Parenting Without Borders by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I knew it!

Even Dr. Ferber, the sleep guru of “just let the baby cry it out” fame (or notoriety, depending in your point of view), concedes that there are many viable ways for a baby to sleep. This is just one of the many wonderful nuggets of information that Cambridge writer Christine Gross-Loh brings to the table in her new book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.

 

 parentingwithoutbordersIt’s tempting to call Gross-Loh’s book a reference guide, but that would be giving short shrift to this wise and entertaining compendium on child-rearing. Her goal is simple: as borders blur and the world gets smaller, effective parenting can be more easily shared around the world. Gross-Loh delves into many traditions for advice on everything from co-sleeping, eating habits and guerilla marketing to our kids.

 

 But back to Dr. Ferber for a moment. Ken and I had our own borders when it came to parenting Anna as a baby. Aside from the fact that we had no idea what we were doing, in a word the thing we craved most was sleep. But we had very different ideas of how exactly we would get Anna to sleep and tackle our own sleep deprivation. I was brought up by a Latina mother, and by extension much of my mother’s family. Though we didn’t call it that, co-sleeping was not out of the norm. If I had a bad dream I crawled into bed with my mother. My American father was not so thrilled about my visits and usually ended up switching beds with me.

And so these cultural differences continued in my marriage. Gross-Loh happens to be a proponent of co-sleeping. She and her husband and their four children have ended up in various groupings throughout the night. She also investigated co-sleeping in countries like Japan and Sweden where the family bed is a way of life. When Anna was born we lived in Baltimore where co-sleeping was not exactly in vogue. I swear I gave “Ferberizing” a decent try, but I just couldn’t do it. My very patient husband had to finally accept that Anna would be hanging out with us occasionally.

Throughout the book Gross-Loh draws upon her experiences from living abroad in Japan as well as her Korean heritage and her husband’s Jewish upbringing. I thought her section on children and eating was of particular interest. Like many parents, Gross-Loh is concerned with the growing rates of childhood obesity in the United States. She investigates American eating habits in search of a solution to curb our children’s growing waistlines. She finds despite a diet rich in fats and meats, French children are generally healthy and slim. One of the reasons is that snacking is highly discouraged in France. The French go so far as to air public service announcements warning against eating in between meals. Additionally, French kids eat their meals with their families. These meals are generally long and leisurely, and to compensate for a high fat diet, the French eat smaller portions. “In France,” writes Gross-Loh, “teaching kids to eat is as important as teaching them to read.”

Gross-Loh believes that the idea that children are picky eaters is, in part, an artificial construct; this rings true to me. She correctly notes that rejecting vegetables for potato chips is “a marketing strategy that doesn’t have to bind us.” Teaching children to eat well can be habit forming. To prove her point she takes her readers to France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Sweden where the culture dictates a diet of fresh whole foods, cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients and taking the time to enjoy eating together. As for the babies—the parents in most of these countries give their little ones the same food as the rest of the family.

I know that cooking from scratch strikes terror in many a parent’s heart. I’m no chef myself, but honestly it’s a lot easier than it seems. I’ve just discovered quinoa, a healthy grain that’s easy to make. Most supermarkets have pre-cut veggies that you can throw in a wok. And for meat eaters like my family, turkey burgers are easy to make and roasting a chicken is simple. As for snacking, I work at home so you can imagine the temptation. The easiest solution is not to buy the chips or the Chex mix in the first place. I’m holding my own for the moment. But I still I keep an emergency stash of chocolate.

As big as food is in a family’s life, Gross-Loh also devotes an entire section of her book to conspicuous consumption or in her descriptive phrase, “The Tyranny of Choice.” She writes:

Few families in the world are as vulnerable to the desire to buy as American families. Though commercialism is a modern, global phenomenon, it affects American children disproportionately because corporations have benefited from deregulation against marketing directly to children, which began in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

At last, an explanation for the genesis of what Gross-Loh calls “the pester-power”—in and of itself a well-honed marketing strategy and the source of much family stress.

As I said in the beginning of this column, there are so many nuggets to mine in this wonderful book. Add it to your collection of parenting books. I promise you that reading Parenting Without Borders will be like spending time with a very understanding and resourceful friend.

