Launching My Debut Book In a Shmita Year

Judy Bolton-Fasman

Every seven years, Jews prepare for the year of Shmita—a word that means “release,” “letting go” and, my favorite, “letting slip from your hand.” This trio of evocations represents different ways of letting go: allowing the land to lie fallow, cessation of harvesting crops and forgiving debts.

This year, 5782, is another seventh year of Shmita. It is also the year I have launched my first book, “Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets,” into the world. The book took me the better part of 16 years to write, and the timing of introducing it in a Shmita year somehow feels blessed. I release, I let go and I let my words slip from my hand. Shmita also feels like a good time to dedicate the year to late bloomers. In my case, I published my first book at the age of 60. This is also the time to take a breath and a pause to survey what was and what is.

Before this Shmita year, COVID-19 brought humankind to a standstill. Amid the fear, the disinformation, the fog of never-ending illness, a lovely independent literary press offered me a book contract to publish “Asylum.” The press had the book for two years and made the offer out of the blue. In the new norm, I was picking up groceries curbside when the publisher called and asked if the book was still available. It was. My family secrets were about to march out and salute the public. I was conflicted. I wanted to publish my work while I also wanted to protect the people who populated it.

A couple of years before signing the book contract, I was in a world of trouble with my beloved aunt, my mother’s sister. My aunt is a second mother to me and an enthusiastic new Facebooker. She read everything I posted, including an essay I published about my grandfather—her father. The piece conveyed my traumatic experience of him, and she was furious about my portrayal. We eventually reconciled after a health crisis she maneuvered through, but I was afraid of telling her about the upcoming publication of “Asylum,” which went further than the essay, mainly when it came to the portrayal of my mother. But I am steadfast that my truth—a truth mixed with speculation and fact—pays homage to lives I chronicle.

After I wrote to her that “Asylum” would be published in a few months, she responded with a loving message that she was proud of me. I called her immediately and told her that although she and I had vastly different perspectives on our family history, I promised to consider the information carefully from the essay that had upset her. While I would not alter my story’s spirit or truth for an agitated relative, my aunt was different. As I readied the manuscript for publication, I found I could cut a couple of paragraphs without compromising my vision.

And then there was everyone else I imagined lining up for my apology. No one wants their skeletons set loose and waltzing with me in plain sight. But that’s not exactly what happened. Old college friends found me through my website after reading about “Asylum” in the alumni magazine and applauded me for writing the book. Strangers sought me out to thank me for writing an emotionally difficult story that lined up with their autobiographies. My father’s old neighbors tracked me down to reminisce and share pictures of him I had not seen. Our Zoom call was sweetly familial.

Throughout writing “Asylum,” I struggled with how much to reveal and how angry family members and exes might be with me. I was thrilled my book moved my Bolton cousins. One of them wrote: “We need a neologism for your particular and hard-won brand of faith—Judyism!”

Memories of my mother also drive the book. In her prime, she was a wily woman, a rabid woman, and she lurks in almost every chapter. There was silence from her Cubana side of the family about the portrayal except for a distant cousin who pointed out my Spanish phrases were occasionally ungrammatical. It was “jarring to read,” she said. She wondered if I, her half-gringa cousin, born and raised in Connecticut, did that on purpose? I did not. I wonder if she understood how much her comment hurt.

“Asylum” was published as the Shmita year was beginning. After 16 years of working on the book, it was time for me to let it “slip from my hand.” It was time to let the Shmita year’s purpose guide me. However, that proved to be complicated. To write a memoir is like living with a split-screen in your head; the present-day is on one side, and a reel of memories continuously rolls on the other—the prototype of the chaos of perfect memory.

It can be risky to front load the mind with so many memories. If the day’s writing goes well, the memories comfort me. If I am feeling unsteady, the memories torment me. Sixteen years of emotions whiplashing me. Sixteen years of toiling in my parents’ wide, tumultuous cultural and generational gaps. Sixteen years of feeling as if I were writing into a dark void. How would this book end? Would it ever end? When I wrote the last chapter, I surprised myself that I arrived at love and compassion in one take.

When I turned in the book’s final edits, it was eerie. I detached from the rational and willed the supernatural to fill the void of no more book to write. Then, a few days before the publication of “Asylum,” I startled awake in the middle of the night and saw my father’s face hovering above me. I was sure his big brown eyes could see into my soul. His wide grin gave me permission to publish the book, and I knew I was worthy of acting as my father’s medium. Worthy of acting as the channel through which my grown children, who do not remember him, could access him.

The idea of going on a book tour terrified me. As it happened, my first interview was with NPR, and I was out of my mind with gratitude and dread. I was a writer, someone at home with words spoken only in my head. The few times I had done any public speaking, I always had a script in front of me. Not this time—I would be answering questions cold, unrehearsed, vulnerable. I was sure no sound would come out of my gaping mouth.

Here is what happened: I realized that I alone was the expert of my life. That expertise gave way to a certain ease; there were even moments of eloquence. I discovered this at an event when I leaned into the rising crescendo in my voice as I singled out the women in my audience—there was an audience, I saw the number of Zoom participants—and assured them there was no correct way to make art. Art happens when sketching on napkins, scribbling notes on the back of an envelope. There is no age limit for who can make this art, and there is no expiration date on dreams. I had stumbled upon the “Judyism” my cousin had described. All of it—the readings, notes and messages, the pictures people sent posing with my book, and even the criticism—has made my Shmita year one to remember always.

