Wrestling with Jewish Trauma on Dia de los Muertos

An Ashkenazi American on Day of the Dead, Trauma Recovery, and the Middle East.

Despite it being my first autumn in Mexico, I knew the season of Dia de los Muertos was upon us when I started seeing the orange cempasúchil flowers around town. As it got deeper into the month of October, plastic skulls filled the shops of the city, along with ornate candles, picture frames, and other altar accoutrements.

My husband wanted to host a Dia de los Muertos party, but something about it felt gauche to me, with so many people freshly slaughtered in the Middle East. Halloween, too, felt entirely wrong, as if mocking the horrific deaths still rattling in the collective Semitic nervous system. Telling me about the gory front-yard displays in her suburban neighborhood, my best friend muttered, “People are actually being murdered right now, put it away.”

But this Mexican Day of the Dead – our first as a newlywed couple – felt important. As a Jew, I’m averse to altars, or anything that remotely hints of idolatry. Yet now I find myself arranging simple white candles, some offerings, a photo of my mother’s parents, and a family portrait.

It’s a photo of a family of eight children surrounding their parents, most of them donning the big, elf-like ears of our blood line. When my father first showed me the photograph, he pointed to each face and told me of that person’s demise: This one fought in the army, and died in the war. She was killed by Nazis. He hung himself after the War. And this little girl in the front left corner? That’s my mom.

My grandmother.

Is it any wonder that I would grow up to specialize in mental health and trauma recovery?

“Be careful,” my husband warns me as I cover a table with a shawl, “because the thing with building an altar, is that the ancestors actually come.”

That’s not what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that they won’t come. I’m worried they won’t be able to find me, so far from where they lived and died, so far from the small New England town in which my immigrant parents raised me, so far from the many states and countries I bounced to and from in my 20’s before going to medical school on the West Coast and eventually settling down in Mexico.

My husband explains to me the significance of the items we’ve gathered. The salt makes a path, guiding their way. The candles provide the light that they’re drawn to. And the food? Well, that one’s self explanatory, so let’s get food they’ll like. Pan de muerto? No. Surely my Eastern European ancestors don’t know what that is. Mezcal? No. Ok, how about some fruit? Papaya? Papaya! You think they had papayas in Odessa or Moscow! We settle on the darkest bread we can find, vodka, and some oranges.

I’m not the first Jewish person he has met, but I’m the first to invite him behind the curtain of the otherwise closed religion. He can now recite some Hebrew blessings, and during our first Passover Seder I saw a tear stream down his cheek as we told of the story of the Exodus. (We used corn tostadas in lieu of matzah for that Seder, as I didn’t realize that a box of Matzah costs about $50 USD on Amazon Mexico.) As we ate our sanduches de Hilel, I explained to him the gist of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

But being married to an Ashkenazi Jew means carrying more than just new rituals. It also means carrying me, and the ancestral trauma reverberating in my DNA.

A honeymoon, interrupted

We took MDMA (AKA “ecstasy”) together on our honeymoon. (As a MAPS-trained MDMA therapist, I have a deep reverence for that medicine, which as been used as an adjuvant to couples therapy for decades.) We swallowed the pills on a beautiful day in a fancy hotel room, anticipating an afternoon of deep conversations, snuggling, and lovemaking.

But MDMA isn’t just for couples: it’s also the drug of choice for treating PTSD, unrivaled by any other pharmaceutical or therapeutic intervention studied to date.

I sat on the veranda of our room, gazing intently at the mountains in the distance, thinking about ancestral trauma for six hours.

“It’s too much for me to heal alone,” I told him.

“Give some to me,” he said. “I’m not triggered by this topic, so maybe I can help you process it.”

We sat side-by-side as I imagined releasing piercing screams, blood, and fingernails cracked from gripping too hard – a load that his body churned and transformed into butterflies.

“Honey, it’s too much for you, too,” I said after two hours of this. “Two people can’t grieve 6 million – plus the pain that the survivors carry. That’s just not how it works.” I got up to fill our water glasses, returned to the veranda, and sat back down. “If every Jew could just grieve one person who perished,” I said more to myself than to him, “then perhaps we could move on as a people.”

