Home » Creative Survival: How Trauma Made the Jews Resilient

Creative Survival: How Trauma Made the Jews Resilient

by Dr. Eitan Bar
5 minutes read

The majority of the festive occasions that we commemorate and observe in the culturally rich and historically significant nation of Israel can typically be encapsulated and expressed through the following concise yet comprehensive summary:

They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”

Throughout history, the Jewish people have faced constant persecution and threats to their existence. This unrelenting adversity has demanded that they develop creative strategies for survival and perseverance.

Over a century ago, Mark Twain endeavored to unravel the extraordinary existence of the Jews, ultimately finding himself in awe and unable to fully grasp their remarkable resilience and impact:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.  He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it.  The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmaties, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality?[i]

And indeed, research suggests that traumatic experiences can act as a driving force for creativity in humans. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson explains:

There’s a famous psychologist named Hans Isaac who was the most highly cited psychologist in the world for a long time. He wrote a great book called “genius”, which is a real study of creativity…He found that early traumatic experiences are good predictors of late creativity. Now, we should also say that early traumatic experiences are also great predictors of catastrophic adult lives. But the thing that people don’t understand about creativity is that there’s no reason to be creative unless you have a problem to solve. If someone dies on you young and you’re forced to fend your way in the world and deal with that kind of trauma, you have to put yourself together in a creative manner, and it’s no joke.

 And so, early negative experiences allied with high intelligence and this kind of temperament that we were talking about are one of the things that foster creative production. Parents are misinformed about this sort of thing because they think that if they just do laissez faire things with their children, you know, “you can do anything you want”, they’ll automatically be creative. That’s the stupidest thing you could possibly imagine because that isn’t how creativity works. Creativity emerges when you put serious constraints on things.[ii]

In other words, creativity is forged by hardship and trauma, which are most often caused by sin.

When faced with adversity, the human mind can develop innovative solutions to overcome the challenges presented. Various studies show that when people are exposed to stress, they demonstrate increased problem-solving skills, creativity and resourcefulness.

The release of the stress hormone cortisol is probably responsible for this effect. In high levels, cortisol is unhealthy, but when carefully managed, cortisol can sharpen focus and cognitive functioning.[iii] In this way, stress can be seen as an adaptive response, encouraging individuals to develop creative ways to navigate obstacles and thrive under pressure.

The Jewish People: A Testament to Stress-Induced Creativity

Throughout history, the Jewish people have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. They have faced unimaginable challenges, such as the pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, yet have continued to flourish in various fields, such as science, buisness, literature, and the arts.

The Jewish people’s ability to adapt and survive under stress can be attributed to several factors, including their strong community values, focus on education, and, most importantly, their creative resilience. One possible explanation behind the Jewish creativity is the role of stress in fostering creativity. Let’s look at three examples:

Intellectual Adaptability

Facing discrimination and exclusion in many societies, Jews were often barred from owning land and participating in certain trades. This forced them to adapt by pursuing intellectual and creative professions, such as finance, medicine, and academia. As a result, the Jewish community fostered a culture of intellectualism and scholarship that contributed to their long-lasting influence and success.

Creative Problem Solving

Throughout history, Jewish communities have had to confront numerous social, political, and economic challenges. These difficulties often required innovative solutions for survival. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews had to adopt false identities and find creative ways to preserve their religious practices. This penchant for problem-solving has continued to manifest in the modern world, as demonstrated by the significant contributions of Jewish individuals in various disciplines.

Art and Culture

Jewish people have historically used art and culture as a means of preserving their identity and expressing their experiences. From the visual arts to literature, Jewish artists have often portrayed their struggles and triumphs, fostering a sense of resilience and unity within their community. By using creative outlets to reflect on their past and present, Jews have been able to endure and overcome significant adversity.


The historical experiences of adversity and persecution faced by the Jewish people have contributed to their development of creativity, adaptability, and resilience. These qualities have not only allowed them to survive and persevere through countless hardships but have also played a significant role in their success in the business world. The resourcefulness and adaptability of the Jewish people, along with their focus on intellectual pursuits and education, have equipped them with the necessary skills to excel in various fields, including trade, finance, and other service sectors. Additionally, their strong communal bonds and support networks have facilitated collaboration and the sharing of resources, while their persistence and determination have driven them to overcome challenges and build successful businesses. This unique combination of historical experiences and characteristics has allowed the Jewish community to thrive, demonstrating the transformative power of creativity and resilience in the face of adversity.

The Jew’s Uncanny Ability to Survive

The ability of the Jewish people to use creativity as a means of survival has been a crucial factor in their perseverance throughout history. The connection between creativity and survival is evident in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances, generate innovative solutions, and maintain a strong sense of cultural identity. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Jewish people have enabled them to navigate the many trials and tribulations they have faced, from religious persecution to widespread discrimination. By fostering a culture of learning, problem-solving, and artistic expression, the Jewish community has consistently demonstrated the power of creativity as a tool for survival. This adaptability and resilience, in turn, have allowed them to not only endure but also to thrive in spite of the many challenges they have encountered over the centuries.

The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Jewish people have enabled them to navigate the many trials and tribulations they have faced, including religious persecution, forced expulsions, and genocidal attempts. By fostering a culture of learning, problem-solving, and artistic expression, the Jewish community has consistently demonstrated the power of creativity as a tool for survival.

This adaptability and resilience have allowed the Jewish people to not only endure but also to thrive in spite of the ongoing threats they have encountered over the centuries. Their story serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the transformative power of creativity in the face of adversity.

This article was written based on my new book: “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.

[i] Mark Twain, September 1897 (Quoted in The National Jewish Post & Observer, June 6, 1984

[ii] ‘Lectures Exploring the Psychology of Creativity’. A conversation between Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and Dr. Jordan B Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which took place March 9, 2017 at the National Gallery of Canada.

[iii] https://www.health.com/condition/stress/what-is-cortisol

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist