Nobody’s Runner Up: A Havana Love Story for Purim by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Nothing in Brooklyn could rival the formal dances in Havana at the Patronato de la Communidad Hebreo de Cuba. And nothing in the world could rival the exquisite Purim Ball of 1954 at the Patronato. Although my nineteen-year old mother was not selected as the Queen Esther of the ball that night, she was one of Esther’s four attendants—a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title for her. It was also the night she fell in love with Manuel. She was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother made for her, the neckline studded with tiny, starry rhinestones.

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Falling in love with Manuel was fated, she thought. Not three weeks earlier, my mother tripped on the University of Havana’s famous stone staircase that fanned down to the street. She limped to the university clinic where a handsome doctor had dressed her scraped knee. Here he was again at the Purim Ball.

My mother has always believed in signs more than she believes in God.

**

On her first day of classes at the university, my mother ventured forth alone to the campus from her flat on La Calle Mercéd in Old Havana. She had just enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola. It had been a fierce struggle to persuade my grandfather, my Abuelo, to allow her out at all. In his mind, the university was no place for a girl, particularly a Jewish girl. Abuelo slapped my mother when she told him she had been accepted to the university. And in one of his drunken rages, he beat my grandmother, Abuela, for encouraging my mother to apply.

“A girl needs an education,” Abuela screamed. “She’ll work like a burra, if she doesn’t go to school—a burra like me sewing until her fingers fall off.”

Abuelo begrudgingly, soberly relented, but gave his daughter grim odds: “You will come home with a Christiano,” he predicted “and if you do—te lo juro—I swear—you will be dead to me.”

But at the ball my mother defied her father’s odds and danced with the Jewish Manuel all night. Manuel stroked her knee, now fully healed, through the black velvet of her dress as she sipped lemonade. This was love, my mother thought.

**

By the winter of 1959, my mother’s heart was broken forever. She had followed Manuel from Cuba to New York. She believed that Manuel had not asked her to join him in the United States right away so that she could finish her studies in case Batista reopened the University of Havana. But soon after she arrived, she understood his noble gesture for what it was: Manuel did not want her.

My mother stayed in America anyway, where she endured the cold and year-round homesickness in a room she rented from her father’s cousins. When she came down with pneumonia during her first New York winter, she stayed in bed, feverish and disoriented. The Hungarian girls she worked with at the watch factory, where she typed invoices, brought her homemade pastries. While her friends’ political conflagration in Budapest happened in 1956, Castro had only recently come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marching into the center of Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959.

Once she was well enough, my mother’s cousins encouraged her to go to Saturday night dances for Jewish singles, but she preferred to stay in with them and watch Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk. Those dances were for chusmas—girls who wore ankle bracelets and bright red toenail polish—on the prowl for men of equally questionable status.

**

Bound up in my mother’s lifelong sorrow has always been the loss of her nineteen-year old self, the girl who was so nearly the belle of the Purim Ball that she inflated the honor of runner-up into a victory of its own. “I was prettier than any of these girls,” she sighed when we watched a beauty contest on television.

That part she got right. The proof is in the black and white photograph I have of my mother taken shortly after the Purim Ball. Her head is slightly turned to the right; she seems to be gazing off into the future. Her wavy black hair is loose and cascades down her back. Her lips are dark, her eyebrows arched like a movie star’s.

At nineteen, my mother is magnificent. She is nobody’s runner up.

Monster Love by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I met my first boyfriend Monster by way of the Hebrew Home when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. His great-grandfather had a room across the hall from my grandmother. My mother and his grandmother were often the only relatives visiting the place. They started talking about this and that and soon planned to fix up their children.

Monster’s grandmother brought his high school picture for my mother’s inspection. A portrait really—retouched in rosy-cheeked pink and framed in a heavy dark wood. He was exactly the kind of boy she had in mind for me and for her. Monster’s grandmother saw the proofs of my high school yearbook picture—raw and unfinished and scarred with acne. Monster called anyway.

Rugby-shirted, tall with dark curly hair, he was was the handsomest, most grown up boy I had ever seen. He asked if my big sister was home when he picked me up. That first date lasted eight years.