And then I sat silently for a few more hours, while my husband accepted that this is what it means to join paths with an Ashkenazi woman: to ruminate on Dead Jews during one’s honeymoon.

What came from that afternoon was an idea for a nonprofit organization dedicated to healing Jewish ancestral trauma.

Then came the High Holidays. The Rabbi and congregation listed off the things that we atoned as a community on Yom Kippur. We had been dishonest. We had been greedy. We hadn’t given others the benefit of the doubt.

True to our liberal, Jewish Reconstructionist, social justice-oriented mission, members of the congregation added to the list of transgressions: We had given too much attention to our phones and not enough to our families. We had turned a blind eye to the issue of climate change. We didn’t think enough about Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people, because it’s too confusing, too emotional, and too messy.

After the High Holidays, it was time to schedule the first board meeting for our new nonprofit. Before we could settle on a date, Hamas went house-to-house, killing Jewish men, women, and children. They attacked a psychedelic music festival, leaving people dead, maimed, and traumatized. Hostages were taken.

Project heal-Jewish-trauma was postponed indefinitely, due to yet more Jewish trauma.

I immediately deleted all social media apps from my phone. I knew what was coming, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Thinking about Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people, is, indeed, too confusing, too emotional, too messy. And? It is time to do it.

A nation built on PTSD

Growing up, Zionism and Judaism were as interwoven as the wicks of a Havdalah candle. In Hebrew school, we’d start the day with tzedakah, the change emptied from our pockets clinking in the blue-and-white metal tin passed around. This money would go to do good things, like plant trees in Israel. If somebody lost a loved one, we would pay to have a tree planted in Israel in honor of the deceased. We prayed facing east – the direction of Israel. Some of us had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the town country club; others traveled to Israel with their parents to do the rite-of-passage there.

Being Jewish meant loving Israel, simple as that.

Sure, some people didn’t like Israel, but that was as normal as anti-Semitism. Some people are just mean and ignorant. Yawn. Move on.

When I was in college, Benjamin Netanhayu was scheduled to speak at a university nearby, but the event was cancelled due to a riot. The protestors waived placards reading, “No War Criminals at Concordia.” War criminal? What? This was the Prime Minister of Israel! I didn’t understand.

Back home, a Jewish family man was arrested for having a bunker full of unregistered semi-automatic weapons. The headlines made it sound like he was a psycho-killer plotting harm. Upon interview, however, the man explained that it was an arsenal to protect not only his family, but all of the Jewish families in the area, “in the event that they try to kill all the Jews again.”

I joined a group at my university called “Students for a Two-State Solution.” I was discouraged to see only Jewish students at the meetings. The same happened with an interfaith group on campus called Yallah! – Jews reaching farther than Muslims in the pursuit of common ground. “I guess they don’t want peace,” I decided, and then signed up to volunteer with Food Not Bombs. Then I went to Israel to renovate bomb shelters in Tzvat.

It wasn’t until after college that I started understanding the “other side” of things.

Fast forward: I work with trauma survivors for a living, helping them “metabolize” what happened to them. Many trauma survivors are stuck in a vicious cycle of replaying their injuries, identifying too closely with their wounds, and clinging to victimhood. Can the same principles apply to an entire country?

My Israeli friend Eli puts it this way: “Israel is a country based on a foundation of PTSD, that generates even more PTSD. Everyone that lives there has PTSD, and then they make more of it for themselves and others.” (Eli, unsurprisingly, has PTSD himself from his years in the IDF. He moved to Mexico to give his kids a less stressful childhood than the one he endured.)

At the end of World War II, after the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe learned that the world will stand by and do nothing while Jews are mass-murdered. Not only were the Allies entirely hands-off on the matter; they also wanted nothing of the ship full of Jews who fled Germany and were denied entry first to Cuba, then to the United States.

As a result of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Palestine was under British Mandate. At the end of World War II, the British Mandate facilitated Jewish immigration to Palestine. On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved the UN Partition Plan, which called for the partition of British Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Jerusalem was designated as an international city. Jews accepted the plan; Arabs did not.

(Perhaps giving the Jews land in Bavaria would have been a better idea than inviting them to belly of the beast – even if it was the Promised Land of the Jews.)

