Mourning Aurora by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Terry Tempest Williams is an extraordinary writer. She recently published a memoir inspired by boxes of journals her mother bequeathed to her – all of them blank. There was not a single word on those fresh, white pages. They were, as Williams wrote, “paper tombstones.”

That’s what I visualize—paper tombstones—as I invoke the dead and the wounded for this column. They are the victims of the wave of hate and terrorism of the past couple of weeks. The youngest victim at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where a madman opened fire on an unarmed audience, was six years-old. All she did to tempt death was sit next to her mother at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises—the latest Batman movie. Her fate was intertwined with 11 other people, some of whom died shielding their loved ones.

Here we are again, reading names. Piecing together life stories from the snapshots and accompanying biographical summaries. Here we are again in another “there but for the Grace of God Go I” moment.

And there are more names to remember. A suicide bomber attacked a tour bus of Israelis vacationing in Bulgaria. Five were flown home for burial and 33 more were wounded. Geopolitics boils over and once again Jews are targeted.

It’s a brutal time.

God has come up a lot in discussions with my kids over the Aurora tragedy. I dare say at this point Spiderman and Batman are more divine to them than a seemingly absent God. It’s not surprising. A movie featuring these two superheroes is not just a blockbuster; it’s what the industry calls “a movie event.” It’s a phenomenon. Think about Gotham City, Batman’s stomping grounds. It’s a deeply dark place with psychopaths at the ready behind every building.

A masked gunman armed to the teeth. The bewitching hour of midnight. Sex and violence on the screen. I don’t think for a moment that The Dark Knight Rises short circuited the killer’s brain. But the movie provided a horrifying backdrop. Reading the bewildering amount of commentary about the Aurora massacre, I remembered that President Reagan’s would be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., was obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver. Loner to loner. Was it a deadly case of transference? Were Hinckley and the Aurora gunman seeking fame, attention, intensely negative admiration? Notice that I won’t name the gunman in Colorado. In this post-Internet age, I won’t make him easier to find on a search engine.

But in the aftermath of this tragedy, how do continue to live with any kind of normalcy? Thanks to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s deceptively simple, brilliant insight we know—we accept to some degree—that bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Kushner wrote his best-selling book from the rubble of his own heartache—his son, Aaron, died in his mother’s arms two days after his fourteenth birthday from a rare genetic disease. It’s no wonder that Rabbi Kushner’s title has a permanent place in our lexicon; he has put a name to a phenomenon so perplexing, so universal. People cling to the notion that tragedy is not deserved. God is far too complicated to want a tit for a tat. God is rarely in those details, I tell my kids.

I’m not wise or worthy enough to understand why God does the things that God does. I do know that when tragedy strikes as it did last week in Aurora and Bulgaria, I don’t believe God is vengeful or sadistic or masochistic. I try to convince Adam, in particular, that God has His reasons for stepping back to observe what human beings, purposefully created in God’s image, have wrought. I don’t know what those reasons might be. I only know that it’s a crazy, twisted, scary, beautiful world out there. Maybe God needs to see what we do next. We are, after all, in a relationship with the Almighty. Pass that along to the children, but don’t forget to talk through the anxiety and fear generated by the Aurora shootings. Don’t plaster this experience with “paper tombstones.”

In Terry Tempest Williams’ Mormon community she notes that the women keep journals and bear children. Her mother’s blank pages are an act of rebellion.  “How do you know your mother didn’t write her entries in invisible ink?” a woman asked Williams at a bookstore reading.

Williams said she wasn’t keen to find out if her mother had pulled a stunt like that. “My mother’s journals are words wafting above the page,” Williams writes in her memoir. Just like the spirits of the innocents that were violently murdered last week in Colorado and Bulgaria.

The Unluckiest Poet in America

Last week The America Library of Poetry was more than “fanning the flames of literacy” at our house.  The Library, sponsor of free poetry contests for kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade, had finally picked this year’s winners. Adam was not among them.


He had been so hopeful after he was notified this summer that he was still in the running for the grand prize. To confirm that he was a serious contender, his poem would appear in a volume of other entries set for publication in December. For $35 my son would forever have his own personal copy of his first work to appear in print.

September 30th.  Adam noted the date on our family calendar. It was the day the winners would be published on the Library’s Web site. He visited the site several times a day throughout September, trolling for hints of how his poem was faring in the contest. Nothing. He was nervous. I was nervous for him because I knew all too well what was coming down the pike.

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. And, boy oh boy, did my son take it personally. I was out when he logged on to the Web site on the evening of September 29th. When I checked my BlackBerry there it was—Adam’s righteous (or self-righteous) indignation that his poem was not among the winners.

My son-turned-critic berated the winning poem in his age category as “a sure sign of uncreativity (sic) and poetic weakness. You rhyme when you can’t be vivid or use figurative language.” Ouch. Who made him the poetry maven?

Welcome to my world Adam. I’ve got a collection of lovely rejection letters from editors at some of the best publications in this country. And you know what? When I started out, I clung to those hand-written two line notes like a life preserver. “Not quite right for us. But send more.” These days I get rejections mostly through email and they’re not nearly as exciting. Ten point Arial dilutes the urgency, the optimism embedded in the rushed handwriting of those earlier notes.

My near misses don’t make me all that angry anymore; they make me determined. Fiercely determined (maybe that’s constructive anger) to show every editor who has rejected me that they were flat out wrong.

In the meantime, Adam needed some perspective because frankly he is not, as he claimed in the heat of the moment, the best children’s poet in America. I know because once upon a time I thought I was the best children’s novelist not only in America, but the world. I was so sure of it that when I was nine I sent my first “book” to a legal publisher I found in the yellow pages. The CEO was charmed and he called my parents to tell them so.

I told Adam the truth about the writing life—albeit one that was dipped in maternal honey:

Congratulations! Every single accomplished and talented writer has been rejected. If he or she hasn’t been rejected he is not remembering correctly. Some of those poems were not as good as yours. But some of the poems were just as good or better. The judges are not “impaired.”  However, judges are human and they have their preferences.

I followed up with a call to home. Ken answered and I asked him if Adam was still upset. My husband had no idea what I was talking about. “He didn’t place in the poetry contest,” I said. “He hasn’t said a word to me,” Ken said. “He saves that stuff for you.”

Yes. I’m the more reactive parent, the mushier parent. While every kid needs a mushy parent, that same parent must take precautions against becoming too malleable. Adam needed to understand that he may have deserved to place in that contest, but so did the actual winners.

The Adam I came home to bore no resemblance to the raging poet who fired off that earlier e-mail. I asked if he would like to read through some of the winning poems with me. I read the Grand Prize Winner aloud and he agreed that it was a very accomplished poem. I pointed out that the poet was a senior in high school. And as for that rhyming poem that took first place in his age category? I said that I thought it worked. We read that one out loud too and he reluctantly agreed.

A few minutes after we had discussed the winning entries, Adam sent me a contrite e-mail. He explained that he felt “angry and unappreciated” when he pounded out the first message. After the disappointment passed (isn’t it great to be twelve?), he asked Ken and me never to work for The America Library of Poetry. Employees and their families are not eligible to enter the contest. Only a true writer would be so optimistic and yet such a glutton for punishment.

Congratulations, Adam. You’ve arrived.

Dear Sarai: A Letter to a Young Israeli Soldier

In anticipation of reviewing  a collection of linked stories coming out in September called  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid a collection focusing on three young women doing their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces–I revisited an epistolary essay I wrote after I met Sarai, a young Israeli army officer. Sarai was mostly skeptical about peace for her country. But towards the end of our conversation I heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. Here’s the letter I dedicated to her after our encounter four years ago.

Dear Sarai,

There is a lot on your young shoulders. Twenty-one years old and you’re already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.

Thank you for defending Israel. Thank you to your mother for sending you out into the world to do this work for the Jewish state, and for Jews everywhere. Back home in Boston descriptions of what you and your unit do sound surreal. People will shake their heads in disbelief as much as in admiration that your unit—18 and 19 year-old young women—monitors the Israel security barrier and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s only a job for girls,” one of your charges proudly says. “Because girls can multitask better than boys.”

Girls with long, shiny ponytails—the same ponytails I see swinging up and down the soccer field when I watch Anna play. They’re eating the same junk food teenagers everywhere eat. But these teens munch on potato chips while wearing their country’s uniform and focusing on their monitors. They blink as often as the guards at Buckingham Palace. The room where they work is uncannily silent.

I wonder what your subordinates think of the American visitors cheering on one of the girls as she follows a suspicious character and then communicates with soldiers in the field to pick him up for questioning. It’s stunning to realize that the decision is hers alone on who warrants a closer look. And it’s even more stunning to know that the soldiers on the ground have only her judgment to rely on. She’s the one who guides them if they have to crawl around brush and barbed wire to capture a suspect. If things go badly, hers is the last voice a soldier hears in his earpiece.

Sarai, your charges are only four years older than my daughter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were resentful that my daughter and her friends are relatively carefree. I can understand if it bothers you that American groups observing your work sometimes relate to it as if watching a video game. Please be patient with us. The first Gulf War was beamed into our living rooms like a remote video game. But that was in 1991. You were only 3 years old and the soldiers now in your charge were babies. None of you remember being bundled into your safe rooms.

I was so sad when you said you’ve lost all hope for peace. You chide your friends for being unrealistic, even naïve about peace between Jews and Arabs. You say it’s because you’ve seen too much. I can understand why it disheartens you to see 5 and 6 year-old Palestinian children throwing rocks through the fence at your fellow soldiers.

But your hopelessness coupled with those Arab children’s burgeoning hatred are also casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I’d like to share a personal story with you. When I was a little older than you I worked for a civil rights organization where my job was to monitor right-wing extremists. You have infrared cameras and the latest communications equipment to do your job. I collected my information by reading hate rags put out by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust revisionists. I was 25-years old and had never encountered such raw hatred. I monitored these right-wing extremists for 3 years. I knew where every Klan cell was in the United States.

After reading so much hate material day in and day out, it skewed my vision of the world. A few hate-mongers led me to believe that the United States was a country full of racists and anti-Semites. I had to pull out of that job to get my bearings again. Maybe you need to do the same after you honor your commitment to the army.

Sarai, your name tempts me into midrash. Sarai was Sarah’s name before God changed it. Perhaps this is a before moment for you. Maybe you’re more pessimistic as a younger Sarai. But I think you’ll find your optimism again. I saw a glimmer of that optimism when I asked you why witnessing the conflict up close wouldn’t want to make you work that much harder for peace.

Even though you were stunned by the question, I saw an older, wiser Sarai briefly emerge. “I never thought about it this way,” you said. “I need some time before I can answer you.”

While you are thinking my dear Sarai, I want to leave you with a saying from the Talmud. “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

I know that your duties as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces wear on your soul. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem you encounter. But please marshal your strength, your experience—and yes—your optimism to work for peace.

The Swing Set and the Birthday

The couple that bought the swing set from us drove a Honda Civic with two car seats side by side in the back. Just like us. The little girl had a baby brother. Just like us. I remember when we went to pick out the swing set—a gift from Grandpa and Grandma who told us to get the best for Anna and Adam. And we did. Two swings, a glider, a slide, a canopy and a ladder leading up to monkey bars.

On the car ride down, Anna suddenly announced that she was something that began with an “F.” Ken and I couldn’t imagine. Actually maybe we could, which is why we braced ourselves. “I’m firsty,” she said. “Ah,” we smiled, producing her sippy cup.

Anna’s eighteenth birthday is around the corner. Last week, the young family in the Honda Civic returned to our house in a rented van, took apart the swing set and went away with it. I watched from the window on the landing. The last thing to go into the U-Haul was the yellow glider. It lay on the ground washed up from the past. The man, the woman and the grandfather squeezed into the front seat and drove off into a life that was once mine.

Please, understand, I’m thrilled that my children have grown and thrived. I thank G-d every day for having the privilege of ushering them through so many seasons of joy. But up until now the changes within my motherhood have felt gradual. We went through grammar school in a series of days in which I looped around Newton dropping them off and picking them up. Quite often I’d defy the carpool rules and linger in the line to watch them walk in to school together. I knew their childhoods would not last, and yet I didn’t quite believe it. I always had another year. How different really was fourth grade from third grade?

I don’t like change. Loathe it. Probably because I’m afraid of it. Always have been. Quite suddenly my daughter can legally buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. She can marry without my permission. She’ll vote in her first ever presidential election and she’s told me quite forthrightly that she’ll make up her own mind about the candidates. And my son. He towers over me. Nine inches taller than I am and counting.

When we bought the swing set, our cholesterol was normal and our blood pressure steady and uneventful. Our kids woke up so early on the weekends that they watched videos sprawled across our bed while we tried to catch an extra hour of sleep. They fit in our laps and they were light enough to carry up and down the stairs. Now we lie wide awake early on a Sunday morning and our exhausted teens cram as much sleep as they can into the day. Both of their grandfathers died over a decade ago. One grandmother can no longer walk. We put all of our hopes and prayers and dreams that the other grandmother stays just the way we like her.

Like the great chess player that my dear father-in-law was, I can see five or six moves ahead. Heck, I think I can see the endgame. This has been a morose summer for me. If another person tells me that I’m going to love having my daughter away at college—ecstatic was how one veteran mama put it—I’m going to collapse and weep uncontrollably. Think of your newfound freedom, said another empty nester. I didn’t realize that I was in jail. What breaks my heart the most is that my kids know I’m sad about the coming transitions. No amount of denying on my part convinces them otherwise. Adam offers to cue up The King’s Speech for me when I’m teary. But he knows that not even Colin Firth can lift me out of my funk. I just have to wait until it burns off like fog. That’s what my father the inveterate weather watcher used to say about sadness. It burns off.

For fifteen years our swing set was the backdrop of my life. Flash, I see Anna’s friends trying to one up each other on the swings. Higher and higher. Flash, Adam and a friend are racing each other across the monkey bars. Flash, someone goes belly down on the slide. Memory has tempered old worries of broken bones and deep bruises. I’ve gone on to worrying about other things like broken hearts, crushing disappointments and anxious decisions.

Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems. I never liked that saying. And despite all the gloom and doom I’ve sprinkled between these lines, I don’t really believe the big kids-big problems equation. Especially today on my daughter’s eighteenth birthday. A few hours after Anna was born, I nursed her for the first time and watched special programming on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the moon landing. But the only thing otherworldly that night was that I was a new mother to the most spectacular baby girl on earth.

To Sleep, Perchance to Snore

The last straw was when I woke up in the bathroom of the Ritz Carlton in New York last weekend. I had made a semi-comfortable pallet for myself—two terry cloth robes, a few fluffy bath towels and a pillow I snatched from the bed just before I was exiled.

The four of us – husband, daughter, son and me – were sharing a room at the hotel. At one in the morning, my fifteen year-old son tearfully shook me awake and said he couldn’t bear my snoring anymore. Please, he begged me, do the sleep apnea study.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve slept on the floor of a hotel bathroom. It started last year on a family vacation. It was to be an idyllic week of looking at colleges in New England and upstate New York for my daughter. Of course, we only needed one hotel room. Who were we anyway, the Rockefellers?

But this last time my kids’ were intensely anxious about sharing a room with me. The previous couple of months my children had taken to shutting my bedroom door and theirs because my snoring was so cartoonishly loud. One night my daughter and her friends taped me so I could hear for myself how bad it was. I was horrified. I asked my husband how he slept through the racket. “I love you,” he said. He refused to comment further.

It was clear I’d have to go to a sleep center to get my snoring under control. I don’t know how I got so loud and disruptive in the first place. Nor am I sure when it began. Menopause may be a factor in there somewhere. So is the sleeping medication I take. In my late forties, I decided that I had had enough of the insomniac life. I was past my childbearing years. I deserved some uninterrupted sleep.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to go to a sleep center. I wasn’t happy about having to sleep in a weird, sterile place hooked up to machines that measured my brain waves and kept track of my oxygenation. I also didn’t want to know if I had sleep apnea because that would involve sleeping with an oxygen mask for the rest of my life. Yes, the rest of my life. The sleep technician made a point of telling me that several times.

I had no idea what to pack for my overnight at the sleep center. Pajamas, sweats? I opted for a nightshirt that said “Hot and Flashy.” You can play with the double entendre. I brought along my iPad so I could watch one of my favorite shows—a British Masterpiece Theatre import called Foyle’s War. It’s about a police inspector protecting his seaside town during the Second World War. I have a crush on Foyle and his younger sidekick, Sergeant Milner. I thought they’d be good company.

But before I got set up with the right sleepwear and the Netflix instant cue there was a matter of finding the place. It was a nondescript building in a business office park. But it was set back in the woods and when the technician let me in all I could think of was that I was stuck in a version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I felt as if I were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I walked in with my little overnight bag stuffed with books and back up clothes. “Get comfy,” said the technician. A few minutes later she started spreading glob in my hair to secure the electrodes. She fit me with tubing in my nose so she could blast me with oxygen if she needed to. I had electrodes on my legs to test for restless leg syndrome and I was also hooked up to an EKG. To top it off, I had one of those bulky finger clips to keep track of my oxygen saturation. I wore a kind of necklace that looked like a fuse box that could easily plug in and out of the machinery keeping track of my body functions in case I had to go to the bathroom. I looked like a robot. I had to go to the bathroom a lot.

The technician gave me a perfunctory definition of sleep apnea—when your airways shut down temporarily—and how that affected sleep and overall demeanor. If I was experiencing sleep apnea she’d replace the nose tubing with an oxygen mask during the night. I tried on three different masks and chose contestant number two.

I called my house just before lights out and said I wanted to go home. “I know,” said my husband. We had already established he wasn’t allowed to come to the testing site to be with me.

I don’t know if I have sleep apnea. The technician told me that she was not allowed to discuss any results with me and I won’t hear anything from my own doctor for a few weeks. But I actually slept for a few hours and I woke up maskless. When I tried to confirm that I didn’t need a mask at any point in the night, the technician said again that she was prohibited from talking about any aspect of the test with me. She sounded like she was wearing her own fuse box.

“And if you don’t have sleep apnea,” asked my concerned children when I got home, “will you keep snoring.”

“Yup,”  I said. “And it’ll be your turn to sleep in the bathroom the next time we share a hotel room.”

Tefillin Barbie and Me

The other day I was in my rabbi’s office for what she and I like to call my 10,000-mile tune-up. And there she was on a bookshelf in a plexi-glass frame—a super hero ready to wrap and unwrap at a moment’s notice to redeem the world—my old friend Tefillin Barbie.

Tefillin Barbie is modest and learned and devout. She wears a long denim skirt. Her sleeves are below her elbow. She wears a head covering and is draped in a tallit—a prayer shawl. And, of course, the most notable thing about her is that she wears tefillin. Prominently, proudly and naturally.

I know all the feminist arguments against Barbie, but I can’t help myself, I’ve always loved Barbie. She came into my life when I was six-years-old and bedridden for three months. My aunt sent me a Barbie along with the doll’s extensive miniature wardrobe. I kept her outfits in a black patent leather wardrobe created just for her clothes. I spent hours dressing Barbie in ball gowns, tennis skirts and my favorite—a bridal gown.

Over the years Barbie’s outfits have used over 105 million yards of fabric. She has owned over a billion pairs of shoes. Through it all it never fazed me that Barbie was blonde and tall and I was not. She measured an impossible 36-18-38, but I attributed that to the fact that she was a doll.

A few facts about Barbie and her creator. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959 and named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler went on to co-found the toy company Mattel. Barbie was not her only significant invention. Recovering from a mastectomy in 1970, Handler discovered the need for a suitable prosthetic breast and invented Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in weight and density to natural breasts.

Barbie has had over eighty careers ranging from a rock star to a presidential candidate who focused on educational excellence and animal rights. She has served in every branch of the military and was a medic in Operation Desert Storm. In addition to being a devout Jew, Barbie is also black and Hispanic. Forty-five nationalities claim her as their own. She has been present at diplomatic summits and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And now she is a baal koreh—a woman who reads Torah.

I’m not surprised that Tefillin Barbie’s inventor is a soferet—a woman scribe who is trained and certified to write holy texts by hand. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive Jen Taylor Friedman is one of six soferot (plural of soferet) in the world. She has a workshop in her native Southampton, England handwriting an entire Torah for a congregation in St. Louis..

Discovering the occupation of this late incarnation of Barbie led me to do a bit of research on soferot. I learned that the first woman soferet was certified in October of 2003. A congregation in Seattle underwrote the cost of training additional soferot in order to be the first synagogue in the world to have a Torah exclusively hand calligraphed by women. Additionally, women metalwork artists are creating the breastplates, crowns and a clasp for the Torah.

All of this wonderful female energy sent me on a virtual journey that ended up at the Jewish Women’s Archives site where I came upon an entry for Joan Snyder’s lithograph “Our Foremothers.” Serendipity. I have a copy of Snyder’s print hanging in my living room, a gift from my mother-in-law. She thought it was my destiny to have it because the name Judith is so prominent among the Jewish women’s names that Snyder commemorates. Snyder uses shades of red and pink—the colors of blood and tutus—to write names like Hagar, Leah, Rachel and Sarah. She pairs these iconic names with those of her mother, daughter and life partner.

People have two reactions to the print—some are mesmerized and others think it’s the work of a child. “Did Anna make this?” more than a few people have asked me. Snyder’s presentation is both basic and profound. The listing and mixing up of these name reminds me that at some point in a woman’s life she has been cast out like Hagar. She has been adored like Rachel. Taken for granted like Leah or not taken seriously like Sarah. Our foremothers are not simply archetypes. They are us and we are them.

So where does this newest incarnation of Barbie fit in with our own mothers and sisters and foremothers? For one thing she’s an all-American girl who is at ease with every aspect of Jewish ritual. I’m envious of her. A couple of years ago I went to the World Wide Wrap at my synagogue where I was the lone adult among a group of bored pre-teens. I didn’t get a lot of support for trying to learn how to wrap tefillin as a grown woman, so thank God for Tefillin Barbie. When I look at her I remember that nothing in Judaism is off limits to my daughter and my nieces.

Here’s another fun fact about Barbie. Every second of every day a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world. And here’s a wish inspired by Barbie’s sales numbers. Every time that a Jewish girl comes of age, may she be comfortable in her own body and wrapping her own tefillin.




The ABCs of Autism

One of the greater challenges of writing this column is to convey as many aspects of parenthood as I can despite my lack of expertise in a particular parenting topic or dilemma. This means that I have to go beyond my experience as a parent to understand issues with which I’m not familiar – to step out of and look critically at my own parenthood in search of empathy and appreciation for what other parents encounter.

I’ve wanted to write about autism for a long time, but felt I didn’t have the right despite the fact that someone I love very much was diagnosed as a toddler. But the topic has so preoccupied me that I wanted to honor my relatives who have fought so hard for their autistic son to be educated in a school where he is not left in isolation for hours at a time if he becomes agitated. They fought for their son’s right to go to an out-of-district school that would properly nurture him as part of his education. After a lot of tears and angst and legal maneuvering, they won.

I read blogs and books by parents whose direct activism on behalf of their autistic children are changing the way the world understands and accepts this disorder. I think these parents’ dedication has created a historic movement that has led to groundbreaking research on the topic as well as captured an elusive empathy.

To do my job properly, I want to point to people who have shared vital, life-changing stories about the sad, surprising and beautiful ways in which autism has shaped their families. Susan Senator, a local Bostonian, is one of the most passionate and effective teachers and writers I’ve read on autism. Susan’s mothering of her severely autistic son, Nat, is brave and hard, and completely natural. Read her blog. Search out the three books she has written about autism and family life. You’ll learn so much about autism and the obstacles she’s overcome bringing her son to adulthood.

Here’s a lively example from the introduction to her Web site, Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all different in their own way.” Tolstoy was wrong, especially when it comes to atypical families. My family is very different from a lot of families; yet I would say we are happy. My oldest son, Nat, now 21, has severe autism. My other two sons, Max and Ben, do not. Autism has provided a certain shape to our family structure; things have been very difficult for us, and yet autism is not a death sentence. Autism is not the end of the world; just the end of one kind of world.”

I recently discovered another go-to parent on autism on the New York Times Motherlode blog. Joel Yanofsky has chronicled his adventures – yes, I use the word intentionally to capture Yanofsky’s wonder and confusion and, at times, sense of urgency as he parents his son Jonah – in a lovely memoir called “Bad Animals.” I came to his book after reading his essay about preparing Jonah to become a bar mitzvah. It’s a piece that works so well and is so memorable for the way it melds humor and pathos:

Anyone who’s organized a bar or bat mitzvah, a communion, a sweet 16, even a relatively big birthday party knows how much there is to prepare. But when your child has autism, as Jonah does, the preparations never seem to end; nor does the worrying about everything that might go wrong. So, yes, it’s even money that on the day of his bar mitzvah Jonah will do something interesting. I’m betting that just as the rabbi is briefing him on the significance of this time-honored ritual, Jonah will give a shout-out to his favorite animals, yaks and zebras.

Hence the title of Yanofsky’s memoir – a reference to Jonah’s obsession with all things related to animals and the title of his illustrated book for a school project, which features animals arranged alphabetically in various states of bad behavior. But the genius of Yanofsky’s memoir is that his son is never an object of curiosity. Nor is Jonah a saccharine source of inspiration. He is what every child should be to a parent: the source of an indescribable love that is more than occasionally laced with frustration, amusement and pride.

As engaging as Senator and Yanofsky are – as brilliant as they are at breaking their readers’ hearts and then putting those hearts back together for them – they are at the end of the day parents who are mired in a thick alphabet soup of acronyms that stand for bureaucratic and sterile terms like Individualized Education Plans, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Applied Behavioral Analysis. IEP, PDD, ABA – they feel like billboard-sized letters taking over space and time in hearts and minds and homes.

But Senator and Yanofsky are not Don Quixote figures tilting at inflated letters. They scale these letters to tell the world exactly what their children – their autistic children who have created unique, bright universes around which their families orbit – deserve. And it’s not an acronym: it’s a basic right called Respect.

I Pledge Allegiance

With the 4th of July just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance. For over a century, American children have sworn loyalty to our flag and to the idea of a country where “liberty and justice for all” is commonplace.

Some history of the Pledge of Allegiance with a brief timeline: The Reverend Francis Bellamy wrote the original Pledge in 1892. It first appeared in a pamphlet called “The Youth’s Companion.” Bellamy intended the pledge to be one size fits all in that any country could adhere to it in principle. Here’s the original wording:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 1923 the pledge was changed to include the words “the Flag of the United States of America,” erasing Bellamy’s utopian globalism.

In 1954 President Eisenhower evoked God as a response to the threat of Communism. Bellamy’s daughter objected to adding the words “under God.” Nevertheless, Congress approved the revision.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The pledge takes me back to what I once thought was my father’s Ivory Snow patriotism. But patriotism is complicated by burden and pride. The more I think about Dad’s national fealty, the more I realize that his patriotism was mixed with a fierce will to serve and protect our country.

I remember my childhood home festooned with the Stars and Stripes flying from the windows on every American holiday. In my 21st century mindset the word allegiance also calls up an old-fashioned concept that can go awry with no room for error. Think fundamentalism, terrorism.

All of this remembering puts me in a midrashic mood. Here is my take on words said early and often in classrooms across America. Here is a legacy that I hope will inspire Anna and Adam to take the Pledge of Allegiance off autopilot so that they find their own meaning in those well-known words.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

I first memorized those words in Miss Blake’s pre-school. Miss Blake lived in a house that might have once been in a fairy tale. Her school was up the street and a million miles away from my house. The living room and dining room were the classroom and playroom respectively. The backyard had seesaws, a sandbox and swings galore. In what was essentially a two-room schoolhouse, I first pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America before I knew what a pledge was or what that rubbery word allegiance actually meant.

Thirty years later, the words immediately came back to me in Anna’s kindergarten class. After sitting in a chair sized for a five-year old, I maintained my balance and stood up to pledge. Hand over heart. Just like Miss Blake taught me. Note, that Bellamy’s vision of honoring the flag included a military salute with the right arm extended and the palm down. The gesture, eerily similar to the Nazi salute, was jettisoned during World War II.

And to the republic for which it stands

I think our republic stands for inclusiveness, but American inclusivity is often as convoluted as trying to remember a dream. When Bellamy first wrote the pledge my paternal grandparents were infants born in the Ukraine and passing through Ellis Island to take their turn at American prosperity.

One Nation Under God

When God was ushered into the pledge in 1954 my maternal grandparents heard rumblings from a rickety dictatorship that would soon give way to a government painting Cuba in un carmin encendido—the blazing red of communism that President Eisenhower feared.


The first thing I think of is a prime number—a number that can’t be divided by any other number. I believe that America’s indivisibility is steadfast and humane. All who are hungry come and eat. All who are needy come and celebrate America with us.

With Liberty and Justice for All

God joyfully listens to the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central tenant—in 70 languages making English Only signs in this country highly irrelevant. To my mind, proclamations of American Owned on the marquees of small motels that I recently saw seeding parts of Route 1 in Florida replace signage blaring: No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs.

Listen up America: “The Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Bearing those words in mind, we circle back to the pledge to stay as one nation under God in a country always aiming to be indivisible .