Thomas Hübl: Hello and welcome. My name is Thomas Huebl and I’m the convener of the Collective Trauma Summit, and I’m very delighted. I am most looking forward to talk to you already for years. And so I’m very happy that you joined us, Rabbi Tirzah today to our conversation here. So warm welcome.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone:Thank you so much, Thomas. I’ve been looking forward to this and following your work for several years now.
Thomas: Yeah, me too. And I know we have many similarities in our work, although we never get to talk until now. And I’m here in Tel Aviv and you’re deeply immersed in Jewish mysticism, so that’s also something that I’m interested in, but maybe we keep that for later. And so maybe we start with what brought you originally to be interested in trauma work, intergenerational trauma work, and then maybe you tell us a little bit about intergenerational trauma.
Rabbi Tirzah: Sure, sure. Just briefly, I’ll say that I think all of our most passionate work is autobiographical. And my inquiry began with my family coming out and trying to escape a kind of what I thought was just a crazy family. It was only years later when I immersed myself in trauma psychology that I realized, oh my God, I was raised by trauma survivors. That’s what that was all about. That neurosis, that charge, that constant intensity. My mother was born in Germany and she escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, barely, on the kinder transport. And she never spoke of all the scores of cousins, uncles and aunts that, excuse me, that she had lost.
And my father was an American born Jew, assimilated Jew who went to Germany. Actually, he was stationed in Germany in the US Army in World War II and found himself in Bergen Belsen, not because he was a liberator, but during the liberation the British were there and he was in a platoon that was a bomb detection squadron. And so he was blown apart by the visuals, the unseeable visuals he took in. He also never spoke as he and my mother raised the six of us and never spoke of what they had gone through in World War II. But it infused everything. It came out in their tempers and in their moods and their sporadic energy, their rigid politics, their crazy parenting. And so as I said, it was only many years later that I started to connect the dots. My father died and I literally read about his history in the war, in his obituary, and that’s when it all came to fruition.
I was in my forties and I started to understand that these things were deeply embedded in me and how it was utterly impossible to escape them even though I had tried dearly and gone around the world and on an escapade and a spiritual odyssey. But here I was back again reclaiming my Judaism in a different way. And also then, I’ll give you one more piece, which perhaps directly links to you, Thomas, because you’re there on the ground in Tel Aviv now. To say that as a rabbi, later on in my life, I became very active in human rights and became a part of a beautiful community of Jews and rabbis, rabbis for human rights and T’ruah. These are human rights activists and spent much time in Israel and spent much time in the occupied territories in Palestine. And there, seeing what I saw, it’s just all of a sudden all kinds of insight explosions happened for me when I saw things that were throwbacks to Jewish history. But that Jews had recreated situations that were, in a sense, reenactments of our own history.
We can go into that or not later, but just to say that it was again so strong. And in my book I talk about how one of the most quizzical pieces of trauma residue is the compulsion, what Freud talked about the repetition compulsion, to reenact our injuries on ourselves or on others as if to master them to find, to bring from the emotional history brain, the emotional brain, to cognizance into cognition, into active critical understanding what we had gone through. So that was another piece. And understanding that politics on the ground where I feel so strongly connected to the politics, working even in human rights is impossible to make forward progress unless we’re understanding the collective trauma body of our people. So in my sense, the Jewish people, all the diasporic Jews who brought their history to that land, and the Palestinian people who brought their profound history to that land and all of their injuries together, to make forward progress, we need to understand the collective pain bodies, our respective pain bodies before we can actually make peace. Enough on that. But that’s a little thumbnail sketch.
Thomas: Yeah. Of course. And I want to underline something you said. On the one end you say, without understanding collective trauma deeper, we can’t make real progress on the politics. And I think I want to underline that sentence. I think that’s very true, and we see it here every day, especially now in this phase. It’s very obvious. And then I want to ask you to speak a little bit more because I think that’s an important part. We see recurrent wars, we see recurrent violence, we see recurrent all kinds of abuse, domestic violence, attachment traumatizations. So let’s speak a little bit about this repetition compulsion you spoke of or how trauma reenacts itself and a bit more about this mechanism. How can we understand? Because one could say no, if I’m trauma, if somebody was traumatized, okay, they will do their best not to reenact it again. But obviously that’s not true. So maybe you can speak a bit more about that principle of the circular quality.
