I Try for Good: Governor Jeb Bush’s Latino Outreach for the GOP by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’m in a south Florida state of mind today. I’m craving some of that sunny warm weather up here in chilly New England, but more importantly, today is a Republican primary day down there. Although I’m as curious as the next person to see who will come out on top, there’s something deeper going on that intrigues me, and it has to do with my sister and brother Latinos. True, they comprise an influential voting bloc, but I think the Latinos in this country have done something even more profound—they’ve pierced the American consciousness like no other ethnic group that’s come to this country. Latinos have brought a bilingualism that doesn’t melt into the muddying swirl of the proverbial melting pot, but bubbles to the top. It’s a bilingualism that is uniquely American.

Governor Jeb Bush, who is spearheading the GOP’s Latino outreach, recently recognized that unique bilingualism in an op-ed in the Washington Post:

We must be able to assure new Americans the opportunity to succeed and contribute their talents. And when they come, as surely they will, we must welcome them, no matter whether they speak Spanish or Creole or Portuguese. When we hear foreign languages in the streets of America that is a validation of the Republican vision to create a place where people want to come and make their lives. Hispanics here speak or are learning English — not French, Chinese or Hindi. There is a lesson in that, and Republicans should be the ones to champion it.

Over a decade ago, when Anna was six-years old, we stayed in a hotel in Fort Lauderdale where the housekeeper left an envelope with a note thanking us in advance for a tip. Please for tip, I try for good, she wrote in a barely legible scrawl. I showed this to my young daughter who went wide-eyed as she deciphered the words. “A grown up wrote that?” she asked.

I showed her that note to her to develop empathy.  I showed her that note so that she’d never forget that America is a place where immigrants strive for a better life, and in doing so they grace our streets with their languages and their customs.

Governor Bush’s vision is not just a Republican one. And I’d like to think that he also believes in the housekeeper and her intentions of, I try for good.

In that spirit I offer a few caveats that I wrote to my children a couple of years ago when the war against immigrants, Latinos in particular, raged in Arizona.

Take note of this verse from the Torah: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I, ADONAI, am your God” (Lev. 24:17-22). Your Cuban refugee relatives wouldn’t have passed muster in Arizona. They didn’t have papers when they came to this country 50 years ago. Your Israelite ancestors and your brothers and sisters in the Holocaust were paperless too.

 People are neither illegal nor alien. And while I’m on the subject, they’re not illegitimate either.  

 It’s not a crime to be poor. It’s a crime to marginalize the poor.

Learn Spanish. It’s part of your heritage and it’s practical. Given that there are 20 countries to our south where Spanish is the national language. Feel anew the old commandment to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Revel in deep, meaningful translation as a way to engage with others. If you don’t believe me then turn to God, who happily listens to the Sh’ma, Judaism’s central tenet, in 70 languages. God is an equal-opportunity linguist.

Pretty in Pink: Peggy Orenstein on the New Girlie-Girl Culture By Judy Bolton-Fasman

For the past two decades Peggy Orenstein has had her finger on the pulse of contemporary girl culture. The author of three acclaimed books on girlhood as well as a poignant memoir about her arduous journey to motherhood, Orenstein takes on mass marketing and the Disney machine in—Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Cultureher latest book just published in paperback.

Orenstein sends her dispatches from places as varied as toy fairs and the toddler-tiara pageant circuit. She doesn’t claim to be covering uncharted territory in these venues, but to be exploring these landscapes anew with a pink lens. For pink is the predominant color in this mega-industry of anointing Disney princesses and the glittery hoopla that comes with the coronation.

I love Orenstein’s unique take on “there is nothing new under the sun” when she writes that 5 year-old beauty contestants are like “museum portraits I had seen of eighteenth-century European princesses—little girls in low-cut gowns, their hair piled high, their cheeks and lips rouged red—that were used to attract potential husbands, typically middle-aged men, who could strengthen the girls’ families’ political or financial positions.” How different is that mindset from a mother telling her 6 year-old daughter that, “one of the judges is a man so be sure you wink at him.”

I spoke with Orenstein when her book was published in hardcover and she noted that the “Disneyfication” of the princess phenomenon boosted the company’s sales to 4 billion dollars last year. Here’s another statistic that astounded me: ‘Tween girls spend 40 million dollars a month on beauty products. These girls are doing a lot more than using Bonne Belle’s Lip Smackers. Ten year-olds are buying fruit-scented Nair to get rid of unwanted body hair. Eight to 12 year-olds are convinced that they need the anti-wrinkle cream that Wal-Mart markets to them. Wrinkles at 12? ? These are examples of a trend descriptively referred to as ‘kids getting older younger’ or KGOY.”

How did this insanity begin? When did it escalate? Here’s the short answer. Parents and grandparents have bought the complete princess package. For starters, a Disney survey reported that parents equated the word princess with safe. Accordingly, Disney has created a world where an infant’s onesie announces her royal status. From there it goes on to elaborate costumes that emulate princesses from Cinderella to Tiana—the first African-American princess in the Disney lineup. Companies dip DVD players, cameras and the more standard purses and jewelry boxes in pink.

In the midst of this marketing blitz, Orenstein acknowledged that as a Jewish woman she bristles at the word “princess.” “It was a slur for me growing up. It wasn’t something you aspired to. It brought up issues connected with materialism, which is why my traditional Jewish mother didn’t let me have a Barbie. She felt Barbie focused too much on clothes and looks.”

Orenstein, the mother of 8 year-old Daisy, is personally on the frontlines of girl culture. Daisy occasionally appears in Cinderella Ate My Daughter and it seems she’s a wonderful chip off the old block. When a girl layered in pink—pink helmet, pink bicycle—challenges Daisy’s preference for a green dragon helmet and neutral colored bike, Daisy tells her that her choices work for boys and girls.

Orenstein points out that Daisy is a little girl who’s as comfortable in overalls as she is in party dresses. Girls as well as boys are among her close friends. She’s also a little girl with a Japanese-American father who asks her mother why a Jewish person can be called a Jew, but a Japanese person cannot be called a JAP. Daisy will someday learn that the same racial epithet extends to Jewish women as well. Orenstein explains to her that, “meanings shift over generations.” The play on words leads Orenstein and me back to our conversation about the Jewish American Princess stereotype. “I think calling women JAPs ,” she says, “was a way for Jewish men to express self-hatred, discomfort with ethnicity and their own difference.”

Orenstein’s commitment to Jewish girls has also extended to serving as a curriculum consultant for Rosh Chodesh, It’s a Girl Thing. “It was important to me that a bat mitzvah not be seen as a bar mitzvah in drag, but as an aspect that belongs just to our daughters. I don’t want my Jewish womanhood to be generic or adapted from men.”

And how does Orenstein cope as a mother with this engulfing princess culture that attracts our girls like a moth to a flame? “I fight fun with fun. You can’t say no to everything, but you can give your girl broader choices to articulate her desires and her need to express herself as a girl.”

Aunt Glady’s Portrait — The Third Yartzheit by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Today is my Aunt Gladys’ third yartzheit—the anniversary of her death on the Jewish calendar. I miss her because she was funny. I miss her because she looked so much like my grandmother. But mostly I miss her because I love her. She would have been 97 this past October and one of the last things she said to me was, “I’m not sure who you are, but I know I love you.”

A few years back my aunt gave me a life-size portrait of herself. She was packing up her condominium to move into senior housing. She had been widowed for several years and one day the condo became just too big, too daunting for her to maintain it. There were too many stairs. And there was too much of everything in it. Furniture, paintings, dishes. So much memory-laden stuff strewn about can be exhausting.

Aunt Gladys decided enough was enough and she sent everything off to be auctioned. I asked her if the portrait was for sale too. It was. I made an offer. Instead she tried to buy me out with a pair of grape shears—silver inlaid with the fruit of the vine. These were the same shears she wrapped my knuckles with when I tore the grapes off their miniature branches with my hands forty years ago. Back then I was pegged as my mother’s daughter—a loud, fibbing, heart-on-her-sleeve wearing mini-me. My father’s family was proper, fancy. Aunt Gladys had a housekeeper, a grand piano and leather furniture in her den.

Aunt Gladys’ portrait hung for years in the living room of her stately home in New Haven, Connecticut. In its gilded frame, the painting looked like John Singer Sargent had had a formidable hand in its creation. A portrait light illuminated the picture.

A friend once told me that she thought painting or photographing someone was morbid. She refused to own a camera. I’d think about her comment when I visited Aunt Gladys and snapped her picture with my children. I worried that she thought I took the pictures because it was my last chance to have her huddle with my kids. Maybe that was my intention, but I can’t say for sure.

Another find from the condo move was the treasure trove of black and white photos. My aunt, so young and pretty. Young women in old photographs are always beautiful. My daughter, 11 at the time, stared at the pictures, trying to reconcile the Aunt Gladys before her with the Gladys Bolton in the pictures.

Aunt Gladys told me that the summer she sat for the portrait it was very hot and she was very cross. She was also newly married and the last thing she wanted to do was to sit still for a month. But her mother, my grandmother, insisted. And so the portrait was painted. I love that my daughter heard the story directly from my aunt.

Intergenerational relationships are essential to me. Aunt Gladys was also a direct link to my father who died several years before her. She told my kids that their grandfather was her goofy kid brother who had a genius for trivia and numbers. She also told them how much my father and I looked alike.

I’ve stored the portrait in my attic. Her children and grandchildren didn’t have space for the picture. My cousin said that I was the best person to keep it for now. Aunt Gladys said that she was glad I had the portrait. When she gave it to me she wished aloud that I would give it to one of my children someday. Maybe they won’t exactly remember who Aunt Gladys was, but they’ll sense that they loved her.

The Lark and The Owl: Getting a Good Night’s Sleep by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There are two kinds of people in our house – the larks and the owls. Ken and Anna are the larks. They’re “morning people,” capable of carrying on a conversation without caffeine. And worst of all, they’re ridiculously cheerful at breakfast.

Adam and I are the owls. We love staying up late and sleeping in. We only speak when spoken to in the morning, and we’re strictly monosyllabic. It’s so unfair that most night owls have to follow the schedules of flittering morning larks.

Regardless of our natures, no one in our house sleeps as much as he or she should. I’d like to blame homework and deadlines for putting us in the red in the sleep column. But the truer culprit is our inefficiency. I can hear my kids’ objections now. “We start our homework right after dinner. We use free periods in school to stay on top of things.”

Save it kids. I know you’re on Facebook or you’re trolling the Internet for this, that and the other thing when you should be solving equations. You can’t fool the queen of procrastination. And you can’t fool your body. Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein is the regional medical director for the Harvard affiliated Sleep HealthCenters and was recently president of the American Academy of Sleep. He’s written a comprehensive book called The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. Pick up the book and there is no doubt that Dr. Epstein is the go-to man for everything about sleep.

When I recently heard Dr. Epstein speak at my son’s school, he put my family’s lack of sleep in sobering perspective. At best, each of us is running on a two-hour sleep deficit. In my family, that adds up to eight hours of desperately needed sleep wasted on Angry Birds, Twitter and The New York Times crossword puzzles. Yes, everyone needs down time, but now more than ever there’s so much out there to entertain us. I don’t like to go to sleep early because I think I’ll be missing something.

There’s no getting around the fact that sleep is a basic biological drive. We’re predisposed to circadian rhythms – waking and sleeping at certain times. Sleeping is how we conserve and restore energy. Sleeping strengthens the immune system; it sharpens learning and memory; and it’s key to growth development. Teenagers, in particular, are constantly disrupting their circadian rhythms. To compensate, my son would happily sleep until one in the afternoon on the weekends if I didn’t insist he get up by 11 to join the world.

Statistics show that sleeping away the weekend to stay ahead of a cumulative sleep debt doesn’t work. Seventy million Americans – 25 percent of the population – have sleeping disorders. Twenty-seven percent of college students are at risk for a sleeping disorder.

Dr. Epstein likes the idea of a later start time for high school students. But he’s a pragmatist and acknowledges that pushing up a school’s start time can wreak havoc with a parent’s schedule and may have some economic fallout for the family. But I know the few school days in the year that Adam starts just a half an hour later make him human in the morning. Of course, if a later start time became routine, he’d probably adjust accordingly by staying up later and still be miserable in the morning.

A Good Night’s Sleep covers the obvious and not so obvious obstacles to restorative sleep. If falling asleep is difficult, avoid the bedroom until it’s time to retire. It may seem simple to do, but my kids and I work in our rooms after dinner. I even have a lap desk so I can type in bed. Working in bed (and yes, I’m writing this column there) sabotages sleep. I know that for me, I almost trick myself into thinking that I’m getting some rest by hanging out in my bedroom. But the truth is, it’s harder to wind down when I use the same room for sleep and work.

Limit caffeine and alcohol. No more Coke Zero at night. Wine may initially cause drowsiness, but it’s one of the major causes of sleep fragmentation. We’ve all been there, waking up several times at night. Relaxation and visualization can also be useful to segue into sleep. I’ve coached Adam, the biggest sleep skeptic in our house, using techniques instructing him to relax each muscle in his body. I’ll ask him to visualize lying on a warm beach or looking at a star-studded sky. Visualization worked better when he was younger. These days he shoos me away to write a paper.

Of course the biggest disruption to sleep is kids. Note the best-selling success of a tongue in cheek book called Go the F*** to Sleep. But there was something profound that happened to me when I became a mother. I was no longer responsible just for myself, and I never slept the same way again. I used to listen for cries. Now I listen for the car in the driveway. And I’m almost certain to lose sleep this coming fall worrying and wondering when my lark flies off to college.

Family Memories: A Review of The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

The memory palace of Mira Bartók’s eponymous memoir is a place that she visualizes: “[T]wisted hallways . . . improbable stairs, like an Escher print, leading to doors that do not open, rooms too dark to see. This is how the memory of trauma works, how we glimpse forgotten years trapped inside the amygdala, that almond-shaped center of fear in our brain. Years are erased or condensed into hazy snapshots.’’

Bartók’s mother, Norma Herr, was a schizophrenic who felt both haunted and hunted. But Norma was also a musical prodigy whose concert career was abruptly halted after her first breakdown at the age of 19. By the time she divorced Paul Herr in 1963 she had two young daughters whom she shuttled between her parents’ home shadowed with memories of abuse to a dump of an apartment on the other side of Cleveland.

The ineffable functioning of memory and the brain itself is integral to Bartók’s complex story. She brilliantly teases out the emotional and physical fallout of her mother’s brain, damaged by illness. Within the memoir is also an autobiography of her own brain, traumatized in childhood and then injured in a car accident a decade ago. Cognitive function or lack thereof in her life is represented by “a palimpsest — a piece of parchment from which someone had rubbed off the words, leaving only a ghost image behind.’’

Bartók’s childhood is a continuous maelstrom powered by Norma’s violent rages and hallucinations. The will to survive the storm leads to the desperate moment when Bartók and her sister legally change their names as young adults so that their mother cannot track them down. Thus begins 17 years of homelessness for Norma and 17 years of wandering for Mira Bartók, who was born Myra Herr.

The Herr sisters’ name change is the foundation of the memoir — an action and reaction that calls to mind the Jewish superstition of changing a dying person’s name to hide her from the angel of death. For that was what Norma Herr was for her daughters — messenger of death who in one of their last encounters in 1990 chased Bartók with the jagged end of a bottle as her nearly hysterical sister Natalia, formerly Rachel, called the police for help.

Over the years Bartók lived in Italy, Israel, and Norway. Along the way she penned a series of children’s books on ancient and living cultures. She became an accomplished artist who taught herself the art of illumination. She remembers being transfixed by Queen Isabella’s Book of Hours — a devotional on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She also remembers wandering among ancient art, searching for the mother who forgot to come back for her.