 

 

 

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Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

Lean In and Listen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Okay girls, go ahead, “lean in,” and you’ll hear a cacophony of voices about what you should do with your lives. At the moment one of the louder voices belongs to Sheryl Sandberg, the storied Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. To lean in, says Sandberg means to push through the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, to go down a path with an uncertain outcome. Conversely, to lean back means to stay in a known, comfortable situation.

The choice is yours. Or is it?

“Girls growing up today,” writes Sandberg, “are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” That’s right, you study alongside the boys, take pre-law, pre-med or pre-business classes and if a McKinsey Report from 2011 is indicative of your situation, you can still expect your male colleagues to be promoted on their potential and for you to be promoted on your accomplishments.

Let’s take stock for a moment. For the first time in American history there are more college-educated women than men. Sheryl Sandberg is asking those women to do three critical things to maximize their education and frankly, to remember why they entered the workforce in the first place. She wants women to sit literally at the table. Not to sit off to the side and to stay quiet, but to take a seat next to their male peers and participate in conversations, pitch deals and make decisions. It’s a daunting task considering that 57 percent of men in the workforce negotiated up front for a better salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women who said anything when they received their job offers.

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In a 2010 TED talk, the basis for Lean In, Sandberg also reminds women that sitting at the table may take some elbowing in a world where just nine out of 190 heads of state are women, only 13 percent of parliamentarians across the world are women and just 15 to 16 percent of CEOs or COOs are women, Not only has there been no improvement in those corporate numbers, but since 2002 the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

The second thing Sandberg advises working women is to make your partner your true partner. That means spouses have equal responsibilities when it comes to childcare and running the house. So don’t just marry well, young women, marry smart because you are smart.

There is a flip side to that advice which comes from the journalist Elsa Walsh, who recently made a deep impression with a piece she wrote for The Washington Post headlined, “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” Walsh contends that parenthood and family “are more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

At first glance it looks like Sandberg and Walsh are butting heads. Sandberg can come across as a career-obsessed woman who admits that, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.” Walsh, on the other hand, encourages her 17 year-old daughter to “carve out space for solitude. Search for work that allows you flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them older, after you’ve reached the point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while.”

But their counsel is not incompatible. Sandberg, for her part, devotes an entire chapter to the “Myth of Doing It All.” Granted, Sandberg has resources that most working women in this country can only dream of. Besides a supportive partnership with her husband, she can afford top childcare. But putting that aside for a moment, let’s concentrate on the key questions that demythologize the notion of having it all: “Can I do it all or can I do what is most important to me?” Perhaps Walsh has an answer when she observes that “a good enough life is not a failure—it is maturity and self-knowledge.”

The third thing that Sandberg advises is not to leave before you leave. This means stay committed and focused on the job. Don’t project too far into the future. In her TED talk Sandberg mentions a young woman who was anticipating a maternity leave that was so far in the offing she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Walsh read Lean In too and she “nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says.” But like me, she also noticed that Sandberg’s advocacy for more family-friendly policies in the workplace or recognition that full-time motherhood is as meaningful as a corporate career read like “afterthoughts.”

My daughter and son’s generation will have a lot of sorting out of priorities. When the time comes, I want them to lean in and identify the nuances in Sandberg’s and Walsh’s perspectives. Maybe they’ll come to a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s metaphor of a career pathway as not climbing a ladder, but staying on the jungle gym where men and women move sideways or downwards in order to ultimately move forward in their jobs. Hopefully my children will take to heart Walsh’s assertion that personal relationships are as important to a career as a place at the table. And they’ll work as hard on those relationships as they do in the workplace because in the end, love is what will get them through.

Judy Bolton-Fasman’s Review of Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys By Ruth Behar

TRAVELING HEAVY: A Memoir in Between Journeys by Ruth Behar. Duke University Press. 225pp. $23.95

So much of Ruth Behar’s life story resonates with me. My mother is Cuban, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, I may be half Cuban and half American, but there are so many times I feel completely Cuban. When I finally went to Cuba last fall, it was like returning to a place to which I had never been. I am the Cubana that Ruth Behar describes in her fascinating new memoir, “Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys,’’ one that is part of an “intensely diasporic people.”