Rabbi Tirzah: It’s a circular quality. It lives, it embeds itself in our unconscious. And one of my, I would say my training is in Jungian psychology and in the depth psychology or analytical psychology, it’s also called. We understand that there are different levels of the unconscious. There’s the personal unconscious where our personal memory bank is and our dreams, our personal dreams. But there’s also the cultural, or could even say tribal, unconscious as well, that is even deeper. It’s like a deeper stratum beneath us. And in that stratum live our symbol systems, live our collective traumas as well as our collective narrative and our collective psyche, you might say, our stories, our self-definition, our narratives. And in that place we have also our tribal traumas, the things that we’ve gone through. I like to use the word because it works, even though it’s completely unscientific to say that there’s a trauma body that lives within us from our people as well.
And then of course, and I know you go to this very deep level, Thomas, in your work, the collective unconscious, the deeper human strata, which underlines all of that, the deepest level of that well, of that wellspring, which is the collective unconscious where the humanities struggles, humanities push for the urgency is also we’re feeling that as well. So I think one of the big surprises that I’ll just say this one more thing that in writing my book, my last book, Wounds into Wisdom, Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, I’ve started to teach that work that people from all over the world are understanding now and feeling that urgency, that push to heal their own ethnicity, their own tribal traumas, if you will.
And that is, in a sense, it’s a coming from the collective unconscious now that we must deal with these in a sense, the debts that are coming due right now in this time period, it’s such a exquisite and painful time in history and world history when the collective tale of our world is has, there’s been a snowballing effect of centuries and centuries of pain that’s been unmetabolized. And it needs to be metabolized now. So there’s this, I think why our work is global is international because people from all over the world are feeling that urgency, don’t you think?
Thomas: Absolutely. And I also see in many people, that’s why we do the Collective Trauma Summit because there are so many people interested in this, and so many people resonate with collective trauma. It’s something that sparks immediately an interest for many people. And that’s interesting that there is an intuitive understanding that it’s important in this time. And I will come to some of the bigger crisis that we are facing in a moment. But when we stay for a moment with the collective trauma, I think when we dial it back from the systemic aspect of trauma to the intergenerational trauma, I know you also work a lot with intergenerational trauma and your book is about it. Let’s talk a little bit about, for our listeners to understand deeper, what’s the mechanism when parts of our grandparents, great grandparents, parents are traumatized, as you shared about your own experience. So how does trauma, is that a psychological process, meaning it’s being transmitted through education and parenting, or is there other mechanisms that… So how does intergenerational trauma work?
Rabbi Tirzah: Yeah, I am not a scientist. I’m not even a scientific researcher, but I do know just from my own study that there is these incredible loads that are transferred that that’s through epigenetics that our genes record. There is a epigenetic function. Epigenetics is on top of or above the genes themselves. So genes, our genetic structure is not changed, but the expression of our genes is changed. So that means that the epigenetic mechanisms translate the stresses, the extreme dramas, the extreme situations that we live through. They translate those messages from the world to the genes and change the gene functions.
So that means that these changes can manifest as chronic disease, they can lower our resilience or greaten our resilience. They can lower our IQ, they can increase our IQ or shorten our lifespan. So an example of that might be if my grandfather’s wartime experience is recorded in his methylation and the strands that are carried on top of the genes recorded that, and that is transmitted to my father and that make him more prone to PTSD if he fights in a war. By the way, the Israeli IDF knows all about this. They understand that kids that are coming into the army who have profound, they know the family tree and they study this, they’re very, very astute about this. So that children who come, children, young men and women who come with Holocaust or other extreme traumas from their backgrounds, they know that they’re going to be more inclined to PTSD and they are less put on the front lines. They’re systematic about that.
