*Dreaming in Cuban by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dear Mamá:

You came to the United States in 1958, a year before the revolution. Havana is an aerosoled city—Viva la Revolucion 54 is spray painted everywhere. It’s been fifty-four years since Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and triumphantly marched into Havana on New Year’s Day. You once waved the Cuban flag for him. He was going to change Cuba for the better. Maybe he did for some people. But in the end your family fled along with 90% of the country’s middle class. You like to say that your mother packed a small bag and closed the door on forty years of her life at Calle Merced 20.

Calle Merced #20

Calle Merced #20

Calle Merced was a storied address in my childhood. It was Never Never Land, the place of your eternal youth. When I finally saw it a few weeks ago, the heavy wooden door you described was still there and I recognized the balcony from pictures you had shown me. You lived in Old Havana. But that too was consigned to fantasy. There were no marble steps that a maid had shined in your apartment. You lived simply on one floor, with a courtyard between the dining room and kitchen. Sometimes your mother brought home a live chicken and called the shochet – the kosher butcher – to slaughter it for the Sabbath meal. I imagine he did it right there in that open area between cooking and eating.

When I think of what is now our Havana, I envision the laundry on the balconies hanging like team pennants. But we are no longer divided into them and us. The people of Cuba hope and dream and cry with you for your country. How often did I hear you say in one long sigh – Hay Cuba como to estrano. I didn’t realize how much I missed Cuba too until I went there.

I saw the synagogue where you grew up. Women in the balcony, men gathered around a raised bima. I also went to the Patronato where you dreamed of being married before Castro took over the country. Your schoolmate Adela Dworin stayed in Cuba. She said that to be a revolutionary before the age of 40 is about passion. After 40 it seems like a foolhardy decision. Adela’s parents, who emigrated from Russia in the 1920s, stayed in Cuba because she was committed to the new socialism and they couldn’t bear another exile. Adela remembers you. Your old classmate is now the head of Cuba’s Jewish Community, much honored by Hadassah and others for her work with the country’s 1500 Jews.

There were only 11,000 Jews when you lived in Cuba, but you were a thriving community. Enough of you were committed to Judaism to fill five Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues. You had Hanukkah parties and Purim balls. That’s still happening, but the community is mostly growing through conversion and the number of functioning synagogues has dwindled to two. There’s an old joke that in the days when the revolution was in full bloom, a Cuban minyan consisted of nine people and a Torah.

A rabbi from Chile comes to Havana every six weeks to minister to the community. If someone is connected to a Jew, usually through marriage, they are encouraged to convert. This past Christmas over 70 people went into the warm ocean and immersed. When they came out they were Jews. There are over 140 children enrolled in the Albert Einstein Hebrew School. Some of those teachers are Jews by choice.

Havana is more beautiful than I had imagined. It’s in gorgeous ruins—an aging beauty queen who hasn’t lost her looks amid the rubble of benign neglect and abject poverty. The place is translucent with pastel colors and light. The outside of your house is a pretty light green. Green is your favorite color — the color of your eyes.

But the people are hungry. Rations are strict. The black market is darker than the Buena Noche, the Christmas Eve sky. People trade all kinds of things for an extra pound of meat or a cup of cooking oil.  Something as simple as a pair of jeans or sneakers that a relative in the States has brought gives a loved one a leg up in the barter system.

You should see the scene at the airport in Miami. Daily charters to Cuba all leave from the same place at Miami International and the check-in is transformed into a veritable marketplace. Cuban ex-pats going back for a visit have emptied Costco or Target or Best Buy, buying televisions, microwaves, bicycles, and air conditioners for their loved ones in Cuba. I saw my fair share of fishing reels too. That old chestnut of teaching a man to fish so he eats for life went through my mind like ticker tape.

God Bless America for all of her materialism and convenience.

“God Bless America,” that’s what my cab driver said in his fractured English as he drove me to the University of Havana. Aside from Calle Merced 20, that was the other place you wanted me to see. How you wish you could have studied at Alma Mater. Maybe you did or maybe you didn’t walk up its famous staircase.  You believed that you did, and that’s all that matters.

