I have heard people criticize the miniseries Unorthodox for an unrealistic portrayel of the Satmar community while maintaining that Esty's return to Germany seems implausible.* And while that might be true I want to look at the story through a different perspective without arguing fact or fiction. I want to look at it through the lens of communal Holocaust trauma and healing. Throughout the series, we are reminded that the community holds a deeply ingrained reponse to the Holocaust. The message I hear repeated throughout is that they feel a deep responsibility to repopulate the world for the 6 million who were lost. I am struck by the communal trauma response, and the juxtaposition of Esty’s return to the original location of the harm.
Since the Holocaust Jews have worked hard to remember the harm. Some have built lives based around it, in hopes that it would protect them from future harm. This is a normal trauma response- We try to control the world so we cannot be harmed again. But the series does a good job showing us that the protection we try to create for ourselves often comes with a high cost.
But Esty's journey back to the source of communal harm, back to Germany to the place where it all started may seem implausible but may actually be the perfect place for her to return. Oftentimes the victims of harm become perpetrators of new harm in an attempt to protect themselves. As the Nazis are the perpetrators of the Satmar community, the Satmar community becomes the perpetrators of Esty's harm. Her return to Germany, her ability to return to the place where the Nazis decided on the extermination of the Jews becomes the place where she not only releases herself from the bondage of the community but also allows her to begin to release the PTSD from the original trauma. When Esty removes her wig she signifies the end of her communities attempt to control life in the vain attempt at protection. Her search for self and her reclaiming of a life beyond the walls of protection is when the true healing happens and it is in this moment that the Nazi's truly lose their power. And for me this symbolizes the end of the effects of intergenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma in the place where it all began.
this thing called shame
it has no words, a
that lives just beneath the
whether we are aware or
not. Its ugliness rises up
with the slightest insinuation
and rather than admit it
we block it out and
move forward with a machete
chopping down everything in our path.
rather than asking for help
when life gets tough we
to silence us
and then we attack
whatever we can find that
is just a bit smaller than
Just in case y'all were wondering, I have many different writing voices and as I am stepping into my wholeness I am going to be sharing them all. So this one might be just a tad different from the last- Enjoy!
I do not think I should be reading Annie Dillard in the bathroom. As a Rabbi who studies biblical text in the bathroom, I am surprised by this thought. Her prose holds a sanctity beyond the parchment of Torah. I started reading Torah in the bathroom at about the same time I stopped believing my parents were gods and the body was the devil. My parents taught us from the beginning that eating in the bathroom was forbidden as you could not make a blessing and say Gods name while pooping. I am not really clear why this was a rule in my house as we never seemed to make blessings on our food unless it was the sabbath or a holiday and yet, this rule stuck. But slowly, over days and weeks, months and years, I let go of this belief and when I did there was no going back. If the body was Gods, and not the Devils then the body deserved more respect than the book. Without the body, the book is meaningless. And so, I would study in the bathroom, I mean lets be honest the bathroom is the best place to read in the house, and I did not feel that my study should miss out on my deepest focus.
I intuit that the body that was lovingly created by God is a holy vessel and not reading Torah while pooping is actually disrespectful. Who am I to judge shit as bad. My family knows that poop holds a sacred place in my heart as they will all tell you that I love talking about the shape of my poop, especially that one time when it curved around itself forming a double Helix, my very own DNA strand.
Why would God who created me, my body, and my shit, feel disrespected if I shared Gods word in the very place where the body, God so desperately wanted to create was doing its most grounded work. Jews and their purification rituals, exhausting, and in my opinion quite possibly the opposite of what was intended. From dust you are born and dust you shall return. It is a mini death experience every time we poop. Or as my friend Basya likes to say, “A good poop is like a great orgasm. Both death and orgasm a return to The One. And yet Annie Dillard who can describe the natural order in sacrosanct terms, who elevates the existence of a spider living behind the toilet to ethereal heights and leaves me feeling the awe of God, makes me want to create the holiness of separation. Maybe the bathroom’s holiness, the ability of the body to relieve itself, eliminating the unnecessary and retaining the necessary coupled with the holiness of the word make the awesomeness, awful. Awe-some awe-full. Why is some awe an amazing feat, but full of awe leaves us in pain? Maybe the holiness of the body and the holiness of Annie Dillard makes me awe-full. And as I look down at the title of the book I recognize that Ms. Dillard understood it all along, for the title of the beloved book is “Holy the Firm” and what else is there to say about a good poop.
