*My Grandmother’s Tallit – A Letter to Anna

Dear Anna:

It’s been five years since your bat mitzvah. In your bat mitzvah state of mind you read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. You teased out meaning from your Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And your wore a tallit or a prayer shawl you picked out in Jerusalem. If you had done any of these things at the Western Wall in Jerusalem the Israeli police might have arrested you and me, the mother who allowed you to commit such a crime.

I must confess to you my dear daughter that I’ve never felt that any of the rituals your Dad and I gifted you with were truly mine. But in light of Anat Hoffman’s recent arrest last week for wearing her tallit at the Wall, your Bat Mitzvah was as much a political statement as it was a rite of passage.

When I look at your tallit—pink and silk and uniquely yours—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life.

Nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. After she arrived in Cuba, Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important in the way that she intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

 

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He dressed for prayer, winding the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placing the leather boxes on his forehead and in the crook of his left arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Suddenly, finding her voice, Abuela said to me, “You can be anything you want.” Abuela could have been anything she wanted too, only she wasn’t allowed to think that way. If she were born in a different time, she might have used her voice to defend Anat Hoffman.

I’m sure she would have been inspired by you as you happily wore your tallit and celebrated your coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

Love,

Mamma

*This piece was reconfigured as a letter to my daughter and published in the Jewish Advocate

 

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My Grandmother’ Tallit

It’s been five years since my daughter Anna had her bat mitzvah. In her bat mitzvah state of mind she had read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. She teased out meaning from her Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And she wore a tallit or a prayer shawl she picked out in Jerusalem. I’ve never felt any of the rituals my husband and I gifted her were truly mine, but my daughter didn’t think twice about accepting them. Her Bat Mitzvah was as much about her rights as a Jewish woman as it was her rite of passage.

When I look at Anna’s tallit—pink and silk and uniquely hers—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life. Family lore claims that she and her siblings made their way to Cuba after Greek soldiers kidnapped her sister and held her for ransom. Her father and brothers delivered the ransom on horseback and when the exchange was complete, there was just enough money left for passage to Havana. Abuela was a young teenager when she arrived in Havana.

Even in Cuba, nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important when Abuela intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He held the microphone like a preacher and told me a story from when he was a boy in Turkey. On his way to school he witnessed a Turko soldier stab an Armenian man to death. His family left for Cuba a week later. “Why Cuba?” I asked him. Spanish was easier to learn than English for a Ladino speaker.

The next day Abuelo came back for another recording session dressed for prayer. He wound the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placed the leather boxes on his forehead in the crook of his left arm. At twelve, I was approaching bat mitzvah age yet had no hope of winding leather straps of my own tefillin around my arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Turko,” she screamed at Abuelo as if he had stabbed me. Finding her voice, she said to me, “You can be anything you want.”

A few years ago Anna had a towel draped around her shoulders. She had been drying her hair. “Look Mom, my tallit,” she joked. I wished I had recorded the moment in memory of my Abuela, in honor of the future. But more importantly, I wished that Abuela could have seen her great-granddaughter happily wearing her tallit and celebrating her coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

Not the Boy Scouts of My America

My children knew to speed ahead of me the other day when I spotted a scoutmaster and his troop at a rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike. They knew I had been building up a head of steam about the Boy Scouts of America all weekend.

Before I tell you about Ryan Andresen, a 17 year-old boy denied his Eagle Scout award because he’s gay, we need to go back to this past summer when the Boy Scouts once again came out as the homophobic organization that it is by reaffirming their policy of excluding gay boys and men from their troops. To give you a sense of the BSA’s creepy mission, the organization describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations.” The BSA claims to help boys develop character and assume responsibilities that, one presumes, go beyond helping little old ladies cross streets. This is an organization that proudly asserts that it “has helped build the future leaders of this country by combining educational activities and lifelong values with fun.”

But not if you’re gay. The Boy Scouts have put considerable thought and effort into discriminating against gay boys and men. Last July the Associated Press reported that, “after a confidential two-year review, the Boy Scouts of America emphatically reaffirmed its policy of excluding gays.” The BSA double speak that came out of this weird, top-secret cabal croaks that while it doesn’t “proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open to avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.” Before we move on remember that the BSA’s mission is to teach values and have fun. Whose values they espouse is anyone’s guess. But I think it’s important to point out that homosexuals don’t take a vow to be gay. Homosexuals are born that way. They have no more control over whom they are attracted to than they do over their eye color or anything else having to do with genetics.

Now that we have that basic biology lesson out of the way, I want to get back to Ryan Andresen from San Francisco. Ryan joined the Boy Scouts when he was six-years old and was recently up for Scouting’s highest honor—the Eagle Scout award—after he completed his Eagle Scout Project. Ryan had mounted a 288-tile “wall of tolerance” in a middle school to support victims of bullying.

According to a community newspaper in northern California, shortly after Ryan came out this summer he was denied his Eagle Scout badge. His mother Karen Andresen was not going to stand by and watch her son be bullied by the BSA. She took Ryan’s cause to national television and told an NBC reporter that

I want everyone to know that [the Eagle award] should be based on accomplishment, not your sexual orientation. Ryan entered Scouts when he was six years old and in no way knew what he was. I think right now the Scoutmaster is sending Ryan the message that he’s not a valued human being and I want Ryan to know that he is valued … and that people care about him.

As of this writing over 350,000 people care enough about Ryan to sign a petition Karen Andresen posted on change.org which says in part that, “when leadership in Troop 212 (San Francisco Bay Area) found out that Ryan was gay, the Scoutmaster said he refused to sign the official paperwork designating Ryan as an Eagle Scout.”

I am among the thousands of people who care about Ryan. I am among the thousands of people who don’t want our children to suffocate in a closet, who are fed up with telling our young people to paper over their identities with “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies.” Shaming our children for who they are is wicked.

I don’t doubt that there are good men in scouting who care about the boys under their tutelage. In fact, the man that my children were so sure I was about to harangue was collecting donations for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on a Sunday afternoon. I asked him if his good works were also on behalf of our gay troops. He didn’t miss a beat when he told me he knew exactly what I was referring to. He had read about Ryan Andresen too and disagreed with the decision not to award him his Eagle Scout badge. “We don’t discriminate in our troop,” he told me.

Yet he wears the uniform of an organization that actively bans openly gay boys and men from participating. It’s time that we do more than sign Karen Andresen’s petition to protest against the recalcitrant Boy Scouts. Until the BSA changes its anti-gay, anti-humane policy, no synagogue, church or school should sponsor a Boy Scout troop.

If you think I’m being extreme, just substitute the word gay with Jewish or Catholic or Latino and then get back to me.

 

Grandparent Wannabees and Daughters’ Fertility

I am not a grandmother — yet! But my friends who are blessed with grandchildren tell me that grandparenthood is equal parts pure love and complete wonder. Some even tell me they wish they could have skipped parenting and gone straight to grandparenting. I can’t wait.

Or maybe I can.

According to an article published last May in The New York Times, eager grandparents are taking their daughters’ fertility into their own hands by paying for egg freezing. In today’s world of reproductive technology, it’s never too early to harvest viable ovaries for the delicate, sometimes elusive eggs that represent potential grandchildren. As parents watch their single daughters get older, they worry that their children will age out of their reproductive years. Biological clocks are not simply ticking, they’re booming as loudly as Big Ben.

Before I get into the details, I should note that freezing your daughter’s eggs is not an extreme alternative for a particular kind of mother. Back in the day, when I was closing in on 30 without a single marriage prospect, I don’t doubt that my mother would have considered taking me to a fertility clinic for the sake of her own grandmotherhood. Truth be told, I love that I have a feasible option in case my daughter’s baby timeline is not exactly in synch with mine — or biology’s. And if she’s on the other side of 35 without a partner, she can still be a mother if she so chooses.

Perhaps at this point I should mention I may be getting ahead of myself: My daughter is only 18.

In that same New York Times article, Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, a journalist and the author of “In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood,” calls the negotiations that happen when grandparents advocate for egg-freezing “the post adult-birds and the-bees-talk.” It’s telling that the article does not mention that after years of romantic disappointments, Lehmann-Haupt decided to freeze her eggs at 35. As she recounts in her book, at $15,000 it was not a cheap choice, but for her, it was an essential alternative.

Lehman-Haupt came of age in the mid-90s, when another journalist, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, caused a stir with her book, “Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career.” Hewlett set 35 as a firm age by which to have a first baby. She may have had biology on her side (after 35 a pregnancy is routinely treated by physicians as high-risk), but her ideas couldn’t be reconciled with modern love and 21st-century life. Lehmann-Haupt saw Hewlett’s clarion call to start a family earlier as a hard proposition and was determined to draw “a new roadmap of [women’s choices].”

Lehmann-Haupt’s decision to take charge of her fate and freeze her eggs is part of a growing social revolution chronicled on Web sites like RetrieveFreezeRelax.com, founded by Jennifer Hayes, and Brigitte Adams’ Eggsurance.com. Hayes notes that most women “are still under the impression that the process has a very low success rate. That was true five years ago. Not so anymore.” Eggsurance.com, the more impressive of the two sites for its depth of knowledge — including step-by-step guidance for women who freeze their eggs — has a tag line that sums up the goals of women who want to take explicit control of their fertility: “For proactive women who want to ensure they have the option of having children — just not now.”

For all the progress that reproductive technology has made in the last decade, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine still considers egg freezing experimental. But as the science continues to be refined the label is bound to change, and so too are the emotions attached to the process. What hasn’t changed is that a significant number of women want to become mothers — and they will go to great lengths to make that happen. Egg freezing was still an unproven technology when Lehmann-Haupt was in her early 30s, but I predict it will eventually become the gold standard that frees women to become mothers regardless of their timing or relationship status.

I may be ready for grandchildren, but I am, in every permutation, pro-choice. If that includes my daughter bypassing motherhood for her career and her passions, then that’s her business. I just want to go on record as saying that I am available for babysitting when the time comes.

You Are Not a Test Score: Some Advice for the College Applicant

With much anticipation and a shot of dread, it’s time for some families of high school juniors and seniors to enter the college sweepstakes. Once a kid is knee-deep into her junior year of high school, the mostly self-imposed requirements to apply to colleges come fast and furious: SATs, SAT tutoring, subject test tutoring. AP classes, exams – midterms and finals. Everything is magnified in search of the Holy Grail at the end of sending out college applications—acceptance to a school you actually want to attend or bragging rights to the kinds of schools that accepted you.

Applying to college in rarefied circles—solid to upper middle class—is a virtual blood sport. The grueling psychological competition is explicitly and humorously laid out in a book I really liked called Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. The author, Andrew Ferguson, is a self-deprecating realist who manages to poke fun at, as well as take seriously, the business of shepherding your child to the threshold of his college dorm.

The fact is that 70% of high school seniors in the United States will go to college. Most of those seniors will not have cured cancer, written an opera or started a Fortune 500 business by the time they apply. They’ll be just like the zillion other candidates they’re up against at Fancy U. But bear in mind that 80% of college kids will happily matriculate at non-selective colleges—schools that offer automatic acceptance if you meet the minimum requirements. As my father used to say, “You can get a great education anywhere.”

The rest of us well-meaning parents will shell out thousands of dollars for at least one of the following: SAT tutoring, regular subject tutoring, college coaching and application preparation. Here’s how it works at one extreme: An application boot camp can cost $14,000 for four days of marathon essay writing and interviewing strategies. If you’re willing to empty out your 401K you can hire a private counseling service. The Cadillac of private college coaching can run up to $40,000.

SAT tutors in the Boston area can charge up to $200.00 an hour to prep a kid for “the test.” I’m glad I don’t live in the New York metropolitan area. SAT tutors in the Big Apple charge up to $425.00 an hour. In a New York Times article reporting on the fierce competition for perfect grades in high school, an anonymous parent at a tony private school in New York admitted to paying up to six figures in a given year for extra help in regular school subjects. That doesn’t count the steep tuition she already pays. I think my husband may be sitting on a pot of gold. Over the years he has saved us a bundle by tutoring our children in everything from calculus to biology.

Ferguson is at his wryest when he talks about the kitchen people—the folks who gather in the kitchen at a party to share war stories about their kids applying to college. In these clandestine conversations a parent would rather reveal the annual family income than her child’s SAT scores or GPA. Speaking of SATs—this is a test originally administered after the First World War to veterans with college aspirations. Somewhere along the line the SATs garnered the power to make or break a college career.

I could go on about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. This is the list that admissions offices love to vilify yet secretly pray for a top 20 spot. There’s the college essay, which demands an epiphany so wise, so rare, that most 17-year olds simply don’t have the emotional maturity to have earned it.

Overwhelmed yet?

In the spring of junior year, usually with a guidance counselor and with grudging parental input, a student creates “the list” of schools to which she might apply. The list is usually a mix of colleges for which a kid is a leading candidate and schools that are designated as “a stretch.” As a parent you may look at up the admission statistics for your alma mater and shake your head in wonder at how you ever got into college.

At the core of every college application, job interview or personal relationship is the fear of vulnerability. Yet it’s vulnerability that gives us courage and compassion. Vulnerability begets connection; it keeps us honest. Vulnerability is important to show whether it be in the college essay or the alumni interview. Be human. You are multi-dimensional. And yes, you are not a test score.

I can remember Anna telling me that she didn’t need a campus full of valedictorians to feel academically fulfilled. During the process she was also also wise enough to demonstrate to her mother that lists, whether it the US News & World Report or the college lists she generated–should be used sparingly and mostly for things like groceries.

 

 

My Nest

Here’s a joke that I recently heard. An optimist sees the glass half-full. A pessimist sees the glass half-empty. An opportunist drinks the water. Not all that coincidentally, these describe the various emotional states of my half-occupied nest. Sometimes it’s half-full; sometimes it’s half-empty. Although there is more time and space in my house since Anna left for college, I’m still shocked that she packed up and moved away a five hour drive from me. Bearing in mind that our daughter wakes up every day almost 300 miles away, here’s a very short list of what’s changed at my house.

The bedroom. Be careful what you wish for because it may come true. Before she left for school, we blasted Anna’s room, clearing over eight years of detritus. We were sorting stuff that dated all the way back to 4th grade. There was that book project Anna couldn’t part with or that oh so pretty party dress that she wore on the bar mitzvah circuit six years ago! Six years ago?! Mind-boggling. In fact, Parents’ Weekend at Anna’s school falls on the fifth anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah. The quiet, clean bedroom matches the quiet, sort of clean house. I don’t mean to say that Anna is loud. But there is a liveliness, a spirit of wonder and a megawatt smile that she brings into a room. And with her departure for college, I’m now the only girl in the house. Even the dog is a boy and like the men in this house he could care less about the fabulous sweaters and pocketbooks that I find on sale.

The car. Anna never made the deadline we gave her for getting her driver’s license. Even her learner’s permit has expired. This means that Anna needed rides early and often. The longest ride we had together was between her school and Adam’s. I’ll admit I was almost always grumpy about the prospect of driving 15 miles in traffic between schools. But my annoyance evaporated when Anna got in the car and we had a half-hour to ourselves. We put the time to good use. We’d talk about the books she was reading, the people she was hanging out with, the latest doings at Student Council. The car ride was the teenage equivalent of lying down with her before she fell asleep. When she was a little girl that was the time that I learned what was near and dear to her heart, or conversely, what broke her heart.

Mealtime. Anna’s acute dairy allergy shaped who she was and, consequently, who we became as a family. Over the years Ken and I worked to help her advocate for herself at a birthday party or a restaurant. It turns out that Anna’s allergy also informed our Judaism. Since we had such little dairy in our house and we had made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, it was not such a big leap for us to start keeping kosher. At first, we practiced keeping kosher using our non-kosher dishes. That is to say, we didn’t buy new plates or get a second set of plates to separate meat from dairy more fully. The fully stocked kosher kitchen was a natural outcome of our kitchen remodel. Everything was new including a dishwasher with two drawers—one for meat and one for milk. Nevertheless, we mainly lived a meat and pareve existence. When Anna left for college, I was sure that we would have a dairy fest every night in the house. I’ll admit that for the first couple of weeks we went wild and crazy with cheese tortellini and traded some of our Mother’s pareve margarine for a tub of butter. But it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. There was something disloyal about indulging in all that dairy and so barely realizing it we went back to our pareve life.

The brother. In many ways, Anna’s departure has been hardest on Adam. When it became clear that Anna was indeed going to college he got downright depressed at the thought of being the only child at home. He’d mumble under his breath, “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck with those two. “ Those two, in case you haven’t figured it out, are Ken and me. I tried not to be insulted and chalked up his rudeness to anticipatory anxiety. It’s been six weeks since Anna settled into a dorm room with posters of Coldplay and the Beatles, and Adam still can’t believe he’s stuck with the two of us. I thought he’d be thrilled to be picked up on time and have unfettered access to parmesan cheese. It turns out he was just making noise about those things. He’d rather have Anna home.

When it’s all said and done, this half-empty nest, or depending on a given day, half- full nest, is ultimately emotional limbo. I’m not exactly pushing Adam out the door, but I’m kind of curious about what being an opportunist feels like.