Food to Die For by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first time I fed Anna a baby spoon’s amount of yogurt she was five months old and I panicked that she would throw up forever. Dairy allergy, said my wise, bow-tied pediatrician. He assured me that Anna would grow out of her exorcising ways when she ingested any dairy. Almost all babies do. But not my girl. She had the real deal—a milk protein allergy. No milk, no cheese, no cure.

A dairy allergy is not in the running for the worst health problem that can happen to a kid and for that I have always been grateful. But monitoring your kid’s diet is fatiguing. Vigilance is exhausting. Anna’s reaction to even the smallest trace of dairy in a piece of bread, for example, brings on hot red hives all over her body, a lot of vomiting and a bit of asthma that compromises her breathing just enough to freak me out. But these days my girl—a young woman really—wants to be a doctor and can advocate for herself when she orders from a menu.

Anna has a kindred spirit in Sandra Beasley—a poet and a highly allergic person who recently published a charming book called Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl (http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Kill-Birthday-Girl-Allergic/dp/0307588114/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325306632&sr=1-1) that was part memoir, part handbook detailing her life-threatening food allergies and the ways in which she coped. As she writes, she “experiences the world in a slightly different way.” But Beasley is anything but gloomy about her situation. She is a warm and lively guide to the quirky world of allergies. And she’s determined not to tell “the story of how we [the allergic] die…[but] the stories of how we live.”

More than 12 million Americans live with actual food allergies. I’m willing to bet that those allergies extend to the lives of more than 50 million Americans, including those who invite a person with food allergies to dinner.

Beasley is spot on when she morphs from food outcast to hapless birthday girl who can’t eat her own cake. Children’s birthday parties are minefields for the highly allergic child. One person’s butter frosting can be another person’s poison. Eggs, whey, walnuts, dairy-laced margarine — all of those ingredients and more can be lurking in a bakery cake.

Over the past decade there’s been a lot of research in and public awareness of food allergies. Yet for all of the consciousness raising, allergies are still too often dismissed as psychosomatic or as one study brushed off, a catalyst for “contagious anxiety.” Despite the skeptics, allergy awareness won a crucial victory in 2009 when Massachusetts passed the Food Allergy Awareness Act.

Ming Tsai, celebrity chef and owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant (http://www.ming.com/blueginger.htm) in Wellesley was one of the bill’s most vocal and effortless supporters. His own young son’s food allergies and the restaurants that refused to serve the boy initially inspired Tsai’s activism. The Massachusetts bill requires all restaurants to display a poster listing the “big eight” allergens in their kitchens along with reaction symptoms and emergency protocols.

Tsai’s ultimate goal is to accommodate restaurant patrons’ allergies across America. Anyone who walks through the door of a restaurant is entitled to safe kitchens, chefs and servers who understand the importance of meticulous food preparation. Eating safely at a restaurant is about access and access, says Tsai, is a basic civil right.

My family recently took me to Blue Ginger for me birthday. We asked Tsai to come over to our table so the four of us could thank him for his tireless lobbying on behalf of food allergy awareness, for lobbying, really, on behalf of Anna, his son and the people who love them.

 

 

 

That Downtown Feeling by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Here in Boston Filene’s Basement is shutting its doors for good in a few days. I walked into the Newbury Street store last week, but I didn’t have the stomach for picking through a carcass. Nothing lasts. Not Filene’s. Not Woodward & Lothrop. Not Gimbels. Not even the idea of a Downtown.

On Saturday afternoons of my childhood, my mother and I took the Connecticut Transit bus that stopped in front of our house and headed east to G. Fox & Company—downtown Hartford’s largest department store, and land of the crisp navy blue shopping bags. We’d get off at the corner of Asylum and Main, and walk a block to the bustling commerce of G. Fox’s eleven floors.

The grand escalator that made G. Fox such an adventure for me was just past the fragrant counters of cosmetics and perfume. The slow moving silver escalators gleamed affordable luxury. Our first stop was on the fourth floor for lunch in the Connecticut Room. The Connecticut Room was wallpapered with scenes of Connecticut history, an involved pictorial narrative that had no obvious place for me.

The hostess handed me a red crayon with the children’s menu and sat Mom and me where we had a good view of the Saturday fashion show. The elegant models mingled on the floor with uniformed waitresses who served lunches in the same unobtrusive way they had done for decades.