Shortly after, Monster left me behind in high school for his freshman year of college. I wrote to him like crazy and thought this is what love feels like—the urge to pen long letters about everything and nothing. He wrote back that everyone in his class, including him, wanted to be a doctor.

The next year, I went to college locally. Monster’s mother cooked food for him that she froze and delivered to me. I took a train down to see him and brought those meals in a duffel bag I could barely carry. My roommate called me Judy Birdseye and Monster called me Burger after the frozen hamburger patties. By the time I reached him, the bags were sweating, beaded all over with drops of water.

After I graduated from college, I went to New York to continue with Monster who was in medical school by then. I found a publishing job that came with a meager paycheck. I rented a hole of a room six blocks and two avenues away from my boyfriend in an unairconditioned, overheated Y. This all seemed reasonable at the time.

But as soon as I arrived at the Y Monster abandoned me. He wanted to compare. He met women everywhere—in restaurants, bookstores, buses. Two months later I took him back after just one phone call. He was flunking out of medical school.

I quizzed him until he passed two out of the three classes, but he couldn’t make a go of microbiology. He would have to repeat the entire subject and the only accredited course was in Philadelphia. I lied to everyone about Monster’s whereabouts that summer. I told his roommate that he was on an extended vacation in Mexico recuperating from a tough year.

In an era before cell phones, Monster waited at the same phone booth each night for my call. “Why do I have to learn so much microbiology?” he lamented. “What does it have to do with being a doctor?”

At the end of the summer I walked Monster to his microbiology test. It was like accompanying a condemned man to his hanging. He passed, but barely, and I moved in with him in his third year of medical school. He gave me half of his closet, two drawers and insomnia.

Monster and I never broke up exactly. But I knew our time had run out when I watched him walk across a dais to receive his medical school diploma. Soon after I moved back to the Y and waited for him to call anyway.

Twenty years later, one of my mother’s daily scans of the obituaries in my hometown newspaper turned up a notice that Monster’s father had died. My condolence note brought us to a restaurant in Boston. Monster wore a dark suit to lunch. He gave me a dozen roses. He was bald. His hands shook when he held his turkey club sandwich. He had a lawyer on retainer to keep his teen-age son out of trouble. His soon to be ex-wife frequently locked him out of the house.

That afternoon I talked and Monster listened. I told him that a man should only have to apologize once. I told him that I was happily married and the mother of two beautiful children. I told him that I still have a recurring nightmare in which I call information and the operator says that his number is unpublished.

I almost felt sorry for Monster during that lunch. But then I didn’t. Lunch was finished and so were we.

This essay originally appeared on the Forward’s Sisterhood Blog

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo love to tell the story of how they founded their website, everyoneisgay.com. “The short answer is that it began as a joke,” says Owens-Reid, 29. In 2010, Owens-Reid, an actor and comedian, had started a comic website called Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. “I was getting a lot of flak about stereotyping lesbians, and I felt that was unfair.” She mentioned her dilemma to an acquaintance, Russo, 33, who also has a theater background but at the time was studying for a master’s in gender studies. In response, the two women decided to launch a website that addressed Owens-Reid’s negative feedback while also fielding advice questions from the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning community. That idea evolved into everyoneisgay.com, their website and organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth. To support their cause the women tour schools, give advice weekly from their Tumblr account, and offer support to families through a companion site, theparentsproject.com. They estimate that over the past four years they have answered more than 50,000 questions, ranging from what happens when “I fall in love with my best friend” to coming out to religious family members. Owens-Reid and Russo’s most recent project is “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life.’’

Q. What are your coming out stories and how have they influenced your work?

RUSSO: I was home on Thanksgiving break from college in 1998 and was working through feelings I had for a woman from high school. Yet I was unsure about identifying as gay or homosexual. My parents had been asking me since I was 13 if I was gay. When they asked me again at the Thanksgiving table that year, I unexpectedly came out. My parents shaped the moment for me. They told me that they loved me. But my dad worried about discrimination, and I struggled with my mom who was raised a very religious Roman Catholic. She was taught that being gay was a sin, and anyone who acted on those feelings would go to hell. Because she loves me with every bone in her body, she couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t join her in heaven. Luckily, my mother never stopped challenging herself and revisiting those feelings.