My cabbie leaned in close at a light and told me that from one Cuban to another, he was aburrido de esta vida. He prayed that his 30 year-old Russian Lada taxi would start each morning and that he’d catch enough fares to put food on the table for his kids. We both know that aburrido means so much more than just boredom. It’s a kind of lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia I heard when you said how much you missed Cuba.

The driver had a mother-in-law in New Jersey who sent him money every once in a while. It helped more than I could imagine, he said. When I went to pay him he asked me if I had any medicine — aspirin, antacid, anything—that I could spare. He’d take it in lieu of a gratuity. I gave him a half-full bottle of Advil and a 30 percent tip. I had already donated all of the medicine I brought down to the pharmacy run by the Jewish community. The doctor who runs the operation has the same last name as your mother. “We’re all related,” she said jauntily.

Earlier in the day I had passed a state-run pharmacy where a woman beckoned me to come inside. I had an antibiotic prescription with me that I wasn’t going to use. Yes, she would take that, thank you, and did I also have pens to spare? I gave her what I had. She was about your age. Maybe you passed her on the street once upon a time.

“Tell your government we want to be friends again,” she said. “Tell your President Obama, embargo no.”

Aren’t you aburrida of the embargo too, Mamá?

Love,

Judy

*A version of this essay is forthcoming in the Jerusalem Report

 

 

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On a Journey to Safety by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve been missing my girl a lot. More to the point, I’ve been missing the 11 year-old she was seven years ago. So I decided to do a bit of time-traveling last week and hang out with Girl Scout Troop 73037 based at the Ward Elementary School in Newton. My friend Joanne’s daughter is in the troop and Joanne sensed that as the days got shorter I needed some girl energy the way some people need sunshine. She invited me on one of the troop’s field trips; it involved food so I was keen to go.

The girls and their indomitable troop leader Karine are on a mission to observe how things work. One way they do that is to peek behind the scenes at various businesses. I accompanied the girls to Jonathan’s Bar & Grill in Newton, and was so in awe of the complicated choreography of getting a meal to a table, I didn’t check my cellphone once.

I had a new appreciation for the salad and seared ahi tuna that I ordered that afternoon. I think the girls looked at their food differently too. But what I was most taken with was the way these girls were literally on the verge of young adulthood. I could see the changes coming. In not so many years they would be entangled in crushes, maybe first love. They’d be grappling even more deeply with body image and sexual identity. As young women of the 21st century there would be times they would be at risk and other times they would feel empowered.

An hour after I left those sweet Girl Scouts I sat in Elizabeth Schön Vainer’s office at Jewish Family & Children’s Services. Schön Vainer is the director of the agency’s To Safety Program and it’s well worth reprinting Journey’s poignant mission statement.

Journey to Safety’s mission is to prevent domestic abuse in the Jewish community, while helping those who have been abused find a way to safety, regardless of their background or beliefs. We offer culturally competent, religiously sensitive services to survivors of domestic abuse, with specialized services for the Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. Information, support, referrals, and other resources are available for all domestic abuse survivors, including teens, seniors, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community. 

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I met Schön Vainer a couple of years ago when I was invited to learn more about the work of Journey to Safety. One of the distinct memories I have of that meeting was the eclectic group of women who came together. We were social workers, attorneys, nonprofit executives or just concerned women. Some of us were survivors of domestic abuse. The meeting happened in the wake of a tragedy—a relationship between two Wayland teens that had ended in murder. The young woman’s boyfriend had harassed her for months both physically and emotionally. And one night, after they had broken up, he stabbed her to death. Post- break up, particularly for teens, is a proven time of great risk for dating/domestic violence victims. The abuser wants ultimate control by keeping them in the relationship. Sadly, this young woman agreed to meet with her abusive ex-boyfriend in a remote place

That story exemplifies one of the critical reasons that Journey to Safety has recently piloted a peer-led program called TeenSafe. The program bears out research showing that over 80% of teens would sooner tell a peer than an adult about an abusive situation. That statistic has spurred Schön Vainer and her team to recruit a girls leadership group that has been trained to help other teens see their way out of dangerous, controlling or violent relationships.

Training teenagers to identify the inner workings of a healthy relationship is a natural outgrowth of Journey to Safety’s mandate. But the work to educate and prevent domestic violence begins even earlier. Journey to Safety has begun reaching out to girls and boys in middle school through a specialized curriculum. Schön Vainer explains that

For young teenagers we introduce the concept of relationships. What are they? What are the expectations in a relationship? We help them tease apart what makes them feel comfortable and uncomfortable in a relationship. The discussion inevitably leads to talk about establishing boundaries.

