The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 5–Passover Entertainment and Poetic Solace

This week I heard Idina Menzel sing the Four Questions. Billy Porter serenaded me with “Let My People Go.” I gleaned wisdom from Rabbis David Wolpe, Dana Benson, Amichai Lau-Lavi, Mordechai Lightstone and Sharon Brous, who delivered a short, affecting sermon. She said the story in the Haggadah is one that has “held a grip on the human imagination for thousands of years, precisely because it was never just about what happened then but has also always been about what is happening now. [The world needs to be reminded of those who are] degraded and oppressed and enslaved and have walked on that long journey toward freedom.”
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All of this happened at “Saturday Night Seder,” a virtual event on YouTube this past Saturday. Jason Alexander emceed the festivities, and the likes of Beanie Feldstein, Henry Winkler and Rachel Brosnahan contributed to the star power. The seder was also a fundraiser for the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

The “Saturday Night Seder” began with these declarative sentences:

3,000 years ago, our Jewish ancestors fled their homes in search of a better life.

Two weeks ago, some anxious Jews stuck inside our homes decided to put together a seder.

We invited all of our favorite people. Including you!

Given this seder’s stellar lineup, there was no doubt it was going to be entertaining. After all, Sarah Silverman found the afikomen Andy Cohen hid in a surprising place. In his inimitable way, Harvey Fierstein gifted the audience with permission to personalize the last line of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

And then there were tears. There was the saltwater that stood in for the tears of our Israelite ancestors. There were my tears when “Next year in Jerusalem” became a rallying cry for next year with our families. Next year with actual hugs. Next year in health. Next year in peace. It was then that the seder went from celebrities to the heroes of our time—the people working in the COVID-19 hospital wards—ardently wishing for anyone listening to be reunited with the people they love and the places that comfort them.

I’m not one who easily cries. However, I saw my children in those people. My daughter is preparing to apply to medical school and my son is going to medical school in the fall. I am both proud and terrified. I feel as if I am sending them to war against an invisible enemy. As I wipe down every doorknob and package that comes into my house, I cry for the people arduously working in grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals. These brave workers confront and fight the coronavirus each and every day with all their might.

I also continue to find daily succor from people such as Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Smith has emerged as the medical poet-in-residence of this pandemic. It began with a daily note he sent to his colleagues from the frontlines. He quickly gained a following for his deep empathy and crystalline prose. In a March 20 missive, Smith began with the latest grim statistics—there was an uptick in positive tests, hospital beds were vanishing, masks and ventilators were scarce and the curve—still rock solid—was nowhere near flattening. Smith, however, did not leave the story there for his readers.

He continued: “So, what can we do? Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”

Here was Smith referring to a dog sled race, long before the Iditarod, to beat the 1918 flu epidemic. There was more of his poetic prose and literary allusions for his April 1 entry:

“Writing on April 1, late in the day, I can’t possibly be the first person to shout out the first four lines of ‘The Waste Land’ (T.S. Eliot). But first or not, I can’t resist: ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.’ The rest of the poem is much too long, too grim and overwrought for my taste. The line-breaks that highlight three verbs (breeding, mixing, stirring) are a nice writerly touch, but I admire it most for one phrase—mixing memory and desire. In an April that may be apocalyptically cruel, that is how we are poised, desiring spring.”

The Wall Street Journal described Smith’s emails as, “Winston Churchill’s radio speeches of this war.” Indeed, Smith’s notes have been equal parts encouragement and battle plan for his readers and colleagues. As the article observed, “The daily notes of this 71-year-old surgeon…have become essential dispatches for many people in search of leadership, courage and maybe even a pep talk.”

In what I have come to think of as a typical Smith flourish, he ended his April 11 message with lines from Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope is the things with feathers/That perches in the soul.’ Best known for the first line, I prefer the second: ‘Hard to reach with guns.’”

May we experience our versions of Jerusalem in the coming year. May we be with the ones we cherish, and in the places that make us happy, wherever we are next year.