I lay in my bed in a pile of self judgement when my cousin Laura texted me asking if I wanted to meet her for the 45 minutes between dropping her daughter at school and a 9:15 meeting. The idea of getting myself out of my shame spiral was enough to get me out of bed, get dressed and walk the 4 crosstown blocks to meet her for 30 min. I had a feeling that Laura, who has developed so many layers of compassion in herself, might help me to snap out of it. We sat on a wooden bench in front of Birch Coffee on Columbus Ave.As we sat there I complained that I am 40 years old and yet to develop a bit of the compassion I need. She kindly looked at me and said, “Esther when did u start working on this?” I laughed and said “ok, fine, just 6 months”.-And as I took a big mouthful of my cold brew she responded, I understand wanting to be valedictorian of self compassion but you can’t be, that’s not enough time.” I had to seal my mouth shut to keep from laughing and spitting the coffee all over the sidewalk and the oncoming pedestrians. When I finally gulped it down, I spit out a shut up, in that most loving way. A cross between fuck you, and why are you sooooo right? After the shock of my shut up wore off, we both laughed.
Self judgement has been my mantra for so long, I believed that if I judged myself I would make myself better. The thought that being kind to myself might actually be a better choice never occured to me. The truth is, I don’t think I realized how judgemental I was of myself. And even today when someone holds me with compassion, it hits up against my deepest vulnerabilities. I think it has something to do with a need to blame myself for everything that went wrong in my childhood so as to maintain some semblance of control. If it was my fault, then maybe I could fix it. If it was my fault that an adult exploded in a fit of rage, than maybe, if I was quieter, nicer, thinner, smarter... than I could fix it. Today that amazing tool that I created to keep me safe in a confusing, painful world is no longer serving me and yet I am grateful for all that it, meaning my self judgement, has given me. It gave me a sense of control in an uncontrollable world and as a child that is exactly what I needed.
Today I want to give the responsibility back to those that are responsible. It is not my fault and I cannot control your behavior no matter how good I am. Today I want to say thank you to the part of me that holds the judgement that kept me safe. And bring compassion to the parts of myself that have felt harmed and the parts that have judged, so that all of my parts feel welcomed and loved.
This past year has been interesting, looking back I am not really clear on the propulsion but what I do know is that it was definitely not boring. I learned a lot about myself and I had to make some decisions to give things up that were difficult to give up. I got lost in a story of drama that took me in many different directions with many plot lines, but what I noticed was that although exciting and interesting the drama got tiring after awhile. And I had a desire to be at peace. So I fortunately had the opportunity to remember again that the peace that I was searching for was here in this moment all the time. I didn’t need to figure it out, I didn’t need to fall in love, I didn’t even need to eat. I just needed to notice what was here in the moment. I recognized that all of the drama I was holding onto was because I thought it would give me the peace that ironically I already had. I thought if only I figure this part out then I will feel better. If I understood why this happened then I would see the truth and then and only then would I be healed. I would be more lovable, sexier, thinner and just plain old worthy. Little did I realize that all of those things I was searching for so that I could be happy were a distraction to the actual happiness that exists in this moment sitting here in my sweats, alone in my apartment with unruly hair and unshowered.
I don’t even know if happiness is the right word. You see happiness like all other emotions comes and goes that is not what I am pointing to I am pointing to that thing that doesn’t come and go the thing that allows for all comings and goings, we may call it peace, presence, existence or a multitude of other words but the truth is words can’t describe it. It is present all the time it never leaves and it is constantly holding us. We are it and it is us there is no separation. The only thing is that we “think” there is and in that moment we get to question the thoughts and remember that the peace that we so seek is here and all we need to do is stop and notice. Whether it is taking a deep breath and feeling the air flow into our nostrils, our chest, down to our bellies and then back around again. Or watching the clouds move in the sky, just allow the senses to be more prominent then the thoughts. Allow yourself to feel, see, taste hear and smell what is actually here, take notice of that rather than the thoughts for a split second and experience the noticing. In that moment we can get a taste of the peace we crave. The peace that is always here, even when we are so involved in our thoughts that we cant see the hand in front of our face. When life appears devastating, when sadness seems to be coming from the depths of our soul. We can stop for a moment and notice the sky, the moon or that wonderful thing that keeps us living each day our breath and remember the sense of peace that is always here.
And in my experience feeling this sense of peace reminds me that this is all I ever wanted in the first place. The right body, the romance, the money all of those things were just attempts at making myself feel that I was worthy of that sense of peace, that I had all the time without any of those things.
People ask me all the time, “How are you?” and recently, I have been having a hard time answering. The reason for this, points to the fact that “I” am always fine. When I am fully engaged in the present moment, everything is exactly as it should be. So are there stories that I engage in? You bet, but when I am focused on this moment and someone asks me to reflect on how I am the answer is always, perfect.
Some say to me: “Esther are you hiding how you truly feel?” The truth is that I am not. I am totally and completely aware of the stories I am telling and how they engage me. Yet at the same time I am not really interested in adding all of that to the pot just so that I can be more socially acceptable. I understand that it makes people uncomfortable, because it makes me uncomfortable. I spent most of my 31 years commiserating with those around me and now sometimes, a lot of the time I have nothing to say. Although it appeared fun to commiserate in the end it keeps me stuck in a story of suffering.
