Memories of Cuba Past by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Fidel Castro’s death is complicated for me, a first generation Cuban-American. I know what Fidel wanted for Cuba and what he actually accomplished. The strands of his legacy are a braid of totalitarianism and Utopian socialism.

Fidel is the fiery figure of my childhood. He is a memory shaped through the insistence of repetition. He is the man whom my mother swore again and again she sat next to once on a bench at the University of Havana. He invited her to join him for coffee, but she declined the offer when she saw a handgun peeking out from under his jacket.

That was 1956. Before that Havana had been a sexy, rum-soaked playground for the mafia and spies alike until Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and triumphantly marched into the capital on New Year’s Day 1959.

Four years ago I walked the streets of Havana for the first time until I came to la Calle Mercéd 20 in Old Havana, my mother’s former house and the storied address of my childhood. For me, all things Cuban began and ended there. It was the place where my mother was forever young. It was the place where my grandparents shut the door on 50 years of life in Cuba and walked away forever.

When I knocked on No. 20’s entrance, a pregnant young woman answered the same heavy door my grandfather stumbled through after a night of drinking away his paycheck. It was the same door my mother gently tapped on in code to let her mother know she had safely arrived home. A young woman now lived there with her husband and extended family. (Housing is tight in Havana and extended families live together to save on rent.) The apartment was booming with the noise of too much stuff in a small place. The small living room of my mother’s former home was crowded with maroon brocade furniture and a big screen television that ran without the sound.

The tenants’ relatives in America had transfused the living room with American materialism. They must have taken one of the daily charters to Cuba that left from a corner of Miami’s International Airport. Check-in there was a veritable marketplace of Cuban expats toting Costco and Target and Best Buy purchases. Carts almost toppled over with boxes of microwaves and televisions. The expats were also determined to get even larger items like bicycles, scooters, and air conditioners to their trapped relatives. There was so much concentrated determination in that terminal.

I looked beyond the woman and saw the open-air courtyard between the dining room and rundown kitchen. It was the very place where the shochet, or kosher butcher, had slaughtered the chickens my Jewish grandmother bought from the market place. He cut the chickens’ throats and drained the blood out of the animals. As I walked the length of the courtyard, I saw laundry hanging from a balcony like team pennants or flags of surrender.

callemercedcourtyard

I thanked my hostess profusely and tried to offer her money for the impromptu visit. As soon as I held out the cash I felt like a fat cat gringa buying memories that weren’t quite mine. I sat on the stoop of la Calle Mercéd 20 trying to catch my breath after I had broken down in front of the woman. It was the kind of crying that darkens the mind like the night sky. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw a galaxy of stars. When I opened them I was still in Cuba, at my mother’s house, crying for her unfulfilled dreams of a Cuba libre—a free Cuba.

* * *

Cuba is an aging queen whose beauty is still evident despite decades of neglect and poverty. The place is translucent with pastel colors. Even the façade of la Calle Mercéd is painted in a light green. There is also the hunger of the people for all things that I, as an American visitor, might be able to offer them. The requests were humble. Kids came up to me and asked me for caramelitos and plumas—candies and pens. I gave them a couple of pens from a frilly Boston nail salon that wrote in purple ink. The women in a state-run pharmacy flagged me down on the street and asked if I had any medicine in my purse.

The cab driver who drove me back to my hotel asked me if I had any antacids or aspirin I could spare. He had perennial heartburn. His wife had migrañas and he was desperate to help her.

“There is nothing here,” he said. “Look at this old Lada that I drive.” Each morning he prayed that the thirty year-old car would start and that he’d catch enough fares to put food on the table.

Estoy aburrido de esta vida.”

He was more than fed up with life in Cuba. His was a lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia my mother had. I told him my mother missed the Cuba she remembered.

“What is there to miss here anymore?” he asked me. “Tell your mother not to come back.”

As I was getting ready to pay the fare, he said he had a mother-in-law in Jersey City who sent his family money whenever she could. It helped more than I could imagine, he said. I tipped him generously and gave him the half empty bottle of Advil I had left.

Gracias mi hija,” he said. In Cuba I was everyone’s daughter.

This essay originally appeared in TABLET Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/219002/memories-of-cuba-past

With Love, From Harold: A Father’s War Story Offers Hope In An Uncertain Time by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Second World War made my father an American. The Holocaust made him a Jew. And the confluence of those two events made him the bravest of the brave.

