Shabbat Shalom. As you know, yesterday was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, often considered the first act of the Holocaust, and tomorrow is Veteran’s Day (observed today as the Federal holiday off). Krista Tippett must have known that as this week’s episode of On Being from NPR played an interview between Krista and psychiatrist and neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda, in which they discuss both American veterans and Holocaust survivors.
Dr. Yehuda, who herself grew up in a neighborhood largely populated by Holocaust survivors and their families, is a pioneer in the field of epigenetics and trauma. Epigenetics is the new scientific field of discovering how our genes can morph and evolve based on our environments and experiences. These changes may not only affect how the person who experiences them lives out the rest of their lives, but may literally change the genetic markers they then pass on to their children. Some of the early discovery of this for Dr. Yehuda came out of a study that initially focused on veterans from the Vietnam War through the VA, where she recognized patterns from her neighbors and community members growing up. She and her research team found parallels between the PTSD experiences and physiology of the veterans and that of the Holocaust survivors. For example, in most people with chronic mental illnesses, the stress hormone cortisol is very high. But in people who experience sustained external trauma and develop PTSD, such as the combat veterans and the Holocaust survivors, the cortisol levels are very low. I’m no neuroscientist myself, but it has something to do with the normalization of the stress that occurs during the trauma and the way the body sort of shuts down the ability to process the trauma. It can get passed down to the children of trauma survivors in a way that causes the diminishing of their resiliency as well, as their bodies then don’t respond to stress in the typical way. Of course, just as the changes were made to their parents’ genes when the trauma occurred, the children of trauma survivors can create environments and experiences that help them learn resiliency and change the way their genes process stress yet again. But it is difficult, as they are starting already from a disadvantage, arguably one even deeper than those of us who have neuroatypicalities that overproduce cortisol.
The main distinction that Dr. Yehuda notes in her interview between the veterans and the Holocaust survivors in her initial study, is that the Holocaust survivors notoriously would not seek professional help. She reports that they told her it never occurred to them because how could any American therapist possible understand what they lived through? One in particular reminds her, “We don’t have centers for us like your VA.” So, sure enough, after this study, Dr. Yehuda and her research team created the Holocaust survivor center at Mount Sinai Hospital. After this initial study, when she began studying the epigenetics as well and looking for “Holocaust progeny” (as she calls them), they were very forthcoming. They too had largely neglected to seek help for their vicarious trauma, presumably because what they experienced was present as the norm by their parents, and now that they were learning there may be reasons for their susceptibility to traumatic responses to stress, they were eager to talk to Dr. Yehuda about their experiences. They needed someone who opened the door for them first, who intuited that there may be something psychologically and physiologically deeper than simply learned responses to stressors, someone who understood trauma and how to approach it.
In our Torah readings, last week’s portion, Parashat Vayera, ends with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, immediately opens with the death of his mother, presumably from a broken heart upon hearing what had transpired on Mount Moriah. Isaac and Abraham never speak again after that trip to the mountain, and now Isaac has lost his mother as well. So Abraham send his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, to assuage his grief and loneliness. Eliezer goes to Abraham’s hometown and waits by the well for the townswomen to come to gather water. He prays to God, “Give me a sign for the correct woman – the one that offers to water my camels in addition to me, I will know she is the correct wife for my master’s son.” Sure enough, when the women come, Eliezer asks for water, and Rebecca tells him that she will not only give water to him, but to all his camels. She draws bucket after bucket from the well, until all 10 of his camels have had their fill. Then Eliezer proposes to her on Isaac’s behalf, and she agrees to return to Canaan with him to marry Isaac.
In his modern commentary of the parshiyot, Rabbi Shai Held points out how important it is that Rebecca offers the water to the camels without Eliezer’s prompting. In his prayer for God, Eliezer demonstrates a keen understanding of what “traumatized, taciturn Isaac” (Rabbi Held’s words) needs: a wife who can intuit his needs without being explicitly prompted. Someone who can open the doors and gently acknowledge that the traumatic experience he has internalized, the experience with his father, doesn’t have to be his normal, someone who understands trauma.
Something Dr. Yehuda doesn’t really talk about in her interview with Krista Tippett is the difficulties veterans can also face when seeking support. Though they may not have experienced something quite as singular and large-scale as the Holocaust, they may also come back from their experiences feeling like civilian therapists, even ones that work for the VA, couldn’t understand what they’ve been through. They may be denied the aid in affordable health care that they deserve. They may be misdiagnosed based on nuances of their service, treated differently according to their status as enlisted or officer, and so on. While we might not have the expertise to contribute to the continued efforts of Dr. Yehuda’s PTSD clinic for veterans, Holocaust survivors and their children, and other survivors of trauma, we can all work a little harder to be Rebeccas for the people in our own lives. Whether it is veterans in our families, friends who we learn are survivors of abuse, refugees from ethnic cleansings who enter our communities, or first responders from major events like 9/11 (also mentioned in Dr. Yehuda’s interview), we can work on our intuition and sensitivity. We can study up on trauma triggers and proper responses and useful grounding techniques so that if we are to witness someone having a PTSD flashback, we are capable of helping.
This week, as we remember Kristallnacht and the beginning of serious cultural trauma for our people, and as we honor the veterans among our people, let us commit to honoring these legacies truly, with sensitivity and intuition, with a willingness to acknowledge their possibly unspoken pain, to open the door for their pathways to healing, to understand the depths of trauma, across lifetimes and generations. May we find and be the Rebeccas our communities need. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.