With Love, From Harold: A Father’s War Story Offers Hope In An Uncertain Time by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Second World War made my father an American. The Holocaust made him a Jew. And the confluence of those two events made him the bravest of the brave.

By the time dad graduated college he had already been recruited to be a 90-Day Wonder. He, and other young men like him, were fast-tracked to become military officers. It was 1940. For three months my dad was immersed in training at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He was 21 years old and when he finally came up for air he was saluted as an ensign.

One of my favorite photographs of my father was the one that I turned up snooping in his dresser as a little girl. My father had sent the 3 x 5 black and white picture to my grandmother. He dated the back of the photograph 1941 and signed it, “With love, from Harold.” Barely a year out of Yale, he was most likely running guns and butter to Greenland just before Pearl Harbor. In the picture, he is below deck where it is dark and windowless — a circumstance that must have made my father claustrophobic given his later penchant for observing a vast sky of weather. When he tracked a storm from my bedroom window his gaze was dreamy, suggesting that he was still drifting on his supply ship. But my father never coasted for long. He eventually righted himself to know exactly where he was going.

“With love, from Harold.”

I recognize that love. A desperate love born of a certain time. A love wrapped in loneliness. In the wake of the election I know this love intimately. As I texted my sister and comforted my young daughter, that was the love I felt in the early morning hours of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. A couple of weeks later, I joined the rally on the steps of the State House against the hate crimes occurring across Massachusetts. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talked about love. But with love comes a vigilance when fear lurks in the background.

Harold Bolton - Navy

K. Harold Bolton

My father’s war picture shows a man who had lost a lot of weight from adrenaline rushes anticipating an oncoming war and the compulsory exercise to prepare for it. He must have punched extra holes in his belt. His officer’s cap fell below his ears as if from the weight of his brassy naval insignia. His Adam’s apple was prominent and his neck muscles taut.

I focused on his shirt, the top button undone, so that I could almost make out the chain of his dog tags. But the longer I stared, the more it faded away. I knew definitively those tags were stamped with an “H” that stood for the biblical-sounding descriptor — Hebrew. Dad told me as much. My assimilated grandparents were nervous about sending their son out in the world as a Jew. They had heard bits and pieces of news coming out of Europe. Hitler was a menace. Jews were harassed, arrested, even deported. Father Coughlin was on the radio. Isolationism was the prevailing politics. America’s geography suggested a false kind of safety.

I once asked Dad if he was scared back then. “Not at all,” he said crisply. Yet even with his “this too shall pass” disposition, I know that if he were still alive he would consider alt-right a euphemism for white supremacy. But what would he say about Steve Bannon having the ear of the president-elect? He’d seen the Bannons of the world rise up before. We need to stand firm, Dad would say. I try and translate what that means today. How do we protest appointments and policies that simply cannot stand? I think I know Dad’s answer. He was the man who sternly told a guest in our house not to spew her racism in front of my siblings and me. I’m sure he would have approved of the postcard I sent to President-elect Trump with the message: “Not Bannon.” Small acts of protest can have a meaningful ripple effect for years to come, he’d tell me.

My grandparents begged my father not to identify as a Jew in case he was captured. But my father, who lip-synced prayers on the rare occasions he went to temple, would not wear dog tags stamped with an “O” that stood for Other. In Dad’s military, O functioned like the universal blood type. O accepted the last rites from any religious tradition. But in the end, that kind of open-endedness was not for my father. If it came to it, he would die as a Jew.

These days I contrast the khaki-uniformed photograph of Dad with another one of him in full naval dress. That formal, flawless black and white portrait, in which it looks as if cotton batting is the backdrop, was displayed in our living room forever. Now it stands vigil in my mother’s small dorm-like room in a nursing home. This is the picture that would have accompanied the obituary if my father had died in the war. And in these post-election days, I take comfort that at the time both pictures were taken my father was not afraid of the future. I hope one day I can share his optimism.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/11/30/comfort-post-election-judy-bolton-fasman

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A Season of Joy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The blessing I prepared to say when Hillary Clinton was elected president was the Schehechyanu – a prayer that is uttered when something noteworthy and wonderful happens for the first time. I found the thick, block-printed Hebrew words free-floating on the Internet alongside a transliteration and a sturdy translation. I cut and pasted the words – in Hebrew and English – in an email to myself. And then I eagerly waited. I waited to chant the prayer in the familiar, traditional melody when I would first hear the news. I waited to display the blessing in my Facebook status in honor of President-elect Clinton.

shechiyanu

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Schehechyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:

For giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

Instead, I found a line from a poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski that more accurately reflected my mood after Clinton conceded. It begins: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” How I want to try to praise our gorgeous broken world. How I want to try to praise our beautiful confused country. But I barely have breath.

When Clinton dropped out of the presidential election race in 2008 she declared, “We weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time… [but] it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

In the wake of the 2016 election, I take solace that there must be at least 36 million if not 54 million cracks in that glass ceiling. I purposely evoke these good solid Jewish numbers, multiples of 18. In Hebrew, letters double as numbers and the number 18 also spells out the word chai or life. More solid, black letters telegraphing sacred wishes.

“Tough morning,” a friend said checking in. She asked how I was and I cried all over again. My mother-in-law called from Florida and she was almost apologetic for living there. My sister, a middle-school social studies teacher, dreaded facing her classes in the aftermath of this election. She texted me throughout the night. “I’m so sick,” she said. I didn’t tell her that I’d been dry heaving since Clinton lost Ohio.

In the early morning hours of November 9th, when it felt as if it would stay dark forever, I thought about saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. After all, I was grieving. But the choice felt too facile, too obvious.

I am clearly mourning Clinton’s loss, but even in my anguish I am able to see that this situation does not have the finality of a death. Yes, it’s very bad. “We won’t have clarity about this for quite a while,” said my wise husband in one of his many morning phone calls to check up on me. After we hung up, I thought maybe we the people could finesse the situation a bit, wait it out, eventually fix it. That was the optimistic part of me poking through like a shoot of grass in a concrete sidewalk

It’s significant to note that the Kaddish does not mention a single word about death. It’s a love letter, praising a wise, beneficent God. It says in part:

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

But I was not feeling very charitable towards God.

Instead, I went to my synagogue to look up the Prayer for Our Country that is said each week after the Shabbat morning Torah service. It begins straightforwardly:

Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessing upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security and happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

As I was leaving the synagogue I ran into my rabbi. The moment I saw her, I fell into her warm embrace and cried. “The sun rose today,” she softly said. Her words, so deceptively simple, were also unexpectedly hopeful.

I encountered more words from thoughtful, loving friends that further consoled me. On Facebook one of them said:

Like many of you, I am in shock this morning. And I am ready to fight. To fight for what I still believe this country can be.

But before I fight, I know I have to listen. Because a lot of you have known that it was this bad. A lot of you did not have faith that America would avoid this. I need to learn to see what you see.

Then we fight.

Through my own Facebook status I tell my friends that I have to sit still with my silence. Except for my typing, I write this essay in absolute quiet. It’s the closest I come to resting my voice, quelling my tears. As I write, I am anxious yet determined to find my prayer. And then even though it has always been with me, I finally hear it from within me. I have been saying it all my life:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

Hear O’ Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.

Even my assimilated father knew those six words of Judaism’s signature prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon and night. The Sh’ma has always been the prayer of prayers for Jews. And it’s the one that has always challenged me to stop and to listen and to learn.

Hours after the election is called, I purposefully took out the Sh’ma like a comfortable dress to wear – to say the prayer slowly, deliberately. I annunciated each letter.

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

I listened for the silence of God’s looming presence.

This is the prayer I turned to on the morning after the 2016 election. This is the prayer that someday soon will help me – please God – to reach a new season of joy.