Jo Kent Katz on the Continuing Impact of Ancestral Trauma

How does intergenerational trauma affect our culture, discourse and legacy as a people?
June, 02 2021
Jo Kent Katz discusses ancestral trauma

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound.” While many people only associate the concept with extreme and acute episodes of personal psychological or physical shock, such as rape, torture or combat, trauma can refer to any phenomenon that overwhelms the coping mechanisms of an organism. 

Responses to trauma are often neurologically embedded in the central nervous system or the amygdala—parts of our brain concerned with survival and older, both evolutionarily and developmentally, than our executive, cognitive and analytical functions. Trauma can manifest as beliefs, behaviors or other deeply held and preconscious phenomena that were once adaptive responses to the “wound” but may be harmful in the present. For instance, a soldier’s entire nervous system may light up at the sound of fireworks exploding. The soldier may be consciously aware that they are at a fireworks display, but they will feel a deep sense of threat. They may reexperience visuals, smells, and sounds tied to their combat experience and be primed to respond to that sense of danger with the violence necessary for survival at the time of initial trauma. Alternatively, they may seek to dull the sensations with alcohol or other substances. Though helpful in battle, these “trauma responses” can hinder healthy life and relationships as a civilian.

In recent years, psychologists have begun to understand that trauma can also be inherited—a phenomenon called historical, intergenerational or ancestral trauma. Much has been learned about this in the context of the Black experience in the United States, for instance, which can be understood as the lingering psychological impacts of enslavement. Disproportionate “vaccine hesitancy” among African Americans can be understood as one manifestation of Black intergenerational trauma—historically, Black families have good reasons not to trust the medical establishment in the United States, with the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study being just one example.

Over time, historical trauma can become interwoven with a group’s self-conception as a culture, just as on an individual level, adaptive responses to trauma may come to be seen as part of someone’s personality—“Deborah is shy or standoffish,” rather than “Deborah was sexually assaulted by her best friend in high school and as a result, has a hard time forming intimate relationships.”

Jews, too, have suffered many unique traumas—from periods of outright violence such as the Crusades, pogroms and the Holocaust to eras of subtler harms, such as discriminatory laws forbidding Jews from certain professions, the routine displaying of anti-Semitic imagery, such as Judensau, or our continual experiences and fears of displacement and exile. These traumas are woven into our sacred texts, traditions and liturgy. Where else have they lingered in our culture and collective body, and what should we do to heal them?

“There are things that I think, and there are things that I do, and there are ways that I act that are direct outcrops of what I carry in my own bloodline and that we carry collectively,” says Jo Kent Katz, a therapist, ritualist, and social justice educator based in Western Massachusetts. “The majority of what we’ve internalized as Jews is actually unconscious.”

Kent Katz has been writing and thinking about the experiences of white Ashkenazi Jews in the United States since 2006. In 2020, she launched Transcending Jewish Trauma, a website meant to help Jews unpack and heal from these inherited unconscious beliefs and behaviors. Moment Magazine reached out to Kent Katz amid the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas for her insights.

What is ancestral trauma? Through epigenetics and by directly witnessing those around us, we inherit the unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviors of our ancestors. Because these ways of being were often responses to life-threatening conditions, we assume them as if they are tools for our own protection. Besides inheriting the unhealed trauma of our ancestors, we also inherit the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving they developed in order to manage it. 

What does ancestral Jewish trauma look like in particular? Moving quickly. Thinking fast. Using humor. Demanding the truth. Staying on the move. Remaining hypervigilant to perceived potential threats. Defending ourselves. Focusing on mistakes. Judging each other. Assuming. Dismissing. Distrusting. Controlling. Originally, these behaviors were brilliantly adaptive responses; acute, refined, definitive attempts at securing the survival of our people. But taken out of their original context, patterns Jewish people once relied on for survival can now work against us, degrading our sense of worth and desirability, undermining our sense of agency and connection, dispossessing our sense of belonging, and uprooting our trust in anyone we perceive as “other.” 

Can you give an example? What are some of the ways ancestral Jewish trauma can impact us today? In my mother’s paternal line there are deep impacts of violence from the pogroms in Poland. My great-grandmother was very young when she lost her parents to that violence. She ended up in her adult life being institutionalized for what we now understand as PTSD, but they thought it was psychosis because she was having flashbacks of the Cossacks coming and yelling in the streets.

