The body remembers and braces itself, screaming danger in response to a stimulus whose threat has long passed.
Sleepover camp was sitting by the lake watching heat lightning in the clouds while frogs popped and scratched their throats. It was swimming in a muck-bottomed lake, arranging small squares of ceramic tile for the art room mosaic, canned potatoes and greasy chicken, porch lights that burned yellow. It was peeing with the bathroom door open so as to not interrupt conversation, and shaving each other’s legs with pink-handled razors dipped into buckets of water frothed with cream. I loved the physicality of belonging, the visceral feeling of a tribe.
From age 8 to 15, I went to Jewish sleepover camp. I loved its ritual aspect — praying in the morning before breakfast, stomping on benches and belting out Hebrew songs after dinner. But I was also made aware that the Jewish body was an endangered body — I knew this because of the armed security guard at the entrance of camp, and because one winter, some locals snuck in and painted swastikas all over the bunks. I knew it from learning about the Holocaust in third grade, when my teacher wrote on the board with chalk that looked like a bone. A picture of a girl my age with a shaved head and hunger-hollowed eyes stared at me from a Xeroxed page. Her cheekbones stuck out the way knees or shins did — sharp bone under stretched skin.
I was made aware that the Jewish body was an endangered body.
Sometimes I’d lie on my back among the sleep-breathing sounds of my bunkmates, thinking about how in bunks similar to these — shoddily constructed wooden barracks — just over 50 years prior, Jews slept the sleep of the almost-dead. They starved and burned with fever, scratching at lice crawling over their bodies. Nature, to me, meant the idyllic images of camp and its fragrant sunbaked pine, but also the nightmare of their camps, Jews crouching in brush or being mowed down in rows by machine guns in the forest.
I was a sensitive and anxious child. Learning about the Holocaust in third grade was probably too young for me, my vivid imagination transformed what I read about in books and saw on Schindler’s List and Europa Europa into a full sensory experience that felt like my own. Many children experience the same.
Cherie Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, an international network “dedicated to the elimination of racism and other forms of oppression.” She writes: “Young children who hear tragic stories, particularly when the victims of the tragedy are children, do not always make a distinction between what has happened to others and what has happened to them.” Children can experience historical tragedies vividly, but the relatively new science of epigenetics — the study of heritable changes in gene expression — offers a different explanation for my acute, felt fear.
BBC health and news reporter James Gallagher explains evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance — that is, a phenomenon by which “memories” in the form of fears and phobias are passed down biologically through the generations. He cited a 2013 Nature Neuroscience study which proved, by shocking mice on the foot each time they smelled a scent like a cherry blossom, that a fear of and aversion to cherry blossoms was passed down to children and grandchildren — even when the children and grandchildren had never met their progenitor. The traumatic experiences with the cherry blossoms resulted in structural brain DNA changes in the test subjects, which were replicated in their children and grandchildren for three generations.
Rachel Yehuda, one of the leading epigenetics researchers, and her team at Mount Sinai, studies mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Scientific American reports that Yehuda’s latest results reveal that “descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.” This supports the old adage I used to hear in the alternative health circles I used to run in, that the unconscious isn’t in the mind, rather the body is the unconscious. The body remembers and braces itself, screaming danger in response to a stimulus whose threat has long passed.
I don’t have direct bloodlines to the Holocaust. Both sides of my family had immigrated to America by 1910, but they nevertheless experienced the panic of persecution. Hailing from Russia, Poland, and Hungary, my great-grandparents immigrated because of anti-Semitic laws and crimes all over Europe. They wouldn’t have fled otherwise.
Some theorize that the Jewish bloodline has evolved for centuries toward the neurotic and the paranoid — throughout centuries of persecution, they were the ones who made it out, who hid the best, or who left in fear before anything happened. The remnants of this, some claim, is a gene pool of tightly wound nervous systems, adrenaline networks ready to fire at the first sign of unrest. Others claim it is learned behavior — we watch our parents and grandparents wring their hands and hold their heads and sigh and we do the same. Epigenetics splits the difference, suggesting a kind of biologically learned behavior passed from one generation to the next, faster than evolution and deeper than memory.
‘Descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers.’
Perhaps my immigrant ancestors were paranoid, genetically primed for fears of persecution, or perhaps they were just smart. And whether I inherited an anxious association between camp and the Holocaust genetically, through early exposure to graphic images, or through learned apprehension of unfamiliar environments, I was not alone.
One summer in my twenties I worked at a different Jewish sleepover camp leading groups of children on four-day backpacking trips on a Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail. My first group consisted of eight 14-year-old girls for whom summer was defined mostly by boys, clothes, cliques, and candy, and I was excited for them to feel the thrill of the mountain peak, the quiet awe of a starry sky, the fierce power of their bodies.
The first day we climbed up a hill lush with ferns and blueberry bushes. Around noon we stopped for lunch. The girls removed squashed bags of bread, hunks of cheese sweating in saran wrap, a few bruised green apples, and water bottles from their packs. In keeping with camp tradition, before we ate we held hands and said the Hebrew blessing over food. They ate hungrily, without counting calories or complaining. I leaned against a rock, satisfied.
