Updated: Dec 30, 2021
TW: Death, state + domestic violence, sexual abuse.
Cemeteries. Hungary is teeming with them, you can throw a rock and hit one. It suits me, actually. In rural areas they’re usually at the edge of town where it’s green, and there’s ample parking for my camper van. Not too many people come by so it’s quiet. That’s nice for my misophonia, the neurological condition I was born with. Everyday sounds trigger a fight or flight response that makes me want to punch a hole through a wall, dozens of times a day. It’s a constant stress on my system. Learning to manage it gracefully and appreciate its gifts is a continuous practice.
So, for someone who craves healing silence like I do, the dead are ideal neighbors.
Jewish Cemetery. Bodrogkeresztúr, Hungary. October 2020.
I’m parked at a cemetery now, in Uppony in the Bükk mountains. My great grandfather was born in this village. Last night, I couldn’t sleep. An animal just outside started yowling around 2 or 3 am, and a feeling came to drum. I didn’t want to get out of bed but it wouldn’t quit, so finally I got my kit out. I set up my protections and settled into a light trance, drumming slowly at first to check if I was welcome. It felt ok and not like there was anything too pressing happening. I ramped up the intensity.
“Hi you guys,” I broadcasted. “I hope you enjoy this!” I have sensed that the death field often appreciates the attentions of the living, maybe it’s boring to be dead sometimes. I drummed for a while, just hanging out with this hillside full of bodies, then got to business:
“My ancestor lived here, Jakab Schwarcz. Maybe some of you knew him and my family. Anyone with a wish to create relationship with me for the highest good, you’re welcome to come around anytime. Anyone or anything that means harm:
Thank you, that doesn’t work for me.”
Besides being a relationship practice, ancestor work is a death practice. (They’re ancestors. They’re dead. It’s not rocket science.) It’s apt, to be growing my skill set within the death realms during this time of global pandemic. I acknowledge the suffering of our condition, I’m not being flippant. A working knowledge of the landscape of death is a standard part of the job. My job. I feel a solemn sense that this is a blessed way to have a class about it, I respect it and I’m grateful.
I’m no expert, I’d say intermediate at best. I’m not working in a hospice or a community heavily afflicted by addiction or a war zone. I bow to those people serving in those roles. What I know of death is mostly through personal relationship. We have a pretty good one, of just over 10 years now. Benevolent Death has shown up to help me, to teach me, frequently. Though it can take time to see how, it usually turns out to be some of the highest value instruction - and healing - around.
I recall my first lesson on this path, which resides in my foundations: Death, a seabird, snatched me up in gunmetal talons and dove me straight down to the bottom of a vast black ocean, black like the velvet fur of time, to teach me how to light my inner sun.
Rabbi Shayele's Grave. Bodrogkeresztúr, Hungary. October 2020.
My cousin Michael completed a book about our family earlier this year. It’s a glossy, 250-page masterpiece full of family lore and old photos. Sprawling diagrams trace our family across continents. My 95-year-old Hungarian cousin Magda – who lives in Budapest, survived two concentration camps and grew up not far from where I am right now in Ózd - relates a story in the book about that world renowned, revered mystic Rabbi Shayele. I will copy it here.
MAGDA: “As I recall my childhood years, Jewish holidays played a very big role in our lives. For the autumn holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we needed a lot of money. All three kids had to get new clothes from head to toe. Preparing for these holidays, especially the Passover holiday, was very expensive. Of course, we were observant, and Passover is an important holiday. This meant that for 8 days all family members were to eat nothing leavened, so bread or pasta were out of question. All the dishes were replaced for Passover. We brought the Passover dishes down from the attic and ate and cooked only from these for 8 days. I remember we bought 15 kilos of matzoh, lots of potatoes, lots of eggs and meat, which was a very big financial burden for us.
One year my mother did not know how she’d manage the Passover holiday financially. She decided to go to Bodrogkeresztúr, where Rabbi Shayele lived and get his advice. Well, he was supposedly incredibly wonderful, and people travelled from and all over the world, even from America to hear what he had to say. She went and asked for his advice on how to undertake the Passover holidays without money.
The Rabbi told her to go home and everything would be resolved by itself. It did resolve. My poor mother pulled her last piece of jewelry off her finger—her beloved wedding ring—and sold it. From this, we had sufficient provisions for that year’s Passover holiday. Add to this, the fact that she had to pay the train fare to get the Rabbi’s sage advice.
MICHAEL: What do you think about this?
MAGDA: It wasn’t good advice. Go home and it will be solved. Well, it got solved. It’s not easy to be Jewish.”
