Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tisha B'av

On Tisha B'av I read Sherri Mandel's incredible and inspiring book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart.  The book is about transcending excruciating, heartbreaking, unimaginable loss, trauma, and pain.  Sherri lost her thirteen year old son Kobi to terrorist murderers, who beat him and his friend to death with rocks in 2001.  This tragedy happened in the West Bank, in Israel.

 Sherri and her family made Aliya from Silver Spring, MD, just like we did.  I did not know her when we lived in Silver Spring.  I heard Sherri speak at the Jerusalem women's writers conference this year.  She was the keynote speaker.  I found her so inspiring that I bought her book.  I started reading it at the conference and couldn't stop crying.  My friend Lisa, who was at the conference with me, told me to put the book down so I could be with her in the present, and enjoy the conference.
 I saved the book for Tisha B'av.

Although I never lost a child, I can relate to excruciating, heartbreaking, unimaginable loss, trauma and pain.  I grew up in a world of incomprehensible pain and shame that I had no words to explain.  Sexual abuse was not a concept I had ever heard of, or had words for in my vocabulary.   At age nineteen I realized that my father, my grandfather who was a rosh yeshiva, and other bochorim in my grandfather's yeshiva, had molested me as a young child. The abuse impacted my life to the point that at that age I couldn't function.  I was crushed.  I was dazed and wounded.  I was immobile, as if lying in a pool of blood.  My parents and family, all eleven siblings, countless aunts, uncles, cousins, either ignored me, or stepped over my shattered self as I lay there, dying, unable to live.  They shrugged indifferent to my pain.
 "Get up."  They told me.  "Nothing happened.  You're not really hurt.  You're making this up.  You did this to yourself."
My pain was never allowed to exist in my family.  It never existed to them, and to this day it still doesn't.

 I did not know how to live in a world without my family to help me.  I begged Hashem to remove me from the world.  I couldn't eat or sleep.  Not only had I suffered the loss of my childhood, my innocence, my ability to trust , now I was grieving the loss of my entire family as well.  The pain and loneliness were crushing.  Devastating.   I walked around in a fog for weeks on end, sitting shiva in my mind for my parents and siblings. Of course, not one person came to make a shiva call because no one really died.  I was all alone in my grief.  I was a ghost.  No one knew I was sitting shiva.  No one could acknowledge my huge loss.
 My two sisters in Baltimore would invite me for Shabbos and Chagim on occasion.  I went to them knowing that my pain was not real to them.  Knowing I was invisible.  Knowing I would have to wrap invisible duct tape around my mouth to keep the screams inside from emerging in a place that was not safe.  Even if I screamed, my sisters would not hear.   In their minds my trauma and my pain did not exist.  Therefore, I did not exist. Spending time with them hurt so deeply.  I continued a relationship with them out of desperation.  They were my sisters and I loved them.  I needed them.  I couldn't bear them denying my pain, and I couldn't live without them either.  I don't know what they saw at the time, when they looked at me.   Inside I shriveled in my anguish.  I cried myself to sleep every night curled around my pillow in the fetal position.   What did Hashem want from me?  Why was He doing this to me?  Silence was my only answer.  It mocked me.  I wanted to kill myself just to check if there really was a God.  It was hard to believe that a kind loving God would allow a child to suffer the way I had.


Behind seven locked gates
of purgatory
a tongue burns with flames
of things uttered
against its will
a child’s swollen body
swings against blood-soaked
granite brick
exposed to the foul air
of a cruel sinful world.

Far and away
a tortured soul slowly ascends
anguished screams echo through universe
reaching the highest throne
which gapes on all the worlds
in empty, mocking

  In, The Blessing of a Broken Heart Sherri writes:  "The point of shiva is not to comfort a mourner for her loss but to stand with her in the time of her grief.  As Rabbi Maurice Lamm notes, the main purpose of the shiva is to relieve the mourner of his loneliness.  A person expresses compassion for the mourner through his presence and silence...I am not silent.  I need to talk about (my son) Koby.  I can not contain the pain of silence."