Behar was born in Cuba in 1957 and left the island as a small child. By any measure she is an American success story. With a PhD from Princeton University, Behar is a self-described anthropologist who “specializes in homesickness.” She’s also a MacArthur grantee and a chaired professor at the University of Michigan who has been recognized for her groundbreaking work in Spain and Mexico. Like me, she’s the offspring of the union of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish families.

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Behar introduces the reader to her dual ancestry with talismans of Jewish and Cuban heritages and old family photographs. She writes, “In Cuba, the union of my mother, the daughter of polacos, and my father, the son of turcos, was viewed as practically an intermarriage.” That displacement within her own people forges a unique empathy for the communities that she studies and their stories that she records.

As a young graduate student Behar was assigned to a village in Central Spain, a country that is one of the “many abandoned places” in her history. Like my mother, Behar’s father traces his lineage back to medieval Spain. Yet on that early trip she hid her Judaism.

“An instinct of fear and self-preservation had led me to decide not to reveal to the village people that I was Jewish. . . . I figured they’d be more deeply shocked to discover I was a descendant of the expelled Jews of Spain.”

Three decades later, Behar returns to Spain as a proud Jew for the worldwide reunion of the Behar clan in Béjar, home to a notable Jewish community before 1492. In what she describes as the first world summit of Behars, she meets people with her surname who came from North America to Australia and she finally lays claim to her Sephardic roots. In Spain she and her fellow Behars “travel light, letting ourselves be blown back to our scattered destinations.”

But in Poland, another homeland, she travels heavy. Her beloved grandmother, Baba, entrusts her with a thick memorial book from Goworowo, a town near Krakow. The book details a community annihilated by the Nazis, and includes her great-grandfather’s unpublished memoir. Knowing that her granddaughter the anthropologist is also a chronicler of family lore, Baba entrusts the book to Behar, and she takes it with her on her misty, gray tour of Poland as both a guide and talisman.

But Cuba is where Behar travels light with happy memories. Compared to the heaviness of Poland, Cuba is a place that she says, “resonates with joyous images of cigars, mojitos, salsa dancing and pristine beaches. . . . Cuba is seen as a multicultural Caribbean island where Jews were never persecuted.”

Although the majority of Jews left Cuba in the years after Castro took power, there remained a remnant community, which over the past decades has been revived due to the largesse of the American Jewish community. Behar looks at the revitalization of Cuban Jewish life as an anthropologist, but her personal journey back to the island she left as a little girl is the heart of this “memoir I snuck in, between journeys.”

Published in the May 7 Edition of the Boston Globe

Women and the Kaddish by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last month 15 narrow-minded, hard-hearted men tried to outlaw women saying the Kaddish at the Western Wall. There was so much blowback for these dubious caretakers of the kotel that they were forced to rescind their ban on women gathering to mourn their dead at Judaism’s holiest site. Additionally, last week Jerusalem’s district court ruled that it was wrong to arrest five women at the Wall last month for praying as they saw fit.

Maybe we’ve finally turned a corner and the Wall will truly be accessible to all Jews. But we still have work to do in the realm of Kaddish. I remember the night before my father’s funeral I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square—the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its pastry thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys’ club. No son, no Kaddish, unless you paid a man—yes there is still such a thing—to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. A couple of weeks ago Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, told an audience at Brandeis University about that latest case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination—this time at ultra-Orthodox cemeteries in Israel. A woman named Rosie was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Rosie took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. After her appearance, an invitation quickly followed to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

K. Harold Bolton

K. Harold Bolton

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 2002 and I had the honor of eulogizing him. At the time, I also decided to attend a daily minyan for thirty days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. I wrote in my journal, “I’m both surprised and fulfilled that my daily recitation of the Kaddish has become a part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.”

I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with an only daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. After he died he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish. Given these circumstances, his daughter could recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her Kaddish.

Another father-daughter Kaddish story: Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and the founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote, “The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for generations of my family.”

One of my father-daughter Kaddish stories: I was visiting Rome where there are more than 900 churches. But I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish during my 11 months of formal mourning and I went to the Great Synagogue there. Armed policemen surrounded the courtyard of the synagogue, and a security guard asked my husband—not me—what business he had there. I told the young guard—who was wearing a kippah—that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed. Inside, the daily minyan was formal—like walking into a sepia photograph—with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. Ken and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish. The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.” I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish, that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? I suppose it’s the 15 men of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who tried to hijack Judaism.