Thanksgivukkah and Anatevka by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It had been forty years since my last violin lesson when I went this summer to rent a violin to start up again. I glimpsed the stock room where there were hundreds of violins, still and gleaming and soundless, coming together in a symphony of silence.

 

It’s funny what the body remembers. As soon as I tucked the violin under my chin, I automatically started the fingering of a Vivaldi concerto in A Minor on the violin’s graceful, ebony neck. There was no sound played, just my fingers making contact with the steel strings.

My father and grandfather loved playing the violin and they wanted me to love making music too. Each of them practiced with me often, and one of my earliest memories is of my father tucking my tiny, quarter-sized violin under his chin to tune it. He aimed to give me, his tin-eared daughter, a fair start.

My violin tuned, my dad then perched the small instrument on his lap. “I can’t believe they make them this small,” he said. By his own description he had me “later in life” and I imagine he said the same thing about me when I was born.

 

I started violin lessons when I was eight. When I was fourteen I handed my father back the full-sized violin I had finally grown into. I was not a musician.

 

My Grandfather Bolton also began violin lessons when he was eight. His family cut the household budget razor-thin to give their promising young son music lessons. When Grandpa touched bow to strings his parents heard his talent and though they may not have understood it that way, my great-grandparents sensed that Grandpa’s musical ability coupled with America’s social mobility would enable him to move ahead in this country at dizzying speed.

At the age of 14, my grandfather debuted at a tony Connecticut country club. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that he went to his first gig in a sleigh and was woozy from the cold until someone warmed him up with a hot toddy. It was the first time he was drunk.

My grandfather chronicled his sparkling immigrant story on legal-size loose-leaf pages. Grandpa’s faithful secretary typed draft after draft of a book he simply entitled Memoirs. With each pass, Grandpa further sanitized his history, hoping to make his life as all-American as the cars he drove.

 

William M. Bolton--Yale Graduation-1913

William M. Bolton–Yale Graduation-1913

William M. Bolton was born in 1891 in Ukraine and came to the United States when he was six months old. He saw the advent of the automobile and the refrigerator. He wrote about his father’s trips to the icehouse in the family’s horse-pulled cart for blocks of ice to store dairy products. But he wrote nothing about the poverty in which he grew up.

 

Grandpa fiddled his way through Yale by joining the musician’s union to pay his college tuition and to buy the “right clothes” to go to classes with the likes of Cole Porter. I imagine that Cole Porter played his piano in the rarefied company of Yale’s sons while Grandpa played at dances in fraternity houses to which he would otherwise never be admitted. He was silent about Yale’s anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. By the time my paternal grandparents met during Grandpa’s junior year at Yale, they had deliberately forgotten that they came to America from Russia as babies.

 

I’m not sure what my father and grandfather would make of Thanksgivukkah, this once in a century, possibly once in a millennium holiday. They loved America fiercely and unquestioningly. They may have thought the whole idea was kitsch. Certainly the name is as cumbersome as their Judaism was to them. Or they may have felt vindicated by the fuss over the confluence of this American holiday with an ancient Jewish one. My grandparents were assimilated to the point that they traded the white and blue flame of a Hanukkah menorah for the red and green glitz of a small silver Christmas tree propped on a coffee table.

 

But I think I’ve figured out my grandparents’ story. When I had begun to play the violin my parents went to see Fiddler on the Roof. They came home with a recording of the show’s song that I played in an endless loop on our hi-fi. Zero Mostel boomed about a fiddler just like Grandpa, the fiddler who hovered over my childhood like a Chagall painting.

 

 

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.

 

My grandfather fiddled to keep his balance as he took on the mantle of a navy blue, Ivy League life. To start over he changed his name from Bolotin to Bolton. But despite those dramatic attempts at fitting in, I think my father and grandfather were Thanksgivukkah Jews. They aspired to have the best of what America offered. But in the end their descendants celebrate Hanukkah over Christmas.

 

Fiddler on the Roof shed light on part of my grandfather’s identity. He loved the record as much as I did. And it was the first time that I realized my grandparents came from shtetls like the fictional Anatevka. It feels right that their story is set to music. It feels right that Fiddler on the Roof was as American as the Boltons, or for that matter, Thanksgivukkah.

 

For the Breath of Schoolchildren by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Talmud states that “parents bring a child into this world but a teacher can bring a child into the World to Come.” As I was searching for this quote on the Internet, in its idiosyncratic wisdom, Google also pointed me to the saying that a father is obligated to teach his son to swim.