“If it you will it, it is no dream,” said Theodore Herzl. On May 14th, 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. The next day, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded, beginning the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In yet another miracle of our people, the Israeli army fought them off. (They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.) Egypt occupied Gaza; Jordan the West Bank. It was clear that such an attack could very well happen again (and it did).

The events of 1948 displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in what was known as the Nakbah (the Catastrophe). Were they expelled, or did they leave voluntarily? Depends on who you ask.

In 1967, Egypt and other Arab countries once again tried to destroy the Jewish state. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. After their defeat in the Six Day War, the Arab League met in Sudan and issued their infamous Three No’s: No peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no negotiations with Israel.

The Israel wouldn’t have pushed into Gaza or the West Bank if its Arab neighbors hadn’t made it clear that their aim was to wipe Israel from the map.

Nobody wanted the Jews or their new country in the region. But you know what? Nobody wanted the Jews in Germany, Poland, or Austria either, and the Jews learned that playing nice leads to gas chambers. So what, nobody wanted them there. That has been the plight of the Jew since God-knows-when. As if that should determine anything. Besides, there were Jews in Palestine before the British Mandate. There were Jews in Palestine before Islam was even created.

Mass murder us once, shame on you. Mass murder us twice, shame on us.

We know what follows: Decades of arguing over whether or not the State of Israel has the right to exist. Further peace deals gone sour and two-state solutions rejected by Arab leaders. Fear of decimation pushing Israel to strengthen its military presence. Suicide bombings killing people in wedding halls, on busses, and in restaurants. The topic taking up too much air in United Nations meetings. The Christian world rolling its eyes, because it don’t really like Jews or Muslims, but they need the Jews in Jerusalem so that Jesus can pull off his Second Coming.

The Jewish Olympic team was murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 summer Olympic games. The Olympics were not canceled. “Eleven Jews are dead, and the rest of the world is playing games,” says Gold Meir’s character in the 2005 Steven Spielberg film Munich.

In 2005, Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel’s military was withdrawn from Gaza, Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were dismantled, and Israelis living there were expelled. It was a controversial move that was hugely divisive and heated among Jews. Some felt that the Jewish settlements in Gaza were an obstacle to peace, and supported the withdrawal. Others were worried about the security implications, arguing that Gaza could become a base from which militant groups would launch attacks on Israel.

They were right to worry: Gaza did, in fact, become a base for anti-Israel/anti-Jewish organizations. Left to its own devices, Hamas now has an extensive network of underground tunnels in Gaza.

The terrorist attack on October 7th, 2023 was met by high-minded liberals with, “Yeah, well, you did ask for it.”

Did we? Did we do this? Was it PTSD? Did we chose a familiar pain over an unfamiliar safety? Did we act from our wounds, perpetuating the pain?

Or did we ask for it by pulling out of Gaza in 2005?

The right to exist

The right to exist is a common theme among traumatized patients: children who were born of rape, people who did harm to others, even those with chemical depression. “Do I have the right to exist?” they often ask.

“It’s a stupid question!” I sometimes want to shout to my patients: “You already exist. So whether or not you deserve it is irrelevant. You’re here, so how are you gonna show up for being here?”

Which is, perhaps, how I feel about Israel.

Whether or not the country should have never been created, here it is – since 1948. Now how are we going to show up for it?

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” This is how Shakespeare – who never met a Jew himself – depicted our people. A pound of flesh for a pound of gold.

But we don’t want a pound of flesh. We just want to be left alone by a world that has made it clear that it sees us as an unsightly birthmark. Oh, but we like Steven Spielberg’s movies! (Shut up. You can’t even let us have a shitty piece of the desert the size of New Jersey, surrounded by countries that hate us, as a token apology for allowing 6 million of us to perish in the gas chambers.)

If Israel was a Shia Muslim state occupying predominantly-Sunni Palestine, nobody would give a rip. There would be no “Free Palestine” t-shirts or protests.

“You cannot negotiate peace with people who want to kill you,” said Shimon Peres.

And perhaps you cannot win popularity contests with people who don’t even believe in your right to exist – even if your religion was there before theirs.

