How a legacy of intergenerational trauma connects Black and Jewish communities
As a non-Jewish, Black multi-ethnic therapist, writing this piece was an eye-opening experience in understanding the parallels between the diasporas of the Black and Jewish communities. I’ve had more conversations with friends and colleagues about anti-Semitism and racism, which has built stronger empathy and a sense of action toward uniting in our work towards a world that treats Jews and Black people justly.
Jonah Sanderson, a rabbinical student and founder of Back Engaged Now, an organization connecting suicide prevention and Torah, reached out to me to have a conversation on the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. “God says we are not only a people of the book, but also a people of action,” he told me. Our conversation touched on parallels between Black and Jewish histories, the trauma carried by each of our communities and finding empowerment in our experiences to help fight systemic violence and discrimination together.
In my therapeutic work, I operate from a biopsychosocial-spiritual model. Our bodies, minds, and communities cannot address the totality of our relational existence; a further layer of spirituality is necessary for a holistic approach. Spirituality is fluid, encompassing the search for meaning in relation to self, others, nature and the sacred.
Spirituality and tradition are a helpful tool in understanding these recent tragedies. Jonah said the story of Cain and Abel came to mind while sitting on his couch, processing the police brutality and unrest after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. One of the most poignant lines is just after the murder; God lovingly reaches out to Cain and asks where his brother Abel is. Cain’s words haunt us: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
As George Floyd lay dying on the hot pavement, God was calling out to every bystander: Where is Abel? Are you not caring for him? Cain felt it was not his responsibility to care for his brother; for that, he was punished for generations and known to history as the first murderer. We are our siblings’ keepers.
**Feeling nostalgic? Meet Frank Crosswaith, Black labor organizer, and browse other old Forward photos via Urban Archive. **
This connection between Black and Jewish ways of understanding trauma was just a starting point for further conversations with friends and colleagues about anti-Semitism and racism.
In discussing Jewish and African diasporas, I see the legacy of transgenerational trauma. Individuals who experience trauma may notice changes in mood, physical symptoms and the way they think about themselves, others and the world around them. They live in a state where they are simply trying to survive and may be unable to thrive. Research indicates this trauma may be transmitted generationally; it has been observed in the children of survivors of wars, genocide, chronic discrimination and slavery.
In both Black and Jewish culture, there is a history of trauma, but also of resilience, and of traditions which help to build a positive sense of identity. These practices are often based in community and oral lore; in passing accounts from one generation to the next, we focus our history of persecution on our strength in overcoming those traumatic experiences. However, as discrimination and violence continue into the present, it can feel impossible to observe, and to separate the past generational trauma from the trauma occurring in the present. There is no beginning, middle and end to this story, no lesson of proud resilience, and our sense of identity may become engulfed by rage and helplessness.
So how do we begin to reshape these stories in a meaningful way, one that allows us to act?
First, we must be grounded and allow ourselves to experience the current moment. When the news cycle or protests begin to evoke a response, notice what you feel in your body. It may be a change in muscle tension, elevated heart rate, or shortness of breath. Name the feelings activated in this moment. Try to find the root of your feelings.
One method to find the root of your feelings is mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to acknowledge any stress responses, gently exploring and questioning them without judgement. By questioning and caring for ourselves in these moments, we can begin to connect to our experience and craft the narrative we need to continue, whether that means setting boundaries or finding empathy and compassion for yourself and others.
Our individual stories can be furthered as a community by creating opportunities for joy. This can be challenging, especially when our identities automatically make us less safe, and can lead to a sense of powerlessness and shame in the face of the “dominant” culture. However, finding the positives in our identity and embracing them fully is a powerful affirmation of our right to not merely survive but to thrive.
Joy must be a conscious effort, an alternative to alienation and othering — something that is further exacerbated by the isolation of COVID-19. Joy shifts our stories and differentiates from past suffering to help us become messengers of hope to the generations after us.
Finally, we can, and we must work together to create a just world. Abraham Joshua Heschel stated, “In a free society, some are guilty, and all are responsible.” We must hold ourselves and communities around us accountable through open discussion and a willingness to explore and reshape our society.
Jonah shared a quote from the Talmud with me: “A prisoner cannot free themselves from prison, it takes a friend to stand in that dark space with the sufferer to lift them up out of the darkness.” My conversations have allowed me to learn more about similarities between Black and Jewish culture and histories, as well as the ways certain spaces in the Black community perpetuate anti-Semitism. By coming together, finding our similarities, perhaps our communities can help each other out of our respective prisons.
Britney Spell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She specializes in treating trauma, anxiety, and depression using evidence based practices and incorporating the impact of culturally based trauma.