So that translates in terms of my own resilience or my own propensity for PTSD, my own ability to work with stress. The good news in all of this that we’re finding that the scientists are finding, the research are finding is that epigenetic changes, these epigenetic transmissions can be changed. They can be reversed. And this is really important for all of us who are doing this work to know that. And many of the traumatologists, the greats, are sharing this right now, that they can be changed through awareness. And that’s so exciting to me that bringing the light of awareness. When we bring our trauma transmissions to our cortical understanding, to our front brain, so to speak, that our systems can literally change. So one actually a beautiful, she was originally Israeli, yeah, El Daniel, I don’t know if her said that the awareness of these transmitted legacies and processes, these trauma processes, actually inhibits the transmission of future pathology to succeeding generations. And that’s profound.
So there is an actual epigenetic mechanism that happens that transmits itself. And when I take that and I look at sort of biblical verses and also Indigenous verses, that teach that the wounds of the fathers, the wounds of the ancestors will be remembered for three unto four generations. There’s usually that’s translated as the sins of the fathers are transmitted for three to four generations. The Indigenous people here in this continent say up to seven generations. So that’s profound. It’s like the ancestors understood that, that there is this imprint that we carry that the generations will carry if we don’t work, if we don’t metabolize our wounds.
Thomas: And it’s beautiful. And we are also running right now in the two year training program with 60 participants an epigenetic study that they go through a two year program and they will see at the end of this year, what’s the change in the epigenetic profile. So that’s a very interesting work. And so when you look at, okay, you explain to us a little bit what are mechanisms, and it’s one mechanism. There’s also whole parenting and the psychological environment. The cultural environment. And so what can we do now? Because many people who listen right now will fear, yeah, but I also carry some transgenerational trauma as many people do. So what’s your experience with healing intergenerational trauma?
Rabbi Tirzah: Yeah. Well, there’s so many levels to hear that question. At first on, I would say that we simply can’t do this work from a place of alarm or dysregulation. We need to work, and I’m sure all of your people understand this too in your trainings, that we need to work on our nervous systems. So the kinds of, we might say, pain body, the kinds of charge, the activation that I feel when I’m under stress often has much to do with how I was raised. You could say the nurturing, the family life that I grew up in, whatever the family life, whatever the home that I grew up in gave me, that kind of learning. But it’s also embedded in my nervous system. I inherited that. It landed in me. And so to get clear about, oh wow, that didn’t even begin with me. That’s something that my mother did, my grandmother did. That is that kind of activation or fear or anxiety, hyper arousal or numbness or shame, all of these are trauma residues that are in a sense imprinted in our nervous systems. And also we learn it from just as children.
So I’m so grateful for the infusion of teachings and teachers that we grew up with [inaudible] Han of Blessed Memory or his holiness the Dali Lama, Sharon Salzberg, all of these wonderful teachers that have given us teachings about taking down our activation and calming ourselves and coming to a base level of quiet. From that place, we can really start to do the work. And from that place… This is part of my research, was to listen to many, many trauma survivors and find the common denominators, people that were really well, moral leaders and people who had taken their tragedies and transmuted them, really alchemized as a word that I like to use. They’ve really found the beauty, the gold in their suffering after doing the hard work of grieving. And so taking the common denominators of many, many families and individuals and what are the things that we can do?
And the second half of my book is all about that. First of all, it’s facing our losses, really facing our losses and grieving. And can you imagine if we did that at a collective level, really grieving our wounds? And that also means that word again, the wounds, sins, the errors, the failures that we have gone through as collective people, as groups. I’m thinking of the power of just having a little memory right now of one of the governors of Colorado, governor John Hickenlooper. He’s now now a senator, but when he was a governor, he went to the site of the Sand Creek massacre here in just a couple of hours from me here in Colorado. And this is a place where a beautiful, very peaceful people were camped, they had white flags flying. They had been given a treaty by the American people that they would be safe.
And boom, they were attacked and massacred all the men, women and children. A horror. And this is 200 years later, went to this place and was the first apology, the first brave enough white person who, a leader who stood there and watching this was just incredible how the southern Arapaho people who had been massacred, the elders who were maybe not even born or were born with these stories, the elders, wizened, wrinkled elders, tears, the men’s faces just rolling down as this man simply made an apology. Just that apology and those words. No reparations, nothing like that. No promises, but just the acknowledgement of our failure as the settlers of their land. That much. So just facing our losses, facing our failures, leaning into that is so profound. And there are many others, which I could talk on and on about, but I don’t want to take too much of the time. I want to also hear from you.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Also what you said right now, the apology, I think restoration and relational restoration is such a key element of any kind of trauma healing. And that’s a beautiful example. And also how this reverberates back in time, hundreds of years sometimes, and is so important. I think also let’s, when we look at the states, how much work needs to be done in order to deal with the current racism and the Native American genocide. And I think there’s so much collective trauma work that needs to happen.
