Wednesday, May 01, 1991

Jewish Women Talk About Surviving Incest

Jewish Women Talk About Surviving Incest
Bridges - Spring 1991 
Round Table

Alot has been written in the past ten years about the long-term and evestating effects of incest and other sexual abuse.  *But little has dealt with the complex interaction between abuse and racial, ethnic or religious identity.

Those of use who participated in the following round table are all incest survivors.  But we are by no means a representative group. All of us are Ashkenazi, college-educated, realitvely young, and living in the Northeast; none of us has children.

Amy, Carole, Ann Fer, Liz G., and Pam Mitchell are lesbians; Leigh is heterosexual.

The round table is edited down from almost five hours of tape.  –– Liz G.

Liz: I'm 27 years old.  I come from an upper-middle-class family.  I grew up in New York City and in the suburbs of New York.

My father is a doctor and my mother is a teacher.  I'm the product of a fairly rigorous Hebrew education.  My brother is the perpetrator, and the abuse happened from when I was about six until I was ten or eleven.

Leigh: I'm 26 years old.  I'm a graduate student and I'm a dancer.  My parents are both professionals.  I grew up in Philadelphia and then moved to the suburbs.  When I was young, we were very orthodox, and since then my parents have become less observant.  I had an intense Hebrew training and went to Hebrew school until I was 16.  The perpetrator was my father and the abuse went on from when I was four until I was almost twelve., when I started menstruating, and became "unclean".  

Carole Ann: I grew up in Boston.  I'm 39 year old.  I was sexually abused by my brother who is five years older than me, from the time I was seven or eight until I was fifteen or sixteen.  My parents are both Holocaust survivors.  I grew up very working class.  My parents were both factory workers.

They're now retired.  And I grew up very Jewish, whatever that means.  I would say that I grew up with "food as Judaism" –– different foods for different holidays.  My mother tried to keep kosher, but my father kept on mixing up the dishes, so she finally gave up.  They're both from Poland.  They came here in 1950.  I've confronted my brother.  And my mother knows abut the sex abuse.  And my sister-in-law knows.  But nobody knows that anybody else knows they know.

Pam:  I grew up in Southern California. I just turned 39.  I grew up working class.  My parents were both clerical workers.  Both parents were perpetrators, as were my grandmother and numberous people in the neighborhood.  And the abuse started from as far back as I can remember.  I have memories from infancy up through my mid-teens. 

My mother is Jewish.  My father wasn't.  My mother was raised orthodox and rejected religion when she was in her teens and got very involved in the Communist Party, which is how she and my father got together.  I grew up not so much identifying as Jewish as identifying with the Left, which was very Jewish.  I always associated the two closely.  It was during the '50s and I associated both with a lot of fear.  And that feels tied in with my incest experience.

I'm a writer.  I've written extensively about sexual abuse and recovery.

Amy: I'm 43.  I grew up in Queens and then in New Jersey.  I grew up in my mother's extended family.  They were all immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived at different times before the war.  My father was born in New York.  Both sides of the family were orthodox, which was no big thing –– it just felt like everyone was orthodox.  My perpetrator was my uncle, who was my mother's brother, and considerably older than her.  He was an ultra-orthodox rabbi.  Also he was a veteran of World War II, which I think is important.  And also, he was a college professor, something I only found out recently.  In fact, I found a book –– just the book I've always wanted –– about different Jewish rituals, and it was dedicated to my uncle.  That was  very bizzare.  A wonderful man.

He abused me probably from when I got home from the hospital 'til I was about four and a half.  Also, he abused women in my parent's generation, including my mother.  Mush of my family now knows he abused me, and that's how I started hearing stories from other female relatives.  And what my mother says is that in those days, if you were strongg, you didn't think about it.  She waffles about what kind of effect it's had on her life.

What we did and who we were: Our Jewish identity growing up

Amy:  Particularly when we were living in Queens, being Jewish was the most basic part of my identity. I knew I was Jewish probably before I knew I was a little girl or knew anything else about me.  And that included religous practice.  That included shul, that included what we ate. The only non-Jew we knew in the neighborhood were named Marrano. Everyone else thought that was hysterical.

When I was five, we moved to New Jersey.  My parents sent me to Hebrew school and I freaked out.  It's very likely I connected Hebrew school with my uncle.  I loved school, I hated Hebrew school.  The lonter we lived in Jersey, the more my parents' orthodoxy fell away.

