2. Ritual and the Emotional Transmission of Holocaust Trauma
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41 2 Ritual and the Emotional Transmission of Holocaust Trauma The research on the intergenerational transmission of trauma focuses primarily on two modes of survivor communication: storytelling, as discussed in the previous chapter, and deep emotional silences (Baranowsky et al. 1998) that convey what Dan Bar-On (1995) has termed “the untold story,” feelings and emotions that permeated the emotional climate of the survivor household. According to Bar-On, it was these unspoken feelings that were often most influential in the emotional transference of Holocaust trauma. The findings of this study suggest that in addition to spoken narratives and emotional silences, the trauma of the Holocaust was also transmitted through ritual practices and family traditions that elicited deep feelings on the part of survivors, creating a space of emotional memory that connected both the survivor and the descendant to the traumatic past. Turning first to a discussion of the function of ritual in the intergenerational transmission of trauma, this chapter will consider ritual as a site of emotional exchange, as a vehicle for socioemotional distancing among descendants, and as an emotion-based link both to Jewish heritage and to the survivor generation. With regard to the last theme, the chapter will explore the role of ritual and emotion among members of descendant populations who were raised in the United States as well as those who were raised in eastern Europe. Ritual as a Site of Posttraumatic Emotion In the study of ritual and emotion, the work of Durkheim (2001) and Clifford Geertz (1973) elaborates the ways in which group rituals are the site of shared emotions that connect group members to an ancestral 42 | Ritual and the Emotional Transmission of Holocaust Trauma past. As a source of cohesion and memory, rituals thus provide a means by which group identity is formed and sustained among individuals with a common history and shared culture. Scholars such as Thomas Scheff (1979) and Victor Turner (1969) further examine the emotional character of ritual performance that allows participants to express and externalize repressed feeling-states, creating conditions under which the cathartic release of emotion is made possible. Following these theorists, Frederick Bird (1995) has explored the ways in which religious ritual functions particularly in the family, outlining four dimensions of family-based ritual practice. Among these dimensions are the expression of feelings that ordinarily are silenced in the family and the affirmation of cultural identity through the maintenance of religious traditions. These interrelated functions of family ritual, as articulated by Bird, were found to be especially significant in the post-Holocaust family. Accordingly, familial ritual practice became an important site for the cross-generational transmission of trauma. Turning to the study of posttraumatic stress disorder among survivor populations, Judith Herman (1992) describes a cycle of emotional repression and expression in which survivors vacillate between remembering and forgetting, a contradictory set of responses that results in a “dialectic of trauma” (1992, 50) in which states of rage, hatred, and grief alternate with periods of numbness and emotional disconnection. According to the accounts of the children of survivors, the cycle of expression became embedded in the ritual performances of their parents, who, through religious practice and traditions, relived the emotions of their traumatic past. In particular, the participants reported that the observance of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the Jewish year, was especially significant for the evocation of traumatic memory and the attending expression of traumatic feelings in the survivor household. As described in the descendant narratives, the observance of this religious holiday was recalled as a time of great emotional strain within the family, as feelings of anger, guilt, and inconsolable sadness permeated the emotional dynamics of fasting and prayer. Aaron Hass, a scholar of Ritual and the Emotional Transmission of Holocaust Trauma | 43 Holocaust trauma and a first generation descendant, describes the Yom Kippur ritualization of his father’s Holocaust narrative in this way: The ritual began when I was eight or nine years old and lasted for about ten years. It took place on the night of Yom Kippur. In observance of Jewish legal restrictions, our apartment in Brooklyn was dark except for a shaft of light coming from under the closed door of the bathroom. This streak would be our lantern in the blackness. One was not permitted to switch on electricity for twenty-four hours during this holy period. The story was brief and always the same. The somber environment and the mystical day on which it...


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Subject Headings

  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Psychological aspects.
  • Holocaust survivors -- Psychology.
  • Children of Holocaust survivors -- Mental health.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Social aspects.
  • Intergenerational communication -- Case studies.
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