauma through the use of spirituality.

If a seizure is the mark of the unmourned, of the traumatic displacement of a people — a signal of unrest and unfinished business — then attempting to mourn is the vital cure. I found, through following my own body so closely, that I house inside of me the history of my family, of my ancestors and of my Jewish people.

I found, in going inside myself, that to view my own seizure as a mark of the past, as a stain of war and trauma not yet resolved, was an important step toward healing. Something needed purging, witnessing and clearing; the work of mending the past was just beginning.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer living in the Bay area. She is currently working on her first novel. Find her work at MerissaNathanGerson.com


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