Reunderstanding Jewish Historical Trauma: Moving From the River to the Watershed

Jewish collective wounding from centuries of harm is not up for debate in Jewish life. The prevailing communal understanding is that we have been targeted by centuries of violence. It is well articulated that we are making choices in response to centuries of and continued threats of violence. The history of anti-Jewish violence is by and large accepted in the institutions of American life, in contrast with most other oppressed groups in our time. In the wider American context, the Nazi Holocaust’s genocide of Jews is the model around which most studies of collective and intergenerational trauma in the last 50 years have been formed[1]. Native American Indigenous communities and African American communities and people, including Jews, have had to fight to have their experiences of genocide recognized. As an example, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum was built in D.C. in 1993. The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture was only established in 2016.

If there is so much consensus on the Jewish history of trauma, we should be able to focus on healing it. But after years of studying Jewish history and trauma studies, my most important learning has been: before we get to healing as Jews, we have to understand our trauma differently, in ways that will allow us to heal. I believe that the dominant story and framing of Jews and our historical trauma is part of our collective trauma response. As I will explore in this essay, the dominant narrative of Jewish history does not serve us in the goals of integrating and healing Jewish historical traumas.

To heal from past centuries of violence, we must develop new understandings of what happened to Jews. We need to tell the stories of our survival and grieve our losses in ways that allow us to live in the present. How? We must broaden our knowledge of what happened to Jews, recognizing the varied histories of traumas within Jewish communities. We must get more specific and nuanced when talking about trauma. We must widen our views and learn about harm and violence that has impacted non-Jewish communities. 

 In this essay I will ask, and begin to answer: how can we understand Jewish history and the historical trauma our ancestors survived, in ways that serve healing from experiences of violence, oppression, and harm?


The Narrow River of Jewish history

An analogy for the way Jewish history and Jewish historical trauma are often talked about and taught is a river. The river originates during our biblical origin story and flows from slavery, our formative collective narrative of oppression, through the Exodus to the settling of the land. The Temples are built and destroyed, the second and third foundational anti-Jewish destruction events in our story. After the destruction of the Second Temple, we are thrust into exile. Thereafter, we focus almost exclusively on Jews’ experience in Europe, and in particular, on the Crusades massacres, the Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain, and pogroms, flowing seemingly inevitably to the Holocaust. In this telling, our history is a single, direct, inevitable channel from past to future, shaped as much by anti-Jewish oppression as by Torah, Jewish culture and tradition.

There is growing acknowledgement that this narrative is Ashkenazi-centric, and when wielded by white-led and majority white Jewish organizations, constitutes racist harm against Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Many people share a discomfort with this dominant narrative, but don’t know another way to tell what happened. There were centuries of oppression, the Holocaust nearly destroyed the entirety of European Jewry and Judaism. Holocaust denial, while it does not have significant mainstream support, is a thriving and terrifying subculture, and we rightly refuse to get anywhere near it. Yet, we must be able to investigate the dominant narratives driving our communal life. While staying grounded in our knowledge of and grief for the long and deep history of anti-Jewish violence, we need to investigate our stories, narratives and worldviews.

As early as 1928, Jewish historian Salo Wittmayer Baron explained what he called “the lachrymose view of Jewish history,[2]” giving a name to the practice of telling Jewish history as one tragedy after another, linked and inevitable. Baron and many other scholars since him have argued that while the lachrymose view of Jewish history serves purposes within Jewish communities, it is not an accurate way to understand the depth and breadth of all that happened to the Jewish people. In “Interpreting Jewish History in Light of Zionism,” Rabbi Jacob Staub explores the intellectual and communal costs of retrojecting this view of Jewish history onto the lives of Jewish ancestors. He explains the lachrymose view of Jewish history, as it pertains to medieval Jews, as the belief that they:

endured lives of misery, humiliated by anti-Jewish legislation, ever fearful of the next attack or expulsion, buffeted from trauma to trauma as they proceeded inevitably to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi Holocaust.[3]