On the surface, these two Talmudic directives seem to be at odds with each other. The first asks parents to give over their child to a teacher for a proper education. The second is a handson command to teach a child a basic survival skill. But walk into Dr. Jonathan Garlick’s research laboratory at Tufts Dental School and the two dictums come seamlessly together.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Garlick is a professor of oral pathology and the head of a stem cell research laboratory, for which the ultimate goal is “using [stem] cells for personalized therapies for regeneration and repair of diseased or damaged tissues and organs. [And] to develop novel applications for artificial skin made in the lab that closely mimics the form and function of this human tissue.”

“Science is about communication,” says Tufts University Professor Jonathan Garlick.
In short, Garlick harvests stem cells that allow him to model the way your skin behaves. But read the summary of his research closely and you’ll pick up subtext that the two Talmudic dictums suggest: designing experiments that further our understanding of how stem cells can be used to fight disease and developing the hands-on laboratory protocols that are required to expand that knowledge. As novel and innovative as Garlick’s scientific work is, there is something else just as extraordinary happening in his laboratory: He is deliberately and effectively training the next generation of scientists and science-literate students. And he is capturing their hearts and minds while they are still in high school. There has now been a long line of Gann Academy students and others, including my children Anna and Adam, who have completed immersion programs in Garlick’s laboratory specifically geared to pre-college students. It began when Garlick welcomed high school seniors from Gann into his workspace through Ma’avar – the school’s six-week externship program. The experience proved to be so powerful for both the students and Garlick that he went on to design a two-week immersion experience for high school students in the summer.

Garlick is passionate about his work and dedicated to his mission “to be an incubator for student learning of all ages. This isn’t just about research, but about the broader impact of science in their lives. I want kids to converse in science, and by that I mean that I want to inspire them to be empowered citizens in ongoing conversations about science.”

Garlick’s vision of educating students is couched in the Jewish values that he holds dear. He explains that his research with stem cells is a type of regenerative medicine that he views as “molecular ‘Tikkun Olam’” – he sees replacing damaged cells with cells that he grows in the laboratory as contributing to healing the world.

Garlick recognizes that aspects of stem cell research are open to public debate. He says that his mandate to teach science to younger generations and beyond evolved from his experience as a stem cell researcher. He observes that his work is often surrounded by “moral, political and legal issues that have a direct impact on scientific research. I needed to learn about these broader impacts in order to better understand how social, moral, philosophical and ethical issues that are grounded in science can play an increasingly larger role in our contemporary lives.” To that end, Garlick relishes teaching students how to wrestle with issues at the interface of our capabilities and conscience while also emphasizing respectful debate.

“Science,” notes Garlick, “is about communication. There is value to communication and teamwork when doing scientific research.” Students in his laboratory also learn that they have personal stakes in the work to which they are exposed. Garlick cites the human genome as a prime example. What does a researcher, an insurance company or, for that matter, a private citizen do with the information that is generated? With whom do we share it? What is confidential and what is public? What does one do when she learns that she may be at risk for a particular disease?

“I teach my interns about probabilistic information versus deterministic information, judgment versus uncertainty,” says Garlick. “It’s crucial to help these students develop powers of discernment to appreciate the broader impact of this technology in their lives.”

As with much of science, failure is a “welcomed part of the experimental learning process. We get unexpected results. In fact, at times, we don’t get it right, but every result has a purpose and kids end up using critical-thinking skills to teach each other.”

In addition to growing stem cells, Garlick emphasizes that he is cultivating a culture of “derech eretz” – respect – in his laboratory. “Mutual respect and collaboration is a value that transcends cliques in high school. We engage individuality for the greater good. And that individualism has meaning and value whether it is from a 10th-grader or a postdoctoral student. My goal is to humanize the science.”

Jonathan Garlick’s dedication to nurturing the next generation of scientists and informed citizens brings to mind another Talmudic saying that joins the work of teachers and parents: “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.”

Sorting Through the Parent Backpack by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Anna was 11 years old, she asked if I would read “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her. Not one to want to miss out, Adam asked if he could also listen to the story.

I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain its apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that “Huckleberry Finn” is on Adam’s English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground.

I told that story recently to ML Nichols, author of the very helpful book “ The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.” In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that “reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child’s education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school.”

parentbackpack
Middle school? Isn’t that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols noted that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to: “ They won’t tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary.”

According to Nichols, the best way to support a child’s education is to model read for that child. “Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years,” she noted. “If a child doesn’t develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school.” Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children: “ Whether you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet – let your kids see you reading.”

Nichols’ wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard-won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children’s early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a bird’s-eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering.

“I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees,” she noted. “But it wasn’t until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I’d learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years.”