OWENS-REID: I’m from South Carolina and was raised in a very proper Southern way. But when a girl kissed me in college, I came out almost immediately after that. My dad has always put my happiness before anything. Nothing fazed him about my sexuality. All he wanted to do was help and that was very comforting. My mother has had a few struggles. It wasn’t an easy road for the two of us. She would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Don’t you want to get married?’’

Q. Can you talk a little about how the coming-out process works its way through families?

RUSSO: “There’s so much benefit in allowing parents to go through their own [coming-out] process. A woman came up to us the other day on our book tour and told us that “you saved my relationship with my daughter. She reads your work and you told her that I need to come out as well.’’ It’s giving permission to everyone involved to assess the moment.

OWENS-REID: One of the most meaningful things that we write in the book is for kids to think about the process of the person they come out to. Your mother or father has to tell family members, the people they work with. It’s also important for parents and kids to understand that the first reaction to a kid coming out will not always be perfect. People have to work through the news and not talking about it is one of the worst things you can do.

Q. Should parents refrain from directly asking their child if he or she is gay?

RUSSO: My mother asked me about my sexuality when I was 13, and the question confused me. I wasn’t aware of my identity yet, and I thought that she was asking me because people perceived me as gay. Also, if a kid is not ready to tell a parent he can panic and say he’s not gay. In addition to tackling the coming-out moment, he feels as if he’s lied to his parents. Even in a particular situation where your child is leaving hints, it’s not the best idea to ask. Instead, make a welcoming environment in which you love and accept all people regardless of their identity.

OWENS-REID: A cool thing you can do as a parent to make it easier for your kid to come out is to ask if she is interested in someone at school. Give your child gender-free triggers.

Q. In the book you condemn the words “choice’’ and “fault’’ when discussing sexual identity. Why do those particular words concern you?

RUSSO: I find conversations troubling when parents say that “homosexuality wasn’t my kid’s choice.’’ It implies that if you could choose you wouldn’t be the person that you are. Sexual identity is not a choice, and I don’t feel that I was born with a particular sexual identity.

OWENS-REID: Fault and choice are terrible words. Nothing in particular makes your kids gay. A television show or a piece of clothing does not influence sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense. When people assign fault or blame they imply that there is something wrong, that there is a negative air about gayness.

Q. Do you think parents of LGBTQ children feel they have more to worry about than those whose children are not?

RUSSO: Parents of gay children may struggle a little more because they don’t have a clear picture of what LGBTQ lives look like. The best thing that parents can do is gather information and figure out what throws their picture of the future into disarray.

OWENS-REID: Parents worry. It’s in the job description, and they would also worry about their heterosexual child finding a good partner. Talk to your children. We have learned so much from the LGBTQ young people we meet. They know things and want to talk about them.

Interview originally published in the November 18, 2014 edition of the Boston Globe

Trust Women–Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Judy Bolton-Fasman

TrustWomen

My abortion was a secret that I kept for almost 20 years. When I decided to terminate my pregnancy in 1995, I was happily married and the mother of a six month-old baby girl. I was also dealing with post-partum depression and knew that I could not handle two children fifteen months apart. I also knew that having an abortion was a human right that my grandmother didn’t have. She had tried to abort a pregnancy by ripening her cervix with olive oil and taking scalding baths. Abortion wasn’t a medical procedure that Katha Pollitt’s mother was entitled to either. “I never had an abortion, but my mother did…it was in 1960, so like almost all abortions back then, it was illegal,” begins Pollitt’s new book, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.” [(http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312620547-0)%5D

I’m part of a striking, even comforting set of statistics. Three in ten American women have had abortions by the time they reach menopause. Most of these women are not victims of rape or incest. Six out of ten of them are mothers like me who have elected to have an abortion because they cannot have a child at that moment.

In Pollitt’s view, these women are making a reasonable and even a commendable decision. Pollitt, a prolific essayist, poet and longtime columnist for The Nation, has laid out cogent arguments for normalizing abortion and viewing it as a social good. Abortion, she writes, is an “essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.”