Coronavirus Diaries, Part 4–Passover in a Pandemic

I have deleted every event on my calendar for the foreseeable future—everything except Passover. No matter how much I resist, Passover will arrive as it has for thousands of years on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.

Passover marks the beginning of spring. It’s a holiday of liberation, a holiday where family and friends gather around my dining room table and read from the quintessential Passover text, the Haggadah. “Haggadah” means “telling,” and for centuries, we Jews have been telling each other our origin story—the story of the Exodus when a ragtag group of people enslaved in Egypt emerged as a vibrant nation.

Passover is coming, and yet we wake up to a world that feels like the much-too-long Blue Law Sundays of my childhood. Businesses are shuttered. There is hardly any movement on the streets. The claustrophobia of having nowhere to go is the prevailing feeling. It was only a few weeks ago that the coronavirus was menacing some faraway country. I laughed at my sister for stockpiling toilet paper early on. It was unthinkable that my favorite holiday wouldn’t include family and friends. But here we are. Welcome to the Passover edition of the “Pandemic of 2020.”

In an effort to outwit the pandemic, spring is abruptly canceled, freedoms are severely curtailed and we’re confined to squares on Zoom, waving and blowing kisses to our loved ones. It taxes the soul to live this way. My mother asks when this will be over. I don’t know. I try to keep her calm as I tamp down my own panic. I want to stop arguing with my husband about stocking up on Clorox wipes that we can’t find anyway. I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and medicine. Anything can set off this fear—terrifying statistics, news of a friend on a ventilator.

I’m traditional when it comes to Passover. It has always been a physical holiday for me. Aside from the spring cleaning, I shop weeks before the first seder. Every year, I come very close to hoarding matzah meal, macaroons and horseradish. I switch out my everyday plates and cutlery for dinnerware and silver that languishes in the basement until I bring them up for the annual eight-day festival.

It feels as if I undertook these preparations for the holiday a hundred years ago—before Passover food shopping became a death-defying act. They happened before I fractured my shoulder, and now I can barely lift a plate, never mind move an entire dinner service upstairs. Passover in my house is therefore greatly modified. This year, observing the holiday has to be good enough. I won’t change over my kitchen to the extent I did in years past. Passover preparations have become part of the emergency through which we are living.

There’s a lot of buzz about gathering this year in virtual seders. The plan is to commune with one another in our Zoom cubicles. I’m hopeful that will work with a ritual meal that has been a home celebration for centuries. After all, the Passover seder doesn’t require us to hold it in a synagogue. Its rituals are carried out at the intimacy of the dining room table. Anyone who can read from the Haggadah can lead the ceremony. We will need to take care in our virtual seders of not going through the motions. It’s too easy to drift online.

This moment has not been the first time Judaism has accommodated a new world foisted on us. After Judaism’s two ancient temples were destroyed over 500 years apart, the rabbis necessarily reinvented Judaism. It was genius the way they made it workable for the diaspora. When Jews scattered all over the world, the rabbis asked them to expand their imaginations and transform their tables into the altar of the non-existent temple.

The holiday of Passover is a leading reminder of how virtual post-temple Judaism became. In the daily liturgy, Jews are asked to remember the Exodus as if they experienced it themselves. That feat of recreation is the crux of Judaism. Jews know how to reach back through the millennia and relive the redemption of Passover. In that act of recreation, the Exodus narrative has been overlaid with historical tragedies, including the Holocaust. I need to believe that we can survive this current pandemic and add it to our arsenal of Passover stories.

Every year the seder ends with the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The hope is that the Messiah will have finally arrived, restoring us to the land of Israel. This year, we’ll also add a wish that at the moment is as improbable as the imminent coming of the Messiah: to celebrate Passover again with actual people seated at our dining room tables.

The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 3–The Anti-Plague Edition

I was initially going to call this diary entry “The 11th Plague.” But that felt too doom and gloom, too easy and snarky. Yes, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—something we haven’t experienced in our lifetimes. But most of us reading this are safe and hopefully healthy in our homes. I like a meme going around that says, “We’re not stuck in our homes; we’re safe in our homes.” And as one of my friends told me, she’s thinking of this time as a “great Shabbat-like pause.”