And you’re doing the beautiful work there in Colorado and globally. So that’s beautiful. And also, as you said it’s kind of universal. So you wrote your book and then many people from around the world start helping you and want to do this work. And I think that’s what we need as a global healing movement. And so you do this work already for a long time. And so how do you see the healing outcome? When people really do this work, what’s your experience of what works, what doesn’t work? And maybe before you want to answer the question, if you want to do any or give us any practice afterwards just for us to experience a bit in relaxation or downregulation, please.
Rabbi Tirzah: I’d love to. Yeah. Yeah, let’s just take a moment right now. That’s a good prompt to just getting into this and hearing these stories can activate so much and just feeling into the epigenetic loads that each of us are carrying. And it’s so beaut… And to me, this is the most holy work that we can do on the planet right now. I’m very moved by just being here. And let’s just take a moment right now wherever we are listening to these words, to this conversation, to feel ourselves and smooth out our breathing, slow it down a little bit. I like to breathe when I feel activated in any sense, just to breathe to a count of four, inhaling to a count of four, and exhaling to a count of four.
There’s a beautiful meditation I use just to cleanse myself after a day of work of imagining a little spark at my tailbone, a little spark of a laser beam, a star, spark of divine energy, and with my smoothed out elongated breathing, raising it that spark up the back of my spine, clearing the energy in my backbone. And at the top of the inhalation, just bringing it to my crown, holding it there for a microsecond, and then just letting it spill over like a waterfall over the front of me, just taking with it any stagnant or aroused energies like a waterfall cleansing and purifying it. Let’s just try that. So at the tailbone, bringing that spark up on the next inhalation, holding it at the crown, and then just letting it spill over in 360 degrees, just imagining a beautiful cascade of breath energy cleansing and purifying our field. And again, one last time. Relaxing into it and feeling the power of the breath and the power of visualization to cleanse and to take us back to a base level.
Yeah. So one of the things that has surprised me so much and I’ve learned over these past few years that I wasn’t expecting at all, there’s the science and there’s the understanding of the structure of the psyche and the deep levels. But the, let’s see, how can I say it? The actual, the presence. The presence of the ancestors. And their desiring this work is actually that there are, in the unseen realms, we’re taught to really be here and now in this world, but there are other many, many unseen dimensions and focusing for our own health and wellbeing on the wise and well ancestors and how they are both from our own bloodlines and also historical figures are a part of that urgency that we were talking about earlier. Part of the collective unconscious goading us and encouraging us. And that’s also I think part of what we feel.
And in Jewish mysticism and also in Jewish theology, there’s this idea that coming into direct face-to-face, we call it in Hebrew, it’s [foreign language], presence, with the other. It’s very Buberian. It’s very much from Martin Buber’s philosophy that we come into presence with the other like we are right now, that I am with you Thomas, and you are with me. And then a third thing emerges, then there’s some healing power that emerges that’s bigger than either one of us. It’s the space between two beings that who are intentional. And so that speaks volumes about creating healing vessels, healing groups that are doing this. There’s like a synergy. It’s becomes like an alchemical vessel. Groups of people doing this work is so powerful and it maximizes and synergizes each one of our individual efforts. But also what has been the biggest surprise for me has been coming face-to-face with the ancestors and wise and well ancestors.