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child’s teacher is another cornerstone of his education. “I see our children’s elementary journey like a winding river,” she said. “ We’re on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we’re partners. Each of us does our part.” Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions: “Do your part,” she asserts. “Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don’t be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I’m also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn’t do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. Such conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers.”

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead, she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, “ That place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher.”

Adam is a junior in high school. I’m grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank-you note to his longtime academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone.

“Teachers,” says Nichols, “appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything.”

Reciting Kaddish, As a Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

Since leaving Jewish day school, I had wandered through the various branches of Judaism and settled on practicing Conservative Judaism. At the time of my father’s death, I decided to attend a daily Conservative minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. As I wrote in my journal:

I’m both surprised and fulfilled that the daily recitation of the Kaddish has become part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.

My year of Kaddish so deeply impressed me that, ever since, I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with one daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. Before he died, he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish, which allowed his daughter to recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her prayer.

Despite patriarchal obstacles, the Kaddish has always belonged to women. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote in a letter that year:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

During the year after my father died, I visited Rome on vacation. It was there among the city’s more than 900 churches, I went searching for a synagogue. I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish. I went to Rome’s Great Synagogue where armed policemen surrounded the courtyard. A private security guard asked my husband, not me, what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed.

Inside, the daily minyan was formal — like walking into a sepia photograph — with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. My husband and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish.

The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.”

I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? And how dare anyone tell Jewish women in the name of God not to eulogize their dead or say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This piece originally appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward as well as the paper’s print edition.

The Joy of Cooking with ChopChop by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I don’t cook very well. My family is bored with my rotating repertoire of chicken, turkey meatballs, and pasta with kosher turkey sausage.

I did have a creative period where I made chicken fajitas and a pretty decent meatloaf. But those didn’t last long. My excuse is that I’m always short on time, but the truth is that cooking intimidates me. I’m from the Birds Eye generation where convenience trumped fresh food and cooking itself.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a food writer such as Sally Sampson. Sampson is the founder and publisher of a nonprofit organization that publishes a delightful magazine for children called Chop- Chop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families. Sampson not only finds the fun aspects of cooking; she demystifies it and elevates simple cooking to its own art form.

Sampson is no stranger to creating recipes. With 22 cookbooks under her belt, she decided the time was right to combine her expertise with her burgeoning interest in health care and preventing obesity in children. In a recent interview at ChopChop’s offices in Watertown, Sampson noted that ChopChop Magazine and her new cookbook “ChopChop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family” allows her “to address obesity by having doctors prescribe cooking at well-child visits. And I’m using my skills [as a food writer and healthy-eating advocate] in the magazine recipes and the new cookbook.”

 

ChopChop Magazine, a quarterly publication, is distributed in 10,000 pediatricians’ offices in all 50 states. The magazine is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviews every issue. Since its launch in 2010, ChopChop boasts a circulation of 500,000 with 20 percent of the issues printed in Spanish. The magazine is funded primarily through sponsors such as the New Balance Foundation, and Children’s Hospitals in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. ChopChop recently garnered the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world when it was named “Publication of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.

ChopChop

Sally Sampson’s new cookbook is an extension of her nonprofit’s popular magazine.
No doubt ChopChop’s appealing design and clear language, along with bright colors and gorgeous food photography, were factors in wining the prestigious Beard Foundation award. But there is something more at stake here. It’s the recipes themselves that are innovative. Although the magazine and new cookbook are aimed at children ages 5 to 12, the recipes are surprisingly sophisticated without being complicated.

“I think of kids as inexperienced cooks,” said Sampson. “We cover the basics in our recipes, such as what kind of kitchen utensils they’ll need and whether or not making a recipe requires adult supervision. There are not too many steps in these recipes and not too many ingredients. And I don’t cook anything that goes into two pans.”

Sampson divides her recipes into three categories: the basics; the fancy version of the basics, in which kids can bump up a recipe with spices or herbs; and the expert level, which requires things such as kneading dough or using a blender. Adults need to be on hand to help with most recipes, which makes the ChopChop way of preparing food an intergenerational experience. Bear in mind there are no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. To prove how easy yet still elegant food preparation can be, Sampson taught me to make a basic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, vinegar and mustard. I drizzled it onto a simple spinach salad that I tossed with almonds and raspberries. After my family got over their initial surprise, they were impressed. Preparation time was less than 10 minutes. We haven’t had store-bought salad dressing since then.

