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Dedicated to my cousin Doris for reasons she will understand–

When we awaken the ego does die, but it is not what many think. The caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, dies to its old form and can never go back to being a caterpillar. Yet, if you look closely, the main body of it still retains its caterpillar form. ~ Atreya Thomas

During the White Awake workshop described in the two previous essays, we were encouraged to mend the fabric of the inevitable disconnection with our ancestral roots. When I did, I began to realize why my family had been silent about their histories. Not only did I encounter their overwhelming religious persecution, but I began to understand my grandparents’ abject rejection of speaking about anything related to the old country, as they desperately tried to embraced a whole new culture of becoming Americans and all that meant to them. For them, it was about basic survival – a new beginning in a new country. Severing ties from everything that was familiar to them, including their parents, aunts and uncles, their grandparents, and their whole way of life was a prerequisite.

During the late 1800s in Lithuania, pogroms (organized massacres targeting Jewish communities) were instituted which resulted in mass emigration to America. Some emigrants chose acquiescence, desperately wanting to assimilate; whereas some who had become revolutionaries in the old country brought that energy of resistance to America. The latter group had sought to unite all the Jews in Lithuania in a class-based fight for social reform. They had organizing to demand: an improvement in living standards, a more democratic political system, and the introduction of equal rights for Jews. They were revolutionaries, socialists and communists. My grandfather brought these ideals with him to America. In his 80s, my father first acknowledged to me that he had gone to the Workmen’s Circle, a socialist camp during high school. He explained that there was a communist camp and a socialist camp and he attended the latter.

I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have told my grandfather that, perhaps through osmosis (or DNA), I had received the teaching that hatred of other, whether expressed as racism, classism, sectarianism or anti-Semitism, was something to fiercely resist against! I would have told my grandparents that their suffering was not in vain, that I got the message. My whole life has been about dispelling hatred in myself and others. And now, in the 21st century, many of those socio-political issues are still present and growing. Dad, you prepared me well. Although, I didn’t understand all of what our ancestors endured when we had this intimate, revealing conversation just a few years before he died, I did begin to piece together why our home was secular, devoid of God. Many of the revolutionaries from Eastern Europe who had experienced such trauma became atheists, at least my father, and I suspect, my grandfather did. I don’t know how this trauma manifested in his older brother Azer, the firstborn, born into a family of immigrants, trying to piece together new lives amid the catastrophic trauma from which they fled, to carry-on in America. The firstborn often carries more weight than the other children, more responsibility, and more of the raw, direct trauma from the parents and grandparents, whether physically present or not.

My grandfather, who arrived in America around the turn-of-the-century, was a craftsman who built furniture and started selling his creations and used furniture along the railroad tracks in Pennsylvania where the trains would bring them to his storefront. My grandmother was more of a pragmatist who chose to not eat their limited rations during the Great Depression so her children could. After bankruptcies and dire survival struggles, my father began working with his father while still in high school. As I mentioned in the previous essay, I suspect my father (who was a bit of a mama’s boy) rejected his father’s ideology and became a capitalist to save his family. He would sacrifice a great deal not have his siblings, wife, or children starve as his family had. With a high school education, my father provided for his family and left a legacy of abundance and philanthropy, not scarcity and financial hardship.

I suspect he rejected his father’s gentle, humanistic way of being and saw it as passivity, and maybe it was, as trauma can take the form of immobilization. I see these polarities of capitalism versus socialism, revolutionary versus pacifist in myself. During our present, tumultuous times, having this internal conversation between the polarities of ourselves is necessary preparation for contemplating how we want to express ourselves, both personally and politically. Understanding our ancestry is an important part of our identity. If you understand epigenetics, trauma from previous generations actually can change the expression of our DNA and manifest in devastating and mysterious ways. For an interesting article click here.

When I knew him, my grandfather had advanced Parkinson’s disease. Having been the only two people in our family with progressive neurological illness, I have developed a kinship with him that only increases as this illness progresses. I can viscerally imagine the despair this loyal, enormously strong man felt as his body began to fail him. He was known to have carried an iron woodstove up a staircase by himself, something no human I know could accomplish. As his body weakened, he had to surrender to his somewhat caustic, but faithful wife who likely didn’t understand how past trauma may have manifested in herself and her husband. I remember my grandmother’s fierce loyalty caring for her husband as he grew more disabled and her unwillingness to place him elsewhere, regardless of the excessive demands on her. Love and trauma, trauma and love. There are no heroes or villains in this Sacred Work that is Life.

I consider myself spiritual, but not religious. I dutifully attended Hebrew school and synagogue in my early years, but there was little continuity at home which seemed to reveal a fracture I didn’t quite understand until later in life when my father finally admitted to having been a staunch atheist his whole life (until his death which I described in previous essays – our most intimate moment).

I found the Old Testament scary, presented by a rabbi who had little rapport with children. A punishing, threatening God was more of the stuff of my worst nightmares than a power that informs and heartens me. When I later learned of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of the church, this further reinforced my resistance to organized religion. The Jesus that was talked about in my early years, the prophet who was killed by Jews, created further shame in me for being different, for being Jewish.

Always having been a spiritual person by nature, the more mystical aspects of Judaism appealed to me when I later studied Kabbalah. I found that the mystical aspects all major religions seem to converge at the same point, the point where Jesus and other masters spoke from – Love. When we live from the soul, there is no other; there is only We.

The spirituality that I gravitate to is inconclusive, profoundly compassionate, deeply mystical, and emanates from my heart and not my head. That being said, I came to realize through the workshop that I had blatantly and aggressively rejected all aspects of the religion in which I grew up – the baby with the bathwater – and with that I had rejected significant parts of myself and my lineage.

The facilitator explained our relationship with our ancestors brilliantly – like with any intimate relationship, if one person has not achieved wholeness, they are like two halves of a whole, but two whole people can move past duality and co-create.

Today, we live in a world where capitalism has run amok and we have forgotten how to take care of each other. We have work to do. I am so grateful to stand on the shoulders of those who went before me, to reintroduce myself to them. The courage, the grief, the fortitude is quite a legacy they left for me to recover, by my willingness to feel shame and grief fully. This is what I contemplate when I sit at my altar to my ancestors.

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