523-0765 by Judy Bolton-Fasman

523-0765.

Until last month, the phone number was in my family for almost half a century. But call the number today and you’ll hear a terse message that it has been disconnected. It took fifteen years for 523-0765 to become a non-working number. The drawn out campaign that my sister, brother and I waged to have my parents sell their two-story colonial—the house on the lovely corner lot—began when my late father’s Parkinson’s disease no longer allowed him to climb the stairs. We pleaded with my mother, who was healthy then and quite a bit younger than her ailing husband, to move into an apartment – one floor, no stairs.

The idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already forever left her first home in Cuba.  Like houses that had been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great hi-fi blasting parties where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba Libres. There was my wedding grown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.

But the house also teemed from years of hoarding that my mother mistook for protecting memories. I didn’t understand that even a few years ago. I only knew that she hung on to tests that she administered as a high school Spanish teacher in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and she saved every single greeting card anyone ever sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes—clothes practically disintegrated from age. There was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in. My mother’s wardrobe grew exponentially, particularly after my father died, She ordered clothes from the Home Shopping Network and catalogues I never heard of. She had more clothes than she could possibly wear in this lifetime and piles of them encroached on every bit of available space in closets and atop empty beds. .

Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died ten years ago, the house was still habitable and my mother swore she wasn’t budging. The heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed. The house was, in a way, diseased. And that disease was progressive. My mother could not take care of the house and the house could no longer shelter her safely.

She argued this was the home she had made with her husband, and for better or worse, she was staying until death did part her from it. We must have looked like the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul her pails out every Sunday night, or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.

My mother’s health deteriorated. At first her gait was halting. Bad knees is what she told us. She refused to use a cane and we lived in fear that she would fall and break a hip, or worse, hit her head. Still, she refused to move, to live near my sister and me in Boston. Hartford was her home. She knew the television stations and the best place to get tuna salad. She was not budging and by the end of her run in the house she was not walking. Once again a chair lift was installed. My siblings and I were bewildered. This was déjà vu all over again.

And then one day my mother couldn’t manage her house anymore, couldn’t care for herself. She called me panicked that she was feeling very unwell. What should she do? I called an ambulance. She’ll tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that the phone call I made for the ambulance saved her life.

Here’s what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further. During her extended stay in the hospital and rehab center, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. She knew it was time. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.

rotaryphone

She was disappointed when she couldn’t take 523-0765 with her to the next town. I was devastated. It turns out the house move was as hard on me as it was on my mother. I left the old rotary phone when we cleaned the house out. After all these years, she was still renting it from the telephone company.

 

This essay was originally published on http://www.ba50.com. To read more articles like this click on the link and subscribe.

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Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

 

The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.

 

 

The Secrets of Happy Families by Judy Bolton-Fasman

With the rise of the digital age, and parents caught between raising children and trying to help their own parents, best-selling author and New York Times columnist on contemporary families Bruce Feiler decided that it was time to write a new playbook for the 21st century family. The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More brings together Feiler’s personal experiences as the father of young twin girls with his skills as an investigative reporter to find new sources and innovative ways to strengthen family ties.

SecretsofHappyFamilies

Feiler has his work cut out for him. A few years ago New York Magazine published a story, which exposed parenting as one of the least happy experiences in life. The reaction was both outrage and empathy. Was bringing up children really making us miserable? Feiler counters that assumption with a 2010 Pew Study that found that three-quarters of adults said that family was the most important part of their lives. That same 75 percent further claimed to be very satisfied with their home life and 80 percent of the respondents said that they were closer to their family today than their family of origin. So what’s going on?

Are we really happier in the midst of parenting wars where tiger moms are duking it out with more lax French mothers? Feiler credits some of our happiness to positive psychology, the basis of the trendy happiness movement. But Feiler is anything but trendy. His research is solid, his findings sensible. And he has forever endeared himself to me by not mentioning Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

According to Feiler, like successful businesses successful families have the ability to adapt. In Silicon Valley, Feiler explored a concept called “agile development.” He describes it as “a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, each team huddles briefly every morning to review progress, and the team convenes for a longer gathering at week’s end to critique how it’s functioning and make changes for the future.” Within a family, agile development can translate into a weekly family meeting in which each member discusses what went well that week, what could be improved, and what he would commit to work on for the week to come.

 

The family meeting is not only a natural outlet for communication; it leads to other healthy activities like eating dinner together. I firmly believe in the salutary effects of the family dinner. I’ll risk repeating well-known research about eating together because I think the facts are so critical to reiterate for families with children still at home. Children who eat with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide and develop eating disorders. Yet according to UNICEF, Americans still rank 23 out of 25 when it came to teenagers eating dinner with their parents at least a few times a week. That’s a missed opportunity because dinners create perfect conditions to talk to one another. Dinners are also the ideal setting in which to develop resilience in children of all ages by sharing stories about parents and grandparents. Can’t have dinner together? Then gather for breakfast or dessert.

