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On Madness

Graphic with a red background with a photo of Noah, a white trans masc non-binary person with short brown hair, smiles at the camera while holding a milkshake. They are wearing a short sleeved green shirt with red, orange, and pink flower pattern on it.

Graphic with a red background with a photo of Noah, a white trans masc non-binary person with short brown hair, smiles at the camera while holding a milkshake. They are wearing a short sleeved green shirt with red, orange, and pink flower pattern on it.

On Madness

 

Noah Strauss

 

Content notes: institutionalization, generational trauma 

 

The deep is always close by, in our peripheral vision. Mind the corners.

To know what you’re experiencing is an echo, bouncing off the edges of a void. 

My father speaks in riddles that seem to come across a long distance, as if lost in translation. 

Psychosis as an echo of something deeper, as a response to trauma.

How close it all is.

***

I am the fourth generation in my family to struggle with the effects of trauma on my mental health. My father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal great grandmother all were institutionalized during their lives. 

My paternal grandmother was institutionalized off and on her whole life. She had what is now known as bipolar disorder. She was prescribed a dose of lithium that was too high. It poisoned her. She developed other disabilities like glaucoma and psoriasis. She lost her sight. She made several attempts throughout her life and eventually completed suicide in 1983 when my father was in college, long before I was born. 

A formal portrait of my paternal grandmother. She wears a short sleeved dress with a square collar that is lined with beads, and she has a pearl necklace on. Her hair is in the beginnings of a short bob, as if she recently began growing it out. Her expression looks warm, but also formal. She has dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and strong features, strong cheekbones.
A formal portrait of my paternal grandmother. She wears a short sleeved dress with a square collar that is lined with beads, and she has a pearl necklace on. Her hair is in the beginnings of a short bob, as if she recently began growing it out. Her expression looks warm, but also formal. She has dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and strong features, strong cheekbones.

 

My father was institutionalized for seven months when he was in college. He disappeared while experiencing psychosis when I was in high school. 

I spent three days in a psychiatric institution in college and it took me only minutes there to understand the role of institutionalization in my family’s story. 

In the Netflix series Russian Doll, Nadia’s embodied experience of her mother’s hospitalization gives voice to the way the past exists concurrently.

My paternal grandmother, Margaret, a white Jewish woman with short black hair, wears a white button up shirt fastened with a broach. In the top left photo she smiles at the camera. In the bottom middle photo, she looks off into the distance. In the bottom left photo, she has a slightly longer bob style haircut, and is wearing a flowered dress cinched at the waist with a black belt. She appears to be caught dancing, mid movement. She is smiling. Behind her there is flowered wallpaper. In the top right picture, she wears the same outfit, and she is sitting in a chair with her back to the camera. The person behind the camera seems to be admiring her in a quiet moment. The top middle picture is of two white men with short brown hair, my paternal grandfather, and my uncle. My uncle wears glasses, a white tshirt, and khaki pants. My paternal grandfather wears a white short sleeved button down shirt and khaki pants. My uncle sits on the floor holding a book, and behind him is a 50’s era tv. My paternal grandfather sits slightly behind and next to him. They appear to be mid conversation about the book in my uncle’s lap and a piece of paper he is holding, and my uncle leans towards his father in a fond kind of way. Behind them is a bookshelf. The last picture, bottom right, is of a brown dog lying on the floor of a room, and it looks up into the corner, where the edge of my paternal grandmother’s face is visible looking down at the dog. She is wearing all black, glasses, and her eyes seem to be smiling.

 

Mirrors are important in Jewish tradition. When we grieve we cover the mirrors. Nadia’s mother smashed the mirrors in their house. Nadia in season one coughs up a piece of a mirror.

I identify with Nadia’s desire to look for the meaning Judaism can offer for the trauma she experienced. Why not, when Judaism is the thread that is woven through our lives. Everything is infused with its color. 

I recently spoke to my rabbi, who has spent more time with my father than I have. We try to make sense of it.

Time is collapsing, leading the yeshiva that used to exist in Nadia’s building to re-emerge.

In Russian Doll the rabbi says “they went alive into the realm of the dead” and behind him on the chalkboard is a drawing of heaven and earth, with the words “Sheoul and The Great Deep.” 

Nadia and Alan have just trudged through subterranean waters, the Sheoul, the Great Deep to which the drawing and the rabbi refer.

Jewish tradition has long been fascinated with what scholar Avivah Zornberg calls, “the murmuring deep.” Holes, pits, and deep dark places recur throughout our mythic texts. Here are some examples: 

Psalm 42, “Tehom el Tehom korei.”  The book of psalms teaches, תְּהֽוֹם־אֶל־תְּה֣וֹם ק֭וֹרֵא – Deep calls unto Deep, and it has called you to this very moment. Each of us contains a great depth, calling out to the depth in one another.