Those downtown Saturdays, my mother splurged on beauty. G. Fox’s eleventh floor smelled of that beauty hard at work—hot wax, nail polish, and hair dye. If we had time, we’d pop into J.J. Newberry across the street—a five and dime store that was all linoleum flooring and plastic bins. My mother searched for glittery green and blue eye shadows and thick-as-a-brick red lipsticks. I’d paw through the bins looking for anything shiny. And sometimes I would emerge with a treasure like the brown plastic purse in which I could see my reflection.

Other Saturday afternoons my mother and I changed direction and headed west to Lord & Taylor. The store was a chunky white brick building autographed with the inimitable black script that announced its name. Its gravitas defined Bishop’s Corner. All my mother and I had to do to get there was to cross the street and catch the Asylum Avenue bus crawling the nine-tenths of a mile to North Main Street in West Hartford. My father had measured the distance so he’d know precisely how far he walked on his daily pre-dawn strolls.

My mother never needed money at Lord & Taylor. Mrs. K. Harold Bolton said the raised lettering on the green store card. “Thank you, Mrs. Bolton,” said the sales ladies at the end of every transaction.

Mrs. K. Harold Bolton and I joined the other ladies lunching on the second floor of Lord & Taylor at the Birdcage. Mom ordered iced tea—smooth liquid amber that put me in mind of her sweet singing voice—and a small tossed salad to stay a size 6 and to feel entitled to share my chicken salad sandwich.

Wire cages—absurd mobiles—dangled from the Birdcage’s ceiling. Pastel birds, which against all odds were real, chirped in the cages. The waitresses pushed carts of tea sandwiches and precious deserts. Nothing steaming, nothing sliding down mounds of grease. The Birdcage was the epicenter of politeness and good manners.

I still miss the grand, multi-storied department store. I miss the silver-toothed escalator that snaked its way from the bottom to the top of G. Fox. I miss the thrill of the hunt in a space big enough to buy a winter coat on the fourth floor and a 45RPM record on the eleventh. I miss the way Mom and I changed worlds—from suburban to urban—in a fifteen minute bus ride. But most of all I miss that Downtown Hartford feeling where I once stood at the center of the universe waiting for a bus.

 

Two Paths Diverged by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It’s the last week in December and it’s Rosh Hashana’s Book of Life redux for me. Who shall live and who shall die? And everything in between.

I read a book recently that challenged my notion of predetermined destiny, of essentially leaving things up to God’s will. Wes Moore’s memoir turns out to be a neat parable of two radically different lives that diverged from the same starting point. Moore is the author of a book I can’t stop thinking about called “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.”

Around the time that the author became Johns Hopkins University’s first Rhodes Scholar in 13 years and the university’s first African- American Rhodes scholar, another Wes Moore – a contemporary – was wanted for the murder of a police officer in an armed robbery for which he would eventually go to jail for life. That was 2000.

“One of us is free and has experienced things that he never even knew to dream about as a kid,” the author Wes Moore writes in his memoir. “The other will spend every day until his death behind bars. … The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

The two men grew up in the same tough West Baltimore neighborhood, but irony does not hang over this book like a dark cloud. Nor does Moore turn his memoir or the other Wes Moore’s biography into a “there but for the grace of G-d go I” story. Yes, Wes Moore the author went to Oxford, was a decorated war hero who served in Afghanistan, and was a White House Fellow. And yes, the other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence without parole and became a grandfather at the age of 33.

Through prison visits and letters, the two Wes Moores bared their souls to one another and laid out their lives side by side. Poverty was both the level playing field and the catalyst that propelled these two men in opposite directions. Both of them grew up without their fathers – author Wes’ father died when he was 4, prisoner Wes never met his father. Both were grief stricken. But one mourns the death of a loving father, while the other seethes over his absent one. The author’s mother was a teacher who kept careful track of her son’s growing apathy toward school and attraction to life on the streets. She moved her family to the Bronx when Wes was a young teenager to be near loving grandparents at the ready to help Wes and his sisters. Wes won a scholarship to Riverdale Country Day School, but he couldn’t connect to his rich white classmates. He missed school and failed most of his classes.

But the Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore had a mother who refused to give up on him. She bought her son Mitch Albom’s book about a Michigan basketball team, and his spark for reading caught on fire. She scraped together tuition money to send him to a military school in Pennsylvania where he thrived and became one of the youngest officers in its history.

The other Wes Moore’s mother did her best to protect Wes from the streets. She did that and more while trying to make rent and put food on the table. It’s bittersweet that when someone bothered to teach the other Wes Moore to read, he soared up to college level.

There were other aching near misses in the other Wes Moore’s life. His mother enrolled at Johns Hopkins in the early ’80s, determined to get an education that would have propelled her into the middle class. Government cuts abruptly ended her college career. Wes himself went through a year-long Job Corps program, earning high scores on his GED and training as a carpenter. But there was no job to be had afterward, and the money to be made on the streets was too tempting.

Two roads diverged in a wood. Can I ever be sure that I’m on the best road?  Which road should I point my children to? Does fulfilling one’s destiny depend on knowing when and if to switch paths? Wes Moore the author might say that one can create a happy, important fate from smoke and ashes. He might say that he’s living proof that you create your own fate. Do you?

The Sweetest Voice

The Sweetest Voice

My son has taken up a time-honored holiday tradition by counting himself among the legions of Jews who have an abiding affection for Christmas carols. It all began two years ago when Adam had a solo part in Deck the Halls at his school’s Holiday concert. His musical triumph brought back memories of my role in the Christmas Pageant at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. I debuted as the Partridge in the Pear Tree during the Class of 1978’s interpretation of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Much to everyone’s surprise, I had the starring role. After all, the partridge appears during all 12 days of Christmas. That’s a lot of stage time.

My Jewish father celebrated a secular Christmas until he married my Orthodox Jewish mother. It would be an understatement to describe her reaction to my aunt’s small glittering silver Christmas tree as simply disapproving.

Adam’s brush with Christmas reminded me of a short story by the late, great Grace Paley called “The Loudest Voice.” I mention this here because in addition to singing “holiday songs,” at the moment Adam is exclusively reading dead white men for English class. Sure he needs a grounding in the classics. But whose classics? Adam read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for school.  Somewhere down the road I’ll teach him that no one can turn a phrase like Grace Paley.

Here’s Paley’s amazing opening to “The Loudest Voice”:

There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.

The narrator is 10-year old Shirley Abramowitz, who lives in the Bronx. Her parents are Yiddish-Polish-Russian speakers. “A puddle of languages,” Shirley says. Adam’s great-grandfather Harry Stern could have been Shirley’s classmate. Maybe Poppy Harry had a teacher like Miss Glacé who praised him and the other Jewish kids in his class for learning, “without error,” Silent Night, Deck the Halls and Hark! The Herald Angel. “To think that some of you don’t even speak the language,” gushed the young teacher.

Look who’s jumping into the puddle of languages with their attendant customs? We are. “The only Jewish kid in the class has a Christmas solo,” another mother said to me. “That’s the spirit!” That’s ironic, I said to myself. And ecumenical. And oh so Jewish in America.

When my children were small, we’d drive around town looking for shiny, decked out houses. Every time they saw lights and glowing reindeer they’d scream, “Oh my gosh.” The phrase stuck as a stand-in for stunning seasonal lighting. But the blue-yellow flame of the Hanukkah candles also thrilled my children. Part of their joy came from their deep, hushed, fascination with fire. As they got older I believe they also saw the valiant, steadfast flickering of light against the tableaux of dark winter days.

I love a Hanukkah midrash about Adam—the first man, that is—experiencing the descending darkness of winter days. As the days grew shorter, Adam thought the world was reverting back to the original chaos of creation. In response to this dire situation, Adam fasted and prayed for the return of light. When the winter solstice arrived, he understood that the world moved between darkness and light, the physical and the spiritual.

Like the fictional Shirley Abramowitz, Adam’s sweet voice called up the intent of Hanukkah lights–lights that symbolized the miraculous rededication of the Second Temple after the Greeks had defiled it. But there was also the lightness of a fa la la la la season in full swing coming down from the glee club risers.

Making the Simple Complicated

Last year my dear friend Miriam Cohen and I celebrated milestone birthdays in different cities. She turned 80 in Manhattan, and I celebrated my 50th in Boston. The year I met her had also been a milestone birthday for me – my 25th. I was working as an administrative assistant at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and trying – maybe not as hard as I should have – to finish my master’s degree at Columbia. Miriam worked upstairs from me in the Office of Student Life.

I don’t exactly remember how I met Miriam, much the same way I don’t remember when I didn’t know her. I do remember I was deep in the doldrums – no degree yet, no more boyfriend, no apartment. One by one those things got fixed, slowly, sometimes painfully. With each step forward there was Miriam cheering me on. “You’re young and you’re beautiful and you can’t be bothered.” The last time she said this to me was on my 50th birthday.