One of my favorite sections of Feiler’s book, was about “cultivating a strong intergenerational self” in children. Children should know that they are a part of a larger family continuum. If they know they come from somewhere, they are more likely to know where they are heading in life, which brings me to the chapter on grandparents. As Feiler notes, countless studies have shown the extraordinary influence that grandparents, particularly grandmothers, have on their families. Even infrequent visits from grandparents can increase the chances of a child having a healthier relationship with her parents. A grandmother’s support reduces stress and exhaustion in a family.

Finally, just when I thought I had heard everything there was to say about fighting fairly in families, I learned a few new things. It’s a given that how you fight is important to resolving conflict, but I picked up a few pointers such as monitoring pronouns. For example, using “I and we” during an argument suggests togetherness versus the accusatory “you.” Feiler encourages not only listening to someone else’s side of the story, but also being genuinely curious about their version of events. A “he said, she said” argument should segue into a third story created together by the opposing parties.  That’s a precursor to compromise.

There are other takeaways in The Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler looked to Warren Buffet’s banker for advice on allowances, the Green Berets for planning the perfect family reunion and successful coaches for team building. Yet throughout this entertaining and informative book, Feiler’s message is imbedded in three crucial rules that transcend time and place: Adapt all the time, talk a lot, and yes, go out and play.

 

Recognizing Signs of Abusive Dating Among Teenagers by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I wish February had been Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month when I was growing up. I might have realized that in the era before e-mails or cellphones, my boyfriend’s demand that we speak on the telephone every night was unreasonable. I was in college and my life revolved around those phone calls.

At 18, I thought his behavior demonstrated intense love for me. Young and inexperienced, it never occurred to me that he wanted to control me. In my mind, this was love and love always hurts, doesn’t it? All I had to do was listen to a pop song or watch a soap opera to see that a love worth having was often portrayed as painful, or at the very least, something mostly difficult to endure.

To read the rest of this post please click on : http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/recognizing-signs-of-abusive-dating-among-teenagers/#more-43701

Painting a Child’s Spirituality by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Rabbi Sandy Sasso told the following story at Temple Emanuel in Newton:

There were two brothers in town who were always getting into mischief. One day the rabbi got a hold of the younger brother and asked him to face up to his misdeeds by asking him “where is G-d?” In an increasingly stern voice the rabbi asked the boy “where is God” three times until the young lad ran home and hid under his bed covers. When his older brother found him, he asked what his brother was hiding from. The little boy replied “G-d was missing and the rabbi thinks we did it!”

Rabbi Sasso the author of twelve books for children—many of them award winning—recently addressed the ways in which G-d is absent in children’s lives as the weekend scholar-in residence at Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Sasso, who is also a congregational rabbi in Indianapolis with her husband Dennis, tackled children’s religious imaginations and identities in sermons, talks and readings.

According to Rabbi Sasso, the vast majority of youth think there is a spiritual dimension to life, yet only 14 percent of these children feel as if someone is helping them with their spirituality. That number roughly correlates to the adult statistic in which one in five people claims that there is no assistance available when trying to cultivate a spiritual life.

Rabbi Sasso illustrated the interplay of spirituality and religion using a recent Torah portion. Moses’ revelation on Mount Nebo, in which he is profoundly changed internally as well as externally, is a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments is the religious expression of that deep and holy occurrence. Religion, explained Rabbi Sasso, serves as a “container to hold spirituality and we must learn how to connect the larger questions of life to spirituality.”

Questions lead to open conversations and according to Rabbi Sasso even very young children have the skills to engage in larger, profound inquires about the role of G-d in their lives. The difficulty in talking about G-d may lay at the feet of parents and Jewish educators. “Don’t let your own worries and misgivings stand in the way of conversations about G-d,” said Rabbi Sasso. “What you don’t believe anymore can be an effective way to allow yourself to rethink your beliefs. It’s okay to be unsure. You don’t have to have all the answers and remember that these answers are not ‘googleable’.” To that end, Rabbi Sasso advised adults to “get in touch with what awes you, or as the poet Mary Oliver says, tap into ‘appreciation swelling into astonishment.’”

Parents looking for ways to broach a conversation about G-d, particularly with younger children, would do well to read “G-d’s Paintbrush” to them. Rabbi Sasso noted that her intent in the book was “to broaden children’s creative lives when thinking about G-d.” Illustrated in rich primary colors, “God’s Paintbrush” asks the ways in which G-d is concrete and present in a child’s life.

GodsPaintbrush

I wonder if G-d has a big lap to curl up in, just like my Mom’s, and strong arms, just like Dad’s to lift me up and catch me when I fall.

I wonder if G-d has strong hands to hold me tight, just like Mom’s and big shoulders, just like Dad’s to carry me when I am tired.

What makes you safe and warm and loved?