There’s also very unwell because we leave this world often if we have not been allowed to or haven’t had tools to do our work, we leave this world with all of that, with those traumas, with our unfinished stories that has a power to it and that we feel that. But when we connect with wise and well ancestors, then there is their power, their encouragement, their guidance, their blessings that we can receive and that can be used. And so the biggest surprise I think of my work has been that, entering into relationship also with the unseen worlds can be very, very powerful. And that can become an alchemy of its own.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s powerful. Also, how beautiful you speak about the resources and the healthy parts of our ancestors living in us and supporting us. It’s very beautiful. And when you look at the, I mean, there are so many big kind of challenges that we face right now as humanity. And when you look at climate change or inequality, racism, neocolonialism, I mean there are huge and many more that I can’t name now. When we look at those through the collective trauma lens or intergenerational slash collective trauma lens, first of all, how do you see it related, for example, climate change and trauma? Where do you see, for example, links here? And then what do you think we can do? You started already sharing about groups coming together or building vessels as you called it. This is beautiful. And maybe there are other things that we can do in order to face this kind of global moment. You said it also we are called to integrate a lot of the accumulated traumas that we carry inside. But maybe you can speak a little bit to that bigger space, that world space right now.
Rabbi Tirzah: Yeah, yeah. It’s a place, there have always been these enormous challenges all through history, of course, and we’re becoming more and more acutely aware of them. But we live in this very special moment, and it’s this heartbreaking moment at the cusp of we’re living through catastrophe, but we’re also living through at the cusp of, I think a tsunami of change. And I mean in that, a tsunami of AI changes, of climate chaos. So how do we even approach that? First of all, just what I said is kind of an activating a dysregulating thing. And so we have to come back to ourselves and find ourselves in the moment and know that we are being helped and know that we are being guided and that we’re not alone. We’re not isolated atoms in history or in the universe, but there’s huge through time and space, we’re being helped for all of us who are listening in.
And I think here, for me, what’s the most powerful, when I teach in large groups and we have this large healing vessel and we have the synergy of the healing vessels and we have, we’re tapping into the ancestral dimension who can help us, the wise and well ancestors, is to, well, my teacher, I’ll say parenthetically here, just my teacher, Rabbi Zalman, Schachter-Shalomi of Blessed Memory always taught that it’s really not only delicious, but very important and necessary to take with permission to borrow the wisdom traditions of each other’s traditions. We can’t do it on our own. I don’t know that Judaism has what we need right now for climate chaos, but if with permission ask the elders of the Indigenous peoples around the world, they do, they do understand because they do, they haven’t lost their connection to the earth like many of our cultures have. And so we borrow with permission the nutrients.
It’s like the vitamins that they can provide. And many of… So in my classes or my courses, I often have people take Indigenous rituals and go out into nature wherever you live. So you live in whatever continent you live in, whatever place you live, that you go out and bless the land and listen, create a healing circle, create sacred hoops, step into them prayer circles, and do the rituals that we’ve been given from our Indigenous ancestors or from our Indigenous teachers. So you see, all through, we’ve been talking about using the guidance of the wise people, both ancestors and living, to listen in to what nature is saying to us, what nature is needing from us. And infiltrate, take those wisdom bundles and infiltrate the culture as best we can because we’re living with powers, corporate powers and governmental powers that are exponentially growing. And what can people do?
What can we do? What is happening at, for instance, in populist uprisings, populist movements like you’re living through right now in Tel Aviv every Saturday night and wherever we’re living, there are groups, sacred people who are alive and well and activated in a good way to make change. So it has to do with, for me, getting quiet enough, getting calm enough, putting our ear to the ground with the guidance and blessings of people that are wiser than us and have many centuries of traditions of how to connect to – But I do believe that the guidance is coming from the earth itself, herself. I do believe in miracles. I do believe in possibilities as my friend Gabor Mate always says that hope, no, but belief, faith in possibility is really what we need right now.
Thomas: That’s powerful. And you also shared in your own words the beauty of sometimes we think individuals as these separate particles that need to manage in a big world. But you actually drew an image of us being completely interconnected with our ancestors, with the future generations, with the blessing of the wise ones. And with that there is blessing at all because I think that sometimes in the postmodern secular world, we forgot about blessing and the power of being blessed or blessing somebody.
And then that interconnectedness with nature. Because I think also, and tell me how you look at this, but for me, the level of collective trauma in our societies, what we get born into when we come into this life carries already like the separation from certain aspects of our bodies. And that’s why we live industrialism as if we were kind of on the planet versus my body is millions of years of evolution.
Rabbi Tirzah: Yes.
Thomas: It is the planet.
Rabbi Tirzah: Yes.