When I think about what happened to my great-grandmother, I think of a night where everyone is moving as fast as possible to try and get away or to try and hide. I really believe that experience of trying to run, like the trauma of that, the intensity of that—hasn’t closed, it hasn’t resolved yet. That means that running, that fast pace, is in charge of my mom. It’s in charge of me. If I don’t recognize that it traces back, then what happens is that I just think we should be moving faster and that anyone in my way is here to frustrate me.

There’re many stories that my partner could tell of me getting frustrated simply because she doesn’t read my mind fast enough, she didn’t move fast enough, she didn’t put the thing where I wanted it to be. There are all these things about pace. When I can slow down enough to pay attention to where that comes from, I can feel this intensity of energy from behind me, like I have to fucking move, and anyone that’s going to slow down, I’m just going to grab them and run. I can feel it.

What happens to our trauma, as assimilated, white Ashkenazi Jews in America, when Israel is attacked? When the collective Jewish body gets scared, that’s when the internalized inherited narratives get stronger, because we think we need them. Those narratives include drawing really strong lines as to who we can trust and who we can’t, and who is safe and who is not.

One of the narratives that comes alive really strongly is the belief that no one understands the experiences that we’ve had, therefore no one else besides us can assess our actions. They’re unequipped because they didn’t go through the camps, they didn’t survive the pogroms. That’s why they can’t hold us responsible for any of our actions.

This is one of the places where I see the Jewish community become buried and isolated in our own trauma. Jews on the left, and also by a lot of other communities, are saying, “We’ve got to get you all out of this [pattern], you’re inflicting the trauma that you carry on others in such a horrendous way, and we’re actually trying to get you out of that, we’re trying to get you free.” That person or that group of people all of a sudden becomes part of the threat, and we as the larger Jewish body are ready for that, we break down the power of those dissenting voices to say that they’re against us, they’re anti-Semitic, they’re self-hating.

What is the relationship between trauma and moral responsibility? It’s important to discern between responsibility and accountability.

We are not responsible for the ways our bodies and our minds have been shaped by the experiences of our ancestors. We are not at fault for the oppression they faced or for inheriting their terror, rage and grief. And we are not at fault for our deep desire to relieve the pain and resolve the trauma we carry.

Although we are not responsible for the trauma that our ancestors and our family members survived, I believe we are accountable for actions informed by the trauma we inherited. For example, I am not responsible for the fact that my ancestors needed to move quickly and strategically in order to escape imminent danger during the pogroms in Poland, but I need to be accountable for the ways I act out in anger and impatience towards people who don’t match my pace.  

When accountability is requested or demanded of us, if we don’t feel understood or recognized for what has happened to us or to our people—or for what is currently happening to us or to our people—it feels almost impossible to be accountable for acts of harm we’ve committed. 

When I watch this moment play out in myself, I notice the muscles in my belly contract. My breath becomes shallow. I feel a flutter of urgency in my chest as I start scouring my mind for words to explain myself. When I witness this moment play out collectively in white, assimilated U.S. Jewish communities, I see resistance to discerning between responsibility and accountability. I see an immense longing for safety and security. I see a deep thirst for acknowledgment and validation for pain accrued from generations of anti-Semitic violence. And I see these reaches for acknowledgment becoming singular in priority. 

Another thing we know about ancestral trauma and internalized oppression is that they can confuse us about power—personal and collective power as well as institutional power. So much of the trauma our Ashkenazi families and ancestors experienced occurred under oppressive conditions where Jewish people were denied the power to protect themselves or to secure the safety of their families and communities. They internalized a sense of powerlessness, and many of us, in turn, inherited this belief. 

We know from our own people’s legacy of suffering under state violence, that when one people is occupying another, the power is not equal, even if both sides are inflicting violence. In this current moment regarding Israel/Palestine, even if we can see—despite our inherited fears and the U.S. media’s bias—that Israel holds Palestinians captive under a dehumanizing and terrorizing occupation, anytime we witness an increase in violence involving our Jewish siblings, we get scared. 