The curriculum is also unique for the way it brings together Jewish values and pop culture. A Katy Perry song in which the singer finds the strength to leave an abusive situation is offered alongside two powerful texts that frame a context for looking at relationships:

In the image of God, God created them; male and female [God] created them.

Whoever destroys soul, it is considered as if he or she destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if she or he saved an entire world.

“Abuse,” adds Schön Vainer, “is also about taking someone’s choices away. With younger teens that’s a nuanced conversation.” As she said this, I scribbled in my notebook that I hoped and prayed that the Girl Scouts of Troop 73037 and their peers would know when and how to save a life. And that they would always have choices and delight in those choices the same way they did on an early winter afternoon at Jonathan’s Bar & Grill.

After Newtown: Talking to Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve passed the sign for Newtown, Connecticut hundreds of times. Just sixty miles northeast of New York City, Newtown is one letter away from my hometown of Newton. That near coincidence always made me smile. And now I cry because it is just one letter away from Newton. That’s how close this tragedy has been for all of us.

The Columbine murders were incomprehensible. And so were the murders at Virginia Tech and in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. But Newtown was on a different scale of horror. A young man in black fatigues and armed to the teeth walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and slaughtered an entire first grade class.

When did mass murder become the norm in this country?

We shake our heads and try to bring the victims closer to our hearts by piecing together their life stories, staring at their snapshots in the paper. Maybe we’ve stood together in synagogue and said the Kaddish for these fallen sisters and brothers. But it’s no longer good enough to memorialize their deaths. We have to acknowledge the overarching issue of gun control, and we can begin to do that by understanding gun control as a parenting issue.

Taking up gun control within the purview of parenting also connects us to the emotional and mental health of our young people. Maybe it starts with addressing bullying. Yes, we’ve made great strides in making students and parents aware of the deadly consequences of bullying—the suicides, the homicidal rages. I can’t help but think that we haven’t done enough. We’ve tried to legislate against bullying, but a lot of people still shrug it off as human nature or a natural part of childhood.

There has also been a lot written about helicopter parents—parents who constantly monitor their children’s social lives, their grades or their extracurricular activities. We’ve all been there and done that to some degree. Our focus gets blurred. If we step off the high-achiever’s treadmill for a moment, we may realize that our kids really need a good, old-fashioned, swim-in-a-lake camp instead of eight weeks of intensive math in the summer. Down time is highly underrated.

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, a visibly shaken President Obama fought back tears and declared that Americans were “broken-hearted.” He said that the country must “come together and take meaningful action.” Yet his press secretary put off the subject of gun control that same day at a press conference. All I could think of was the famous quote from Rabbi Hillel who sagely noted, “if not now, when?”

In the meantime, we have to somehow reassure our children that they are safe. After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the Child Study Center at New York University provided some good advice for parents and teachers. First and foremost open up the lines of communication. Don’t hesitate to talk about what happened in Newtown. If a child is able to read, chances are that he or she has also heard about the shootings. Between social media and television, it’s almost impossible to shield a child from the news.

Give a child context and perspective. This happened in one community, and although gun violence is out there, the chances are minimal that it will happen in her school too. Continue to reassure the child that he is safe and that you are doing everything you can to keep him safe. Make home a calm oasis. Of all the studies and advice that I read, NYU’s literature was unique in suggesting that parents encourage their children to look towards the future. Stick to goals and continue to make plans.

And there was almost unanimous agreement in all of the trauma literature that I saw to encourage children to give back. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that families find ways to help people. Make sympathy cards for the kids of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Find a child-centered charity and make a contribution. I liked a friend’s suggestion to call local restaurants in Newtown, give a credit card number, and donate a meal.

The Academy also suggested opening up a conversation by asking children how much they know about what happened in Newtown. Clarify a child’s question before answering. Is the child curious about issues surrounding the event such as how people obtain guns? Or is there something deeper, more personal going on like, “could this happen to me or someone I love?”

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Conversations can be more nuanced with older kids. My teenagers have heard me call out falsehoods put out by the gun lobby like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or “more people are protected by guns than killed by them.” If that’s getting too political just look at the devastating image of the children walking single file out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School—eyes closed, hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them.