Her book, a compendium of pro-choice opinions, puts forward three main arguments. The first asserts that “the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense. It’s an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely.” In her recent appearance in Boston, sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive and Harvard Book Store, Pollitt noted that Judaism implicitly recognizes abortion’s legitimacy, emphasizing the health of the mother over that of a fetus. According to rabbinic interpretation, a person is not a person until she draws her first breath.

Pollitt’s second point bluntly claims that “the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families.” As Pollitt points out, only 7 to 20 percent of Americans want to ban abortion completely. A vocal minority has politicized and even criminalized abortion for the rest of us.

But it is her third argument that resonates most with me. Pollitt calls for “reframing” the way we consider abortion. “There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy.”

I have been somewhat defensive about my own abortion. In an essay that I published over the summer about my experience, I wrote, “Sometimes I wish this story had a cinematic ending. But I did not jump off the table, holding the back of my gown together, walking away backwards saying, ‘This is a mistake.’ Saying, ‘I’ll keep the baby.’” [(http://themanifeststation.net/2014/07/14/the-abortion/)%5D

Yet I don’t regret my abortion. My decision was for the baby I already had, for the baby boy I gave birth to three years later. After the essay went live, I heard from women—many of whom I had known for years—that told me their abortion stories for the first time. Like me, they were ambivalent about the experience. Almost two decades later, one friend still mourns on her due date. But all of the women who reached out to me, including her, said that it was not the right time to have a child. As Pollitt puts it, that should be reason enough.

After my essay came out, I told my 20 year-old daughter about my abortion. She was gentle with me. Maybe her empathy was due in part to the fact that she was born well after Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. After all, abortion has always been her right.

I’m also sure that my daughter instinctively knows how true “Trust Women”—one of the mottos in the pro-choice movement—is. I think she understands that I’m not always wise and I’m certainly not clairvoyant. She simply trusts that I made the best decision I could in a difficult situation.

When Yom Kippur Prayers Don’t Help With Grieving by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.

The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.

In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”

Falk described the experience of hearing the traditional Un’taneh Tokef as one that left her feeling “hollow” and then angry.

I remember feeling similarly distressed that the Yom Kippur liturgy did not address my grief. For Falk, though, it led her to her life’s work as a composer of a new Hebrew liturgy — a liturgy expressed in a gender-free, non-hierarchical language. In prose and poetry and prayer, Falk jettisoned the image of God as father, king and ruler and brought a more inclusive voice to wide attention in her opus The Book of Blessings: A New Prayer Book for the Weekdays, the Sabbath and the New Moon..

“The Days Between”, however, focuses on the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditionally known as the Yamim Noraim — the Days of Awe. Falk calls these days by a gentler name: the Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Turning, or Returning. In keeping with that welcoming spirit, there is no image of God as a judge or executioner in these pages. God is a spirit, a force, a benevolent presence in the world. In her rendition of the Un’taneh Tokef, Falk reflects her belief that “our mortality is the core of a spiritual life.” Her interpretation of the prayer begins: “Our lives are stories/inscribed in time./At the turning of the year/we look back, look ahead, see/that we are always/in the days between.

I was most affected by Falk’s rendering of Yizkor, the service of remembrance. She transforms Yizkor from a communal, one-size-fits-all liturgy into something more personal and meaningful by renaming it Ezkor, “I recall.” The traditional liturgy asks God to remember the souls of our dead, but Falk recasts the service as a personal journey in which recollections of our dead are individuated. “’I Recall,’ writes Falk, “offers a way to mourn while acknowledging the fullness of one’s experience.”

There are parallels between traditional liturgy and Falk’s prayerful renditions. For example, in Falk’s Ezkor service, her poem “Beneath the Shekhinah’s Wings” corresponds with Psalm 23. The phrase tahat kan’fey hash’khinah (beneath the Shekhina’s wings) is from El Maley Rahamim, God of Compassion, the hymn customarily recited at funerals.