“Eating well is cooking well,” noted Sampson. “If you can’t cook, then you don’t have a really clean diet. [ChopChop’s] No. 1 criterion is that it tastes good. We don’t want to demonize sugar and fat, but reduce them while being flavorful. We’re competing with fast food and takeout, which is causing an uptick in the obesity rates.”

Sampson’s solution to the dinner dilemma is straightforward too. She said the key lies in “a well-stocked pantry. Beans, pasta, rice and any other staples you can think of. Have olive oil on hand and a couple of vinegars, spices, onions, garlic, carrots, lemons and lime. Tofu is also good to have in the house. If you eat meat, have chicken breasts in the freezer. You can make an amazing salad with basic ingredients.”

As for me, I recently spiced up my pasta dishes by making Sampson’s “World’s Quickest Tomato Sauce.” Foregoing store-bought sauce, I also dispensed with sugar and, in some cases, fillers and preservatives.

As Sampson noted, “Cooking can seem out of reach for some people. We want to focus on the joy of cooking for kids and adults alike.” She’s helped me to do just that.

Yizkor As a Family Service by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When I was a child, I was exiled from the Yizkor service at Yom Kippur—the service in which we recall our dead and attend to mourning them formally. Call it superstition. Call it avoiding death. My grandmother would point towards the door, and out I would go with the rest of the kids until it was safe to return to the service.

 

I’d like to propose a new model: make the Yizkor service a family affair. Our children should learn early on that to be a Jew is to be deeply attached to memory. Jewish literature has championed memory from time immemorial. According to Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, the verb lizkor — to remember — appears 228 times in the Torah. It’s associated with subjects and events as disparate as Shabbat, Miriam’s leprosy and Amalek’s attack on the Israelites. Gelfand’s essay appears among a wonderful collection of pieces in an anthology called, May G-d Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism.

No doubt, our children see that we are a people that constantly references our time as slaves in Egypt in liturgy and worship. We are also a people for whom remembering is not abstract, but rather an active part of our identity. Rabbi Gelfand quotes Joshua Foer, author of a lovely memoir called Moonwalking With Einstein, who notes in his bid to become the 2009 USA Memory Champion that:

 

In Judaism, observance and remembering are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one…. For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active. Other people remember by thinking. Jews remember by doing.

 

The Yizkor service is somewhat of an anomaly to me. In a tradition that places so much value on communal life and the benefits of sharing memories of our dead, Yizkor is a highly individualized ritual that takes place within a congregation or at least among ten Jewish adults.

Rabbi Gelfand examines how memory morphs over time through Foer’s take on the neuroscience of the subject:

Memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.

 

If you have an analytical kid like I do, the neuroscience of Yizkor not only appeals to his intellect, but also balances thinking about death with the malleability of memory. Perhaps as parents we can work our way up to Yizkor by sharing our children’s namesake with them. The idea resonates with my work as a memoirist. Yes, memories fade and mutate over time. But in some ways Yizkor is a bulwark against that phenomenon. In its methodical accounting of our dead, there is an explicit reconstruction going on. Yizkor is the time that I clearly remember my father, my grandparents. It’s also the only time of year that I can conjure my dad’s voice. For me, Yizkor is a dedicated time and space that momentarily defies biology and psychology.

 

 Yizkor, notes Rabbi Gelfand “provides us our own private ongoing relationship with a loved one. It encourages an evolution of that relationship as opposed to allowing it to be frozen in time. Remembering someone over and over again enhances the parts of that relationship that prove sustaining but allows us to forget those characteristics that are not.” I like the way Rabbi Gelfand points out that forgetting is a crucial part of remembering. I think she’s on to something that approaches a neuroscience of the soul.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a customized Yizkor in which my son Adam might meaningfully participate. When Adam was born I shook off Ashkenazic tradition when I gave my son my father’s Hebrew name, Akiva. Unfortunately, the relative after whom Dad is named is forever lost. His predecessor’s name is without context. But Dad shares his Hebrew name with a martyr. Rabbi Akiva died in the second century, flayed alive in the hippodrome of Caesarea. His last words were the Sh’ma—Judaism’s signature prayer. Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew the six words of Judaism’s central prayer.

I want Adam to know that I’m certain my father would have liked Rabbi Akiva’s story. Akiva was a poor illiterate shepherd until the age of 40. Like my dad he married late. Like my dad he couldn’t recognize a single Hebrew letter until someone taught him as an adult.

 

My father’s story is an integral part of Adam’s life story. Showing him the door at Yizkor, before he has a chance to remember my father, is the antithesis of the Judaism I want to impart to him.

 

 

A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.

 

 

When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.

 

 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.

 

The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,

 

 

It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”