Finding Wholeness

When I Tell My Story, I Am a Speaker for the Dead

Content warning: This article references child abuse, sexual trauma, suicide, and eating disorders.

I have been writing a book about finding my voice. In the process, I have thought a lot about the kinds of questions that are painful, the kinds of questions that perhaps one should not think about. Why am I alive. Why am I here, when so many others I have known are not

Sometimes I am lost in my survivor’s guilt. So many of my friends are dead, of heroin or child abuse or sexual assaults or eating disorders or all of the above. So many of my friends are dead of the kinds of illnesses and pain that almost got me. The kinds of pain that happened to me too.

Pain has been very much on my mind lately. I have been trying to get well, which means thinking about being sick. I have been sick since I was a child. Being sick is what I know. I understand what it feels like to be sick, to be dizzy or vomiting or terrified or coughing up mucus. I understand what it feels like to be lost inside my own body. I understand what it feels like when the compass of your life’s purpose is not enough to keep you from getting trapped in your own body. I understand what it feels like to be wandering around in the desert of your own self-hatred for years or decades without hope. Diaspora on an individual level is diaspora all the same.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that Judaism saved me. What is Judaism, anyway? Is Judaism sitting outside when I was 8, beneath the woven branches of the sukkah at my synagogue, singing songs and wrapping arms around each other? Or is Judaism when the cantor of my synagogue told me on the phone that he was helpless to intervene against the abuse I faced, because my abuser was also a member of his synagogue?

Judaism for me is the feeling I used to get when I stared at the ner tamid (eternal light): the direct experience of G-d, the knowledge that I was part of something greater than myself, something that would continue long after I was gone. Judaism is also the shrinking of me hiding in my cousins’ house, locking the door of their bathroom behind me, whipping out my book to disappear into, finding safety for a moment, where the arms of the men could not touch me.

I have been sick since I was a child. It was the only way I could find to keep myself safe, in a world where safety was a precious and rare commodity. When I was seven years old, I got pneumonia, then bronchitis over and over again, then a series of rare infections. I tried hard to coach myself into emotionlessness but my body expressed what I could not. 

Being sick was useful. The adults who scared me and hurt me left me alone. I could read, eat what I liked, sleep when I wanted. I could daydream, open myself to G-d. I dreamed of angels.

As I grew up, I steeled myself to the world, and tried to be good. The great benefit of extreme physical pain is its overwhelming nature. One has no time to revisit one’s traumas or emotional self-awareness. I did not consider the contexts of family or history. My Judaism helped me survive, but it was also the lodestone that weighed me down. 

Once in college, I began to face the realities of my world. I learned words like trauma, child abuse, generational cycles. With some sense of apology, I walked away from my people. I thought I could pluck the trauma right out of my life like carving out an unwanted organ.

At the time, I couldn’t help it. Judaism for me meant the hands of the men who hurt me. I was willing to live without G-d if it meant I could be free of my past.

This has become a cycle for me. Over and over again, just as I think I am free of it forever, the past draws me back in, and I fall in love with my people. Sometimes there is a specific man who embodies my community, though usually, I fall in love with my own self-assertion, with the words of justice that tumble to the tip of my tongue. I remember that girl, reading Holocaust narratives in the back of the siddur (prayerbook), learning that her religion requires tzedakah (righteous giving) because her people believe in providing for members of the community who would otherwise be left behind. I remember how passionate I am about the fact of our survival, across generations of despair and forbidden joy. 

One day, recently, and years ago, and when I was just a child, I fell in love, and the person I fell in love with was just me, just my vision of myself, and my story, my true story, and my need to tell it. I fell in love with my own courage, with the golden spool of history threading through my gut that compels me to stand on stages and say, I am here. I am not dead. Listen to me speak. Speaking these truths within Jewish community has cost me family, friendships, romances, social status, dignity. I will continue to speak nonetheless.

I am tired of running away. I miss the child I used to be, who loved her G-d and loved her voice and was not afraid. I have learned that she was wrong about some things and I have reason to be afraid. I am a speaker for the dead, for the dead parts of myself and for the members of my family who died without ever speaking the most painful parts of their own stories. 

Sometimes, that can be such a very lonely thing. I am blessed with knowing that telling the truth will never be the loneliest thing of all. Being separated from myself, from my people, from my G-d, and from my joy was a much lonelier thing to be.

[Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. If you live outside the U.S., please seek other support available locally.]

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Ner Tamid, Jewish Virtual Library 

Tzedakah 101, My Jewish Learning

When I Tell My Story, I Am a Speaker for the Dead
Rivka Wolf
Rivka Wolf

Rivka Wolf is a nonbinary queer womanist in search of a dream. For their essays about mixed race identity in the Jewish community and pop culture, visit their column on; for more of their nonfiction and poetry, visit

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