This view, Staub explains, ignores the demographic and cultural flowering of Jews throughout the centuries and that “most [Medieval Jews] lived lives that, protected by charters and privileges, were far more secure and prosperous than the overwhelming percentage of non-Jews around them.”[4] 

In addition to highlighting traumatic moments and downplaying survival, success, regeneration and continuity, lachrymose history often focuses solely on Ashkenazi histories, erasing or only selectively including Mizrahi and Sephardic histories. This view of Jewish history has become so dominant and pervasive that most white Ashkenazi Jews don’t recognize or question it. Jews across the political spectrum talk about Jewish history, culture, practice and trauma while only engaging with or portraying Ashkenazi and European Jewry — and selectively at that. When we include non-European histories, we often tell them as inserts, exceptions or asides into this same dominant narrative, rather than letting them change the fundamental arc of the story. All of the wide, deep and nuanced aspects of Jewish life in the many different places and ways in which Jews lived over centuries and continents are forced to fit into this particular story of ongoing and inevitable oppression and violence.

Why has the lachrymose history been so compelling? One reason lachrymose history became so prevalent may be because it aligns so well with the story of exile and redemption that is so prevalent in Jewish theology, liturgy and ritual life. Many of our Jewish texts, cultures, theologies and worldviews were shaped by the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE and the Roman conquest in 70 C.E. One dominant thread in Jewish theology says that since the destruction of the Temple and exile from Eretz Yisrael, we have been waiting for the Messiah’s return and the rebuilding of the Temple. This theology existed alongside others and had different meanings in different contexts. And yet, lachrymose history and exilic theology both depend on, reinforce and are reinforced by the idea of a linear river of history, originating at one point and culminating at another. This is baked into a great deal of Judaism, and Jewish tradition and culture.

Psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, artists and storytellers from across many other disciplines can offer us different understandings of why lachrymose history has been so compelling in white, Ashkenazi dominant Jewishness and has gained such cultural dominance in Jewish institutional life. I’m particularly interested in how it is reinforced by Jewish collective trauma. Lachrymose history’s simplicity as an ordering worldview surely has something to do with its prominence; as we’ll see, the stories that challenge lachrymose history are more nuanced and layered, with more complex power and privilege dynamics. There is also the power of inertia; stories are hard to shift after many centuries. Though Jewish historical trauma is by and large well-accepted in our current political moment and cultural context, for many centuries, anti-Jewish persecution was justified by those in power. Today, in a competitive, scarcity-driven culture in which individual lives include experiences of having to fight to be seen, heard, respected, cared for and loved, it is common for people to identify more with and feel more deeply their marginalized and oppressed identities and histories than with the places in which they hold power and privilege.

Those of us who sense that the lachrymose story — flowing inevitably like a river — is incomplete, must create new frames of understanding and ways of communicating our histories. These frames and stories must not minimize the harm and oppression that have happened to Jews. They must honor the depth and breadth, diversity and nuance of our experiences. Our stories must honor our ancestors and their struggles, while providing mental and emotional space for us to make different choices than they did. How do we talk about what happened to our people?

In her essay “The Historian as Curandera,” Aurora Levins Morales writes:

The role of a socially committed historian is to use history, not so much to document the past as to restore to the dehistoricized a sense of identity and possibility. Such ‘medicinal’ histories seek to re-establish the connections between peoples and their histories, to reveal the mechanisms of power, the steps by which their current condition of oppression was achieved through a series of decisions made by real people to dispossess them; but also to reveal the multiplicity, creativity, and persistence of resistance among the oppressed. … History is the story we tell ourselves about how the past explains the present, and how the ways in which we tell it are shaped by contemporary needs.[5]

Jewish organizers, teachers, clergy and ritual leaders, synagogue and Jewish organizations’ lay leaders, and any of us thinking about klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) must see ourselves as medicine historians. We must understand that the stories we tell about ourselves and our community have assumptions and consequences, so that we are mindful and intentional about which stories we tell about where we came from. While there are many modes of healing, many ways to practice care and transformation in our communities, minding our stories is one that everyone can learn to do.