For Magda, the story is about the trauma of her early experience of being Jewish - being vulnerable, poor, and subject to the pressures of a strict religious community. She has another story about that in the book too, in which she has to quit her schooling a year before graduation because traveling on the Sabbath was forbidden. The punishment, in the 1920’s, was stoning. I haven’t met Magda in person yet but Michael tells me she’s a witty, sharp lady. He says she’s still angry about the impact of being Jewish on her life. I can completely understand why.
I sit and try to feel into that experience – the pain of being Jewish. I don’t feel a lot. Religious persecution isn’t my personal experience in my lifetime first of all, though I was raised in liberal Jewish community with plenty of trauma stories and patterning present alongside many joys. Second of all, I have disconnected myself from much of my Jewish heritage out of criticism for the community. I try to imagine myself in a religious Jewish community now and immediately disassociate. My mind can’t stay with it.
I honor the weight of Magda’s experience. My numbness is a red flag, I put a pin in it to return to later. There is something else here for me now that lies closer to the surface.
I’ve been unsettled over this Rabbi Shayele story for months. For me, the charge is not about Jewishness per se but rather distrust of authority, men, male authority, and notably male spiritual authority in any tradition. Those themes have snaked through my life and have been coming up for me hard and fast the last few years. I have so much anger in me for the suffering emanating from this source, about betrayal, hypocrisy, abuse, abdication of responsibility. I understand this as a big block for me in many ways – perhaps most poignantly at this moment in regards to 1. romantic relationship and 2. fully stepping into my power as a professional holding responsibility for the well-being of others.
The generations of fear and pain stuck in my being from being hurt by power (male, church, state, other) blocks me from claiming my own power, because I’m afraid of what I’ll do with it. To avoid feeling fear in the face of power, I both numb out and manifest an excess of anger.
That’s been my developing understanding. Now, as the saying goes, you’ve got to feel it to heal it. A moment to do just that has arrived.
Let’s have a look at what I perceive, in the Rorschach test of this story.
Deep breath, and I open the file.
A man is being carried on a chair overhead by a sea of adoring devotees, basking in the sun-soaked glory of his reputation for Godliness and wise counsel. A poor woman of no status seeks his help and receives none. In fact, he makes her situation worse. She is left to fix the problem on her own through personal sacrifice and suffering. She thanks and praises him outwardly, though her heart is heavy. The man is satisfied with himself for a job well done. He will never know how he failed her, how he hurt her, and has no reason to care. He’s permitted to keep his reputation and status with no consequences.
I feel this story reverberating through every nook and cranny over every square inch and into every corner of this rock hurtling through space, back and forth in time, through my whole body, through my soul.
I close my eyes and tune myself to this frequency. I open to information from outside, invite it to rise up from inside. There is electricity, like in the air before a storm hits.
I see a man dressed like the Pope, grinning with long needle teeth. Policemen in riot gear, violence on bodies of color, batons, a water cannon forcing back a front line. Someone bleeds from a head wound. I see three policemen rape a woman in custody somewhere in a small town. Then the rape of a man, young, effeminate. I see something that looks like the Stonewall Riots in New York City, trans women rushing from a bar to smash cars and throw bricks through windows. Men congregate under the overhang of a grass hut in a jungle landscape, drunk. A woman is sweeping and doing laundry out back, holding a baby and looking overworked. One man goes to her and backhands her into a wall. I see a senate chamber full of old men, I know they’re passing some law in their own best interests. I see propaganda posters, MAGA hats, the silhouette of Harvey Weinstein, then women at a Magdalene Laundry. I see soldiers, militants from many locations and many periods throughout history, holding the weapons of their times and places. I see boys among them, children, teenagers, stolen from their homes and indoctrinated into war.
I see myself sitting across from a man on a date, smiling and nodding as he talks and talks and talks. By the end of the date I know everything about him and he knows nothing about me. He doesn’t call. I see doctors who didn’t help me when I needed it, all your tests look good and billing is down the hall on the left. More tests? No, why? Try a shrink. I see myself leaving a building, steeling myself to do it on my own, maybe die trying. I see my ex-boyfriend, a “healer” and aspiring ceremonialist, slap me across the face here in this very van where I write this now. I see fear rise in his eyes when I go for a knife. He holds the cabinet door closed and speaks softly to calm me. I see myself throwing all his clothes out on the blacktop at a rest stop somewhere between Portugal and Austria, making sounds like an animal in a bear trap, then having to invite him back in when I realize I can’t drive this van without him.
I see another one from farther back in my history, face in shadow, his long black hair blowing in the wind.