Amid all this mayhem, we’ll welcome Passover 2020/5780. This year’s seders will morph into virtual ones. Holiday tables will have empty places. Just as the untouched place setting for Elijah is a harbinger of the Messiah at the seder table, so are our missing relatives and friends harbingers of better times. Today, they are missing. Tomorrow, we will be reunited.

Passover is my favorite holiday, and it was especially so when I was a child. I think back to the days when my extended family crammed into my grandmother’s apartment, and it was still expansive. My abuela, as I called her, cooked a full complement of food, including bourekas made with matzah meal, charoset made with raisins and wine and, since we are Sephardic, bowls of fluffy rice to go with the lentils we ate.

In some ways Passover was among the most American of holidays that my Cuban family celebrated. Though my grandparents didn’t know English, our table was still set with the Maxwell House Haggadah. We didn’t read from the Haggadah so much as use it as a roadmap for the seder—a word that means “order.” My grandfather, or abuelo, modified the Haggadah in Ladino and Spanish.

I have always been inexplicably anxious over some parts of the Haggadah, even when I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to articulate my discomfort. However, over the years, I’ve come to learn that Passover began in anxiety. We leave the land after 430 years of enslavement as we rush to bake bread. All the while, death hangs in the air. The Israelites are commanded to mark their doors with blood as God passes over some households and not others to kill the first-born child. All in all, it’s an odd prelude to our liberation as a people.

This year, the inherent anxiety that begins the Passover story is ever-present in the pandemic, which we’re desperately trying to sidestep. Again, resist thinking of COVID-19 as another plague. But how can we not overlay the Exodus story onto this coronavirus narrative? Is this a prelude to a new world? Once we emerge from self-isolation, how will the Passover holiday be changed? This holiday is different from all others in that food is linked to ritual, and ritual is the gateway to remembering the Exodus as if we ourselves experienced it. It doesn’t get more virtual than that.

I’m hesitant to describe myself as living inside a plague because the world in general, and the Jewish people specifically, have lived under much more horrible conditions. This morning I read an affecting opinion piece in The New York Times by Tablet Magazine editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse. She writes, “…I’ve come to think of Passover as the stem cell of the Jewish people, a reserve of core source material with the proven ability to generate new meaning and solace in circumstances even more extreme than what we are living through now.”

In her piece, Newhouse also focuses on a black-and-white picture of people secretly baking matzo in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. As she points out, there were Jews in bondage once again celebrating their ancient liberation from Egypt. It’s too easy to say that the image is ironic. To me, these Jews recall our shared history, our texts and our liturgy to sustain us in the direst of times. In the picture, one of the women is smiling broadly at the camera. She is reclaiming Passover and the primal joy of freedom.

In that spirit, I will rescue the memories of Passover seders in my abuela’s apartment. When my mother and aunt recited a song in the middle of the seder, it was a virtual parting of sorts. Although they only remember fragments of what they sang so loudly and clearly in Ladino, it still resonates as a comprehensive message: Todos que tengan hambre venga y coma. Este año aquí, el año invieñendo en tierra santa.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat. This year we are here; in the coming year we will be on sacred land.” That sample of hope overrides thoughts of an 11th plague. And remember that meme—we’re not stuck at home; we’re safe at home.

Coronavirus Diaries Part 2: Worshipping Alone Together

There were 30 of us on display on the screens of our laptops, “The Brady Bunch”-style. We had answered the request to make a minyan each evening for our friend’s week of mourning. Each of us in our Zoom cubicles made this unprecedented shiva call. My friend’s 95-year-old mother died on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funeral was private. The mourning was virtual. We gathered in memory of a woman who loved to be with people. It made for a weird irony not to be with our friends in person.