One of the things I grew up with was that you didn't have a choice about being Jewish.  Maybe people used to have a choice but since Hitler, you didn't have a choice.

Liz:  I grew up with that also. My mother would say "even if only one of your grandparents was Jewish, Hitler made you Jewish."

When I started getting into my early tees, my mother could sense that there were ways I was trying to escape from the family, and she would tell me this because she wanted me to know that my attempts would be futile.  I think I was also hooked up the inescapability of being Jewish with the inescapability of being abused.  I think I expected to be victimized –– that's part of what it meant to be Jewish and that's the course of history.

In some ways, my family is observant.  We never kept kosher, but we went to shul on holidays.  My mother still goes frequently on shabes.  We were all sent to Hebrew school.    We had a sukkah in the back yard.  I loved being in the sukkah. I loved a lot of the celebrations.
But one of the reasons I was always so utterly confused as a child was that I was constantly told that there's no safety outside, but I never experienced much safety at home.
I went to Hebrew school, but I couldn't pay attention at all, which I now know is connected to the abuse.  I was realizing recently that what I learned in Hebrew school was how to do Judaism –– how to sing the prayers, and which ones to sing when –– but not what Judaism meant.  Nobody ever explained to me what God meant.  Nobody ever said "THis is why you would want to practice this."

Also a lot of my Jewish identity was and is based on cooking and eating, part of the 'Judaism as Food' that Carole Ann was talking about.

Carole Ann: I knew what different foods went with different holidays.  I didn't know the holiday's larger significance.  I was not sent to Hebrew school because, in that sense my parents were very traditionally Jewish, European, poor.  Women were not sent for education.  My brother went to Hebrew school.  He had to go.  I wanted to go, but I couldn't.

Since the day I got back form my trip to the West Bank this July, I've been mulling over what it is to be Jewish.  What's become clear in my identity is what I am the child of Holocaust survivors.  And I've come to a point in the last few months of finally bieng able to separate, even though it's impossible, my identity as a Jew and my identity as the child of survivors.  My identity as a Holocaust daughter is really my first identity.  Obviously being Jewish overlaps and interconnects with that.

Pam:  I'm the product of a mixed marriage.  My mother is from New York City, but my family lived in California, so I didn't know any of my Jewish relatives until I started college and got my first financial aid check and got on an airplane to New York and met them.  That was a big ambition of mine.  It's interesting hearing people say you can't choose to be Jewish or whatever, because I always felt I was on the outside looking in.  My mother was Jewish and I know that if you're mother's Jewish, the you're Jewish –– I learned that by rote.  My mother was very Jewish-identified in her own way.  She rejected Judaism but she was definitely culturally identified  as a Jew very strongly and always talked about being Jewish in a very positive way.  She rejected her family completely, so I didn't have any ties an extended family.  And we lived in a very Christian neighborhood.  I was aware and took pride in my mother being Jewish.  But it was like . . . My parents were Communists, my mother was Jewish. These were both things I felt pride about and I knew that if I mentioned them to anybody there was likely to be a fight.  And I was ready to fight, but I had to choose my battles.

In the '50s the mainstream Jewish community was not real open to dealing with Communists.  I think my mother stopped feeling welcome in the community because of that.  She was isolated from non-Communists, and then she left the Party, and when somebody would leave, nobody inside would talk to them anymore.  Suddenly, there were no other grown-ups around –– perfect conditions for abuse.

Also all the people I saw who were Jewish were middle class. I think that has a lot to do with who's visible in any community thought, "I really wish I could be Jewish, but you have to be middle class to be Jewish."  I was delighted when I finally did meet my cousins.  If I had grown up in New York, there would have been a million people just like me, instead of just me.

Leigh: I grew up in Philadelphia in a very Jewish family.  We were orthodox; that's what everybody did.  i wasn't aware of non-Jewish people around me. My grandfather was very observant.  My parents were very observant.  I always thought it was hypocritical that they would eat pork in Chinese restaurants.  I too had a lot of good feelings about the celebrations.  i think that was because those were the times that the attention was taken off of me, I could fade into the background.  Other times there was a lot of attention focused on me, always negative.