Watershed of Jewish history

I picture Jewish history as a watershed. A watershed is an area that can encompass thousands of square miles containing streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs that are interconnected and in relationship with one another. When we look at a watershed, we don’t only look at the origin of any one river. We understand rainfall and snowmelt as part of the flow, see multiple outflow points and even include bodies of underlying groundwater that are hundreds of miles inland.[6]

Jewish life has always contained multiple streams, criss-crossing and feeding into one another, interconnected, with many sources and outflows. In every moment of Jewish history, there exists a still pond, rushing rapids, a waterfall, a snow storm. We can zoom in on one river of the watershed; we can pull up on a specific spot on shore and investigate the water quality in that part of the river. Each part of the watershed teems with life. We understand so much more about what we’re seeing if we focus with intention, understanding that the spot we’re in is fed by, connected to and feeds into other bodies of water. 

The events that are highlighted and focused on in the lachrymose view of Jewish history and exilic theologies happened. But they aren’t the only things that happened. They weren’t inevitable, Divinely ordained or flowing linearly, one to the next. We emerged and coalesced as a people from multiple originating experiences. This watershed of Jewish life and history is not isolated from the lands in which Jews lived, or categorically different from other peoples’ watersheds of stories and histories. In fact, as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic people, our watershed flows into and overlaps with the watersheds of all the communities we encompass and include.

 With the watershed analogy as a touchstone, I see three main tasks for shifting our relationships with the harm and violence Jews have experienced, to be in relationship with our historical traumas in ways that facilitate healing. 

First, it is important to broaden our view of historical traumas that have impacted Jews. Our narratives should not force Sephardi and Mizrahi histories into a narrative arc shaped by the Holocaust and Zionism, but instead must look at all of the various histories of Jews as equally relevant to our understanding of Jewishness. Because Jews are a multi-racial people, we must understand the historical traumas that impact Black communities and people as part of Jewish historical trauma. For example, the individual bodies of Jews of different races have had radically different experiences with the ongoing history of U.S. white supremacy. As a consequence, we, as a multi-racial Jewish community — that includes the descendants of enslaved people and people who owned slaves — must demand that the U.S. government make reparations for slavery.

Second, we need to be more specific when talking about acute traumatic events and understand them in their own cultural contexts. Taking them out of the river of inevitability and a linear view of Jewish history, it is possible to examine traumatic events, their causes, influences and impacts, and not gloss over their specificities and particularities. The destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the Nazi Holocaust were not the same events, and should be taught about and understood in their own historical contexts.

Third, learning about non-Jewish communities’ experiences of collective and overwhelming harm and violence should become an integral part of our knowledge. While anti-Jewish violence and antisemitism has, as with every form of oppression, particular causes and specific manifestations, it is not unique. Other peoples have also been racialized, othered, disinvested of their humanity and rights, removed from lands of origin, and stripped of their culture, language, and ritual. Jews must learn about other genocides as well as our own: the Armenian, Bosnian, Cambodian genocides; the ongoing forced removal and displacement of Indigenous peoples from their lands across the world, in the U.S. and Israel/Palestine in particular. While we are disrupting the inevitability thread woven within the lachrymose view of Jewish history, we must be ready to take in more oppression. We live, horrifyingly, in a world where there have been many genocides of ethnic groups. Part of moving from the river to the watershed will be expanding our ability to recognize and truly honor the harm and violence visited on others as well as ourselves.

