Academic journal article Shofar

J.M. Da Costa, M.D. - A Tinok She-Nishbah? an American Civil War Converso Physician

Academic journal article Shofar

J.M. Da Costa, M.D. - A Tinok She-Nishbah? an American Civil War Converso Physician

Article excerpt

J.M. da Costa, M.D. -- A tinok she-nishbah? An American Civil War Converso Physician

This essay presents a Sephardi physician, J. M. da Costa, who described the Civil War equivalent of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder -- Irritable Heart. Da Costa's medical contribution is deemed an origin for the contemporary field of traumatic stress studies. Intergenerational transmission of trauma is an important facet of trauma studies; extensive research exists concerning Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren. Secondgeneral children routinely choose helping professions such as medicine in order to master their parents' trauma and to fend off feelings of psychological vulnerability which may lead to assimilation and marrying out. Da Costa personifies such findings. It is suggested that the Marrano experience has not been adequately factored into what it means for Jewish identity and continuity. The concept of tinok she-nishbah, the captured infant, is used metaphorically to frame the problematic discontinuity of identity due to trauma.


The answer to the question which this title poses is technically no -- J. M. da Costa would not qualify as a tinok she-nishbah (literally a captured infant or child who has been raised in total ignorance of Judaism), but here we will argue that this rabbinic concept may be tremendously helpful in reassessing the emotional discontinuity to Judaism. Such a traumatized sense of self may lead to and perhaps explain in part high rates of assimilation and intermarriage that have plagued Judaism and the Jewish community over the centuries but most especially in post-Holocaust times. The antecedents of traumatic communal experiences have chipped away at a cohesive and productive sense of Jewish identity with shifts away from the traditional value of learning and teaching. By examining the life and works of a brilliant American Civil War physician, Dr. Jacob Mendes da Costa, the authors intend to demonstrate that due to the family legacy of Marranism, da Costa was psychologically vulnerable to assimilation and marrying out. Psychological trauma dating from the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the family's expulsion from Spain caused the descendents to be set apart, making it quite difficult to reintegrate into a normative Sephardi life free from identification with religions other than Judaism.

Jacob Mendes da Costa was an extraordinary physician at the time of the American Civil War, so much so that to this day there exists an eponym, the Da Costa syndrome, in medicine, especially psychiatry and cardiology. Da Costa was the first to be credited with describing panic attacks in soldiers associated with cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which he called Irritable Heart of the Soldier. Da Costa was of Marrano descent with a family history that demonstrated an inability to reintegrate into London Jewry. In many ways he was also a nineteenth-century Converso physician following that important medical tradition, dating from the sixteenth century, of those physicians who were allowed to train in Padua and who were among the first Jews to be allowed to study medicine in Renaissance Europe. Yet da Costa remains largely unknown to a history of Jewish medicine and to the wider Jewish public. This historical repression of his memory serves as a metaphor for the haunting Marrano and Converso experience and the underestimated toll it has taken on Jewish identity and continuity.

Like Madeleine Albright's family, Jacob Mendes da Costa's family never settled into a comfortable and cohesive sense of Jewish identity following traumatic social upheaval; and while there is as yet no evidence that he personally converted to Episcopalianism as Albright did, his mother, Ramah Levy Mendes da Costa, did convert after the death of her husband Yonatan, and within the same time her son Jacob married Sarah Brinton, a prominent Episcopalian. She came from an illustrious colonial white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family. …

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