By: Ruth Cohn, MFT, CST

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 Fiddler, all about Jewish themes. It was 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!” Making it sound as if tradition were a fun thing.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about intergenerational transmission and tradition. When taken simply as barren verbs, void of content, they are similar; both are a repeated bequest through generations keeping alive across time of something. However, one might be intentional, richly ritualized, and even sacred, while the other laden with meanings. The other is compulsive, dysregulated, or perhaps unconscious, even destructive and lethal. Each makes the dogged journey through time. And as we know all too well, they can readily spill and mingle into some of the horrible legacies that, due to ancestral roots, can be hardest to excise and extinguish.

Being the child of two Holocaust survivors, who also each had their own iterations of profound neglect, I have been the heiress to a bounteous bequest of both. For so many reasons, I feel like a zealot in bringing awareness to and breaking the chains of intergenerational transmission. And the dysregulation of neglect, as it moves through generations, wreaks havoc of all kinds. It is complicated, however, the blur between legacy and curse. My father’s ferocious tenacity and determination are one of my most cherished gifts from him and certainly got me up some of the steepest climbs on my bike and some of the most daunting deadlines for my writing. It certainly also brutalized me growing up. And this is often a tangled mess inside of me.

My overwhelmed nervous system adapted by rejecting most 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 visit uninvited often. When 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 during my childhood was an eating disorder that almost took me down at age 12. I was anorexic in 1966-67, when there was little information about, let alone help for it, and a poverty of any 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 neglected enough to slip quietly under the radar so I could “do what I wanted.”

One well-honed anorexic trick was controlling 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 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 (and “Jewish penicillin!”) is something I continue, something that 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 my friends, far and near, and the best of my heritage. Sharing them was certainly a source of comfort and connection during the bitterest isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic.

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 attempts at it for an infant and child. My eating disorder was but one of a coiling chain of attempts to include 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 in healing, and I ended up with a pretty wonderful life. And the kind of faith and hope in the power of healing that enables me to shepherd some number of others out of the woods with me.

I am committed to a no-blame paradigm. Certainly, neglect is a failure that often comes straight out of the trauma experience. It is a failure of attention, awareness, and aliveness that of course fails to transmit to the hapless infant. It is not excusable, nor is it, 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? My father? What would my life have been, and theirs? 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.

Photo Credit: Unsplash by Tetiana Shyshkina

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