From 1990 to 2007, Bartók set up post office boxes to both evade Norma and stay in touch with her. Their correspondence is a paradoxical record of a tragic yet fierce, loving relationship. Norma wrote to her daughter on the backs of greasy fast food bags about subjects as eclectic as art, religion, and geology. Her formidable intellect mingled with her insanity. She kept detailed notebooks on her peripatetic studies that at the brink of Norma’s death Bartók and her sister excavated from a storage locker.

Bartók eventually learns from a friend who maintains her post office box that her mother is dying. She and Natalia rush to Cleveland from their respective homes in Western Massachusetts and upstate New York to keep vigil by their mother’s bedside. During those intense three weeks Bartók utters the most wrenching yet bravest words in this memoir: “You know, I always loved you, Mommy.’’ The fact that Bartók can convey how and why she still loves her mother is perhaps the book’s greatest triumph.

A version of this review first appeared in a January 2011 of the Boston Globe

The Modesty Wars by Judy Bolton-Fasman


Dear Chaya Mushka:

I read that your name is the most popular one among young Lubavitch women. It’s the name of the late Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the fabled Lubavitcher Rebbe. Anywhere you turn in a Bais Yaakov seminary there’s a Chaya Mushka.

I admire the Lubavitch movement for many reasons, not least of which is that my children will soon set off into this great big world. Who knows if they’ll go hiking in Peru, ashram hopping in India or honeymooning in New Zealand? What I do know is that there is likely to be a Chabad outpost nearby to help them be Jews when they most need it. Even a post-modern, skeptical Jew like me can’t help but admire your movement’s dedication and organization. You’re like MasterCard, for heaven’s sake; you’re everywhere I need you to be.

In that spirit, your sisters in Israel – and anywhere else there is oppression of Jewish women – need you, Chaya Mushka. It isn’t just that they’re relegated to the back of a public bus in Israel or even New York. They are the victims of a so-called modesty movement.

Scene from “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women.
We all know that modesty is crucial to an observant woman. Skirt hems and sleeve lengths must cover most of her body. I try not to be judgmental. I know that sometimes we get into situations that are not of our making. Sometimes these dilemmas are as suffocating as a locked trunk. Not many of us are Houdinis, so we do the best we can to survive. But this time, we must speak out.

I’m not asking the Chaya Mushkas of the world to desegregate the public bus lines in Israel singlehandedly. I want you to do something much more long term. I want you to tell your sons that obsessing about a woman’s modesty is, in fact, wantonly sexualizing her.

And if you can manage to see one film this year, watch “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women. Better yet, view it with your sons and daughters. The film, which centers on two young women who have left their haredi communities, will probably make you uncomfortable. But I sense you’ll recognize a bit of yourselves in Sara Einfeld and Shulamit Weintraub. They fled their Gur Hasidic families. I realize your world is more expansive than that of the Gurs. Yes, you follow strict guidelines in dress, behavior and food. But you are educated women, the dream progeny of Sara Schnerir, a seamstress who lived in the late 19th century and founded the Bais Yaakov seminaries.

Equality is a slippery word between us. You think you’re exempt from certain commandments because motherhood is a higher calling. I think that’s a convenient excuse to exclude you from Jewish ritual. But let’s leave equality out of our discussion for the moment and talk about human dignity. You may not completely empathize with Sara and Shulamit as you watch “Black Bus.” But Sara writes a popular blog in Israel called “The Hole in the Sheet” that’s a window into your sisters’ lives in haredi communities. At one point, Sara interviews a former Hasid who tells her that he was taught to be disgusted by women. Not only would he avert his eyes when he saw a woman on the street, he would order women old enough to be his grandmother to wear a scarf over their wigs when they entered the synagogue.

Shulamit takes pictures on the busiest street in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. The women react to her camera as if she’s pointed a gun at them. No one wants to talk. No one wants to be seen. One woman hides behind the stroller she’s pushing. Off camera she tells Shulamit that she rarely leaves her home, and when she’s in public she tries to use side streets.

Chaya Mushka, you have more authority than I do to tell these men that this is not the Torah of their fathers or their mothers.