Yet the question, “how are you?” is wonderful, it makes me stop and check. In the stopping I can recognize that the stories I have been telling myself, are just stories. The truth of who I am has nothing to do with the stories or the emotions that arise in consciousness. When I stop to check all thought ceases and I am left in the space of beingness that is always perfect.
Do you know, that I spend most of my waking hours reminding myself, that we are the same. I overheard this conversation the other day.
“I invited you to the party the other day and you didn’t answer.”
“Oh, you really wanted to me to come, I thought you were just being nice.”
“Being nice, what do you mean I asked if you would come, and you didn’t respond.
“I didn’t think you really wanted me to come.”
“That’s crazy, why would I invite you if I didn’t want you to come? I thought you didn’t want to hang out with me. I felt bad.”
I sat there dumbfounded, as I usually do when I am reminded that we are all the same. Here I am, with 2 very cool people, that I would love to have lunch with any day and they both made up stories about how the other person really didn’t want to spend time with them. Again I am reminded of my own stories of rejection.
I have 2 friends, one that I love to hang out with and the other who loves to hang out with me. I notice that I reject them both equally. The one I love to hang out with, is constantly rejected because I don’t believe that she would ever want to hang out with me, so I reject her first. While spending time together, I will quickly mention that I am not sure if I can drive her home later. The truth is, I would love to drive her home but the fear that she doesn’t want to spend time with me comes up and so I fix it for her. I set it up so that she doesn’t have to go with me if she doesn’t want to. I send out mixed messages. I don’t want to spend time with her when in reality the truth is I love being with her.
The other, the one who loves to hang out with me gets rejected because I feel like they are coming on to strong and I need to “protect” myself from their love. You see, in the past I was rejected by this person and so now I build a wall to protect myself from being hurt again. If I accept the love he is showing me in the moment then I might get wrapped back up into a relationship where I will ultimately feel rejected again . So I put up a wall so that I don’t “get hurt”. A wall that I believe will protect me, but at the same time keeps me from experiencing the love in the moment.
Imagine for a moment, that I let all of that go. If the fear dissipated, I could just love people and they could love me back. And when and if I am feeling rejected I can remind myself of the truth, that we are all the same. They are not rejecting me rather they are rejecting a part of themselves.
There seems to come a point in our lives when we are posed with a question as to whether we should pass along information to people that we love. Is it our responsibility to “protect” someone from the truth? I remember when I was a teenager and my good friend was madly in love with a girl. The girl happened to be dating his best friend (unbeknownst to him). I had the information and I was unsure what the right thing to do was; tell him or let him continue on his delusional path. In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands. I shared the information with one of his other friends, who quickly called him up and told him the ugly truth. When he found out, he was devastated and he called me sobbing. At the time I wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing. I wondered if it was better that he found out sooner rather than later.
With children we are often protective as to what to tell them and what not to tell them. But I struggle with this as well, because I know full well that my children, and yours, know much more than we believe they do. So, when we are withholding information usually they know it anyway. When my husband and I decided we were separating, we didn’t tell anyone for a while. We decided in March, but didn’t share the decision with people for a while, especially the children. Yet, we could both tell that Eddie our 2 year old sensed something was wrong-so much so that I said to him, “I know you are feeling sad and you are not sure why, but you are right something is wrong and we are going to make it better”. Once I acknowledged his feelings, his crying stopped and he sat on my lap and we hugged each other.
I was at a course in Manhattan over a weekend, and there was a man there, who was observant of the Sabbath which meant that he was prohibited from using electricity. During lunch on Saturday, rather than going out to the restaurant with the rest of the members, he sat alone in the training room in the dark. I turned to the non-Jewish woman, who rents out the space, and said to her, “he won’t ask you, but maybe you could turn on the light for him.”
My friend overheard our conversation and asked us if our desire to help, was coming from a place of helping or controlling. If we are imposing our beliefs about what someone might want without asking them, we are in essence taking their control away. Who are we to do that?
On Saturday, my wonderful Great Aunt passed away and again we were faced with the question to tell or not to tell. My Grandmother is a vibrant, loving, fun-spirited woman who loved her sister very much. My Grandmother, my parents, my sister and I attended a family wedding in upstate New York over the weekend. The party went on till late into Saturday night and on Sunday morning we all trudged wearily into the hotel dining room for breakfast. Thank you’s and congratulations were being thrown around the room as we all prepared to pack up and leave for home. In all of the excitement none of us checked our cell phones. So, when we finally got the message, it was 24 hours since she had passed and my mother and I had the following conversation; “When are you going to tell her? now or after the 5 hour drive home?”