By the time dad graduated college he had already been recruited to be a 90-Day Wonder. He, and other young men like him, were fast-tracked to become military officers. It was 1940. For three months my dad was immersed in training at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He was 21 years old and when he finally came up for air he was saluted as an ensign.

One of my favorite photographs of my father was the one that I turned up snooping in his dresser as a little girl. My father had sent the 3 x 5 black and white picture to my grandmother. He dated the back of the photograph 1941 and signed it, “With love, from Harold.” Barely a year out of Yale, he was most likely running guns and butter to Greenland just before Pearl Harbor. In the picture, he is below deck where it is dark and windowless — a circumstance that must have made my father claustrophobic given his later penchant for observing a vast sky of weather. When he tracked a storm from my bedroom window his gaze was dreamy, suggesting that he was still drifting on his supply ship. But my father never coasted for long. He eventually righted himself to know exactly where he was going.

“With love, from Harold.”

I recognize that love. A desperate love born of a certain time. A love wrapped in loneliness. In the wake of the election I know this love intimately. As I texted my sister and comforted my young daughter, that was the love I felt in the early morning hours of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. A couple of weeks later, I joined the rally on the steps of the State House against the hate crimes occurring across Massachusetts. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talked about love. But with love comes a vigilance when fear lurks in the background.

Harold Bolton - Navy

K. Harold Bolton

My father’s war picture shows a man who had lost a lot of weight from adrenaline rushes anticipating an oncoming war and the compulsory exercise to prepare for it. He must have punched extra holes in his belt. His officer’s cap fell below his ears as if from the weight of his brassy naval insignia. His Adam’s apple was prominent and his neck muscles taut.

I focused on his shirt, the top button undone, so that I could almost make out the chain of his dog tags. But the longer I stared, the more it faded away. I knew definitively those tags were stamped with an “H” that stood for the biblical-sounding descriptor — Hebrew. Dad told me as much. My assimilated grandparents were nervous about sending their son out in the world as a Jew. They had heard bits and pieces of news coming out of Europe. Hitler was a menace. Jews were harassed, arrested, even deported. Father Coughlin was on the radio. Isolationism was the prevailing politics. America’s geography suggested a false kind of safety.

I once asked Dad if he was scared back then. “Not at all,” he said crisply. Yet even with his “this too shall pass” disposition, I know that if he were still alive he would consider alt-right a euphemism for white supremacy. But what would he say about Steve Bannon having the ear of the president-elect? He’d seen the Bannons of the world rise up before. We need to stand firm, Dad would say. I try and translate what that means today. How do we protest appointments and policies that simply cannot stand? I think I know Dad’s answer. He was the man who sternly told a guest in our house not to spew her racism in front of my siblings and me. I’m sure he would have approved of the postcard I sent to President-elect Trump with the message: “Not Bannon.” Small acts of protest can have a meaningful ripple effect for years to come, he’d tell me.

My grandparents begged my father not to identify as a Jew in case he was captured. But my father, who lip-synced prayers on the rare occasions he went to temple, would not wear dog tags stamped with an “O” that stood for Other. In Dad’s military, O functioned like the universal blood type. O accepted the last rites from any religious tradition. But in the end, that kind of open-endedness was not for my father. If it came to it, he would die as a Jew.

These days I contrast the khaki-uniformed photograph of Dad with another one of him in full naval dress. That formal, flawless black and white portrait, in which it looks as if cotton batting is the backdrop, was displayed in our living room forever. Now it stands vigil in my mother’s small dorm-like room in a nursing home. This is the picture that would have accompanied the obituary if my father had died in the war. And in these post-election days, I take comfort that at the time both pictures were taken my father was not afraid of the future. I hope one day I can share his optimism.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/11/30/comfort-post-election-judy-bolton-fasman

A Season of Joy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The blessing I prepared to say when Hillary Clinton was elected president was the Schehechyanu – a prayer that is uttered when something noteworthy and wonderful happens for the first time. I found the thick, block-printed Hebrew words free-floating on the Internet alongside a transliteration and a sturdy translation. I cut and pasted the words – in Hebrew and English – in an email to myself. And then I eagerly waited. I waited to chant the prayer in the familiar, traditional melody when I would first hear the news. I waited to display the blessing in my Facebook status in honor of President-elect Clinton.

shechiyanu

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Schehechyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:

For giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

Instead, I found a line from a poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski that more accurately reflected my mood after Clinton conceded. It begins: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” How I want to try to praise our gorgeous broken world. How I want to try to praise our beautiful confused country. But I barely have breath.

