A Visit to Poland with a Camera and a Tombstone: Evan Kleinman’s ‘We Are Still Here’

The family was warm, familiar, Jewish. The grandparents’ English was charming, old-fashioned – glazed in a Yiddish accent.

Meet the Kleinmans, the focus of Evan Kleinman’s new documentary. The 28-year-old filmmaker turned the lens on himself to make the aptly titled “We Are Still Here,” about his trip to his grandparents’ Poland – a Poland that held sweet memories turned bitter and unimaginable.

Kleinman’s paternal grandparents grew up in shtetls near Krakow and were deported to concentration camps. On screen, his grandmother remembers her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and how she volunteered to go to Bergen-Belsen with her best friend.

Although Kleinman’s film records his particular legacy trip – a return to his roots with his father, mother and younger sister – it’s a universal home movie. The message of the film is that every Jew survived the Holocaust. This shared survival is what led to the founding of Boston 3G in 2009, the sponsors of the Boston debut of Kleinman’s film last week.

The group’s name, 3G, stands for the third generation of survivors. The group is made up of people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom are the grandchildren of survivors.

Liz Bobrow’s involvement in Boston 3G stems from her close relationship with her paternal grandparents. Both of them are Holocaust survivors whom Bobrow remembered as “very different from my other set of grandparents.

“While they loved me just as much, they were different,” she added. “They spoke with an accent and had funny quirks like always making sure I had enough to eat. I also recognized [as a child] that we didn’t have the big family reunions with my father’s side as we did with my mother’s side.”

Bobrow, Boston 3G’s president, also noted that this third generation has the “unique privilege of connecting with the survivors in a different way from the second generation. While our parents have become caretakers of the survivor generation, we are able to focus solely on who these people are and their incredible stories of survival. It gives the survivors comfort seeing that their stories are not being forgotten, that we are still telling them so many years later.”

“We Are Still Here” was organized around the central event of taking a tombstone back to Poland – a stone to mark Leib Kleinman’s grave. Leib was Evan’s great-uncle, his grandfather’s kid brother who died in a small concentration camp in central Poland.

“The stone is heavy,” the grandfather tells his grandson. The younger Kleinman has set up the context of his film so well that it’s clear that the weight of the tombstone is as difficult to bear as the history of the Jews in Poland.

But in an e-mail interview, the New York native was ebullient about his grandparents and unequivocal about their positive influence on him:

“They are the most powerful and inspiring people I know, and I wanted to be able to share them with other people and with future generations of my family. By doing a film it provided us with an exercise that would bring us closer together, capture our story, and also perhaps bring closure for them because they had not seen these places in 70 years. When my grandfather revealed to me that he could pinpoint the place where he buried his brother I felt beyond compelled to make sure his brother was memorialized.”

Kleinman’s preparations for the trip to Poland are as poignant as the trip itself. His grandfather sketches a map to help his family find his house in the small town of Sediszow. The grandson dutifully brings the map with him to Poland, and it’s almost miraculous when it proves to be useful and accurate.

In Poland, the four Kleinmans move through the country in a hazy dream. But their disorientation is frequently punctuated by moments of triumph. They find a birth certificate of another greatuncle. They find Leib’s burial place through determination and his brother’s description of a place he hadn’t been to in more than seven decades.

Kleinman is similarly scrupulous in showing that the buildings in Poland are a mixture of the old and the new. The observation is a living, breathing subtext of his portrayal of his family and the intense family history attached to them.

Kleinman’s film was also presented last month at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City as well as at a number of film festivals. Since the film’s debut, Kleinman has been gratified by the positive responses from his third generation of survivors.

“Many have voiced to me that the film inspired them to explore their own family history,” he said. “Also, many have told me that my family even reminds them of their own families.”

It’s the ultimate recognition for a young man who movingly portrays his third generation as “living links” to history.

Review of Hostage: A Novel by Elie Wiesel

For over half a century, Elie Wiesel has eloquently expressed the moral, spiritual, and physical fortitude it took to survive Auschwitz. “Night,” his classic memoir about the atrocities of the Holocaust — both personal and universal — not only established a literary canon, but also unequivocally proved the transformative power of words.