Being Jewish was just what we did and who we were.  We were the chose people.  And we were better than everyone else.  But it was a this big contradiction.  Growing up, I was taught you have to look nice on the outside.  You go to college, get a man, and it doesn't matter if you had nothing on the inside.  And basically that was what my family was about.  We were nice Jews on the outside.  My mother, who never had any training in Judaism as a child, was Bat Mitzvahed as an adult.  I went to Hebrew school until I was sixteen years old.  But when I was fifteen I rejected every bit of my Judaism until I was twenty-two years old.  

My family does not speak to me now.  My parents are not keen on the way I've chosen to practice Judaism at this point in my life.  Because I incorporated Judaism and Christianity and they're upset about that. I accept Jesus as the Messiah.  I'm actually very observant at this point in my life. I'm almost as orthodox in practice as my parents are.  My husband and Iead a very Jewish life.  We observe that sabbath.  I don't answer the phone on sabbath. I go to services.

Another bone of contention in the family was that I am recovering in a 12-step program and "Jewish people don't have addiction problems." Jewish don't drink, Jewish don't beat their wives, and Jews don't sexually abuse their children.   I was told that all my life.

Carole Ann:  There were ways I felt Jewish but not part of the Jewish community when I was growing up.  Right before Passover my mother used to go out and find big rocks to burn in the oven to make dishes pesadikh.  But just images of her heating up the stones –– that was definitely not American, definitely European and definitely a poor thing to do because she couldn't have two sets of dishes for pesakh.  So it's things like that I connect with immigrants and that fall away with assimilation that I connect to Judaism.  Until the second or third grade, I just assumed that all of my friends were immigrants.  I remember going to one of their houses and their parent spoke English!  I was completely confused.  How could they be Jewish and speak English?  It to me years to figure out.

Amy:  Whether our families expressed it directly or indirectly, Judaism and Jewishness became much more of a life-and-death issue after the Holocaust and I wonder what our families did with that.

Liz:  my mother's whole shtick is that now there's no safety outside the family. Now, that may be because the world is full of anti-Semitic people or because of some other reason.  But one of the reasons I was always so utterly confused as a child was that I was constantly told that there's no safety outised, but I never experienced much safety at home.  

Leigh:  We had that too.  And we also got told that we were the only people who would ever be there for you, and no one will ever love you the way we love you. I'm sure my parents were both sexually abused, so it's amazing to me they could believe that.

Amy:  There seems to be this hidden history of incest and we're the tip of the iceberg.  And we have our suspicions.  We're just figuring out what happened to ourselves much less what happened to the people in our families.  And I think there's also a parallel secret history of anti-Semitism.  

Pam:  A lot of anti_Semitism has gotten played out through sexual abuse.  A lot of my abuse as child came from the neighbor hood and I don't know whether there was any anti-Semitic content to that.  I know we didn't fit in, and I'm sure some of that had to do with being the only Jewish kids in the neighborhood.

Carole Ann: I also grew up with what Liz was talking about –– that the outside world was full of danger and that home was safe –– and it was very confusing to me as a child because I was so clear that home was not safe and I was always being told that it was, and outside the home always really felt safe to me.  And yet here was Mommy saying, "There is what's not safe."   And of course, it's Mommy who you believe.  You're not at a place developmentally to know what you believe is what's right.

We all come from a history of two thousand years of oppression and that is passed down through the generations.  The Holocaust is only one generation away and, whether we were directly affected or not, I think that's a major influence in post-Holocaust Jewish identity today, that's it just isn't safe to be Jewish.

This didn't happen in Jewish families

Liz: I've thought about this a lot, and I still don't think my brother's abusing me had very much to do with his being Jewish, or my being Jewish, or my family's being Jewish.  And likewise, I haven't felt there's been a Jewish component to the response I've gotten when I talk about the abuse.
When I first started remembering the incest, my sense of being Jewish changed immeasurably. I think my ability to be part of the Jewish community now is completely due to the fact that I've remembered incest.
Amy: I definitely identified being Jewish with being sexually abused, in a very primal way.  I've always had this sense that Jews were dirty and weird and wore dirty hats in the house, so for me it was all very much intense self-hate, intense inferiority.  I'm clear now that it came from the incest, but at the time I thought Jews were not very worthwhile.  I also had a the sense of "incestuousness" –– not literally, but that Jewish families were more wrapped up in each other, there was more sexual tension.  I didn't want to be Jewish and followed my Catholic friends around and quizzed them on their catechisms, and ate their cinnamon toast, my introduction to non-Jewish food. 

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