It was the late 1980s when I finally hunkered down and finished my thesis. I moved on from the seminary, but I stayed connected with Miriam. We both thought it was a hoot that she and her husband, Joseph, had a place at a Catskills bungalow colony. It was a sweet little place where I slept late, ate a lot (Miriam was a wonderful cook) and read books.

Joseph had been living with cancer for a few years. One day she called to cancel our lunch date; Joseph was in the hospital. I told her I’d keep her company until her sisters arrived. She never liked to impose, but when she accepted my offer I knew Joseph was dying. We sat for hours outside his room chatting and crying. Each time Miriam checked on him, she removed his oxygen mask to kiss him.

After Joseph died, we’d frequently met for Chinese food on Broadway, where we would people watch our way through dinner. If a Sunday began to feel too dreary for either of us, we’d get on the crosstown bus and go to a museum. Dinner, museum, movie – it was a comfortable, familiar routine that we wrapped ourselves in like a fleece blanket.

When I married Ken, I relocated to Baltimore. I was still homesick for New York and frequently visited, almost always staying with Miriam on the Upper West Side. At night, we’d lie in her bed and watch television. “Are you happy?” She only had to ask me once to hear the answer she wanted.

Miriam never had children of her own, so I sent her cards on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day because that’s what Joseph did. “You were my only Valentine this year,” she once told me. And, of course, there were the birthdays. We both understood that while she wasn’t my mother, she was family.

The last time I saw my dear friend was at Anna’s bat mitzvah, almost four years ago. She steeled herself and came alone. I saw what a hardship it was for her to get to Boston and didn’t send her an invitation to Adam’s bar mitzvah last year. I knew that was the wrong thing to do when she wrote how much she enjoyed reading a midrash I had constructed for Adam’s big day. “Thank you for the pleasure your columns provide,” she wrote to me. I had no right to decide that she wasn’t up to traveling to Boston.

On Miriam’s 80th birthday I sent her flowers. On the telephone, I promised that we would celebrate “our big fat Jewish birthdays” in style with dinner and a show.

Late March came and I had an opportunity to travel to Spain with Ken and Adam. My friend understood. Of course, I couldn’t pass up Spain. She waited patiently. More excuses. There was Passover, the end of the school year. I was packing Adam up for camp, trying to squirrel away money for our big night on the town.

There was always an excuse.

This past August 4 I was on my way back home from Hartford. My sister and I had gone down to check on my mother. This meant grocery shopping, taking Mom for a manicure and throwing out some of her endless clutter without her noticing. I was exhausted and so my sister volunteered to drive back. Halfway home my cell phone rang. It was Miriam’s niece. I had never met her, but Miriam always talked about her with great affection. “When did she die?” I asked.

But the heartbreak of this story is not what you think it is. Yes, I should not have put off seeing my friend. But more important, I should have remembered that we were always happy just to be in each other’s company, doing little things like people-watching at our favorite Chinese restaurant on Broadway.

For the rest of my life I will repent the sad, shameful truth that I passed up something that would have been so joyously simple because I made it so overwhelmingly complicated.

The Jewish Partridge

I will always be the Jewish partridge in a pear tree.

It all started when I had the starring role In The Twelve Days of Christmas, my senior year at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. In head-to-toe brown polyester, I was theatrically camouflaged behind a sweet tall girl, wrapped in butcher block paper, who was my pear tree. Each of the last three times I appeared in front of my pear tree flapping my grocery bag wings, I received a standing ovation. I was the only Jew in my class and I had exquisite timing and stage presence that night.

I came to the Mount from a Jewish Day School. The only thing I wanted after my middle-school graduation was single sex education–a place where I could wear long skirts and go by my Hebrew name Yehudit. I scared my parents with my piousness and ascetic diet of cold food—the only way I would eat in their non-kosher kitchen. But my parents were unwilling to send me away from Hartford to Brooklyn or Providence. If I wanted to go to school with only girls, the Mount was my only local option. No one thought I would last through that first September.

The school was a maze of a place—24,000 gloomy square feet where the student body was down from 1000 girls to less than 200. I loved that the Mount looked like a haunted mansion since I felt like an apparition when I got there. I’d wander the halls staring at the crucifixes. Sister Angela once caught me and said, “I’d love to walk the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem while you pray at the Western Wall.” At the time I thought she was kind and eccentric. All she wanted was for the Mount to be my school.