Fifty-seven books later, Wiesel’s writing is no less influential. “Hostage,” his newest work to appear in English, is a novel set in 1975, just three short years after a radical Palestinian group murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Yet terrorism is still not integral to the American lexicon and acts of terrorism are wholly foreign, literally and figuratively, to Americans.

Shaltiel Feigenberg’s random abduction in Brooklyn, N.Y., forever jettisons any notions of American safety or even normalcy. Shaltiel is the eponymous hostage, and through his stream of consciousness, Wiesel focuses on the raw motivation of his abductors. Although taking a hostage in New York is more profitable than in Tel Aviv or Paris or London, Shaltiel’s captors are not looking for money: “That they could get more easily and with less risk. Others give the money. They are interested in playing their part in the life and history of Islam.” They are interested in glory and immortality.

Who understands that impetus better than a storyteller? Shaltiel Feigenberg is a professional storyteller, a man who reveres language and memory. Like the Torah from which he derives inspiration, his work honors both written and oral histories. A reader may come to the novel thinking that a storyteller as the main character, particularly a character that has so many obstacles to overcome, strains credulity. But this is a multilayered story, encompassing large swaths of history, which Shaltiel weaves into the novel.

Shaltiel’s tormentors, a radical Italian mercenary and a dedicated Palestinian revolutionary, have dubbed his kidnapping “Operation Storyteller.” Notable as the first “operation [carried out] on American soil,” this kidnapping also demonstrates that terror, “that refined prison of modern times,” extends beyond the four walls of a cell to infiltrate the mind.

Wiesel uses Shaltiel’s abduction as a successful framing device. Intermittently tortured and taunted to disavow the Jewish people, Shaltiel has a lot of time and space to reflect on his life story. Born in Romania, he was a child prodigy at chess whose skill caught the eye of an SS officer. In an unusual arrangement, Shaltiel, his father, and cousin were hidden in the officer’s house in exchange for unlimited playing time with the boy. Although bloodless, the chess scenes are a form of mental torture and Shaltiel the child is acutely aware of how important it is to pace his victories over the German. “How can one entrust wooden pieces with the life and death of loved ones?” asks the young boy.

Wiesel’s ultimate aim — his life’s work — is to present the unique and organic lessons of the Holocaust to successive generations. To make testimonies of survivors available and cogent to a generation that may never meet a Holocaust survivor or personally hear testimony about the concentration camps. Through Shaltiel, the lessons of genocide gain traction and currency. “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan,” writes Wiesel. “It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow.”

But a novel about a terrorist act that took place almost four decades ago has its pitfalls. Shaltiel’s imprisonment feels oddly retrospective, blunting some of the heightened emotions. Yes, Shaltiel is treated brutally both physically and mentally, but the tension never reaches a fever pitch. Throughout much of the novel Shaltiel feels more like an envoy of the Jewish people than the victim of a brutal crime. And “Hostage” falls just short of psychological thriller or political novel. Ultimately, though, Wiesel’s story is a paean to the strength of memory and the words that express it. In the end, “Hostage” is its own renewed prayer, promise, and vow.

This review was originally published in the August 24, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe

Judy Bolton—A Mom Detective Who Kept Her Kids Safe in Cyberspace

I share my family name, as well as a penchant for snooping, with “Judy Bolton, Girl Detective,” Fictional Judy was the star of her own mid-twentieth century mystery book series. Judy lived smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania where, surprisingly enough, there was no shortage of mysteries to solve. In all thirty-eight of her books, her snooping was always for the good and welfare of her family and friends. When I became a mother, I snooped for the good and welfare of my children.

Now that they are older, I don’t snoop in my kids’ lives very much. And I have never snooped because I have an unsavory curiosity about other people’s lives. (Though I will sometimes eavesdrop at the table next to me in a restaurant to figure out if a couple is on a blind date). I snoop for interesting stories. I snoop for inspiration to write those stories. I snoop to unknot the mystery of other lives as well as my own. Snooping comes with the territory of being a writer.

While I had no qualms about rummaging around in my children’s lives, it occasionally got me into trouble. When my daughter was 12 she said that I worried over nothing and that I didn’t trust her. Shealso  said that I was nosy.

It’s true. I do worry over nothing until I have something about which to worry. She’s right that I didn’t trust her when she was the tender age of 12. But I didn’t trust because she was too young to understand how quickly the world can turn scary and dangerous.