When Clinton dropped out of the presidential election race in 2008 she declared, “We weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time… [but] it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

In the wake of the 2016 election, I take solace that there must be at least 36 million if not 54 million cracks in that glass ceiling. I purposely evoke these good solid Jewish numbers, multiples of 18. In Hebrew, letters double as numbers and the number 18 also spells out the word chai or life. More solid, black letters telegraphing sacred wishes.

“Tough morning,” a friend said checking in. She asked how I was and I cried all over again. My mother-in-law called from Florida and she was almost apologetic for living there. My sister, a middle-school social studies teacher, dreaded facing her classes in the aftermath of this election. She texted me throughout the night. “I’m so sick,” she said. I didn’t tell her that I’d been dry heaving since Clinton lost Ohio.

In the early morning hours of November 9th, when it felt as if it would stay dark forever, I thought about saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. After all, I was grieving. But the choice felt too facile, too obvious.

I am clearly mourning Clinton’s loss, but even in my anguish I am able to see that this situation does not have the finality of a death. Yes, it’s very bad. “We won’t have clarity about this for quite a while,” said my wise husband in one of his many morning phone calls to check up on me. After we hung up, I thought maybe we the people could finesse the situation a bit, wait it out, eventually fix it. That was the optimistic part of me poking through like a shoot of grass in a concrete sidewalk

It’s significant to note that the Kaddish does not mention a single word about death. It’s a love letter, praising a wise, beneficent God. It says in part:

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

But I was not feeling very charitable towards God.

Instead, I went to my synagogue to look up the Prayer for Our Country that is said each week after the Shabbat morning Torah service. It begins straightforwardly:

Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessing upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security and happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

As I was leaving the synagogue I ran into my rabbi. The moment I saw her, I fell into her warm embrace and cried. “The sun rose today,” she softly said. Her words, so deceptively simple, were also unexpectedly hopeful.

I encountered more words from thoughtful, loving friends that further consoled me. On Facebook one of them said:

Like many of you, I am in shock this morning. And I am ready to fight. To fight for what I still believe this country can be.

But before I fight, I know I have to listen. Because a lot of you have known that it was this bad. A lot of you did not have faith that America would avoid this. I need to learn to see what you see.

Then we fight.

Through my own Facebook status I tell my friends that I have to sit still with my silence. Except for my typing, I write this essay in absolute quiet. It’s the closest I come to resting my voice, quelling my tears. As I write, I am anxious yet determined to find my prayer. And then even though it has always been with me, I finally hear it from within me. I have been saying it all my life:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

Hear O’ Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.

Even my assimilated father knew those six words of Judaism’s signature prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon and night. The Sh’ma has always been the prayer of prayers for Jews. And it’s the one that has always challenged me to stop and to listen and to learn.

Hours after the election is called, I purposefully took out the Sh’ma like a comfortable dress to wear – to say the prayer slowly, deliberately. I annunciated each letter.

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

I listened for the silence of God’s looming presence.

This is the prayer I turned to on the morning after the 2016 election. This is the prayer that someday soon will help me – please God – to reach a new season of joy.

 

The Secret Ballot

Congratulations, my dear son. This is the first election in which you will vote! I admire you for keeping your own counsel when it comes to selecting your candidates. All I can say is that you are a chip off a chip off the old block. You know that my father, your Papa Harold, was the guy who flew flags out all the windows of our house for every American holiday. Without fail, no matter where he was, he’d put his hand on his heart whenever he heard a patriotic song. He sang the national anthem off-key with a fervor that more than made up for the flat notes he hit.