Thomas: This is the planet. What is this? But water and the minerals and-
Rabbi Tirzah: That’s right.
Thomas: And so we are nature, but often when people go to nature, they say, oh, the native forest is around us, but nature is also in us. We are also nature.
Rabbi Tirzah: That’s right.
Thomas: And I think that dualism is very interesting when we look at climate change, how we look at nature versus we sense we are part of it. And yeah, maybe you can speak a little bit to the dualism or just your thoughts.
Rabbi Tirzah: I think it’s exactly as you’re saying, Thomas. Putting our ear to the ground, another way to say that is listening inside to the still small voice inside of us. When we get calm enough and quiet enough to follow our dreams, our nighttime dreams, listen inside, we are absolutely, I have total faith in this, that each one of us is connected to the world’s soul, to the [foreign language] we could say that he lives inside of us. We call her in Hebrew and Hebraic mysticism, [foreign language] indwelling divine that is implanted in each one of us. And when we get quiet enough, we can listen to exactly, she speaks to us. And like, okay, what do I need to do next? Is actually, no, it’s actually not to go out into the rallies, it’s actually to take care of my kid or to heal my fight with my husband or wife or partner, to mend something here before I do this. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s get your ass out into the big city and have a sit-in against the gun lobby.
So each one of us is being given the exact yes, the exact next step if we can be calm enough to listen to it. So there is no dualism in a sense that earth is living inside of us. And we do need to listen to our elders and to our ancestors and to the people who have, are clear and are generating and have generated these wisdom traditions before us that are centuries old.
Yeah, we could go on and on, but it might be fun. What do you think about just taking a moment for us and for our listeners, both, to tune into the blessing, to the blessing. So can we take just a moment inside to do this, Thomas?
Thomas: Yeah, of course. Lovely.
Rabbi Tirzah: So coming back into our bodies wherever we are, maybe even touching ourselves somewhere on our heart or in our belly or maybe our face just to calm ourselves down and smoothing out our breath for a moment.
And as we slowed down to just open to the possibility of an unseen world, the invisibles, the invisible world that is right here, right here, urging on Thomas and my conversation today and urging on each and every one of our work. And that invisible world lives inside of us and just beyond us, and also among us, between us as we generate it together and we tap it together. And as you breathe, the next couple of breaths, I want you to invite in the presence of a well and wise ancestor, someone from your bloodline or someone, perhaps a teacher who’s on the other side, maybe even a historical figure, someone who’s well and wise, who you have an affinity for, and who has an affinity for you.
And suspend your disbelief right now. Just take that mind, that critical mind, and just turn the volume down a little bit on that mind. We all have it. But to allow yourself to be surprised by who shows up. Just if possible, just one ancestor, one person, one being from the other dimension. It could even be an animal. It might be a grandmother, grandfather, someone who you cherish and someone who cherishes you could be a teacher for you who wants to come.
And if you are seeing and feeling someone’s presence right now, just notice their energy, their demeanor, their countenance, take in their light, their smile, their presence. And go one step farther right now into this brief little interlude, this encounter to open yourself with a question, open, ask pose, this is where I’m at, this is what I’m holding now. Is there any blessing you have for me? And listen, just listen. Breathing. Might be a word or a phrase or just a feeling you get. And breathing. Trust what you’re getting, trust and record it in your mind, in your heart. And if nobody comes right now, don’t worry. That will happen if you continue to ask. And with a gentle gesture of honor and thanks. Give a bow or a namaste and allow this being to recede for now, just for now.
Thomas: Thank you. This was beautiful. So this was a lovely blessing for the end of something that might seem like heavy sometimes when we talk about trauma. It was a beautiful blessing and giving us also some kind of connection to the drive of life to continue to evolve and grow. And that’s what I felt very strongly. So thank you so much. This is a pleasure. I was looking forward for us to speak and now, and I see so many parallels and so much resonance between us. So thank you. This was beautiful. I hope we can collaborate in any other form as well.
Rabbi Tirzah: I hope so.
Thomas: I hope so.
Rabbi Tirzah: Blessings on you and your work and on this incredible community that you’ve gathered to you.
Thomas: Thank you. And blessings on you and for your work. Yeah, and be well and thank you so much.