June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Apart but Not Alone, Part I

Man is “wired to connect,” and when life’s circumstances prevent one from making satisfying connections, this can lead to a host of emotional and even physical consequences. Yet, psychological research and practice, as well as our Torah, reveal the positive aspects of “apartness” and distinguish between being “apart” and being “alone.” Interestingly, there are two pesukim in Parshat Balak that reflect the positive side of the “apartness” coin. When Bilam stood on the mountain facing the people, he stated, “From the beginning I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations (Bamidbar: 23:9); he also recited the well-known words of “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov… How admirable are the tents of Yaakov, your dwelling places oh, Israel….” (24:5). These two verses, when considered together, indicate that even the wicked Bilam realized that the nation was strong and rooted as a mountain in its foundational values. He also understood that the Jews valued their gift of “apartness,” respecting one another’s modesty and need for privacy, but never feeling “alone.” This was because they avoided the negative feature of loneliness by capitalizing upon the unity of their experience in connecting with their holy souls and serving God. In doing so, they were able to hold onto their spirituality and value system, endearing themselves in the eyes of God and being spared from the punishments meted out to the other nations. This realization, I believe, is how the miracle of Bilam’s curses turning into blessings came to be.

Still, it is later on in our history that we see evidence of what can go wrong if that unity dissolves. It was the evil Haman who, like Bilam, recognized the protection unity afforded us when he advised Achashverosh that it was a propitious time to attack. This was because we rejected our status of “apartness” in favor of becoming an “am mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim—a scattered and disjointed people among the nations…” Indeed, Haman was fully aware of the protective shield our unity afforded us, and that without it we were doomed. He also understood that given the condition of our dispersal among the nations, whereby our unity was dissolved and divisiveness prevailed, that our shield against the evil in the world was at risk of dissolving in kind.

Several weeks ago, my husband Jack and I had the privilege of walking in the footsteps of my parents, Holocaust survivors who were born in Poland—my dad in Krakow and my mom in Lodz. Jack said Kaddish in Auschwitz for his grandparents and aunts who perished there, and I lit candles at the various camps for others whose place of death remains unknown. One may wonder why it took us so long, 70+ years after the fact, to finally make this trip. Yet, it makes perfect sense if one looks beyond the official fact that “six million” Jews perished in the Holocaust. During our trip, the rabbi and the outstanding historian Dr. David Bernstein, who accompanied us on this trip, spoke to the notion of the “seventh million.” I believe this reflects the idea that, at the very least, 1 million more, including survivors, their children and grandchildren, suffered the emotional and physical residuals of this experience, including shame, guilt, anxiety and all the rest that goes with the territory. Coupled with the clinical research and practice that finds emotional safety to be a critical factor in the healing process of those suffering psychic trauma, it is easier to understand how we finally drew the courage to commit to this trip. It had everything to do with the fortuitous timing of our Rabbi Efrem Goldberg announcing that he and his rebbetzin were planning to lead a mission to Poland. We immediately signed up because we knew with certainty that the Goldbergs would foster the emotional safety we needed in order to embark on this journey.

While Rabbi Goldberg and Yocheved were by far the youngest couple on this trip, they easily assumed the persona of parents, teachers and role models to those of us under their charge. From the moment we met at Newark Airport they welcomed us all and made it a priority to transform this diverse group into a close-knit and empathic “chevra.” Understanding how difficult it would be for some of us, all through the trip they encouraged us to open up and share our stories; and because of the safe haven they created within the midst of the horror, just about everyone did. Indeed, it was through the shared experiences, personal stories, Torah wisdom, “processing sessions” and the historical context within which each trip was grounded that we connected with one another in a very deep and special way; it was also heartwarming when those who were lucky enough to be spared the history of being a child or grandchild of survivors felt our pain and supported us through listening and responding with kindness, encouragement and empathy. I believe it was eye-opening and at the same time validating for many of us who grew up in households where parents protected their children by hiding the facts. Indeed, hearing the heroic stories of those who survived, as well as those who perished, not only filled in the blanks, but also finally brought home with certainty that it was never us, the children, who were the source of the sadness that sometimes invaded our homes.

While retelling the individual stories and historical facts we learned are beyond the scope of one article, the manner in which the prisoners of these camps found meaning in their experience reflects a stunning show of heroism and love of one Jew for another; my mother, for example, managed to carry her emotionally fragile sister from camp to camp until they finally arrived at the DP camp in Planegg, Germany; she also convinced a group of survivors to resist the kapos who promised them escape if they shelled out the money they hid through the war. Despite the fact that my mom saved those she convinced to remain with her, they were all traumatized by the shots they heard that killed those who didn’t want to chance waiting the extra days. It was also heartwarming to hear how the prisoners managed to find the time and place to keep and celebrate Shabbos and Yomim Tovim and even learn Torah. The telling and hearing of these stories developed an incredible bond between all of us, and it was this bond that woke up the second and third generations among us to the fact that while we may feel apart because of our experiences, we never have to feel alone.

During our visits to the cemeteries, death camps, shuls and museums, we were witness to the mass destruction of lives, as well as a “way of life” before the war. Yet, despite the ruins, there were still remnants of the grandeur of our history in the various cities through which we traveled. Yet, it was my visit to the Lodz Museum with Jack that left the greatest impression. This was because it was there that I truly walked in the footsteps of my mom. Unlike most of the museums we visited, which were new and modern structures, this one was created from the train station where the thousands from the Lodz ghetto were gathered at the “Anshlag Platz” and then herded into cattle cars like animals for their transport to the death and labor camps they were to endure. My mother was sent to at least four camps that she was to survive. And it was the act of actually walking through one of the cattle cars and imagining my mother packed body-to-body with the others that brought the tragedy home in a visceral way; and yet, it helped me understand the prayer that we read at Auschwitz celebrating the “miracle” that occurred at that site. While I initially questioned the idea of commemorating the “neis” that took place in that horrific place, still, that walk through the cattle cars led me to understand that indeed it was a miracle that even one person could survive the horrors of that experience, let alone the many who survived Auschwitz and the other death and labor camps.

At the start of this trip, Rabbi Goldberg charged us with spiritual and personal growth. He clearly stated that if this experience does not transform us, then we have not realized its full potential. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that I’m writing this article on Shiva Asar B’Tamuz, a fast day marking the beginning of the three weeks of national mourning, when the wall of Yerushalayim was breached, and culminating on Tisha B’Av, when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed. Ironically, this was a time period when Torah study was at its height, but we were sorely lacking in the area of interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, we are currently living at a time where we are once again making great strides in Torah study but still there is a gap in our respect for the differences among us. Given these facts, and inspired by the theme of “Unity Within Diversity” reflected in this transformative trip to Poland, I believe it is a perfect time to build on this foundation, and I invite you to join me.

Look forward to more about this special trip next month.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA

 Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She can be reached at: [email protected].

 

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