My father never told another soul for whom he voted. Ever. Not even my mother. She learned to stop asking. As a kid, I took on the ultimate challenge to find out if Papa Harold voted for FDR. (Yes, he was very much a man of the 20th century with a stake in that long-ago election). Figuring out Papa Harold required careful, constant observation coupled with an extravagant imagination. He was like the puzzle in the newspaper that he and I did every Sunday night. The clues were purposely ambiguous so that two choices seemed plausible. When the correct answers were published on the following Thursday, he’d say there’s always next time. That’s good old-fashion American optimism.

ballotbox

Papa Harold would have wanted me to impress upon you the history of suffrage in the United States—even though it is a history rife with sexism, racism, xenophobia and ageism. He’d want you to know that following the trajectory of African-American voting in this country is a crucial civics lesson, which you must never forget—a lesson that you were first exposed to in grammar school. The timeline alone reflects the long and harsh struggle of civil rights in this country. Shortly after African-Americans were given the right to vote, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literary tests were designed to prevent them from even registering in many southern states. The poll tax was effectively in place until the passage of the 24th amendment in 1964.

Another fact, I’d like you to know is that your great-grandmother cast her first vote when she was twenty-nine-years-old and the mother of two children. Voting has always been a hard-won privilege. People yearn for the right to vote. I know that you understand there are still places in the world where voting is a revolutionary act. And still there are other places where people are willing to die for the right to vote.

Politics is also a cautionary tale about how words and deeds can be twisted to ruin a person’s reputation. Nothing proves that more than our current presidential election. Remember the fable about the feathers in a pillow I told you when you were a little boy? It had to do with the consequences of gossip. Talking poorly about a person has the effect of a wind that blows pillow feathers everywhere. It’s impossible to gather all of them together just as it is nearly hopeless to fix the damage done to a person’s reputation by careless remarks.

Aside from protecting his precious and few moments of privacy, Papa Harold imparted to me that voting was as sacred as prayer. The Constitution was his liturgy. He never maligned political candidates. He spoke about them in the larger context of our imperfect yet precious democracy. He was fond of the Mark Twain quote that democracy was flawed, but it was the best form of government on the face of the planet.

Remember when I took you and your sister to the voting booth with me? It saddened me when the two of you noticed our polling place was so empty. But it’s no surprise. The United States ranks 139 out of 172 in voter participation. Only half of the eligible voters in the United States vote in a presidential election. The mayors of many American cities are elected by less than 10% of the electorate.

The statistic that cuts to the bone for me, though, is that half of the children in the United States live in homes where nobody votes. We can’t afford that kind of apathy in this election. You must vote and you must vote for Hillary Clinton. I know I’m casting aside the privilege of the secret ballot. But in this election your vote for Clinton is critical. Your fate, along with the fate of the entire world depends upon it.

For the Sin Of

There is a sweet children’s book called “The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story” that has particular resonance for today. The hardest word, as you might have guessed is “sorry.” During this time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish tradition of apologizing is in full swing. Blanket apologies are not accepted here. They must be one-on-one personal confessions, which brings me to the disgraceful apology that Donald Trump offered this past weekend for bragging about sexually assaulting women.

No matter what one’s political inclinations are, let us agree that in no way does Donald Trump represent the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. His is a virulent policy of exploiting the most desperate Americans with lies and false promises. So no, this is not about politics. This is about what is decent and right and democratic. It makes me sad that no one has used the word “democratic” very much in this campaign season, but what is at stake here is our very democracy. At the Democratic Convention, Khzir Khan, the father of U.S. Captain Humayan Khan killed in action and the recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, emotionally and pointedly asked Trump, “Have you read the Constitution?”

gop

As for his apology, Trump scowled through it like a schoolyard bully. It was a feeble attempt to sidestep his boasting about a rape culture, to consider his words of hate as merely “locker room talk.” He calls the release of the lewd recording in which he is heard attacking women a “distraction” from campaign issues. “Sorry” is the hardest word – it’s a word that carries notes of contrition and grace. Done with love, these notes harmonize into the sweetest melody in the world.

Our Jewish tradition has much to say about apology. Writing in the Washington Post, Mark Oppenheimer invokes Maimonides as a wise guide on the subject. Oppenheimer writes that, “Maimonides spelled out his rules for repentance in one of the chapters of the 14-volume Mishneh Torah, completed in 1180. This section, though only a few pages-long and little read outside scholarly Jewish circles, is one of the great spiritual documents of the world. The rules are lucid and practical , and they feel absolutely relevant today.”