I’ll end with part of a prayer written by Rachel Barenblat, a rabbi and poet who writes a thoughtful blog called The Velveteen Rabbi.

Soothe the children who witnessed

things no child should see,

the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn’t, the parents

who are torn apart with grief

who will never kiss their beloveds again.

Help, Thanks, Wow. And Amen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Help, thanks, wow. Those are the touchstones of prayer identified by the writer Anne Lamott. Lamott is a person of faith, a Christian who has something to say to everyone. The word “inclusive” comes to mind when I think about Lamott. She’s a church-going equal opportunity ecumenist, which is why I took so much away from her new book simply called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

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I can guess why Lamott set up three central points to rein in the overwhelming notion of prayer. She’s given her broad readership a user-friendly guide to the sacred trinity of Christianity. But she’s also given me, as a Jew, a way to think about Judaism’s formal schedule of worship. I read Help, Thanks, Wow within the framework of shacharit, mincha and ma’ariv—the set prayers for morning, noon and night that complement spontaneous prayer for reaching out to G-d.

Help-Shacharit.-Morning—Lamott describes calling out for G-d’s help as, “[t]he first great prayer.” To my mind this plea feels like a morning prayer. It’s so primal to shout, to ask, to whisper for G-d’s help.

Help me G-d. The days are so long when you are with young children. Ken travelled constantly when the kids were toddlers. Nothing struck fear in my heart quite as deeply as when I knew he would be away over a weekend. Weekdays we had a routine. Pre-school, scheduled naps, dinner at 5:30 and a couple of hours later a bath-induced sleepiness that gave way to bedtime. On the weekend time flowed like molten lava. Routines went out the window. And to top it off, I was outnumbered two to one. Twelve hours a day of non-stop hard labor.

And then my babies grew older and it got even more difficult. Help me G-d from pretzelitizing my children. “Pretzelitizing” is Anne Lamott’s word, a great word that says so much. Here’s a context for it: Help us G-d to witness the transformation of our children into the people they were meant to be before we pretzelitized them into high achievers, anxious, stressed-out automatons or “charming wired robots.”

Thanks-Mincha-Afternoon—Lamott describes the prayer of thanks as a chance for grace. And grace for her “can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and strength to hang on.” Thank you God.

I’m a morning person by necessity. Given my druthers, I’d stay up late and sleep late. With the morning obligations behind me, I welcome the afternoon. A second wind. When the kids were little, they sort of reliably napped in the afternoon when I could read or just think. Then they graduated to grammar school and my afternoon pick up made me realize how much I’d missed them during the day. Thank you, G-d for trusting me with these lovely children.

I also associate the teen years with the mincha part of my parenthood. It’s still broad daylight in terms of parenting, but there’s the heat of noon, the glare of the deep afternoon sun with which to contend. You can’t look directly at the sun in the afternoon and you can’t look straight on at your occasionally frustrating, obnoxious, glorious, I-really-wouldn’t-trade-this-kid-in teenager. Hormones, driver’s licenses, puppy love, first real love. Thankfully the teen years are a relatively short stretch of time and mincha is the shortest of the three services.

Wow-Ma’ariv-Evening—For better or for worse, another day in Kid Land signed, sealed and delivered to the annals of memory. Wow. Baby took a few steps into toddlerhood. Toddler grabbed words from here, there and everywhere and formed sentences. My boy wrote a fantastic short story with an imagination still pure and free of self-consciousness. My daughter has a fierce kick that gives her a leg up in a soccer game. Wow.

Some etymologists speculate that the word “wow” was once a blurry contraction of the words “I vow.” Here’s another lovely observation from Lamott: “The words ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels. They could dance together.” Indeed they could. Wow.

The rabbi pronouncing Ken and me husband and wife for the first time. Wow.  The look on Ken’s face as each of our children was born. Wow. Anna going off to her senior prom in a dress and hairdo to die for. Wow.  Adam writing my mother a lengthy note in her native Spanish wishing her a speedy recovery from surgery. Wow.

Wowwowwowwowwow. Strung together, the word is rhythmic, pulsating. Like a miracle it might respond to, wow has its own reverberation.