Joseph in the pit:  ​וַיִּ֨קָּחֻ֔הוּ וַיַּשְׁלִ֥כוּ אֹת֖וֹ הַבֹּ֑רָה “And they took him and cast him into the pit.” 

Jonah cries out from the belly of the whale: תְּה֖וֹם יְסֹבְבֵ֑נִי “The deep engulfed me.” 

The Israelites crossing the sea: וְיָבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָֽׁה׃ “And the Israelites marched down into the sea on dry ground.”

Throughout the book of psalms: שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה “Out of the depths I call to you.” 

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ At the beginning of the Creation of heaven and earth…

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ 

וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם 

וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

the earth being unformed and void,

with darkness over the surface of the deep

and a sacred spirit hovering over the waters–

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃ God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

According to the Torah, all life emerges from tohu vaVohu, a howling, empty chaos. 

The second verse of Torah continues,

וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם

And darkness was upon the Tehom, the deep subterranean waters.

Theologian Catherine Heller writes, “A churning, complicating darkness was wedged right between the two verses which everyone knows with indelible certainty: between ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ and ‘God said: let there be light…’

“This interstitial darkness refuses to disappear…It gapes open in the text: ‘and the earth was Tohu vaVohu, and darkness was upon the face of tehom and the ruach elohim was vibrating upon the face of the mayim…’ …So densely packed with its terse triune chaos, the second verse sends a mysterious tremor through the whole narrative of creation.” 

Perhaps one of the most profound images in our tradition is that of the Israelites crossing the sea on dry land, בתוך הים ביבשה. 

About this moment, the rabbis ask, if they were in the sea, how could they be on dry land? And if they were on dry land, how could they be in the sea? 

If my father’s words seemed to arrive from a far distance, beyond where I could bring him back, how was he right there with me?

This midrash paints a powerful image of the women crossing carrying their children. When a child would cry, she would reach out her hand and pull from the sea walls an apple or a pomegranate.

As it says in Psalms, וַיּוֹלִיכֵ֥ם בַּ֝תְּהֹמ֗וֹת כַּמִּדְבָּֽר The Holy one led them through the deep as through the wilderness.

מה במדבר לא חסרו כלום אף בתהומות לא חסרו כלום.

Just as they lacked nothing in the desert, so too they lacked nothing in the deep. 

If all life emerges from this howling, empty chaos, if we lack nothing in the deep, does that not suggest it to be paradoxically generative? Many of the prophets emerge from the deep. Does that not suggest it to be a paradoxically prophetic space? 

The Jerusalem Talmud relates the following fantastical story about human beings discovering  primordial chaos–the tehom–of the world.

When King David was digging the foundations of what he hoped would one day become the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he dug down fifteen hundred cubits. Alas, he didn’t find the tehom, the primordial waters, but instead, to his great surprise, he found a single teapot. Disappointed and perhaps frustrated, he wanted to throw it.

But it said to him, “You can’t throw me.”

“Oh yeah, why not?” he replied.

The teapot said, “I’m here to hold down the tehom.”

David replied, “And since when have you been here?”

The teapot responds, “From the moment that the Compassionate One’s voice was heard at Sinai proclaiming, ‘I am YHVH your God,’ the land trembled and sank and I was put here to restrain the tehom.”

Even so, David didn’t listen to the teapot. He threw it away and the tehom started rising and threatened to flood the world. 

Nadia ignored Alan’s warnings about trying to change the past and tries to steal her baby self to raise herself instead, causing time to collapse.

So David started to sing songs–the 15 Shir HaMa’alot–songs of ascent found in the Book of Psalms, and for each song he sang, the tehom receded back to its original position. 

Nadia decides to return her baby self to the 1980s to her mother, choosing to make peace with the past and return to right-relationship with the world.

Similar to Nadia, David thought he could outsmart, disrespect, and override the natural structure of things that preserves a balance of chaos and order in the world. Like Nadia, he realizes he can’t. When he throws away the teapot, the earth starts to rebel. When he starts singing, he reconnects with a deep inner core, a tehom, and that’s what allows him to re-enter right-relationship with the natural world, like Nadia, and quell the waters. 

Nadia must learn to be present in the moment with Ruth, rather than missing it by trying to fix the past. We have to live with the present. 

Nadia learns in the deep. Nadia tries to carry the gold coins with her, before realizing she cannot carry it and her baby self. She must leave it behind, making peace with this part of the past. 

Very little holds back the tehom, very little holds back time from collapsing in on itself. Trauma is a kind of inertia of the past on a collision course with the present.

Chaos is internal to our world and not just in the beginning.