Maimonides was clear that the offended must be apologized to directly. In Trump’s case that would be the two women he was heard trashing on tape. According to Maimonides if neither of these women want contrition from Trump, he “should bring a group of three of his friends and approach [the women] to request forgiveness.” If this doesn’t work the first time, the atoner must try to apologize up to three times. After that the tables are turned and the person who refuses to grant the forgiveness is the sinner.

I like the direct format of the Al Chet prayer – translated as “For the Sin of.” The actual text is an exhaustive list of sins that is said a total of ten times during the course of Yom Kippur services. The litany is real, hard-hitting. In fact, in traditional prayer one expresses atonement when reciting each line of Al Chet by thumping the chest for each sin recited. And it’s also a prayer that reflects how sin is a communal responsibility. Shaking our heads in disbelief and then disgust is not enough. We’ve all had a part in allowing Trump to get as far as he has.

Herewith is my version of Al Chet exposing the more glaring Trump sins that we have committed these past months.

We have sinned against You through shrugging off criminal behavior.

And we have sinned against You through ignoring misogyny.

We have sinned against You by allowing the insult of our Gold Star families.

And we have sinned against You through permitting disrespect of our veterans and Prisoners of War.

We have sinned against You by witnessing mocking of the disabled.

And we have sinned against You through not supporting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

We have sinned against You through accepting not paying our taxes.

And we have sinned against You through allowing the swindling of people in business.

We have sinned against You through watching the exploitation of fear and vulnerability.

We have sinned against You by listening to hatemongering.

We have sinned against You through exposing our children to hideous and lewd comments.

We have sinned against You through not insisting on the truth.

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Some Late Afternoon Thoughts For My 25th Wedding Anniversary

The late Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is one of my favorites. Ginzburg, who died in 1991 at the age of 75, was born in Palermo, Sicily into a family of Jewish intellectuals. Gifted and uniquely brilliant Ginzburg, who was born Natalia Leví, wrote twelve books and two plays – some of them under a pseudonym because of crushing anti-Semitism. She raised five children and won a seat in the Italian parliament when she was in her sixties.

The book of hers that I always return to is a slim volume of essays entitled “The Little Virtues.” The earlier essays in the book cover Ginzburg’s fascist-imposed exile from Rome to the Abruzzi during the Second World War. In later ones she evokes her life in Turin and Rome as well as her extended time in England.

With my 25th wedding anniversary around the corner, I went back to my all-time favorite Ginzburg essay, “He and I.” It is a straightforward, black and white portrait of a marriage presented in quick, deft strokes. Ginzburg is ostensibly conveying the differences in temperament and outlook between her and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer and resistance leader, died in 1944 at the hands of the fascist police). But like a developing photograph, the more you read the essay, the more you realize that you see a bigger picture of a beautifully imperfect love. It is also an homage to daily life, to routine and to the happiness imbedded in them.

The essay starts out simply, directly: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” Her husband speaks several languages well, she doesn’t speak any well. This is a marriage that exemplifies the old chestnut that opposites attract. But not exactly. Although it’s a study of stark contrasts, Ginzburg goes further and explores what happens after these opposites come together.

Every time I read through Ginzburg’s essay, I see more shades of my husband Ken and me. When we were first married, I gave him a jokey greeting card that illustrated a meeting convened for people who had normal childhoods. There were two people in the picture. Ken could have been the third. He is that person that is calm and steady and kind even in the roughest of times. When I fall apart, he puts me back together.

On our first extended trip together, he did not so much astonish me for driving perfectly through the West Country of England on the opposite side of the road. He astonished me because not once did this man to whom I was engaged yell at me for reading the map wrong or, quite frankly, not knowing how to read the map at all. (These were pre-GPS and cell phones days). He gently took the large crumpled, accordioned paper from me, neatly folded it up, took my face in hands and said the most gorgeous words I have ever heard – words that have come to evoke our life together – “Don’t worry. A car goes backwards and forwards.”

jbf-wedding

Like Ginzburg’s husband, Ken takes his time in a museum. He goes beyond the audio guide to understand the exhibition at hand. Natalia and I are zoomers. That is, we rush through an exhibit, taking it all in in a whirlwind of anxiety and curiosity.