“ I am going to tell her now. she passed away yesterday. If I don’t tell her, she will call home and find out.”
“ Mom , maybe you should wait till you get home so that she doesn’t have to sit in the car with that sadness.”
And then I stopped to think about it. Who am I to control someone else’s grieving process? Why do we believe that once a person turns a certain age, it is our responsibility to protect them? What gives me the right to “protect” anyone? When I say that I am trying to protect you, what am I really saying? Am I saying that you can’t handle it? That I am stronger than you? When I am protecting you, am I taking away your power? What gives me the right to decide how you deal with something?
When I was about 2 years old, my father made a home movie of me walking around outside on these steps and, “Somebody Come and Play,” was the song he put to the movie. It was always a treat for me to watch. Growing up, every time my father would take out his projector and load the movie reels me and my sisters would jump up and down in excitement. First we would watch his animation a clay ball that morphed into a figure, walked across the screen swallowed a pencil and returned to his former existence as a solid mass of clay. Then ultimately the piece de resistance, me a 2 year old alone in my winter coat chasing a paper bag with this song in the background: Somebody come and play
Somebody come and play today
Somebody come and smile the smiles
And sing the song
It won't take long
Somebody come and play today
Somebody come and play
Somebody come and play my way
Somebody come and rhyme the rhymes
And laugh the laughs
It won't take time
Somebody come and play today
Somebody come with me and see the pleasure in the wind
Somebody see the time is getting late to begin
Somebody come and play
Somebody come and play today
Somebody come and be my friend
And watch the sun 'till it rains again
and we would sit around and watch it. I loved it. Yet as I got older, I noticed that the memory elicited a melancholy feeling. Me, alone at two years old, asking for someone to come and play with me. During my teenage years, it seemed that the isolation I was experiencing as a teenager was directly connected to me as a two year old. Well here I am 29 years later and let me tell you, that lonely feeling I had as a child and as a teenager, has not disappeared and I realized that maybe the loneliness, the sense of being separate from the rest of the world, is not real. Maybe like all other emotions, it is just a feeling that is arising in consciousness and maybe just maybe we are more connected than we believe.
I recently walked into my children’s school and saw a friend and as soon as I saw her I gave her a big smile and said to her will you be my friend? The other people in the room snickered as if to say, “How could you be so needy?” and my response was, “I only say what you feel.” Here we are living in a world that appears full of separation and loneliness and we are told that asking for love is wrong. “Don’t put yourself out there…You will get hurt.” But little do we realize that it is in the opportunity of getting hurt that we also have the opportunity of feeling connected. It is vulnerability that allows us to connect because when we are putting up a wall, there is nothing that can break through. When we allow ourselves the possibility of connection, there is a chance to be broken but an even greater opportunity to be opened. With this we can grow into the love that we already are. The loneliness falls away and we are left with a feeling of connectedness with the rest of the world whether alone or not.
I sit at the kitchen table with my sister who has just discovered her passion for painting. As she paints her latest masterpiece, a picture of Princess Tiana for her 3 year old daughter, I babble on about how my new business is not good enough. How crazy it is that I think I can sell a CD when I didn’t use a recording studio and I know nothing about sales and how clearly I am not good enough? She looks up from her painting and says to me, “why don’t you call Ishtobe (my wonderful friend who reminds me of my truth) because you sure are looking for a lot of approval in this moment.” I hear that and laugh because she is right and I am telling stories that only make me suffer. The spell of self deprecation is over for a moment and I can sit down and admire her artwork. As I do she turns to me and says, “What do you think? Is it good?” I laugh and say “Who’s looking for approval now?” She returns with a smile and says to me with a whining voice “no, this is different.” I coyly smile back and say “What do you think about it?” She huffs in frustration and we are both saved by the ringing of the telephone. As I speak to my friend, her cousin comes into the kitchen looks at her painting and says “Wow that is great, Vicky.” I smile and wave my hand in recognition of the compliment. She sighs and giggles. When I hang up I turn to her with a knowing glance and say, “So how did it feel?” She looks at me in confusion. “How did what feel?” “The compliment,” I remind her, “Josh said that he liked the painting. Isn’t that what you wanted?” She tries to explain, “well, yes, but your compliment means more. He doesn’t know about art.” So, I say to her “that’s cute. you thought that if you got approval, it would be great and then when you get it, you discredit it.” I start laughing because isn’t that how it always is? We constantly look for approval outside of ourselves and then when we get it we discount it. At least that’s what happens to me.
Ultimately when we are looking for approval from outside of ourselves, whatever we get will not be satisfying. If we live with the belief that we are not whole and complete; that we are not enough than no matter how much approval we receive we won’t be able to hear it. The irony is that when we do feel whole and complete we don’t need anyone’s approval.
Rabbi Esther Azar