I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is about a siddur from 1471, which replaces the traditional prayer recited by women – “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for creating me according to Your will” – with this: “Blessed Are You Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for You have made me a woman and not a man.” Clearly, this is a response to the prayer said by observant Jewish men: “Blessed are You for not creating me a woman.” Maybe a woman commissioned this medieval Italian prayer book, I don’t know. But I think the degree to which women have been recently degraded is strictly the depraved interpretation of a few cruel and insecure contemporary haredim.

The second is a picture I recently saw in The Jerusalem Report. Someone caught haredi girls frolicking in a public fountain in Jerusalem. Despite their teachers’ warnings to stop, the girls continued playing. The picture captures the pure joy of simply being a young woman.

Remember that image of your younger sisters when you refuse to step to the back of the bus.

A Life with Aspergers Recorded: A Book Review of The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch

David and Kristen Finch had been best friends since high school when they married in 2003. By 2008 their marriage was all but over until Kristen connected the dots and recognized her husband’s lack of social graces, his meltdowns, and his obsessive compulsions as symptoms of Asperger syndrome.

Rather than cause for alarm, the diagnosis was a relief for the couple. Over the years David had perfected a coping mechanism that involved viewing his daily interactions as acting roles in which he would “assume characters – versions of myself that are optimized for the social environment at hand.’’ That worked when Kristen and he were casually dating. It worked by day when he was playing “the businessman’’ with an impressive client base. Then at night he’d come home and fall apart.

The Asperger diagnosis also provided the Finches with a common vocabulary to communicate better. It gave them information and insight into David’s mindblindness – a condition in which people can’t read social cues or understand another person’s feelings.

Armed with new self-awareness, David Finch set out to reset his brain with the goal of becoming the empathic husband Kristen deserved and the loving father his young daughter and son needed. He meticulously recorded his efforts with grace and humor in a self-styled manual, which eventually evolved into a memoir.

“The Journal of Best Practices’’ began as a growing pile of notes to self – reminders that became something bigger as Finch attempted to challenge his behavior one obsession, tantrum, and social faux pas at a time. His self-education began with basics like showing respect for others or refraining from changing the radio station if Kristen was singing along. His approach serves as an organizing principle for the book, its chapters bearing titles such as “Use your words,’’ “Just listen,’’ and “Give Kristen time to shower without crowding her.’’

Finch’s book represents a milestone, arriving just as the first generation of diagnosed Aspergians has come of age. Just last month The New York Times published an extensive front page piece about the obstacles an Asperger couple faced as they struggled with love and sex and setting up house together. Among the trials these young adults faced was translating the hard-won skills they had successfully acquired to enroll in college or get a job, and use them in romantic relationships.

Finch’s brutally honest and very funny book takes the volatile mix of Asperger syndrome and relationships a step further by highlighting the emotional land mines waiting to be set off in “neurologically mixed marriages.’’

Kristen is no saint in the book, but she comes close. She’s a working mother with two small children and a husband whom she often has to coax to express himself in words. But Finch is a more insightful writer than to leave us with the impression that he’s the third toddler in the house. He conveys the complexities of his marriage as clearly as he does the obvious frustrations. He writes:

“Not only were we dealing with issues common to every marriage, we were also forced to deal with extremely bizarre challenges that plague relationships for people on the autism spectrum: my daily routines, my obsessive tendencies, my unwillingness to participate in social events.’’

That meant he had to figure out how to give his kids a bath even though he couldn’t stand the sensation of wet clothing against his skin. He eventually accommodates by donning swim trunks. He also had to find a way to control his temper when events – holidays, vacations, traffic patterns – didn’t unfold according to his preconceived plans.

After several months of jotting down behavioral dos and don’ts on scraps of paper and Post-It notes, Finch felt that he was dangerously close to adding another obsessive compulsion to his repertoire. In his final note to self, he warned: “Don’t Make Everything a Best Practice.’’ He heeded his own advice and transformed his ad-hoc journal into a poignant, self-effacing memoir about the power of love.

This review first appeared in the January 16, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe