Adrienne Rich’s Tattered Kaddish by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It’s been ten years and four deaths since I first said the Kaddish for my father. Too many people to glorify and honor and extoll while pretending that God is on the receiving end of such lavish praise.

My Kaddish has been stretched thin.

My Kaddish is tattered like the yellowed lace doilies my grandmother crocheted. Doilies made of scarred, arthritic time. Adrienne Rich, who died on March 28, 2012 at the age of 82, composed her tattered Kaddish to the doilie makers of this world, to the ones who wished away earth-bound time to die sooner, to the ones who waited for death in dark agony and rain.

Blessed and sanctified are the ones we loved, the ones we thought we loved, the ones we thought loved us and the ones we were supposed to love. Praise to life. Praise to death. Praise to the poet who will forever inspire.

Adrienne Rich

Tattered Kaddish

Taurean reaper of the wild apple field
messenger from earthmire gleaning
transcripts of fog
in the nineteenth year and the eleventh month
speak your tattered Kaddish for all suicides:

Praise to life though it crumbled in like a tunnel
on ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though its windows blew shut
on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough

Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us

Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable

Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.


–Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of The Difficult World. 1991.

In Between: Ibrahim Miari’s One-Man Show by Judy Bolton-

Until he was 7-years-old, Ibrahim Miari was called Avraham. The son of an Israeli Jewish mother and Palestinian Muslim father, Ibrahim has shaped and crafted his improbable life story into a one-man show called “In Between.” He performed it last Saturday night at Boston University.

Ibrahim’s appearance was part of a faculty initiative by the university’s Religious Studies Department called “The Other Within.” The goal of the initiative, underwritten by a grant from the Posen Foundation, is to explore cultural dimensions of Judaism and Jewish identity.

Ibrahim MiariIbrahim raises awareness about his complicated identity the moment he whirls onto the stage like a Sufi dervish. His circle dancing is dizzying, mesmerizing – a way for Ibrahim to center himself and dwell in calm, still moments. The stage is bare except for a red suitcase, a chair and dumbek drum. He begins by telling the story of his parents’ improbable courtship.

His mother was a schoolgirl in Acco. His father drove a 1969 red Volkswagen around town and fell in love with this Jewish girl at first sight. That’s the story Ibrahim invents for parents who are mum on the subject.

Ibrahim’s story ricochets from his childhood to an interrogation at the airport. He’s the only actor on stage and plays all the parts, from the El Al employee who notices Ibrahim trying to check in with a suitcase belonging to Sarah Goldberg from Boston–Sarah is Ibrahim’s Jewish fiancée, and the two met working at a summer peace camp for Israeli and Palestinian children to his future mother-in-law.

“You’re an Arab and a Jew?” Ibrahim’s investigator asks going through his luggage with a rubber glove. “That’s a good one! Who would marry you?”

Ibrahim tells his audience that in Israel his identity is composed of labels piled one atop another. That Ibrahim Mairi is a Jew is acknowledged by the most stringent of rabbinical authorities because his mother is a Jew. But Muslims claim him as one of their own through his father. His American Jewish mother-in-law worries about her future grandchildren, whom she says will “need a clear sense of identity so you don’t pass on the confusion.” Children need community and culture, she adds.

The more pressing problem is that Sarah and Ibrahim need a clergy person to marry them. Sarah is a Jewish Buddhist – a JuBu. Three clergy – Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist – refused to officiate for various reasons. Three clergy portrayed by one puppet. With just a flick of the side curls the rabbi becomes a sheikh. And with a quick change into a turban, the sheik is a Buddhist priest. There is no possibility of hyphenated identity for Ibrahim and Sarah’s children. They’ve been turned away from their parents’ religious communities.

“I’m not Buddhist, Muslim, or Jewish enough” for anybody, Ibrahim explains.

Ibrahim tells his audience that Purim was the last Jewish holiday he celebrated as Avraham. Purim was his mother’s favorite holiday, and the last year he was in a Jewish school she made him a lavish costume. Purim is Ibrahim’s favorite Jewish holiday as well. It’s poetic that a holiday during which identities are masked and stereotypes inverted speaks so deeply to a man whose Jewish heart co-exists with his Muslim soul.

In 1991, Ibrahim was 15-years old during Operation Desert Storm when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles into Israel. The Mairis, who lived in Acco, didn’t have gas masks or a safe room in their house. In a nod to Arabic tradition, they put dough on their windows for good luck. When a couple is about to be married, family and friends stick coins in the dough of the couple’s new home to symbolize prosperity.

Fifteen years later, missiles rained down on Israel from Lebanon. It was Sarah’s first visit to Israel, and Ibrahim was an eager translator. But the clear blue sky that summer wasn’t an accurate reflection of the region’s turmoil. The war came to Acco and so Ibrahim took his fiancée to Haifa. The rockets landed in Haifa and the couple took cover in Nazareth. The missiles found them there, too, and Sarah’s next stop in Israel was the airport.

Ibrahim’s show began as his thesis project at Boston University’s drama school. Over the years it has evolved in response to audience comments. He says the show’s length depends on his mood and the audience’s reactions.

For all of the show’s spontaneity, Ibrahim’s message is consistent. He’s not Israeli enough because he’s a Muslim. He’s not Arab enough because he’s a Jew. He’s not Palestinian enough because he doesn’t live in the West Bank.

“I am a 1948 Arab.” This means that the members of his Arab family are Israeli citizens because they left their old village to settle in Haifa during Israel’s War of Independence. “I’m a demographic problem. I’m an inside Arab – an Israeli citizen. I am the country’s cancer – a few bad cells they put up walls around and have security checkpoints for. I am a ticking bomb – the ultimate security risk.”

A friend finally marries Ibrahim and Sarah in Massachusetts. They come up with a to-do list for the wedding ceremony using the ABC’s. C is for canopy. F is for the friend who would marry them, H is for henna. L is for lanterns. S is for simcha. U is for ululations. Y is for yamulka.

Ibrahim and his wife recently became parents, and during the Q&A all he would say is that that they plan to raise their child with pure love. He also said that he was not ready to show his play to his father. But his mother, a convert to Islam, has seen a taped version of his show. For the most part, she liked what she saw and heard. But she also told her son that as long as he makes his life story art, she’ll never tell him the story of how she met his father.

Say Yes to the Dress: Prom Shopping by Judy Bolton- Fasman

It’s spring. It’s Passover (practically). It’s prom season, and I reprise my role as Anna’s personal shopper. My job as my darling girl’s lady-in-waiting has evolved over the years. At first I bought her clothes as part of my maternal obligation to her. Along the way I had a lot of fun dressing up my first child. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but I remember all of those adorable outfits I assembled for Baby Anna.

We happily moved through toddlerhood and childhood with me still shopping for my little girl. And then we hit tween-hood. My girl had strong opinions, one of which is that she didn’t want to dress like me. In what is a role reversal that I think of as particular to those of us who straddle the baby-boomer generation, Anna thinks I’m too funky. Yes, she’s more conservative in her tastes, but I’m hardly radical in my dress. I like to say she’s elegantly simple, and I’m appropriately daring. We’ve always been on the same page with regard to propriety and, yes, modesty. Anna had a vision of her prom dress, and I had a vision of my daughter in her prom dress. But a couple of weeks ago our sensibilities crashed and burned in a fitting room in Bloomingdale’s. She tried on dress after dress. My selections looked beautiful on her. She thought otherwise. By the time we got home we were hysterical, and poor Ken had to play referee.

The next week, I explored the emotional fallout of our shopping excursion in New York City at the conference “What to Wear” held at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The organizers paid significant attention to teenage girls and the concept of tsnius – modesty – as both empowering and repressive. To be clear, this was a conference with a pluralistic mission, and one that provided space and time for teenagers to have a private seminar.

My favorite session of the day was the seminar “Concealing and Revealing: The Torah We Learn From Clothing,” led by the British fabric artist Jacqueline Nicholls. Nicholls elevates clothing to an art form through which she also connects to aspects of Torah. She’s created a group of diverse pieces for her first clothing series, the Kittel Collection. A kittel is ultimately a shroud, but in this life men wear one on Yom Kippur, the day of their wedding and, in some traditions, at the first seder.

Nicholls reclaims the kittel for women by feminizing a traditional male garment – the white shirt. She marries form to content by giving these garments obvious feminine shapes. I was taken with a kittel that Nicholls designed as a little girl’s party dress, replete with a Peter Pan collar, and an egg-shaped bottom symbolizing fecundity.

But the piece that took my breath away was a stand-alone corset refitted as a Torah cover in Nicholls’ Torat Imecha – The Maternal Torah Series. Nicholls brilliantly captures the symbolic tension between the Mishnaic saying, “Listen to the instructions of your father, but don’t forget the Torah of your mother” and the reSefer Torah Corset by Jacqueline Nichollsstricting relationship women traditionally have with the Torah.

The day Anna and I tumbled into the house as emotional refugees from the mall, we calmed down by listening to the instructions of the father of the house. Ken reminded us that our goal was one and the same: to have Anna feel happy in her new dress. The Torah of our mother included an addendum to the Ten Commandments: Honor Your Daughter and Son.

Ken’s intuition was right. Wearing new clothes is a mark of renewal and deserves a blessing – in this case the shehecheyanu to thank G-d for bringing one to a season of joy. For Anna and me, it’s also the season of shopping madness merged with the season of prom chicness.

After the conference, I went to Saks Fifth Avenue – the ultimate emporium of beauty and fashion. I had to run a gauntlet of women offering me free makeovers before I found the escalator to the fourth floor – the prom floor. All prom, all the time, and 20 percent off to boot. I took pictures of several dresses and e-mailed them to Anna. We narrowed down the choices to two lovely dresses. I’m happy to report that we have a winner, and that mother and daughter are doing very well.

Before leaving the fraught subject of fashion in the eye of mother and daughter, I want to note a couple of beautiful textual references that Jacqueline Nicholls wove into her presentation. According to the Zohar, the soul is a self-constructed garment. And in the traditional prayer lauding “a woman of valor,” a mother dressing her children is a form of protection.

Yes, I want to be that parent whose child’s security extends to feeling good in her clothing and, frankly, in her own skin. If that means going through racks of tulle and ruffles for the perfect dress, then feel free to call me over-protective.

The Toulouse Shootings: May Their Memories Be a Blessing by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Upon hearing bad news, it’s customary for Jews to say Baruch Dayan Emet — Blessed is the true judge. No questions asked. No motives suspected. This is God’s will.

The night before my father’s funeral I found a tattered prayer book in my old bedroom, a small square book with pastry thin pages that I had from my Yeshiva school days. The book was thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I practically choked on the chewy Aramaic. But this was the only way I knew how to prepare to be my father’s Kaddish.

I also knew that I would not find a single word about death in the Kaddish. But I was struck by the phrase that translated as “magnified and sanctified.” The words were connected to the act of enlarging God’s stature and acknowledging His holiness. The words of the Kaddish read like a stiff valentine to a lover who, in my resentful state of mind, did not deserve any adoration.

But sometimes there is nothing to do but to say the Kaddish. To accept God’s judgment. And yet to still be angry with Him. And so it is for the three children and their father, murdered in Toulouse because they were Jews. May their memories be a blessing. And may I be able to cope with being alternately grief-stricken and enraged over their deaths.



Yitgadal viyitkadash sh’may raba, b’alma deevra chiruteh v’yamlich malchuteh b’chayechon uvyomechon, uv’chayey d’chol bait yisroel baagalo uvizman koreev, v’imur amen.

Y’hay sh’ may rabba m’vorach l’olam ulmay ulmaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpoar vitromam viyitnasay, viyi’t hadar, v’yitaleh v’yatalal sh’may di’kudisha, breech hu, l’ayla min kol beerchata v’sheerata, toosh b’chata v’nechemata, d’ameeran, b’alma, vi’imru amen.

Yi’hay shl’omo rabba min sh’maya v’chaim alenu v’al kol yisrael, vi’imur amen.

Oseh shalom b’m’ramav, hu yaaseh shalom, alenu v’al kol yisrael, v’imru amen.


Magnified and sanctified be the glory of God

In the world created according to His will.


May his sovereignty soon be acknowledged,

During our lives and the life of all Israel.

Let us say: Amen.


May the glory of God be eternally praised,

Hallowed and extolled, lauded and exalted,

Honored and revered, adored and worshipped.


Beyond all songs and hymns of exaltation,

Beyond all praise which man can utter

Is the glory of the Holy One, praised is He.

Let us say: Amen.


Let there be abundant peace from heaven,

And life’s goodness for us and for all Israel.

Let us say: Amen.


He who ordains the order of the universe

Will bring peace to us and to all Israel.

Let us say: Amen.




Some Lessons from Trayvon Martin’s Death: Donna Britt’s Memoir Brothers (& Me) by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Donna Britt - Roy Cox Photography

Donna Britt is an award-winning journalist still haunted by a chillingly nondescript headline from 1977: Gary Man Shot Dead by Police. The man – Britt’s older brother Darrell – was unarmed when he was shot and killed in racially torn Gary, Ind., by two white police officers who alleged that the young man, who had no history of mental, drug, or alcohol problems, launched an unprovoked attack with “a chain, a brick, a plastic baseball, and a three-foot length of pipe,’’ accusations that the family found unfathomable.

Darrell’s death, the centerpiece of Britt’s recently published memoir Brothers (& Me), eventually launched Britt on a personal path of self-examination: the only daughter in a middle-class black family with three self-absorbed brothers and a difficult father, early acceptance of her role as a self-sacrificing caregiver, and the place of race and sex in American life and in hers.

This morning on National Public Radio she spoke as the mother of three black sons. Her two older children joined her on the interview to reflect on the senseless death of Trayvon Martin the black unarmed teenager shot by a volunteer on neighborhood watch patrol in Florida.

Britt described “the talk” that black parents have with their sons and daughters.  The delicate timing of this “preparatory explanation and warning “ happens during the shift from childhood to teen years—when young black men are perceived as dangerous and threatening.” Her sons told anecdotes about their experiences as young black with authority. But what chilled me was when Britt talked about 16-year old son, a track star who essentially gambles with his life when he goes out running.

My son is on his school’s track team too. He’s a long-distance runner who will often run a stretch of the Boston Marathon Route. As mother of a white boy, I have the relative luxury of worrying about cars, dehydration, even strangers. But no one is every suspicious of my son because of who he is. “It’s hard not to be black,” said Justin Britt-Gibbons, Britt’s oldest son.

Britt was a graduate student in journalism at the University of Michigan when Darrell was killed in a predominantly white area near the family home. In the aftermath of Darrell’s death, Britt begins somehow to blame herself. In her book she writes, “Suddenly our growing apart, a process inevitable among even the closest siblings, was unforgivable. Darrell had stopped looking for me, too, but that hardly mattered. He was gone. And he’d left me with a question: How could I have stopped paying attention?’’

From that day on Britt paid scrupulous, aching attention to the men in her world. She became the mother of three sons – the middle one named for her dead brother. When she arrived at The Washington Post in the late 80s, she resurrected Darrell 12 years after his death in an extended essay that put “flesh on my ghost.’’ Steeped in memories of Darrell, she continued to think long and hard about the black man’s plight in American society: “As the sister, friend, daughter, and lover of brothers, I knew everything that deeply affects American men affects black men more harshly. Being human is wrenching for everyone. Yet the level of hostility and suspicion directed at black men is so palpable, their culturally inflicted wounds so raw, I understood how a decent brother might be drawn to anything that eased the pressure.’’

That piece, along with other writing assignments for the Post’s well-regarded features section, brought her to the attention of the paper’s top editors and led to an offer for one of journalism’s plum jobs as a columnist. I was a Baltimore to Washington DC commuter in the early 90s, and Britt’s personal, deep writing voice kept me company on those train rides. She wrote about balancing her family life with deadlines. She wrote about young black men like Trayvon Martin, like her sons. She was every woman while also uniquely herself.

This morning on National Public Radio, Donna Britt acknowledged that we’ve made some progress since that day in 1977 when her brother Darrell was randomly shot by police. But still, “racism is in the water and the air. Like sexism we absorb them. It takes time, love and forgiveness to make those shifts permanent.”

In Brothers (&Me) she presciently writes that love is “the glue that binds a soul’s warring selves, the meeting place at which our opposites melt into and become part of each other.’’ I’m sure that’s also part of Britt’s talk to her young black sons.

Just Love Them: Mayim Bialik and Attachment Parenting by Judy Bolton-Fasman

In all the years that I’ve been writing and thinking about kids and parenting, the best piece of advice I got was from my dear, late father in-law, Dennis. We had just brought Anna home from the hospital, and I was panicked. How in the world was I going to raise this tiny, vulnerable girl to womanhood? “Just love her,” Dennis said. “The rest will fall into place.”

Anna is almost a legal adult. Adam is not too far behind. For these past 18 years, I’ve just loved them.

Parents in various cultures bring up their children in distinctive ways. My Connecticut grandma and Cuban abuela had very different ideas about caring for an infant. Grandma thought that I shouldn’t be held too much and that I should “cry it out” until I fell asleep from exhaustion. Abuela wanted to hold me day and night, feed me on demand and let me nap in her arms. But for all the different ways we care for our children, many of us can relate to some of the values of “attachment parenting.”

Mayim Bialik, the actress and scientist, is a passionate advocate of attachment parenting in her new book, Beyond the Sling. You may remember Bialik from the movie “Beaches,” in which she played the Bette Middler character as a child. Bialik went on to star in her own television show, “Blossom,” in the ’90s and now appears in the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Bialik – who studied Hebrew and Judaism and pursued a doctorate in neuroscience – cites eight basics for attachment parenting:

• Natural childbirth

• Exclusively feeding a baby breast milk

• Taking the time to formulate sensitive and thoughtful responses to your children

• Bonding through touch

• Co-sleeping

• Consistent parenting by a primary caregiver

• Gentle positive discipline, which means no corporal punishment

• Balancing your needs with those of your child

Bialik comes across as a supportive, informative friend, but that doesn’t dilute her fervency. For example, she’s an unequivocal proponent of natural childbirth. However, a drug-free delivery or a home birth is not an option for everyone. Sometimes there are complications like preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, both of which I had. My water also broke six weeks before Adam’s due date. Bialik considers extenuating circumstances, acknowledging that what worked for her and her family may not be safest or right for another family.

Much has been written about the salutary effects of breastfeeding for mother and child. Bialik anticipates the health and psychological challenges of nursing a baby. She acknowledges that there can be obstacles, but her message is to keep trying to do the best you can. I think she’s on target with that advice.

Sensitive and thoughtful responses to your children may seem obvious in parenting. Getting into that mindset connects with gentle and positive parenting. No hitting. No excuses. The one exception in my experience was the time a 2- year old Anna ran into the street, and I patted her bottom with some force. (I did not spank her). She was surprised, but not in any pain. What did hurt were her feelings. Afterward, she remembered not to approach the street without an adult.

But raise your hand if encouraging your children has sometimes crossed into pressuring them. I’ll raise two hands. And I’ll give you a textbook example of a mistake that I recently made. Adam came home last week with a nice report card. But I couldn’t leave well-enough alone. I suggested that maybe next term he could turn a couple of those B pluses into A’s. At first glance, it seems as if I took Adam’s hard work for granted. What I really did was to take my son for granted, and that was just plain wrong. Bonding through touch has always been a big issue for me. In my mind it links up to co-sleeping, which Ken wasn’t thrilled about when our children were babies. Our kids squirmed and kicked a lot. Nevertheless, I undid all of his scheduling and behavior modification around sleep when he was on business trips.

There are also controversial assertions in Beyond the Sling. For example, Bialik and her husband chose not to have their children vaccinated – a subject that has been addressed by others with much greater knowledge than I. She notes that her two young sons have never been on an antibiotic. Instead she pays careful attention to her sons’ body cues and manages their health accordingly. While her children’s well-being is a blessing, we all know that at times children need serious medical intervention. Bialik, the neuroscientist, points out that thousands of years of evolution have hardwired us to protect and raise our children. She emphasizes that a parent’s intuition is the first and best line of defense in childrearing. She also captures the bittersweet arc of a child gradually moving from dependence to independence.

Time with small children is fleeting. Just love them. That’s the charming, enduring subtext of Beyond the Sling.

Thank You, Gloria Steinem by Judy Bolton-Fasman


A while back, my son Adam and I struck a deal. He could stay up late for a Harry Potter flick if he watched a documentary with me called, Gloria in Her Words. The “Gloria” of the title was, of course, Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem is what Maya Angelou calls a “shero” of mine. She cleared the way for my mother to go to graduate school and open up her own checking account. She is the woman responsible for the fact that medical and law school classes are almost 50 percent women.

True, there can never exactly be another Gloria Steinem. She oversaw an unprecedented social revolution that transformed the world forever. But there doesn’t seem on obvious heir ready to take the mantle of feminist leadership from Steinem. Why is that? By my count we’re on the fourth wave of feminism.

Where is this generation’s Gloria Steinem?  Where is the one true, clear voice decrying the Ultrasound Bill? In 2012 seven states require a woman to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. And that bill was downgraded from a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound—a decidedly more painful and humiliating procedure. Where is the outrage over degrading a woman that has elected to have a legal medical procedure?

I’d like to tell you that discovering Steinem and understanding the origins of gender equality thrilled Adam. Alas, he passed most of the time playing with his Game Boy (note there is no Game Girl) until it was time to board the Hogwarts Express. But I take his disinterest as evidence of Gloria Steinem’s stunning success. Professional women, working women are the rule rather than the exception for him. He doesn’t think it’s unusual that his sister wants to become a doctor.

At one point in the documentary, Adam paused his game when archival footage of the suffrage movement caught his attention. He was shocked that women had not always been allowed to vote. His great-grandmother – who came to this country when she was barely 2 – was 30 years old when she legally cast her first vote.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. When I was a child that meant that women finally had their own cigarette brand. By the time I was a teenager, we got our first national magazine. One of the documentary’s biggest hoots was to hear the male anchormen of my childhood predict the demise of Ms. Magazine and trip over the dated words: “women’s liberation.”

Ms. Magazine took off and in high schools and colleges more women were gradually added to the cannon in literature courses. Thank you, Gloria Steinem. But we’re not there yet. According to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, women have been notably absent on a number of literary prize shortlists this season. That might only seem reasonable to the novelist V.S. Naipaul, who thinks no woman is his literary equal. I dare him to say that in front of Toni Morrison.

When I was Adam’s age I was stumped by a riddle about a father and son who get into a car accident and need surgery. The surgeon on call takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child; he’s my son.”

“Why?” I asked Adam. “That’s easy,” Adam said. “The surgeon is the boy’s mother.”

Thank you, Gloria Steinem.



Longing for Home in the Middle East: Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone

My Dear Children:

I just read a memoir in which one of the many things I learned was that the Arabic word for house – bayt – is achingly close to the one in Hebrew – bayit. The book is called “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East,” by Anthony Shadid.

Like me, Shadid grew up in two languages, with two translations of the world around us. He was a Lebanese American whose Arabic was as proficient as my Spanish. As it was for me with Spanish, the more time he spent immersed in Arabic – particularly in Lebanon – the more the words came back to him until he was practically fluent again.

Sadly, Mr. Shadid died last month covering the conflict in Syria for The New York Times. He succumbed to an asthma attack. He was only 43. Not only did he leave behind a body of sterling Pulitzer-prize-winning journalism, he also left his completed memoir of renovating his great-grandfather’s home in Marjayoun, a small town nestled in the hills of southern Lebanon. Renovate is not quite the right word for Shadid’s project. Renovate is what we did to our kitchen. But Shadid didn’t exactly rebuild the house, either. He writes that there was meaning and “an elegance of movement as the house hurtled towards its end and a new beginning.”

Anthony Shadid with his son in front of his great-grandfather's house in Lebanon

A house of stone is strong and proud. Its very material is “the yeast of the earth.” You can make the case that he restored the house to its original Levantine glory. But he did more than that: He wanted to live in this house as a way to reclaim his history while breathing new life into it.

The house had marble stairs buffed until they actually reflected the emotions of the occupants. Marble evokes elegance, antiquity, history. Did you know that your grandmother’s house in Cuba had marble stairs, too?

I remember her telling me how she scrubbed those floors until she saw her face mirrored back. Houses can be so intimate, so personal, so bound-up in identity.

When Shadid looked across the valley from his great-grandfather Isber Samara’s balcony, he crossed decades to make sense of the life that came before and after his sepia-photographed ancestor. Shadid was searching for those elusive sparks that illuminate both purpose and fate in short, intense bursts of insight.

Like your own ancestors from Greece and Turkey, the Ukraine and Poland, Isber had set his sights on America for his family. He sent his children, but never emigrated himself. Isber’s children settled in Texas and Oklahoma. The family worked together peddling, and then opened a dry goods store. Did you know that you had a great-great uncle who settled for a time in Galveston, Texas, running a small grocery store in the early 1900s?

Like Shadid, I have a love-hate relationship with the Diaspora, too. When your relatives have lived in four countries in just two generations, you begin to wonder if your family is “forever doomed to departures.” Where exactly is home anyway?

Shadid literally italicizes his family history. Paragraphs like that usually distract me. But trust me, these extended passages are well worth the time. Isber Samara lived and prospered in the Ottoman Empire, as did your great-grandfather’s family. My people, your people, lived in Ankara. They made their money in silver, and they educated their boys to become Torah scholars.

History was as continuous and borders were as seamless for my grandfather, Jacobo Alboukrek, as they were for Isber Samara. But the Ottoman Empire crumbled and crushed Jacobo’s family. Their Armenian friends and neighbors were disappearing. The Jews were afraid they were next. Some of them joined relatives already settled in Cuba. The rest of the family settled in Palestine.

Shadid longs for the open borders of the Ottoman Empire. Borders that enhanced the beauty and culture of Lebanon. He sees the memory come to life in the tiles that he picks for his home in Marjayoun. The tiles are called cementos, and Shadid goes to a store in Beirut to buy them from the Maalouf Trading Company. Doesn’t that sound like a name right out of Lawrence of Arabia?

Shadid takes time to describe both the artistry of these tiles and the history they awaken in him. For him, these decorative tiles in geometrics and floral, accented in purples and greens and yellows, remind him of “borders that were still for a time, crossable.”

For now, let’s leave politics alone. For the most part, Shadid does. “The Levant is no more,” he writes, “but I had been reminded – by the grace of the triple arches, the dignity and pride of the maalimeen [artisans who worked on the house], and … Isber’s sorrow and sacrifice – that behind the politics, there were prayers still being said with hope for what draws us together.”

Focus on that hope. Focus on the humanity that draws us together. Focus on the similarities between bayt and bayit. For in the end, they mean the same thing.

Love, Mom

Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My Dear Sweet Daughter:

We’ve come a long way in making our place in the synagogue. When I was a little girl I once told my grandfather—my very old-fashioned Abuelo—that I wanted to be a rabbi. “That,” he said to me, “is very ugly.” He said the word in Spanish—fea.

I despaired. The bima, the Torah, even the dynamic fervent prayer—you know, the kind that comes with the feeling you have full access to God—would never be mine.

I was 11 then and having a bat mitzvah at 13 like you did was not an option for me. I would have to wait another thirty years to become a bat mitzvah. But in the intervening years between my childhood and my adult bat mitzvah, women made miraculous strides in Jewish life. For example, we don’t think twice about a woman being a rabbi. I remember the hoopla when the first women were ordained as rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements. The first happened in 1970. The latter took place in 1985 when I coincidentally worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There was a lot of divisiveness over the decision to ordain Rabbi Amy Eilberg. It was still fea to a lot of people.

When Dad and I married six years later, we had our aufruf on the Shabbat before our wedding. An aufruf  is a simple, sweet ceremony where a couple blesses the Torah in anticipation of building a Jewish life together. But we almost cancelled our aufruf because I was not allowed to have an aliyah at Dad’s conservative temple. In 1991, women were still only allowed to bless the Torah there one Shabbat a month. You guessed it, our aufruf was not on the designated Shabbat. We had the aufruf and I said the Ashrei from the bima. It was a huge compromise, and I only did it because Dad was so upset and embarrassed by his temple’s sexism.

It turns out I’ve been under an illusion all these years. Jewish women have always been creative, committed and observant when it comes to taking their places as b’nai mitzvah. I’d like to share a new book with you that beautifully illustrates this point. Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World is a compilation edited by Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz and recently published by the Indiana University Press.

As Professor Reinharz, who heads the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute — a think tank devoted to Jewish women’s history as well as our future—notes in her introduction, “this book opens the door to many Jewish communities—large, medium, small and tiny—by focusing on one entry, the bat mitzvah story.”

The book is organized as its own idiosyncratic almanac—nine regions including Africa, Australia and the Caribbean—give entrée into Jewish communities you’d never guessed were large enough or even organized enough to initiate their daughters into Jewish womanhood. But you know all about Jews coming from far-flung places. How many times have you heard people say, “I didn’t know there were Jews in Cuba!”

Yes there are Jews in Cuba. And Jews in Nigeria too. I was taken with the story of the coming-of-age story for girls in the Igbo tribe. One of the elder statesmen of the group, a lawyer, suggests that the tribe claims Jewish origins. There are 40 million Igbos—the majority of them embracing their Jewish roots. But only a tiny fraction practice rabbinic Judaism.

Their transition to womanhood is called isi mgba. Girls are draped with beads pretty patterns are drawn on their bodies with a kind of white chalk. The girls then dance in groups to the marketplace where their mothers and grandmothers counsel them about the joys and responsibilities of Jewish womanhood. I love this pure version of the bat mitzvah. After all, we dressed up for your bat mitzvah and a friend did our makeup. Beautiful patterns, indeed.

Another thing that the book crystallized for me is how overtly some Jews connect the bat mitzvah with puberty. For example, the Bene Israel, Jews who have lived in India for over 2000 years, have a ceremony when girls begin to menstruate. One woman describes a ceremony in which dried fruits and nuts, including coconut, were wrapped in a handkerchief and placed on her lap. Coconut is plentiful on the coast of India and is a symbol of fertility.

So my dear daughter, name a country anywhere in the world where Jews live, and you’ll see that the bat mitzvah has always been an intrinsic part of Jewish womanhood. Make sure to pick up Today I Am A Woman. (It’s on the coffee table in the living room). You don’t need to read the book chronologically. In fact, it’s better if you flip through the various sections and read whatever catches your eye. It’s similar to spinning a globe and letting your finger randomly land on a country. You’ll glimpse at your sisters all over the world celebrating adulthood as women and Jews. And there’s nothing fea about that.

Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick will be discussing Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World on Wednesday, March 14, 7pm at Brookline Booksmith.


We Are All Stars: Beren Academy and Jewish Pride by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The game was close. But the Robert M. Beren Academy Stars did us all proud Saturday night, even though the varsity basketball team lost the league championship, 46-42.

The fact that these boys from a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston actually played in the championships at all last weekend in Dallas was a human rights story crossed with a fairy tale.

The Beren Stars had been cultivating a championship team for the past four years. This year the players tore up the court and dribbled their way to the state championship tournament with their kippot firmly pinned to their heads.

Enter the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), the governing body that oversees most private and parochial interscholastic sports in the state. Beren had made it to a game that was scheduled for last Friday evening – the victor of which was scheduled to play the following afternoon. The TAPPS Board had long ago decided that the only Sabbath to be celebrated in Texas was on Sunday: There would be no rescheduling Friday night games to Friday afternoon or Saturday afternoon games to Saturday night.

Beren Academy’s opponents were more than willing to accommodate the Beren team’s Shabbat. But TAPPS did not relent even when the mayor of Houston and a former coach for the Houston Rockets called upon the organization to review its decision. It wasn’t until TAPPS was forced to comply with a temporary restraining order that the association allowed the Beren Stars to reschedule. TAPPS’ tin-eared director, Edd Burleson, commented to the Houston Chronicle that “unlike many people, TAPPS does follow the law, and we will comply.” Many people? Which people? You people? My people?

And speaking of many people, where were the other schools in the league when Beren was initially disqualified from playing in the finals because its players observed the Jewish Shabbat? None of those teams stepped up and refused to play when it looked like Beren Academy would have to forfeit.

It’s easy for me to be outraged living here in Massachusetts, a place where a school like Maimonides doesn’t have to jump through hoops (yes, pun intended) to reschedule games that conflict with Shabbat. The school’s membership in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association was never circumscribed as it was for Beren Academy, which was reportedly warned when it joined TAPPS that the league would not make exceptions for the Jewish Sabbath. Yet last year, the association accommodated a Seventh Day Adventist school that also observes the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday, enabling its soccer team to participate in the finals.

If it’s hard to be a Jewish school in TAPPS, it’s downright humiliating to be a Muslim one. According to The New York Times when Iman Academy SW, an Islamic school in Houston, requested membership in 2010, TAPPS sent an additional questionnaire that asked:

Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or a Jew understands his religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?

It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your religious beliefs?”

How does your school address certain Christian concepts (i.e. celebrating Christmas)?

Let me be very clear that this is not just demeaning to Muslims, but offensive to all people. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, then what am I?”

After the Stars learned that the team had been given the all clear to play in Dallas, Beren Academy’s administration issued a press release thanking TAPPS for reversing its decision. The school’s statement was an example of grace and restraint. No hint of bitterness or pent-up hostility, so I’ll step in and do it for them.

Beren Academy shouldn’t have to thank TAPPS for anything. A judge – not the consciences of TAPPS’ administration or its board – forced the league to do the right thing.

And why is an association like TAPPS still playing by rules that not only smack of “separate but equal,” but also overtly discriminate against minorities in general? How many of TAPPS’ board members actually have read the Koran? Attended a synagogue service? Or let’s get more basic. How many of them truly understand that in the 21st century we live in a religiously diverse country?

Last Saturday night, the Beren Stars lost to the Abilene Christian Panthers by just two baskets. I watched the game on a live stream. With the exception of my own children’s sports teams, I’ve never wanted a team to win as much as I wanted the Stars to win. But when it was all over, Beren Academy achieved something even more lasting than a championship title. The school made me proud to be a Jew in a state and a country where I, more often than not, take my religious liberty for granted.