This essay originally appeared on JewishBoston —

My Cuban Mother’s First and Only American Menorah

Judy Bolton-Fasman

December 1958 brings a fierce coldness that is nothing like anything you, my mother, have ever known. Snow touches the nape of your neck, and the chill of it makes you feel lonelier. You see your breath hanging in the air and you believe you will never be warm again. As you walk to your subway stop in Brooklyn, you conjure the Malecón – Havana’s esplanade along the water. Sabrosa – a delicious savoriness was in the salted air. In Brooklyn, it is the first of many times you try to transplant the warmth of your querida Cuba to a freezing American city.

The darkness of the bone-chilling winter frightens you. You are afraid of the dark –afraid of the phantoms populating your small room, phantoms that are people still alive in Havana. You see your parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins – all of them figure into the memories that come rushing to you in the middle of the night.

It seems it is always the middle of the night for you in America. You travel in dark, endless subway tunnels. Someone tells you to clutch your purse on the train, and you sit up stiff and fearful on the subway car’s rattan bench. You miss the pastel colors that stand out in Havana, particularly in the midday sun. Your hometown is infused with light. New York, on the other hand, is the punishing color of lead. Even at midday, it looks like a painting that has been left out in the rain.

Cuba is tipping into revolution, a social experiment that will go very wrong for your family. There is nothing left for you there. You are 22 years old and, shockingly, your father permits you to go alone to New York – a girl who hardly rides the bus alone in Havana. Distant cousins of his will rent a room to you. They will take care of you, your father promises.

You apply to the United Nations for work as an interpreter. When your application is rejected, you convince yourself that your dream of working for the UN is merely on hold. You speak perfect schoolgirl English, after all. You understand French but resent the language because it lords over Spanish as the language of diplomacy.

You tell yourself that typing invoices at the watch factory is temporary. Nevertheless, you make fast friends with the Hungarian girls who work on the assembly line. They have run away from their own revolution gone awry in Budapest. That was 1956, and they have two years of experience over you in your new city. On Fridays, they bring in homemade pastries that you eat and eat, and for the first time in your life, you are overweight.

You are adrift. Your sister is engaged; her wedding is on hold until you, the firstborn daughter, marry. Then come the days when the sun sets earlier and earlier, slowly draping your world in darkness. You wish that one of the Hungarian girls in the factory was Jewish. Hanukkah is coming, and you so want to light the menorah with someone. You scrimp and save and occasionally skip dinner to buy a hanukiyah.

You walk into a Judaica store and see a menorah; the beauty of its simplicity strikes you. The menorah is a golden bronze set on a dark green stand. The effect of the two colors is pretty. And green is your favorite color. Your eyes are a beautiful green that brightens by the ocean or deepens against your dark hair. You run your fingers over the four candleholders on either side of the large Star of David – eight in all for the eight days of Hanukkah. The shamash, the caretaker candle that will light the others, sits atop the all-encompassing Star, inspiring you to pray. This declarative Jewishness, never expressed in Cuba, is a miracle to you.

The woman who sells you the menorah asks where you are from. When you tell her you are from Cuba, she can’t believe that Jews live on your jewel of an island. She further doubts you are Jewish when you answer no, you do not speak Yiddish. You are a proud speaker of Ladino – a Judeo-Spanish your people have kept alive for centuries. She thinks you are a marrana – and hesitates before finally selling the menorah to you. When you light your new menorah, you will feel the shamash’s flame standing guard over you.

New York is the first place where your Jewishness is called into question, and you are angry. You are like Adam and Eve, the first man and woman when they initially experienced the early onset of the winter days. You are sure this darkness, this weather, is God’s punishment for sins you can’t remember committing. The world is reverting to the chaos of creation, and you try to stave off the encroaching turmoil each night as you light another Hanukkah candle. But the winter solstice was God’s restorative gift to Adam and Eve, a phenomenon you will not notice when it arrives the week after you light the last Hanukah candle.

Instead, pneumonia will leave you gasping for breath. The Hungarian girls from the watch factory bring you soup and bread. You don’t ask them if their offerings are kosher – you are desperate for nourishment, for their love. You lose the deposit you put down to take classes at Brooklyn College. You originally think that if you cannot be an interpreter, maybe you can earn a degree to teach.

Another midrash or story about Adam (and Eve too) is an inversion of your first year in America. At one point in his life, Adam’s world was so bright he could see beyond the generations of Noah and Sinai straight through to his descendants. How wonderful if you had had the same power. In 1958, you do not know that you will be married and expecting me, your first child, in two years. I am born a few days after the winter solstice. You name me Judith – Yehudit in Hebrew, the name of the woman who slipped out of her widow’s weeds to seduce a Greek general. She plied him with liquor until he was drunk, and then she beheaded him.  You do not see the connection between my name and the Hanukkah story. Though, I am sure to this day, you wish for me Judith’s bravery, her fierceness, her survival instincts.

Winter is soon coming again. Daylight will evaporate early. You are an elderly woman, and I am your silver-haired, middle-aged daughter. Our memories fall around us like the snow of your first winter. I rescue your menorah from the frenzied move out of the family home you lived in for 50 years. I don’t have the heart to scrape off the wax on it, symbolic as it is of the pile-up of your years in America. I bring your menorah to you in the nursing home and tell you that I will light it once again.

This essay first appeared on JewishBoston- November 16, 2021