“But my mom wishes I was never born!” a patient wails

“Are you going to live your entire life as an apology to her?” I ask.

Palestinians are not an ethnic minority like Tibetans or the Uyghurs. Nor is Israel is an Evil Empire like China or Russia. Israel is a tiny country dwarfed by Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and we’ve-got-nuclear-activity Iran. (“Our only hope,” a Holocaust survivor once told me, “is that the Sunnis and the Shmunis all kill one another.”)

Palestinians in Lebanon live in refugee camps, with restrictions on employment, property ownership, and even movement within the country. In Egypt, Palestinians encounter restrictions in employment, education, and other social services, and they are denied citizenship. This is despite the fact that Palestinians are not ethnically different than their Arab neighbors. (In fact, there was no such thing as a “Palestinian” until the word was coined as a pushback against the creation of Israel.)

Other Arab countries have done next to nothing to assimilate or support their ethnically-identical Palestinian neighbors. This is likely on purpose, to incite the International Community to put more pressure on Israel. “They will fight Israel down to the last Arab,” said Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president from 1956 to 1970. And just this month, Ghazi Hamad of the Hamas political bureau frankly stated on television: “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove that country.. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”

Indeed: Palestinians have been thrust into the role of martyrs by the rest of the Arab world. Hamas is now using innocent Palestinian civilians as human shields above their underground networks, and a misfired jihadist bomb destroyed a Gaza hospital last month.

The country that provides the most jobs to Palestinians is Israel. Israel also grants citizenship to Palestinians.

– Which isn’t to say that Israel has been entirely kind to Palestinians. Indeed, of the former Israeli soldiers I have treated, what haunts many of them is the violence that they themselves have perpetuated in Gaza. The lingering, vivid memories of women trembling; the reverberations of babies crying.

Screechy and ill-informed 20-somethings want justice – the same types of youth that rally for LGBTQ+ rights. They’re now denying the only country in the Middle East to respect LGBTQ+ matters, environmentalism, and rights for women. As they virtue signal about their anti-Islamophobia, these earnest social justice warriors may have lost the point.

Israel is also one of the most culturally diverse countries in the Middle East, as well as a hub for start ups. It’s the birthplace of technological advancements like VOiP, the USB flash drive, Waze, drip irrigation, and the cherry tomato. At least 12 Noble Prize recipients are from Israel.

Israel has done a lot with very little – perhaps doing more good for the rest of the world than any of its hostile neighbors have in recent decades. (All that with Syria breathing down its neck!)

Does any of that make it ok, what has been done to Palestine? No.

But maybe it all could have been avoided if Israel was just allowed to exist in 1948. Or 1967. Or ever. But that’s not what happened. Just like my patients’ traumas could have been avoided if only Dad hadn’t gotten behind the wheel drunk that night, or if only I hadn’t let him borrow my car.

It’s very difficult to heal trauma until one feels safe. Israel has never felt safe. Jews have never felt safe.

Our unhealed wounds and perpetual feelings of threat generate more trauma, for ourselves and others. This is perhaps how we helped created the terrorists that now threaten our existence.

We exist. We resist. Deal with it.

In light of the anti-semitism flying around college campuses, the Internet, and the world, many Jews now find themselves (seriously) wondering: “Who would hide me, if it came to that?” Many of us wouldn’t have ever been born if our ancestors hadn’t been helped by courageous Righteous Gentiles – non-Jews who risked their own lives to uphold morality.

Mass murder us once, shame on you. Mass murder us twice, shame on us. The world doesn’t like how the Jews are doing something? The world can get in line. Thus is the wisdom of trauma. Or is it rather how we perpetuate it?

Golda Meir said: ”We have no right to expect others to defend our lives for us, not even our closest friends. They can help us learn how to defend ourselves, and the best they can do is to avoid harming us, but that we must do ourselves.”

Really, though? Is this fight only for the Jews? It starts with the Jews, of course, as it did with Hitler. But Hitler didn’t just want dead Jews: he wanted world domination. Is Ali Khamenei any different? Will Iran stop at just Israel?

The sooner it stops being a question of whether or not Israel gets to exist, the sooner the bloodshed will end – much like the sooner we accept that Black Lives Matter, the sooner we might actually be able to stop the distrust and violence that goes both ways in America.