I prefer to think of myself as curious. And once upon a time my curiosity mostly focused on my children’s computer activities or the dialed and received log on their cell phones. When my children were old enough to have screen names, I ran a benevolent dictatorship. This meant that I was not always right, but I was never wrong. Each month they were required to show me any on-line friends’ lists.

The first rule was that my kids had to know everyone personally—in the flesh—anyone with whom they had an on-line relationship. All the better if I knew them too, but I hadn’t met all of the sleep-away camp buddies. So for 12 and up, I trusted, but only just a little. Under 12, I had to know everyone on a list. No exceptions. This rule, in place like cement, was instituted to prevent my kids from coming into contact with someone they had never met. This rule, to use a word that we used early and often since the dawn of pre-school, was non-negotiable.

I also reserved the right to walk in at any time that my children were on the computer and ask with whom were they chatting on-line or what was new on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, they had to friend me or do without it. If the spirit moved me, I would also ask what they had just typed. Did I mention that I ran a benevolent dictatorship?

All bets were off for a virtual chat room. This was expressly forbidden and would result in the revocation of computer privileges until the age of twenty-five.

Before they were freshmen in high school and old enough to have laptops, my kids had individual accounts on our family computer so they could access the Internet for homework and pre-approved game sites. Each of their accounts had a filter so that a typo would not send them to God knows where in cyberspace. I always knew the passwords to their accounts or to anything else in their lives. If they somehow managed to get on to a commerce site and try to buy something, the dictatorship was no longer benevolent. Luckily, this never happened.

My children never seriously abused their Internet privileges because they knew I meant business. As generous as I am with them, and believe me I am still generous to the point that it sometimes annoys my husband, they knew that I would not tolerate any infractions with regard to the Internet. Just ask my son about the time he hacked into my account and wrote an e-mail to his teacher to excuse him from an assignment. His third grade grammar gave him away and the teacher immediately notified me that he was e-mailing her under my name. What followed were not good days for my boy.

But I never fully warmed up to being a dictator—benevolent or otherwise. I took unique pride in saying that my children were spoiled, but not rotten. Yet, when it came to snooping for their wellbeing, I held my ground.

I think my parents, particularly my father, named me with the hope that I would develop a curiosity that was both intellectual and empathic. Building on my father’s dreams for me, I taught my children to be as curious and responsible as my fictional doppelganger.

What Kind of World Am I Leaving You, Dear Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My Dearest Daughter:

At some point over the last 18 years, I, like many other moms out there, started to worry about the sort of world I brought you into. This is your first week of college, and it’s also your first time away from home for an extended period of time. Your world is opening up in exciting and challenging new ways, but still, sometimes I feel as if I’ve launched you into outer space — into a disorienting, alien landscape that I don’t quite recognize. Case in point: Rep. Todd Akin’s statement about “legitimate rape.” By now you know the ridiculous essence of the story — that Akin said that when a so-called “legitimate rape” occurs, a woman’s body somehow knows to shut itself down to prevent pregnancy.

My precious daughter, you plan to major in biology and you will surely learn that this man has propagated a disgusting, bald lie in order to force women to carry a traumatic or unwanted pregnancy to term. In fact, last year Akin co-sponsored a bill with Paul Ryan, the presumed Republican vice-presidential nominee, that permitted Medicaid to pay for an abortion only in the case of a “forcible rape.” If an adult relative raped a young girl or a co-ed was date-raped by another student, these men believe that those rapes should not be eligible for abortions under Medicaid.

How did we get here? What sort of country am I leaving to you?

The other day you called me on the way to your very first class. How ironic that it was physiology. How strange that you begin your pre-medical studies in the wake of ignorance and misogyny stirred up by this nobody congressman. But as an aspiring physician and a member of a freshman class that is 52% women, you need to understand the grave ramifications of what’s happening. The word ‘legitimate’ should never be associated with rape. And under no circumstances should this politician — who’s serving in history’s most embattled and stridently anti-woman congress — be excused for his poor or unfortunate choice of words. Allegedly he meant to use the word “forcible.” God, spare us from such semantics.

If medicine turns out to be your vocation, some day you may work in an ER, where you could see rape frighteningly close and disturbingly personal. You may come face-to-face with a rape victim, and she may very well be a girl between the ages of 11 and 17. You may learn that one in six women is raped in the United States, and girls under the age of 18 report 60% of rapes.

This is your time, dear daughter. You have a singular voice, and you have the potential to mobilize a collective, booming voice along with your peers. Tell these men to stay out of your bedroom and get the hell out of your pants. Knock on doors, sign petitions, write letters — you’ll figure out how to tell them that you know exactly what they’re up to when they use foul euphemisms like “informed consent” and “mandatory waiting periods.” Let them know that their transparent ploys humiliate women by forcing them to undergo superfluous medical tests before having abortions. This is your life; you determine when and if you want to create and carry another life to full term.

Shortly after you were born, your late blessed grandfather said that with a boy you worry about one penis and with a girl you worry about thousands of them. I thought it was an odd observation at the time. But I’m afraid we live in very odd times where woman-haters masquerade as politicians and care only about their own penises.

Take care of yourself. Take care of your sisters. It’s never been more apparent that we only have each other.

Love always,


This piece was originally published on the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward

Financial Infidelity

Here, in a nutshell, are the principles of economic empowerment handed down to me from the women in my mother’s family: Your money is your money. Your husband’s money is your money. All the money in the house and the bank is your money. A man only needs enough money in his pocket to buy a snack or, if he must, a lunch.

Imagine my surprise, and yes, even some guilt, when I recently learned that I’d been committing financial infidelity for years. My husband Ken doesn’t believe that all of our money is mine to control. Worse, Ken rarely buys anything for himself. For example, he put an iPod purchase on hold indefinitely until I gave him the darn thing for his birthday. Since I barely make enough money to merit a W2, it might appear that Ken bought the iPod for himself anyway. But in my paradigm of financial independence, appearances are often deceiving. There’s no question that I was the generous giver here.

Financial infidelity is virtually impossible to pull off without a trusting partner. But some perspective please: it’s not like I’m hiding a Swiss bank account. Ultimately, though, I’ve breached my husband’s monetary trust. If you ask Ken he’ll say the only way to make it up to him is to stop buying things I don’t need. He’s right of course, but it’s not that simple. Our standards about what I need often wildly diverge.

When my children were little they liked a song with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that went something like this: “Look left, look right—everything you see is mine.” As the self-appointed chief executive officer of my busy family of four, that pretty much sums up the perks I’ve awarded myself.

For example, after Ken dawdled for months about upgrading our television sets for the 21st century, I finally left the house one Saturday morning and became the proud owner of a forty-inch high definition TV. I announced to my stunned family that our new cable-ready addition was waiting to be unloaded and hooked up. It was apparent from the hurt look on my husband’s face that I had committed an indiscretion.

“I thought we were going to pick out a television together,” he said.

“You had almost a year,” I shot back.

“But this is a major purchase,” he complained.

“I know, it’s too heavy for me to lift by myself.”

My husband’s procrastination with regard to purchases (he’d argue it’s economic prudence) has an upside. It gives me the opportunity to jump in and do what I have to do making me, so far, the proud owner of a GPS, an iPad and another high-def TV for our bedroom. Financial infidelity? I call it reasonable upgrading.

Growing up my parents fought a lot about money—how Dad should earn more so Mom could spend more—an old-fashioned corollary to my mother’s mantras of economic empowerment. I’d go along on revenge shopping trips with my mother to Lord & Taylor where everything was bathed in gold light. I’ll never forget how beautiful my mother looked in her new gray suit with the military jacket and the killer boots she bought to go with it. All the money in the house was hers and she meant it. The day she went back to teaching full-time was the day she opened up her own checking account.

I’ve never thought of myself as financially unfaithful because of my own relatively harmless shopping habit. But there’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about financial infidelity. Suddenly I recognized the blood boiling, heart-racing telltale symptoms of my inner financial philanderer. Since I could never be as openly brazen as my mother, top on the list of can’t-miss signs was leaving purchases in the trunk of my car until the coast was clear. In other words—no witnesses.

Another sign.  Nine times out of ten I will carefully integrate a new piece of clothing or a pair of shoes into my wardrobe. I make it easier on myself by not buying two-toned platform leather boots, stunning as they were back in the day. Camouflaging a new handbag—my Achilles heel—is trickier, especially if it’s a tote or it’s not black.

Like most illicit affairs, my days of overt financial infidelity are winding down. My daughter is in college and I just sent back that designer bag I bought on whim, on-line, at two in the morning. But it seems that once you’re a shopping philanderer, you’ll always be a shopping philanderer. I’m sure there will be the errant purchase here and there—something on sale just begging to be bought. What else could I wear to my uncle’s recent surprise 70th birthday party  but a vest with tulle skirting attached? Reduced from $900 to $200. Just one left, lo and behold, in my size. (I’m wondering who bought the other pieces for almost a thousand dollars. I think, I know. Someone who’s finished paying tuition).

There’s a concrete bottom-line here: All the money in the house was my money. Now it’s being forked over for tuition in the foreseeable future. But I bet I’ll find a way to continue to sneak in chocolate and that pair of shoes that was wondrously reduced just for me.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Dear Teen Me:

When you were growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was easy to have a skewed view of love, especially with all those pop love songs you listened to — and inevitably dreamed would come true. If only there had been a meeting for you like the one I went to last week, dedicated to healthy teenage relationships. If only the adults around you had understood what I know now: that some consider teen dating a public health issue.

Today, the Boston Public Health Commission has a program called [Start Strong](http://www.startstrongteens.org), currently the largest funded national initiative aimed at preventing relationship violence and abuse among young people by promoting healthy relationships. Start Strong’s mission is powerful in its simplicity: “Stop teen dating abuse before it starts by using older teens to educate pre-teens.” To emphasize that message, the Commission has sponsored a co-ed gathering of teens for three years running called *Break-Up Summit*. This year, the event took place at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and focused on cheating as a catalyst to unhealthy relationships turning violent.

This kind of initiative didn’t exist when you were growing up — when boys were boys and girls were expected to be nicer than nice. My generation directly reaped the rewards of the Women’s Movement. Still, for many us, sexual liberation was steeped in guilt and bewilderment at how far we could go and, simultaneously, how badly a relationship could end.

At this year’s conference, teens attended workshops that helped them explore the landscape of healthy relationships, including “Breaking-Up In The Internet Age,” “The ‘What Are We?’ Conversation,” and “It’s Complicated.” In one breakout session, they debated what behavior constituted cheating and what behavior was perfectly innocent. Yes, they said, you can go out to a platonic dinner with a friend of the opposite sex. Actions that fell into a gray area were more difficult for them to agree on. “Flirting is a way of life, it’s healthy,” said one young man. “Dancing with a guy at a party even if your boyfriend’s there isn’t right,” said a young woman. Perhaps consensus is not the point. Teens need to build their own definitions of fidelity and respect.

But how often does that really happen? Today, teens are having sex at a younger age and with more partners. Their relationships are also driven by hormones and developing brains, which means they may not understand why they do what they do and feel what they feel. The drama, the moods, the end-of-the-world heartache — I wish you had known that they didn’t have to be standard issue for teenage relationships.

At the conference, I heard a lot of terms bandied about, like “hooking up,” “friends with benefits,” “just friends” and “full-blown dating.” It made me realize that while the language has changed, human nature hasn’t. One of the more potent metaphors a teenage girl used to describe cheating was a crumpled piece of paper. That’s what cheating does to a relationship, and though the deception may be followed by forgiveness, that sheet of paper will always have wrinkles.

When the program organizers displayed pictures of world-famous cheaters, some of the boys whooped when they saw Tiger Woods. And while there was not a single woman in the montage, the audience was abuzz discussing “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart’s [tearful apology](http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/kristen-stewart-apologizes-cheating-robert-pattinson_n_1702836.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment&ir=Entertainment) for cheating on Robert Pattinson. Young women, in particular, seemed to admire Stewart for responding quickly by taking responsibility for her actions. Others were bitterly disappointed in her for cheating on Pattinson in the first place. As one girl wondered, aren’t women supposed to be above that?

Maybe it’s the characters she plays, but for me, Stewart embodies the notion of a fairy tale. The version of romance she projects isn’t real — just like the Top 40 songs that inspired and disappointed you, Teen Me, all those years ago. I know it’s confusing and upsetting to consider that fairy tales don’t exist, but in time you will understand that grappling with a strong, healthy relationship — with its inevitable peaks and valleys — is more romantic than an unattainable “happily ever after.”