And of course, we get scared. This situation is terrifying and enraging and multi-layered and heartbreaking. But many of us also get scared because what we are witnessing in the news and on social media awakens in our collective body the violent, threatening experiences we’ve inherited. This means we are witnessing what is happening today through a body that is unconsciously recalling terror from another time, most likely a time when our ancestors’ power to secure our people’s survival was gravely denied. 

This is where we execute our capacity to cause harm. When we white, assimilated Ashkenazi Jews here in the U.S. miss or dismiss the ways we’ve been shaped by our inherited trauma, we can lose track of who is threatened and who is threatening. We can project all of the terror and rage we carry from inherited experiences of violence onto the current moment without realizing it. In doing so, we run the risk of holding Palestinians responsible for the full breadth of our fear and suffering. And we deny the reality of the Occupation, unable or unwilling to imagine that Jews, with such a deep history of oppression, are able to commit human rights violations. 

What would become possible if we were able to see this situation more clearly? It’s complicated for us as white Jews living here in the U.S. to be able to see Palestinian solidarity organizations, or Arab solidarity organizations, as our natural allies—which I believe that they are—when they’re pointing their finger at Israel. It feels as if we are again being threatened for isolation, separation and destruction. The nature of internalized anti-Semitism makes it really hard to imagine that someone could point to us and say, “You’re doing something wrong,” in a way that also would hold us, love us, accept us and protect us.

It seems unsafe to even consider that we as a people are responsible for another’s pain because it feels as if that acknowledgment sends us right to a scary place. We’re only safe if we are seen as victims, and it’s therefore terrifying to consider being seen as a perpetrator because that undoes the protection that a victim is granted.

How does that play out on a personal level? When I first heard the “Free Palestine” chant at a rally, I remember feeling like I was suddenly in the center of a terrorizing situation, like I was physically unsafe. That was not true, but it really felt like it was, because I had so deeply internalized this idea that no one is going to save us. It takes a lot for me to trust that someone knows about, or cares about, the survival of my people. And I need to hear it, and I need to hear it several times, in order to quell the fear that I have inside of me that says that they don’t care, they don’t have our backs, and that we could all just be annihilated and that would be better according to whoever they are.

There’s a real inherited need for acknowledgment of the violence that so many of our ancestors survived or didn’t survive. That is one of the places that  Jewish healing has been halted, because there is still the existence of the voice in this country, and throughout Europe, and throughout a lot of places, that the Holocaust didn’t happen, that it wasn’t a big deal, that it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t that bad.

As long as that belief is circulating the globe, there’s going to be the pull inside of us Eastern European Jews to get that experience acknowledged and validated. We have to be aware of when that inherited piece gets ignited because we can’t rely on a group who’s defending the imminent needs of Palestinians right now to do the backlog validation that we still need. We’re looking for it in a place where it’s not available. Then we’re saying, “See, we’re not getting it, here’s more evidence that our experience is being denied.”

To validate the truth of a myriad of experiences of trauma that happened over the last 2,000 plus years can explain, in part, why Israel, why the occupation exists. It can help us understand it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s excusable.

Intergenerational trauma is not an excuse or a justification for action, it’s simply an understanding as to how and where those actions might be sourced because they seem so outlandish and horrific. I actually think that space exists for the validation of the current trauma that is being inflicted, and on all past traumas that have led to this moment. I don’t think that those undermine the truth of right now, but I think they’re used to either desecrate, or pacify or give permission for what is happening now, and that’s where it gets dangerous.

How do you suggest people approach doing this work in themselves? My website, Transcending Jewish Trauma, is a good resource, and this is exactly what it’s for. It’s not work that we’re meant to do alone. There’s so much trauma that we carry in our body, in our tissue, in our cells, and that means in order to access them, in order to heal them, in order to release them we need to go into the body and let ourselves feel, physically feel, where we’re holding tight and have people to support us so that we can let some of that tension go. With that can come sadness, grief, fear, anger and a lot of release, because our bodies actually want to heal. Our bodies are designed to heal, and to keep ourselves from doing so takes a lot of effort.

I recommend that people get a friend, or two, or more and start going through the questions in the guide on Transcending Jewish Trauma, which is designed to help people start to track when these patterns show up in their lives. And another piece is to make some space to actually let ourselves feel those feelings, which is something that our ancestors had no capacity to do. Because there wasn’t the opportunity.

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