Sheldon Haas Blank describes a prophet as: “the persons who could attain the insight without the experience, who knew before walls fell that Jerusalem was vulnerable, and even before the temple was violated knew well that G-d and his house were not identical” (Jeremiah: Man and Prophet).

At the beginning of the pandemic, right around Passover, my father began to eat only matzah, feeling that these were biblical times. 

As always, my father is cryptic, with a strange prophetic quality. He speaks in what seems like riddles containing grains of Torah. 

He is not wrong that these are biblical times. 

The pandemic began right before Purim 2020. Part of the Purim story includes the theme of vnahafocu- the world turned upside down. We wear costumes to remember the things that were hidden. Sometimes masking up reveals what is hidden underneath. 

The pandemic has revealed a lot about this country. As things collapse, the tenuousness of our society, the precariousness of its foundation, is revealed. 

I learn from him still. His wisdom, emerging from the deep, is also Torah.

He is perceptive about the underlying chaos that is rising, perhaps because he belongs to it. It reverberates through him. In my life he is the pulse of that underlying chaos. 

He is not wrong. These are biblical times. I now understand the ten plagues as catalysts for upheaval, destabilization, and ultimately transformation. After each plague, Moses asks Pharoah to let his people go. Each time he says no. Each ensuing plague is a further test of Pharaoh’s appetite for cruelty, and further evidence that the center will not hold. The question before Pharaoh is what will he endure to maintain slavery, what will he put even his own people through, what will he sacrifice before his heart breaks open?

Moses is teaching Pharaoh that slavery is untenable, and each ensuing plague is further proof of a decaying, collapsing empire.

Liminal spaces; where the reverberations of trauma break through the walls of time. Where one can sense Jerusalem’s vulnerability before walls fell. Sinkholes into the subterranean deep of existence. 

For Nadia and Alan, that is the subway station. Nadia is transported back and forth through time. She passes through multiple train cars in different moments of time, finding they all exist concurrently. Nadia repeatedly travels in time, passing through the same train cars over and over, echoing the Jewish process of continually turning towards right-relationship, Teshuva. 

It is worth noting that Nadia’s adopted guardian is named Ruth. The biblical Ruth was the first Jew-by-choice. Ruth chose Nadia. 

Nadia continually embodies her mother and grandmother, experiencing her mother’s institutionalization. We carry the trauma with us in our bodies. When a door slams, all the doors that ever slammed in my house seem to crash at once. 

When I go to therapy I do it for all of us. I apologize to my paternal grandmother for the lack of adequate care she received. The past exists concurrently.

Nadia repeatedly sees a young version of herself in the periphery of her vision. 

A few years ago, a sinkhole opened up in my West Philly neighborhood. A local rabbi, Rabbi Avi Killip, wrote: 

“There is a sinkhole in my neighborhood

and in my country

they have patched it multiple times

but it always re-opens”

Another local rabbi, Ari Lev Forwrote:

“As the crew began to excavate the scene, the West Philly sinkhole became both a transit delay and a childcare destination. So many of us came out to see it for ourselves, bringing our children, texting our friends and family to be sure they had seen the sight. We felt compelled to experience the cognitive dissonance of seeing what both our brains and our bodies imagine to be solid rock, now vacant, sunken in on itself, revealing a seemingly bottomless pit.

It inspired in me just the right combination of fear and awe known in Jewish tradition as Yirat Shammayim. Or as the medieval commentator Rashi puts it: both “astonishment and desolation.” And not just in me – it didn’t take long for Facebook posts to allude to its mystical presence. One of my favorites read, “There’s another sinkhole! The underground river gods are either angry or busy or something. Many offerings are needed.”

And then in true West Philly fashion, a formal Facebook event was created for Monday, June 10 – as people gathered to appease the sinkhole gods by throwing offerings into it. This was, I imagine, mostly irreverent and probably cathartic, throwing who knows what into the depths. And yet, this playful ritual points to a deeper mystical curiosity. Maybe it takes a sinkhole for a community of punk rock anarchists to wonder what really lies beneath the bedrock of existence?”

 

תְּהֽוֹם־אֶל־תְּה֣וֹם ק֭וֹרֵא

Deep calls unto deep.

 

ABOUT

Noah, a white trans masc non-binary person with short brown hair, smiles at the camera while holding a milkshake. They are wearing a short sleeved green shirt with red, orange, and pink flower pattern on it.

Noah is an organizer and Jewish educator. Noah has been teaching at Jewish Children’s Folkshul for four years and is currently pursuing their masters in Judaism and Human Rights at Gratz College, with the goal of pursuing rabbinical school. Noah’s writing has been featured in Jewish Currents, New Voices, The Jewish Daily Forward, Jewschool, and Lilith Magazine. Their writing about Judaism and disability can be found here. Find them on Twitter @NoahTzedek.

 

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