And speaking of anxiety, I am a hot, anxious mess. Ken is not. He says “I love you” after every phone conversation even if we’ve had a fight. Even though I‘ve held a few grudges since third grade, I can’t stay mad at him for more than a couple of hours. He hates to clothes shop. I can spend hours going through racks of clothing. He sweetly defers to my taste when I bring things home for him to try on. But he was stricter with the children when they were little than I was. He thinks it’s a hoot that I’m still a pushover with our fourteen-pound dog. I think it’s a hoot that the dog is kind of afraid of him.

He knows everything about Gilbert and Sullivan and Bob Dylan. Me? I’m a child of the ‘70s. I like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. We love going to the movies together, but he respects that I can’t abide violence or science-fiction – two things he tolerates very well. He takes his time forming a thought. I’m reactive. He can do differential equations and edit my essays with equal aplomb. I wait for his insightful comments. And as I’ve been doing for 25 years – I learn from him again and again. And I love him more for that each time.

 

 

Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashanah Story

Struggling with infertility is a loneliness like no other. I have been blessed with two children, but I can still recall that feeling of isolation, hopelessness and, in some sense, failure until I conceived my longed-for first child. Jewish tradition not only validates this emotional state, but also elevates it by telling Hannah’s story publicly every year.

Hannah, the heroine of the haftarah that is traditionally chanted on the first day of Rosh Hashana, desperately wanted a child. Although she is not the first biblical woman to experience the pain of infertility, she is the first woman to confront God about her situation through personal prayer. In a number of midrashim Hannah is acknowledged to have introduced the model for the contemporary way we pray and approach God.

But like many inventions, there were missteps in Hannah’s journey. When Eli the High Priest saw Hannah moving her lips and praying soundlessly he assumed she was drunk. Hannah quickly corrected him. “I am a woman who is hard of spirit,” she said. “I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to God.”

Hannah’s barrenness echoes that of the matriarchs. Like Sarah and Rachel, she went through a long period of yearning for a child. And like her forebears who found concubines for their husbands, Hannah encouraged her husband Elkanah to take Peninnah as a second wife. A midrash further explains that Hannah reasoned that if she told Elkanah to take an additional wife, God would liken her to Sarah and Rachel and also remember her with a child. But Peninnah, who gave birth to many children, turned out to be Hannah’s cruel rival. Each year the family would go to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice and Peninnah would taunt Hannah about her childlessness. After almost two decades, a despondent Hannah had had enough heartbreak and confronted God in bitterness and desperation.

Hannah forthrightly calls God to account for the injustices in His/Her world. Another midrash depicts her comparing her situation to a woman who has been issued a death sentence. While this idea of a life without children as being the severest of punishments does not resonate with modern sensibilities, Hannah is a woman of her time. In the Hebrew text she refers to herself three times as a maidservant – a woman who observes God’s commandments. Her piousness alone is justification for demanding God to answer her prayers.

Alicia Jo Rabins, a teacher of Bible, a poet, and a song writer who has authored a curriculum on biblical women called “Girls in Trouble,” describes Hannah’s call to prayer as “the most radical fertility technology of her time.” Rabins asks: “Is God a partner in Hannah’s transformation, or a force activated through her demands?” For Rabins the story is “a complicated interplay between Hannah’s power to change her life, and her reliance on forces beyond her control. On one hand, Hannah’s decision to take action after years of suffering is a crucial part of changing her story. But on the other hand, Hannah cannot change her destiny alone; God needs to ‘remember’ her in order for her to conceive.”

This is the season to honor Hannah’s brand of ferocious and brave worship. In that spirit I have also been reading Belle Boggs’ beautiful memoir the “Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood.” There is an undercurrent of supplication in Boggs’ book too. In researching her memoir she came upon a phrase, “disenfranchised grief,” coined by another writer. In an interview with The Atlantic, Boggs explained that, “Disenfranchised grief is grief for a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. And fertility fits into that category really well because it isn’t something that we are comfortable talking about. Because it is an experience of loss if you’re trying for something and it’s not happening.”

“Disenfranchised grief,” perfectly captures Hannah’s state of mind as she prayed to God for a child. Her prayer was a deceptively spontaneous outpouring of grief. It was a beautifully articulated expression of a deep, recurring disappointment. As we move into this High Holiday season, many of us will confront our own disenfranchised grief. May we pray as authentically and movingly as Hannah.