We hiked over root and stream, up steep grades and down them, our packs shifting on our backs with the rhythm of our strides. Day eased into evening with breathtaking smoothness. Clear sky became shadowy blue became mosquito-y blue became night. We found a flat spot in a clearing to set up our tents and a kitchen area, and cooked and ate our pasta dinner from mess kits, sprinkling ever more shredded cheese into our bowls and watching a yellow three-quarter moon rise out the mouth of the valley we had hiked from.
Suddenly a girl named Rina jumped up. “Uffen brichen offen housen!” she screamed made-up German-sounding words into the dark, her flashlight bouncing bright circles of light from thick oak trunk to scraggly undergrowth bush like a frenzied spotlight. She looked to me and her bunkmates with wide brown eyes, the thin lines of her plucked eyebrows riding high on her forehead.
“Can you imagine?” she asked, “That is what it was like for the Jews who were hiding in the woods when the Germans came. Archen einsht!”
A few of the girls chuckled nervously.
“Seriously,” Rina said, “No food, no water, just being hunted by Nazis.”
Someone mumbled that Rina was a “hyper spaz” and I made my way over to her to quiet her and talk. But as quickly as she’d started, Rina was done; she and the other girls were anxious to trade the mosquitos and cooling darkness for their tents. They brushed their teeth and crawled into their sleeping bags. We sang the sh’ma together, and I zipped them into their green nylon tent, then listened as the giggles dulled to whispers and then the deep, patterned breathing of sleep.
I was wired. I organized the campsite, hanging a bag of food over a tree branch so the mice wouldn’t get it, tossing a small hiking boot into the pile with the others. Rina’s words echoed an association I’d been trying to fight off. Lying in my sleeping bag, I imagined the crunch of heavy boots on sticks and leaves, Jews crouching below brush, shaking with fear, hunger, and cold, one hand clamped over their babies’ mouths. My heart raced, my leg and shoulder muscles tensed, my breathing sped. I saw lines of emaciated prisoners marching through the woods in the freezing hours of morning, machine guns snapping and the forest filling with smoke, arms twisting over bellies, feet falling into mouths. My eyes dilated with the fear of people long dead, their whispers around me, the woods thick and teeming with ghosts.
A few months later, eating dinner in Manhattan, a friend confided in me that she couldn’t use the steam rooms at the gym because it reminded her of gas chambers, and that she avoided packed subways at rush hour, reminiscent of cattle cars, which left her panicked and breathless. A man at the table beside us leaned over, and related, “Sorry, couldn’t help but overhear. When I’m in line at the supermarket, I always think of a soldier at the front commanding, ‘You, to the left. You, to the right.’”
Yehuda believes that epigenetic changes occur to “biologically prepare offspring for an environment similar to that of the parents.” It’s a good instinct. A genetic predisposition towards disquiet and hypervigilance, an inherited fear of the woods, is a misplaced hope that maybe if we just paid enough attention to detail, were ready enough, equipped, genetically, temperamentally, and through learned behavior, we could evade the tragedies that have littered our history for thousands of years. This anxiety seems to come from a pathetically well-intentioned place that wants to keep us safe and healthy, but makes us miserable in doing so.
A friend confided in me that she couldn’t use the steam rooms at the gym because it reminded her of gas chambers.
Judaism is fundamentally a religion that celebrates and affirms life. Underneath the anxiety and anguished recounting of bloody crimes against us lies a pure instinct to live well, for our children to survive. An oft-quoted summary of many Jewish holidays is: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”
Could it be there is some inherited resilience, or compulsion to keep surviving and thriving?
Judaism is a religion of the senses, of the body. We are commanded to feast dozens of times a year and fast only a few. We are commanded to have sex and to enjoy it, and on certain holidays to drink until we can’t distinguish a king from a murderer. We circumcise our sons, stomp on a glass, ritually wash our hands, cut our hair, bless and eat our bread, slaughter our animals. The Jewish body is a vulnerable body, precisely because it is supposed to deeply feel and experience life fully, the frantically ecstatic joy at weddings, and the clench-fisted utter terror and despair at murder. It is a body that is commanded to remember and relive its past — to sanctify holy days with song, food, and dancing, and to mourn the tragedies with pain, fasting, and prayer.
Could it be there is some inherited resilience, or compulsion to keep surviving and thriving?
When I have children I want to send them to Jewish sleepover camp. I want them to experience the tribal togetherness and immersion in nature that modern American life doesn’t provide. They will be the fourth generation from the Holocaust, the generation scientists haven’t yet tested for epigenetic residues because they are still being born. Curled in the DNA that will most likely give them brown hair and an inability to digest dairy, may linger an inborn fear of steam rooms and dark woods. But they will hopefully delight and take comfort in our tradition, as they lie on their backs and scan the night sky for orbiting satellites, as they struggle with a past pock-marked with tragedy, as they hold their bunk-mates hands and climb onto the dining hall benches, singing, screaming, for joy.