I was both a figure of curiosity and pity when my classmates discovered that I didn’t celebrate Christmas. No tree, no presents, no ham. But there were the movies and Chinese food and that sounded pretty good to some of my friends. By our senior year those same friends had seen first-hand that menorah was a blazing beacon of light in cold December.

And yet  I’m just as excited the first time I hear Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” as I am when Sarah Silverman’s “Give the Jew Girl Toys” comes on the radio. And I love Christmas lights. The first December that my son could put two words together, we’d ride around just to get him to scream, “Oh my gosh” every time we’d pass a colorful shower of Christmas electricity. When he was a bit older, he’d ask me to drive slowly because he loved lingering on a lit-up, star-topped Christmas tree in a window.

On the other hand his sister, a born skeptic, almost got me beat up in a mall when she walked up to a little girl and said that Santa Claus was made up. “He’s just a fat guy wearing a costume.” We slowly backed away from an irate mother as I stammered that my girl had confused Christmas with Halloween.

One day on our way home from kindergarten, my son gushed that he wanted to be a Christian.

“And why is that?” I asked cheerfully.

“Because I love the ‘oh my gosh.'” The name had stuck.

“And I loved being a Partridge in a Pear Tree,” carefully explaining that there was no conversion on my part to get the role.

Adam’s quest to become a Christian was short lived, but for years he waged a forceful, yet ultimately unsuccessfully campaign, to string blue and white lights on our bushes. A very American Hanukkah decoration he argued when he was older.

No December dilemma for my boy and his partridge mother.

The Recipe

I have a little secret to tell you – lately, I can’t stop talking to God. You’re probably thinking, big deal, I talk to God all the time. Well, I talk to God out loud. Try it sometime. It’s not as easy as it sounds. And it’s even harder if you’re like me and not sure you believe in God.

Here’s how I got started. Last summer I went to my rabbi with a panoply of small problems in my life – problems surrounding the bigger question of how to help my ailing yet combative mother.  I cried a little, which finally led to a torrent of tears.

Once my rabbi calmed me down, she asked if I had ever spoken to God from my heart.  I ‘m on break from set prayer. I was choking on the thick supplications of my ancestors. The Hebrew letters on the page were too  austere for me. The words were empty shells of faith. But I still go to synagogue regularly. I like the choreography, the pageantry – and the festive lunch.

“Do you speak out loud to God?” my rabbi continued. And by out loud she didn’t mean the internal monologue running through my head all day  like tickertape. She meant out loud as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – a Hasidic master who died in 1810 – talked extemporaneously to God as if “talking to a good friend.”

Rabbi Nachman was clear to point out that spontaneous prayers do not take the place of the prayer book; they supplement set prayer. To this day Breslover Hasidim follow their rabbi’s practice of hisboddidus, which loosely translated means “to make one be in solitude.”

Rabbi Nachman said the best place to engage in private, creative prayer was outdoors, among God’s creations. I have no doubt that Rabbi Nachman was right. But the most realistic place for me to grab a few moments with God is in my little capsule of a car with the steel-reinforced doors. Since I spend so much time in my car, I think it fits the criteria God laid out in Exodus 20:21: “In every place where I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”

The first time I spoke to God, I felt like a squirmy little kid. The sound of my voice jarred me. And I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t simply ask for things – what kind of relationship would that be? And then there was my own doubt lurking in the backseat preventing me from showering God with outright praise.

But after a few awkward conversations  with the Lord, I was as giddy as a little kid talking to her new imaginary friend. Ultimately, the trouble with these conversations was that they were one-sided and I got tired of listening to the sound of my voice. One day I parked in a secluded space at my son’s school and brazenly asked God for a sign that He was listening.

A few hours later God did something very obvious. This is what happened:

I was preparing dinner from a recipe that got more complicated with each step. After a long day of school and sports that was still to be capped by a long night of homework, I took matters into my own hands and improvised. No Julia Child or Joan Nathan am I, so the results were not exactly appealing.

After taking a bite of chicken, I steeled myself for the worst. My 17 year-old daughter broke the silence. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy – follow the recipe.” “Please!” my son chimed in. My children were so charming and funny about my disastrous deviation that I could only laugh. Even my husband, who is always supportive, especially when my cooking goes awry, laughed. There we were, the four of us, sawing our way through pieces of battered chicken in every sense of the word and loving every minute of it.

Later that night I was inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology. “You’re radically amazing, God,” I said to the Master of the Universe.

*I occasionally use the male pronoun for G-d for no other reason than readability and familiarity.