As I read through Falk’s prose poems and “re-visionings” of the High Holiday prayers, I realized that she has written a machzor, a High Holiday prayer book, for the 21st century that is nothing short of revolutionary. This machzor begins with the beautiful, simple idea of exalting the world around us rather than limiting ourselves to the traditional extolling of God’s name as we do in the Mourner’s Kaddish. In “The Days Between” Falk encourages us to confront our mortality while delving into the richness with which we commemorate our humanity.

A traditional translation of the Un’taneh Tokef

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.

This piece was originally published on the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward on September 30, 2014

Goodbye and Thank You to My Jewish Advocate Readers

Dear Anna and Adam:

Like all of the parenting columns I’ve written for The Jewish Advocate, this final one is dedicated to you. For eight years, with grace, humor and love, you have allowed me to chronicle you growing up. I’ve chosen to end my run as the Advocate’s parenting columnist because like you, I’ve aged out of the subject. I no longer do the hands-on parenting I once did. Anna, you are away for most of the year at college and Adam, you are on the cusp of leaving for school. And you drive! I’m no longer in a carpool – once a natural incubator for nurturing so many of these essays. Your conversations in the back seat inspired me to look further into issues like bullying, adolescent relationships and the general angst which your age group comes by naturally. But most importantly, your thoughts and ideas moved me to look deeper into my soul. Writing about you has led me to what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls moments of “radical amazement.” Simple moments like watching each of you walk into school when you were little.

Anna, I marvel at the young woman you have become. You epitomize wisdom and empathy. When I started writing this column you were 12 years old. These past eight years you became a bat mitzvah, you graduated from high school and you went to college. Attached to those milestones were other significant events, about which I promised you I would never write. That promise is forever. But I admire how you have negotiated relationships and academics with equal aplomb.

Adam, you are a gentleman and a scholar. When you’re around you won’t let me carry the groceries or bring in the pails. You’re as equally comfortable playing video games as you are discussing metaphors in “The Great Gatsby.” You are also the bravest person I know. You have always been forthright about who you are. I was never prouder of you than when you came out this year with such poise and dignity. But I also love that you’re still very much a kid.Nothing makes me happier than when you ask to come into my bedroom to read near me. It’s the best kind of parallel playing!

PuertoRico

I also take my leave of Advocate readers during the High Holiday season. As you might remember from your day school education, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. Last year I did something a bit different to commemorate that time by participating in the 10Q Project. During those ten days, I answered an introspective series of daily emails from the folks at 10Q and Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization that seeks to reinvent and reimagine Jewish rituals and traditions. My answers were then locked in a virtual vault that will reopen three days before this coming Rosh Hashana. I thought it might be fun to answer a few of them here in relation to the parenting column and to you.

The first question was basic, expected, yet somehow hard to answer in the same way that writing this last column is turning out to be. “Describe a significant experience that has happened in the last year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful, relieved, resentful, inspired?” Among the significant experiences I’ve had with this column are invitations to talk to synagogue groups where – surprise – I talk about both of you! I’m so grateful to everyone who has followed my adventures in parenting. So grateful to people who have wished us well over the years. Without readers I’m just writing into a void. It thrills me that you and I are in the hearts of so many people.

Some of the 10Q questions went outside personal experience to “describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?” We talked a lot about the world, particularly about Israel, this past summer. Anna,you worried about how you would make the case for Israel on a college campus. Adam, you grappled with the events in Ferguson. As a family, we said Baruch Dayan Emet (words that are uttered upon hearing about a death) – God is the true judge – too many times in the past few months. You are young adults now with strong opinions of your own. My actions no longer make as deep an impression on you.You must decide for yourselves if God is the true judge or if you even believe in God.

But it was the 10Q question about the future that made me both anxious and hopeful. “Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?” It’s time for me to take the energy that I’ve put into this column into other projects and causes that are equally dear to me.

But mostly, when I think about the future I think about both of you. I pray for all of us to be healthy, creative and productive. I now realize that has always been the subtext of my columns about the two of you. Everything I do, I do with you in mind. You are my muses. You are the loves of my life. And I thank God every moment of every day for you.

All My Love,

Mom

Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.