We are here, and we will continue to be here. Whether or not the world thinks we have the right to exist, we exist. The result of a rape is alive and breathing; it’s a kicking, wailing, gorgeous contradiction that lives and wants to live.

Just like our queer allies once shouted, “We’re here, we’re queer, deal with it,” we now shout, “We exist. We resist. Deal with it.”

We exist as Jews across the world. We exist as the State of Israel, its citizens, and its allies. We resist any attempts to delete our existence. We resist another Holocaust. We resist being cancelled by earnest social justice warriors.

Forgiveness and acceptance

An important step in healing from trauma is forgiveness. I don’t push my patients to forgive the people that harmed them, nor do I think that they need to in order to heal. Rather, I hope that my patients can find some compassion for themselves. I hope they can forgive themselves for walking down that dark alley on that night that changed their lives. Forgive themselves for enlisting in the army when they were 18 and didn’t know what they were doing. Forgive themselves for not telling another adult about what the priest did to them. Forgive themselves for breathing oxygen, after being raised in a household in which their existence was held against them.

Can we forgive ourselves for the occuption? Can we forgive ourselves for wanting Israel to survive? For playing the victim when it’s more complex than that? For scoffing at Pacifism? For fomenting terrorism?

Another important step in trauma recovery is acceptance. In the first appointment, a patient might say, “The trauma happened because my dad is a horrible person,” or “The trauma happened because I was stupid to go in that building alone.”

As they recover, however, their narratives change: “The trauma happened because shit happens sometimes,” or “I don’t know why it happened. Maybe that doesn’t matter.”

I go back-and-forth between wanting to dissect the situation in the Middle East and accepting that it’s a complicated, hot mess with no single root cause.

I deliberate between pink Himalayan salt versus regular Morton’s for my altar.

My husband tells me that the bright-orange marigolds I’m admiring are overpriced. That señora wants 50 pesos! Can you believe it? I can get nicer ones back home for 15! “So what,” I tell him. “We can afford it. Just pay the nice lady.”

On the walk home, we joke about how sometimes he’s the stereotypical Jew in the relationship.

When we first started dating, he asked me, “Wouldn’t you rather be with a Jewish man?”

“No,” I said after some thought. “I can’t partner with somebody who has the same wounds as me. Besides,” I looked up at him with a smirk, “who would hide me?”

I never thought those words would constitute anything but a joke.

Last week my husband arrived home after work to find me absolutely hysterical. Are they going to put a fence around the Polanco neighborhood and impose curfews and head counts? Why was I so stupid as to let people know that I’m Jewish? I should have kept it a secret and said I was Italian. Does anyone at your work know that I’m Jewish? Don’t tell them! Let’s take the mezuzah off the door. I was incorrigible and inconsolable.

As I sobbed into his chest, I implored: What are you going to do to protect me? Where will you hide me? What if they freeze all my assets, do you have enough money to get us out of here? Should I empty my bank account now and put all the cash in a safe? Gold might be better than pesos; we can use gold in any country. Where can we exchange pesos for gold without having to show ID? Why haven’t you thought about these things!?

Outside of our apartment, the city was coming alive for Halloween. You’d never know that World War III was brewing. Everything was orange, spooky, and festive. Hamas’s attack killed over 1,300 Jews – a drop in the bucket compared to the drug-related kidnappings and violence that leaves over 30,000 Mexicans dead each year. But the city didn’t seem to notice, on that day.

We buy Halloween candy. All of the names are new to me. My stepson tells me that Bubulubu is his favorite. I eat one, and don’t have the heart to tell him that it doesn’t hold a match to Three Musketeers. We dole out lollipops to miniature witches, kings, ghosts, and dinosaurs. I’m wearing a gold sequins dress and rhinestone headdress. The world is okay. For now.

The ornate candles in the market are beautiful, but not quite the vibe of my lineage’s country folk. I go with the simple white veladoras from the tiendita – the ones that look like yartzeit candles. As I light the first candle on the altar, I realize that my prayers today are not so much for peace as they they are for survival.

I hope the salt and the flickering flames are enough to guide my ancestors to me. I need them now.

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