And so what I want to say most of all, Teen Me, is something I never knew at your age: It gets better, and until it does, there are resources out there. There are people who want to help you extricate yourself from a bad relationship. That is the biggest takeaway of the Break-up Summit. If only you had been guided to realize that love is not a Top 40 song, I would have been spared suffering that was neither noble nor useful.


(Much) Older Me

Family Blessings

May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord illuminate His/Her countenanceupon you and deal graciously with you. May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

A few years ago when Anna was assigned to memorize the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew it was an opportunity for me. I would finally bless my children on Friday nights with those famous words without a cheat sheet, or mumbling so my kids wouldn’t realize how poor my Hebrew is.

Blessing one’s children reaches back to biblical times. In the Torah Isaac blesses his sons and Jacob blesses his children as well his grandchildren. One of Aaron’s last acts as the High Priest is to bless the children of Israel. And Moses blesses each of the tribes of Israel. During rabbinic times parents adapted this biblical practice by expressing their pride and love for their children with the Priestly Blessing.

There is nothing sweeter in this life than blessing one’s children especially on a Friday night. When Anna and Adam were little I’d drop to my knees to so that they could look into my eyes and tacitly understand that blessing them was an act of thanksgiving and humility for me.

I recently learned that there are also special hand gestures that accompany the Priestly Blessing. Like the prophets of yore, the kohanim or priests stretched their arms forward (with an outstretched arm!) with their hands palms-down. They also split their fingers so that, counting the space between the opposing thumbs, there were five spaces for each hand.

Another allusion. My reading led me to a reference from Song of Songs 2:8-9 which states that God “peeks through the cracks in the wall.” God watches, God protects, God blesses. Now when I fan my hands on Anna and Adam’s heads, the spaces between my fingers are filled with their goodness, their innocence, their strength and my fragility.

For a while my kids were very clear that this blessing business was not exactly their favorite part of our Friday night festivities. “Do it more quietly,” Anna said. “I don’t think you have all the words down,” Adam said. But I persisted and tried not to let their tween behavior dampen my joy.

Recently I hit on a time-saving method acceptable to both my children and me—blessing them together. After the initial blessing I turn to Anna and ask God to make her strong and wise like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Then it’s Adam’s turn and I ask God to make him a role model like Ephraim and Menashe.

Asking God to give our daughters the laudable tributes of our foremothers is obvious, but the blessing for our sons is less so. The reference to Ephraim and Menashe comes directly from the Bible. Just before Jacob dies he blesses his grandsons with these words: “In time to come, the people of Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.” (Genesis 48:20)

I think that Anna and Adam don’t mind being blessed these days because they like to reciprocate. My daughter is now tall enough to look me in the eye when I place my hand on her head. My son is nine inches taller than I and has to bow his head. These days they offer me a blessing too by saying the words with me.

Anna and Adam’s Shabbat blessing acquired another level of meaning when our friend Susan asked them what they thought of a blessing that asked God to make them like someone else. She pointed out a contradiction that speaks to one of my favorite midrashim about God’s challenge to Rabbi Zusya. When it came Zusya’s time to go to heaven, he had ready answers for God about why he wasn’t a great prophet like Moses or a gifted scholar like Maimonides. But he was worried that God would ask him the most difficult question of all—why wasn’t Zusya more like Zusya in this life.

Susan sent me to Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings for an alternative blessing. The subtitle of Falk’s volume promised New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, The Sabbath and the New Moon Festival. Falk’s didn’t disappoint. The version of her blessing for a child to simply “Be who you are—and may you be blessed in all that you do.” Falk chose these words to echo God’s announcement in

Exodus—“I am that I am”—the ultimate proclamation of authentically being.

In her commentary on her version of the blessing Falk notes that “in its specificity, this blessing seems restrictive rather than expansive: it doesn’t open out to the range of possibility and promise that ought to characterize youth.”

I appreciate Falk’s point that giving our children a strong, unlimited sense of self is crucial. But we—Anna, Adam and I—do not want to give up the ancestors. Our foremothers are not just archetypes. At different points in our lives they are us and we are them. And for me, Jacob directly blessing his grandsons rather than his sons tells me how precious and hopeful the future is. Finally, a pair of brothers in the Bible who don’t want to kill one another!

Anna and I tested each other for a week until I finally got the Priestly Blessing down in Hebrew. We also assimilated the notion that in its three straightforward lines, the beauty and genius of the blessing rests in its simplicity as well as its swift movement from the material world to the ultimate wish for peace.

Three Cheers for Boredom by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“I’m bored.”

That’s a phrase that no parent cares to hear from her child. That’s a phrase that provokes my ire.

Avoiding boredom is big business. No more sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic with only the radio to take the edge off the tedium. If you’re not moving, you can take out your smart phone and answer your e-mail—assuming that you’re a passenger. Or you can make a call on your cell phone on your Bluetooth if you are the driver to wile away the time.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone, reducing my boredom to “microboredom”— a term that one cell phone maker has coined to describe those dwindling moments when we have absolutely nothing to do. I’m not the best role model when it comes to microboredom. But I like to think that I’m not so much bored as I am obsessive, another syndrome served by mobile technology. I sit in the carpool line reading e-mail and downloading the news, while listening to music from my iPod wafting from the car stereo.

Anna got her microboredom under control years ago when we bought her a video iPod for her Bat Mitzvah. She giddily downloaded everything from movies to episodes of her favorite television shows. The video iPod became a sleeping aid. I should probably be more concerned about this than I am. But as a life-long insomniac, I’m grateful that Anna found something relatively harmless and drug-free to help her fall asleep.

When I was a kid whining about how bored I was, my father would look at me over the thick book he was reading and tell me to read. I’d stomp out of the room with my AM transistor radio and find a quiet place to listen to Top 40 pop. But when that got boring, I got desperate and took his suggestion. Sigh. Yawn. And then something happened. Twenty pages in and I was in a relationship with characters. Plots engaged me. Language fascinated me to the point that I tried to emulate the prose of my favorite writers.

A few years ago a skulking Adam said there was nothing to do in a house where there are four computers, two DVD players and not one, but two devices on which to play videogames. He picked up a Gameboy, but that did nothing for his malaise. My suggestions sounded desperate. What about playing Guitar Hero? Let’s play Text Twist—an on-line game that adds an unprecedented level of anxiety to a simple word scramble.

Nothing took. I wondered what would happen if he was disconnected from the computer, the television, and other forms of technology. At first he acted like a caged animal until I told him to go outside and ride his scooter up and down the driveway.

“For how long?” he mumbled.

“A hundred times,” I said.

“You’re kidding, Mom. That’s as boring as counting sheep.”

“Don’t fall asleep on your Razor,” I said.

It turns out that a bit of fresh air is exactly what my boy needed. He lost count of how many times he went up and down the driveway. He ran into the house rosy cheeked and hungry. Fresh air—the time-honored elixir for boredom.

Boredom is a relatively new word in the English language. Charles Dickens is credited as the first writer to use it. The word appears in a very long convoluted novel called “Bleak House.” I had to read it my sophomore year of college and I must confess I didn’t finish it. It was boring.

But think about what would have happened if Marcel Proust had not taken a maddeningly, boring amount of time to dunk his madeleine cookie in a cup of tea? We might have a completely different paradigm for the interplay between memory and imagination. And what about philosophy? There would be no existentialism without a substantial dose of boredom.

Researchers who study boredom have found that watching paint dry sparks creativity, imagination and introspection. Young children naturally tolerate boredom and eventually overcome it by simply playing . Have you ever seen a bored toddler? Everything is wondrous to him. His world is full of possibilities all day, every day. Young children see options even in the most mundane of surroundings, the most basic of toys. My children often preferred the box to the toy that came in it.

As children get older, boredom can be menacing. In school it can indicate a lack of understanding or the inverse—a lack of meaningful challenges in the classroom.

Allowing our kids to confront and overcome boredom is an important life lesson. Maybe we should start by having our kids regularly disconnect from television, computer games, or cell phones. I recently read that the amount of time for an old habit to dissipate and a new one to take root is three weeks. My father must have intuited that. He never gave up on me until I enjoyed reading books as thick as the ones he read.



In Defense of Algebra and Other Difficult Subjects by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week a political science professor named Andrew Hacker published an article in the New York Times: “Is Algebra Necessary?” The title alone triggered my math phobia. Math is right up there with my fear of swimming. (More on my aquaphobia another time.)

In my unscientific poll, my math anxiety is pretty typical for a woman my age. The thought of a quadratic equation—whatever that is—sends me into a panic. It’s tempting to agree with Hacker to skip the whole ordeal and just concentrate on the subjects I’m good at.

I don’t doubt Hacker’s statistics that six million high school students and two million college freshmen are suffering under the weight of solving a simple equation like 5x+2 = 3x+10. But the truth is a high school graduate should be able to come up with four as the answer. I almost believed Hacker’s argument when he asserted that, “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.  I say this as a wrier and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from  a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”

But then I realized that he is, in fact, asking students to sidestep subjects that are difficult for them. Isn’t the point of being a student to challenge oneself? I ought to know. Writers are perpetual students. There’s no way around the fact that you have to put in the hours researching, writing and rewriting. Having said all of this, I’ve never met a writer who didn’t think writing was the hardest undertaking in the world. I had a teacher who told me that he psyched himself in front of the blank computer screen with these words: Down, Down, In.

To make it to the desk is the first of many small victories. Then it’s time to confront the equation that has to be solved, the Latin paragraph that has to be translated, the essay to say what you intend to communicate. These intellectual conundrums don’t simply loom large, they haunt one. You have to do this work because it matters. Hacker, on the other hand, reinforces the ultimate phobic behavior in education: avoidance.

Down, down, in. That’s how you’ll find your subject, gather your emotional strength, and cultivate your creativity. Lightning bolt inspiration is as rare as getting struck by actual lightning.

I had a geometry teacher who was downright abusive. She assigned an open-ended art project that was supposed to incorporate principles of geometry. For the record, I am totally opposed to art projects after nursery school. My geometry project was a dismal failure. I cut out circles, squares and other shapes and tried to calculate the areas. She took me down in front of the whole class, pointing out I hadn’t done the project at all. She offered no guidance on how I might fix my project. Just withering criticism. Consequently, I break out into hives when I hear the word geometry.

But in my gut, I know that math is important in our increasingly tech-savvy world. I’ve made sure that my daughter knows that she can solve a quadratic equation as well as any boy in her class. Hacker points out that only 9% of men and 4% of women score over 700 on the math portion of the SAT. I’m not worried about that statistic’s discrepancy between girls and boys. I’m astounded by our country’s math illiteracy.

Math students, particularly girls, need both mentors and teachers to excel in the subject. In an article recently published in The American Scholar by Paula Marantz Cohen, an English professor, she points out the subtle but crucial differences between mentors and teachers. “A teacher,” she writes, “has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective.” Marantz Cohen is talking about the editor-writer relationship, but I think a similar relationship is very beneficial for girls in math. A teacher sits down and shows a student how to solve a quadratic equation. A mentor clears away the cobwebs of doubt for a student so that the learning can begin in earnest.

In our house Ken and I take on the roles of teacher and mentor respectively. As mentor, I try to expand my reach beyond that of cheerleader. After I read Hacker’s essay, I was spurred on to demystify algebra and asked Ken to teach me how to prove the quadratic equation Hacker offered in his piece: (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)².

“Show me how to do this for our daughter,” I said to my husband as I broke out in a cold sweat.

“She knows how to prove this equation.”

“Please,” I begged.

He proceeded to teach me a strategy called FOIL to tackle the equation. As soon as Anna heard the word in her room she called out incredulously,  “Are you doing algebra?” And then she came in and showed me how to solve the problem.

The right attitude, coupled with competent teaching, means that learning algebra doesn’t have to be a Sisyphean undertaking. Even for me.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This is an excerpt from an essay published on the New York Times Motherlode Blog in September of 2010

Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a blank computer screen fantasizing about having more time to devote to my book. I’d heard of mother writers who act on their fantasies and take up residencies in various artists’ colonies where weeks can run into a month or two.

I long ago resigned myself to deferring my vision until my youngest went off to college. Six years. I could deal with that. I’d be old enough to belong to AARP, but young enough not to collect Social Security.

I didn’t end up waiting six years. One of my favorite authors was slated to be the writer in residence at an artist’s colony in Florida. The timing couldn’t have been more inconvenient for me. If my application was accepted, I’d be gone for half of May and the first week in June. I was deeply conflicted, but not conflicted enough to keep me from applying to spend three weeks and travel 1,260 miles away from my children.

I was accepted to the residency.

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