Most of us grew up with the standard names and images for G-d such as King or Lord or Father, but G-d has many different names and images. For a little boy in Rabbi Sasso’s congregation, whose mother was dying of breast cancer, G-d was “Healer.” For a woman whose mother was dying G-d was a comfortable bathrobe. Later that year when the woman’s mother passed away, she felt closer to G-d by wearing her mother’s old robe. Rabbi Sasso was not advocating for jettisoning traditional prayer. She emphasized that the language of the prayer book is an important connection to community and the Jewish people at large. After all she noted, “in our tradition there are 70 names for G-d.”

Most touching for me was Rabbi Sasso’s wisdom on connecting social justice issues to a child’s spiritual coming-of-age. “You cannot have social justice in Darfur,” she said, “when a child is being isolated in school. Bullying is very much a social justice issue. Take a stand on immigration, but also welcome the new neighbor. Inclusivity is part of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world.”

We would do well to remember that as parents we are the single most important influence in our children’s lives. We don’t need to be rabbis or academics to explain G-d to our children. Rabbi Sasso recommended to start simple. State your own ideas about G-d without cluttering those ideas in abstract or philosophical language. As she pointed out, “Noah was an amateur and the builders of the Titanic were experts.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder: A Consideration of RJ Palacio’s Book for Jewish Disabilities Month by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If you read only one book this year with your kids, that book should by Wonder by R.J. Palacio. The book moved me to tears. The story begs to be read aloud with kids because you’ll want to stop after each short chapter to catch your breath and discuss the clear-eyed issues of bullying and notions of beauty that it raises.

Wonder

Wonder is the fictional story of August Pullman, a ten year-old born with a profoundly disfigured face as a result of chromosomal abnormalities. August, or Auggie as he is known, has endured 27 surgeries that may have scarred his face, but have not touched his pure and sweet soul.

Auggie is homeschooled until his parents decide it’s time for him to enter the greater world via the fifth grade at Beecher Prep. Middle school is an emotional minefield particularly for a kid like Auggie. What makes Wonder unique is that Auggie not only has inner reserves to draw on, but also has a family who supports him. This is not to say that his family is perfect, which is one of the very affecting and real touches that abound in the story. Fissures develop in his parents’ relationship over what is best for their son. How many of us as parents have disagreed with our partners about raising our children.

Palacio’s gentle realism unfurls into optimism.  Stories about unusual kids who crave to fit in with their peers are often heart breaking. They come with a particular kind of loneliness that can be dystopian in its fear of abandonment and isolation. Auggie has a particularly tender relationship with his older sister, Olivia. This is a sister and brother who deeply love each other. But Olivia is very human too and when she enters high school she seizes the opportunity to start anew. That fresh beginning includes not being the sister of the kid with the ugly face. At one point, she goes to great lengths to exclude Auggie from attending a play at her school. One of the notable things about Wonder is that there is no judgment. Palacio not only empathizes with Auggie, but also with the people in his life.

No amount of direction from the well-meaning middle school principal prepares Auggie’s classmates for his disfigurement. When Auggie first arrives in school, his classmates avoid him. No one wants to sit next to him in class or be his lab partner. He’s shunned in the lunchroom until a classmate named Summer takes him under her wing. Summer is a fascinating character. She’s one of those sturdy girls who doesn’t aspire to be in the popular crowd. Girls like that aren’t as rare as some young adult literature would have us believe. Summer doesn’t have a disability and she’s not agonizing over how to fit in. She’s simply herself and at the end of the day she wins over her classmates without being invited to the right parties.

And then there is Jack, Auggie’s ally in school. Jack had been selected by the principal to shepherd Auggie through his first few days of school. The task is wrenching for Jack who is genuinely torn between liking Auggie and fitting in with classmates who refuse to touch Auggie for fear of getting “the plague.” Auggie and Jack’s relationship takes a sharp turn when Auggie overhears Jack telling another student that he would rather be dead than look like Auggie. Therein is one of the great takeaways of this book.  There are people who love Auggie who are not always kind to him, showing the range of humanity inherent in all of us.

In a recent interview with Slate magazine, Palacio explained that the idea for Wonder came to her after she and her two young sons saw a girl with a facial condition similar to Auggie’s at an ice cream parlor. Her three year-old began to cry and her older son was shocked. Palacio immediately left with her kids to spare the little girl’s feelings. But the incident haunted her and she pondered what she could have done differently. “I was really disappointed in my response,” she said.

It took me a whole book to figure out the answer, which has since been confirmed for me by parents of kids who look like Auggie. I wish I’d had the courage to turn around and look at the girl at the store. Even if my son kept crying, I should have just said, “I’m sorry, my son’s not used to seeing people like you. What’s your name?”

By the end of the book the characters have regrouped, as many kids in middle school are apt to do. Auggie’s perseverance pays off and most of his classmates have softened their attitudes. Grit is a critical message to impart to our kids, but perhaps more importantly so is kindness.