No one made a shiva call when I lost my family.  No one wanted me to talk about what happened.  No one wanted to hear my story.  In fact, I was told not to talk about it.  I was told to forget it and move on. 
After I married my husband, we would leave my sisters house after spending a Shabbos or Yom Tov and I would predictably fall apart during the drive home.  "I'm not real!"  I would sob.  "They don't see me.  I don't know what's  worse; to lose them, or to be with them and be invisible, and be retraumatized again each time I see them."    My husband would comfort me.  He would tell me, "You are so real.  You are more real than any of them.  They don't have the ability to acknowledge and feel their own pain, let alone yours.  Your family is like a cult. You can only exist to them the way they want you to.  They can not see you for who you really are.  You are the lucky one who got away.  You are the only one who got away."

My husband helped me heal.

 When we experience a trauma, or a loss, talking about it is a crucial part of the healing process.  I remember spending Shabbos in Boro park the week after the World Trade Center bombing.  We ate the third meal with a family whose adult son was a hatzala rescue worker.  He had entered ground zero to try to save lives right after the planes hit the towers.  His family told  us that he needed to talk about the experience non stop all Shabbos.  His mother told us, "Ask him about it.  He needs to talk about it.  He has been telling the story over and over.  It's helping him heal, to talk."

 I too needed to talk about my trauma and loss.  Seven years after I moved out of my parents home, my two Baltimore sisters asked to come speak with me and my husband in our home in Virginia.  They came to my home with their husbands and ordered me to stop telling people that my father abused me.  They told me that they would have no choice but to cut me out of the family, unless I promised never to discuss my memories and trauma with anyone but my therapist.   My younger sister begged with tears in her eyes, "Please agree to this. I don't want to lose you."

I told something like this to my sisters, "I'm sorry for your pain.  But you have to understand that I lost all of you many years ago.  I have been grieving for you for years.  Since I told you what happened to me, and you refused to believe me, or help me, I lost you.  I live in excruciating pain each day since you told me that you "know" nothing happened to me, and all of my suffering is my own fault.  I haven't stopped crying since.  You have each other.  I am alone...   You are asking me to choose between you, to whom I don't exist, and myself.  My integrity.  No. I'm sorry.  I can not agree to what you are asking of me.  I am not talking about what Tatty did in order to hurt you.  I talk about it in order to heal.  My voice was taken from me as a child.  As an adult I will talk as much as I need to, and It will take as long as it takes.  If you decide that you will cut me off because I need to do this it is your decision and I can't stop you.  It will be very sad for all of us."

They told me afterwards that it was the family rav, Rabbi Hopfer, who advised them to do this.  And who are they to argue with "da'as Torah?"  So they cut me off.  But they could not cut off my voice forever.

Sherri writes in her beautiful book,
A rabbi I spoke with said that everyone lives with the awareness of evil.  But once you are forced into an intimate acquaintance with evil, then your mission in the world changes.  You are called upon to fight evil.

Sexual abuse of children is evil as anything out there.  I was forced into an intimate acquaintance with evil in my own family.  My father.  My grandfather.  People who should have loved me and protected me, instead trampled on my soul.  They gave me life and almost killed me.   With my voice, I am called on to fight this evil.  If even one child is protected because of my words, it is worth everything.  This is my mission.

Sherri writes,
It is not my job to forgive.  It is the murderer's job to ask forgiveness.  Judaism is not a religion of instant forgiveness.  It is a religion of remembering.  If a person wants to be forgiven, he needs to ask for forgiveness.  But no terrorist has asked for my forgiveness.  ...My job is not to forgive-but to give meaning.  My job is to remember."

Sherri's words resonate deeply within me.  My job is not to forgive my father, my grandfather, or my other abusers.  My job is to forgive myself.  As a young child, I blamed myself for the abuse.  My family still blames me.  No one in my family, or my community has asked for my forgiveness.  My job, like Sherri's, is to find meaning, and to remember.

1 comment:

  1. Your words echo loudly within me. The way you describe the murder of your soul, that could be me. I also feel the call to banish the evil I have seen and felt, the sexual abuse of a child. I understand the need to talk about the pain and suffering and the feeling invisible when you can't. The forgiveness of self, I'm still working on that. Finding meaning is my driving force.