This vision runs out of gas. My heart opens. I see M, one of my best friends from architecture school. We’re sharing a bag of tortilla chips while driving through Death Valley on a road trip, windows open, staring reverently out at the sun-baked landscape. Later it’s night, and we’re cooking on a small fire under a starry sky, tent with a light on nearby, in a pine forest in Oregon. I see his family in Portland, his lovely wife, two kids now. I see my other dear college friends D and L, two true geniuses I’ve known. D’s dog Aura who he raised from a puppy as a unique and wild soul. Other male friends pass my mind’s eye, I always had many. I see all my treasured male professors from college and grad school standing in a group. This group represents so much learning and powerful mentorship in my life, I could cry in gratitude. I grew up, became me, under the care and expert teachings of these men.
I see the handful of men I know running men’s workshops, doing the blessed work of facilitating masculine healing. I see my brother, also a dear friend. We’re binge-watching some hilarious Netflix thing he wanted to show me on his couch in Seattle. I see my father. I’m a kid, rolling an oversized exercise ball around my dad’s physical therapy office as he helps a stroke patient between two standing bars re-learn how to walk. I sense my dad’s constant, loving presence in my life, even through the years where my relationship with my parents was distant, which it isn’t really anymore. I see us Facetiming as we have once a week or so for years, laughing. I feel in my heart how lucky I am to have such a father, as truly great fathers are a rare and precious thing in this world.
I feel strength and safety flow through me, absorbing the impact of all of these wonderful men in my life. The electricity is gone. I feel at peace, heart full. Tears flow. I rest.
My thoughts return to the Rabbi, his story poison-turned-medicine.
In these months, I have seen my wish to vilify him. This big man, spiritual man, community pillar who couldn’t be bothered to help my cousin’s mom find a way to observe the holiday without bankrupting her family. I’ve imagined him with condemnation as a secret abuser, as a hypocrite living large while taking payoffs, as a manipulative schemer with a talent for image-doctoring, as a backstabber willing to do anything to get ahead.
The truth is that I don’t know who he was. He died in 1925 – he might have just been getting old, or having an off day. It’s not relevant to me, now: my perceptions speak to my own wounding, my own lens. All of these tropes are common truths that have touched me personally and shaped the world I live in.
My rage has softened. Compassion floods my heart for this man who was molded by trauma, like me. Like all of us. Whoever he hurt, I know that he helped many people too. I see him as a child, this human being. Imperfect. I contemplate the responsibility of power, the gravity of unexpected consequences that can live for 100 years and more, set against the impossibility of achieving a 100% success rate. I feel a young sense of acceptance of that reality.
Trauma isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, only an explanation. This renewed perspective doesn’t mean everything’s right with the world or that we should turn our backs on injustice, but this is a part of change-making as I understand it: to get free from the grip of our wounds so we can clearly assess the landscape of what needs healing, and how. To be able to act with intention and with agency upon ourselves and the world.
Satisfied with the material I’ve conjured up for the cauldron of the dieta, I feel ready.
Rabbi Shayele. Mystic, man, still teaching from Beyond. Today I meet your eyes in timeless space and offer to you what my ancestor could not: my authentic gratitude. My forgiveness. Thank you for catalyzing this release, this step towards re-connection. Thank you for showing up to lend your power to this sadhana, here in the place where everything has value underwritten by the unbroken wholeness and unity of all things. For my part, I hereby disarm myself from charge of any harm done by you to our family line and place it as a stone in this wall, to build something wonderful, now, anew. I wish your soul peace and safe passage. May this healing ripple out through all the souls of all the people whose lives you ever touched, through to all of their ancestors and all of their descendants, to all of our relations.
This writing is dedicated to my mother, father and brother - my nuclear family. Your support and love throughout my life has made this quest for wholeness possible. I hold you all close around me and it gives me strength. I love you, I miss you, I can’t wait to see you when I visit New York in December, and to celebrate the upcoming Bat Mitzvah with our American cousins. I suspect I am on the way to collecting more stones, there.
Me, reflected in the window of the building housing Rabbi Shayele's grave.
Bodrogkeresztúr, Hungary. October 2020.
Rabbi Shayele. Image Source Unknown.
This piece is a one of a series of four writings I did as part of a dieta in the Amazonian Plant Medicine tradition. The first three served as preparation, examining the psychological material most relevant for me in the moment so I could bring it consciously into the dieta space. The fourth is a piece of integration work, to begin to understand what I received and how I see applying it in my life moving forward. Writing is a big medicine tool for me, and I’m happy to share this window into my personal process so it may inspire others in theirs.