A Midnight Utterance-Amen. Amen the final word. It’s also from the Hebrew word emunah—faith.  Amen is a concise proclamation of faith in what has been expressed.  Amen completes us. Amen is certainty.

Amen is a response to this lovely, messy life that yields moment after moment of wows—moments that Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “radical amazement.”

Goodbye 1735 Asylum Avenue

If you have travelled the stretch of Interstate 84 through Hartford, Connecticut, you might have done a double take when you saw an exit for Asylum Street. I grew up about three miles up the road from that exit where the street unfurls into a suburban avenue.

My ancestral address, 1735 Asylum Avenue, is rich with symbolism and irony. But there is something subtler at work here—something beyond connotations of political or insane asylums. A quirky address like 1735 Asylum befit a kid like me—preternaturally grown-up at six—who emerged out of the rubble created by the collision between my father’s mid-twentieth century American patriotism and the fire-breathing communists in Cuba from which my mother fled.

We settled at 1735 Asylum Avenue in 1963—on my third birthday—into a house whose chief merit was that it sat on a main bus line for my mother—a life-long non-driver. If we couldn’t get from here to there via the Asylum Avenue bus, we didn’t go. More than mastering the transit system, my mother charmed the bus drivers; we always had door-to-door service at 1735.

I know that this former address of mine sounds like a cross between the historical and the unbalanced. But Hartfordites understand that the address was neither—this street was the original location of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, built in 1817, a precursor to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.

The original asylum was a gift of love and devotion from Mason Fitch Cogswell to his brilliant deaf and mute daughter Alice. Take Exit 48 of Asylum Street notoriety and you will almost immediately see a bronze statue of Alice Cogswell that sits at a fork in the road in which Asylum Avenue is to the right and Farmington Avenue is to the left.

Alice looks to be about eight years-old when her likeness was cast in bronze, the same age I was when I began to notice her. Two enormous cupped hands tenderly hold Alice, and she clutches a book to show everyone that dumb means mute, not stupid. As an adult I learned that the hands in which she stands—perfectly manicured hands that resembled my father’s—form the word “light” in sign language.

In many ways, now that I know this detail about those giant hands it make sense that Alice was such an illuminating landmark for me. She not only marked my comings and goings on the Asylum Avenue bus with my mother to and from Downtown Hartford, she marked the beginning and end of Sunday drives to my Bolton grandparents in New Haven. The forty mile trek felt interminable to me. But Alice was a touchstone. She limned crucial beginnings and endings in my childhood.

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Alice’s statue also stood near the stretch of Asylum Avenue where the houses were monied and pretty. On the bus ride west to 1735 Asylum, the Queen Anne homes closest to Alice gave way to larger brick homes that ended at Steele Road, the dividing line of wealth. West of Steele Road were boxy colonials and heavily mortgaged roofs; 1735 Asylum—a three bedroom colonial—among them. The house would be the only property my parents would ever own.

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When my parents and I moved into 1735, I was still an only child. Beige was everywhere you looked, except for the yellow straw wallpaper in the dining room and the deep lipstick-red shellac inside the kitchen cabinets. The previous owner’s neutrality was at odds with the passion and emotion that now rattled the house. My mother eventually redecorated the hallways, and the dining and living rooms in shades of green—the color of her pretty, translucent eyes.

Last week my sister, brother and I said goodbye to 1735 Asylum Avenue. The house was sold to a contractor who will take it down to its studs and rebuild it into something unrecognizable to us. But the truth of the matter is that these past couple of decades, 1735 Asylum was not the house in which we grew up. Like its proud matriarch, it had declined. Not beyond recognition, but to something else—a memory tinged by inevitable age and benign neglect.

When we were done cleaning out 1735, my sister Carol and I took pictures in front of the house, smiling the smiles of the brave, the weary and the sad. We walked through the rooms slowly, mournfully, as if following some sort of casket. “Do you mind if I say a Kaddish for the house,” I asked Carol.

She told me to say goodbye in my own way and in my own time. The Kaddish is a prayer of mourning that does not say a word about death. It’s all about praising God when one feels least inclined to do so. But there was a lot to thank God for even as we emptied our childhood home. On the way out of town I drove the Asylum Avenue bus route so I could say goodbye to my old friend Alice, still stalwart and serene in the hands of God.