When we transition from the lachrymose river view of Jewish history to complex and expansive watersheds, we must then ask what impact this new understanding will have on our assessment of the present. In the river, our view of Jewish history has been so narrow and limited; our most frequent points of comparison to try to understand our present moment are Russian pogroms and Nazi Germany. What if what we are experiencing today has more in common with 17th-century Amsterdam or ninth-century Fez?

When we get specific about the historical contexts of our trauma and learn about non-Jewish communities’ experiences of trauma, we see that the events that are listed as part of inevitable, recurring anti-Jewish violence, framed as happening because people hate Jews, all have wider, often devastating, political contexts. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. has as much or more in common with every other community conquered by the Roman Empire than it does with the Nazi Holocaust. The primary targets of the Christian Crusaders were the people of the regions they marched through, regardless of religious affiliation; the Crusades tell us more about Christian empire, violence and dominance than it tells us about antisemitism. Throughout centuries and across continents, many of the instances of forced conversions of Jews were actually forced conversions of everyone who did not ascribe to the majority religion of the empire. There were 13 million total victims of the Nazi Holocaust. When we as Jews mourn the devastating destruction of 6 million Jews, we must, without minimizing our grief and rage, acknowledge, connect and make common cause with all peoples targeted by fascism and Nazism. This should connect white Jews as much or more with Black Jews and non-Jewish communities targeted by modern racism and white supremacy as it does with our own ancestors.

Learning the diversity and nuance of Jewish histories alongside other peoples’ histories of oppression, harm and violence upsets the story that Jews have always and will always be threatened — hated for the sake of hating, uniquely and unusually. It also shows us and, most importantly, lets us feel in our bodies, the ways in which we have survived and thrived. One of the reasons there is such a long history of anti-Jewish violence is because we have survived across centuries and continents. You don’t hear much today about Samnite or Etruscan historical trauma because those communities didn’t survive the Roman Empire. We did.[7]

 With our expanded view of the past, we must then look around more clearly at the present and widen our gaze of possible futures. How do our current conditions look if we take away the assumption that harm and anti-Jewish violence are inevitable? How do we feel in our bodies when we stretch to hold suffering, loss and grief, with survival, connection and community, intertwined so deeply with each other? How do we want to organize ourselves, what will we fight for, and how, if we know that anti-Jewish violence has always been part of wider cultural contexts of oppression and displacement? These are not rhetorical or abstract, theoretical questions: what we understand about the nature of antisemitism affects how we organize to combat it, where we put our resources, who we collaborate with and to what ends, what political formations and organizations we join.

We can construct a relationship to antisemitism in which we are fighting for it to end rather than accepting its inevitability. We can live Jewish lives shaped as much or more by our incredible survival and continuity, rather than frozen in the story of unrelenting threat. We can grieve our incredible losses and, as we are taught over and over again in Jewish tradition, get up from shiva and live in the nuanced present. This is one way we will heal.

Thank you to Michal David, Nadav David, Rachel Plattus, Kate Poole and Shelley Rosenberg for looking at and giving feedback on drafts of this essay, and to many others for thinking and talking through the ideas. Thank you to Aurora Levins Morales, whose vision and scholarship deeply influenced this piece. 


[1] See Brave Heart, M. Y. H. & DeBruyn, L. M. (1998). The American Indian Holocaust: Healing historical unresolved grief. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, p.8, pp. 56-78.

[2]Robert Liberles, Salo Wittmayer Baron: Architect of Jewish History, New York University, 1995, pp. 117-118.

[3] R. Jacob Staub, “Interpreting Jewish History in Light of Zionism,” The Reconstructionist, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Spring 1998), p. 38.

[4]Staub, “Interpreting Jewish History in Light of Zionism,” p. 38.

[5]Aurora Levins Morales, “The Historian as Curandera,” Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity, p. 24.

[6] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/watershed.html

[7] I point this out so that we can acknowledge and accept the fact of our survival, without needing to make mythological or cultural meaning out of it; Jews survived across centuries and continents for many nuanced reasons, none of them having to do with chosenness or inherent superiority.

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