Judaism is a communal religion for which praying in concert requires a minimum of 10 people. Although the Talmud uniquely reaches across the centuries—rabbis who lived hundreds of years apart argue with one another throughout its pages—no one could have anticipated this strange time. It’s like living in outer space. Only we are earthbound—so much so that we are confined to our houses to slow the spread of this menacing virus. Who knows if and how we are releasing this mortal enemy lurking among us? People cross the street when I take my dog for a walk. We quickly nod as if even that small gesture can spread the virus.

Each night that we logged into the virtual shiva, we heard another story about our friend’s remarkable mother. She read voraciously almost until the end of her life. She left behind a memoir for her family. At 90, she fulfilled a lifelong dream and performed stand-up comedy, or, as she creatively described it, “sit-down comedy.” It broke my heart to see my friend crying the tears of a grief-stricken son.

To pray alone in Judaism is not encouraged, but it is allowed. Only the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, must always be said in a minyan. Grieving properly is a group effort, and it’s a sacred responsibility to be among the 10 people who form a shiva minyan. The rationale is that a mourner should not be alone with their grief. Fellow congregants should be available to provide comfort. Being in the midst of a minyan allows for a spontaneous opportunity for the mourner to share a cherished memory or a special story about the person who died.

Simply put, it’s good to be with people. No matter how unprecedented it was to gather online for my friend and his family, it still felt right to be together. It was comforting to see other people occupying their Zoom squares in solidarity. It felt special to be able to say “amen” to my friend’s Kaddish.

Last Friday evening, Gov. Charlie Baker was invited to my temple and spoke to our congregation through a livestream. It was my first time accessing the temple’s live feed, making it particularly surreal for me to see the governor speaking to an empty sanctuary. No one was present except the rabbis and cantor who were there to conduct the service. There were also the musicians who socially distanced themselves from one other as they played the familiar, comforting Shabbat evening melodies.

The governor pointed out how difficult it is for communities of faith to be socially isolated. “Think about what we do at services or at funerals—we hug, we kiss, we cry and then we hug and kiss some more,” he said. He pointed out that the audience for a funeral is typically the elderly—the population most vulnerable to this frightening, mysterious virus. Everything, he went on to note, has been put on pause. Yet this is a time for grace. And religious communities are our greatest source of grace and strength. “Whatever this thing is, we’ll find our way to see it through,” the governor said. I wanted so much to believe him.

I’m a Shabbat morning regular. I go to services at least two Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) a month. As the old joke goes, Cohen goes to synagogue to be close to God and Greenberg goes to synagogue to be close to Cohen. I’m the Greenberg. I go to temple to be close to my 96-year-old friend Bunny. Bunny epitomizes the Shabbat morning experience for me. Through the years, Bunny knows for whom I stand if I say the Kaddish. She knows my joys, my sorrows and everything in between for which I pray.

Bunny doesn’t do virtual, and, truth be told, I don’t think to be virtual with her would be entirely satisfying. Consequently, I miss seeing Bunny terribly. I miss sitting with her at the oneg (festive reception following services). I miss chatting with her about my week and my kids. But mostly, I miss my friend’s hugs. It devastates me that hugging her has become potentially deadly for us.

Hands-free worship. No-touch mourning. Minyans in cyberspace. People in self-isolation trying to outwit an invisible, mortal foe. To what do we answer “amen” to in these foreboding, lonely days?

I Want to Hug My Son. I Can’t

Yesterday I needed to see my son, Adam, in person. From a respectful, necessary distance of 6-plus feet, we met in the backyard and formed a loose circle of four with my husband and daughter.

There was Adam, momentarily out of self-isolation from our backroom, out in the fresh air.

I never imagined that his post-college year of teaching English in Spain would abruptly end this way. But in a matter of days, Spain skyrocketed to a level three country with coronavirus cases multiplying rapidly. My biggest fear was that flights out of Spain, and Europe in general, would be suspended before we could get Adam home. Thankfully that didn’t happen. However, my boy went straight from the plane last week, to two weeks of self-isolation. It reminded me of when the Apollo 11 astronauts had to go into quarantine after their moonwalk.

Although Adam is the only one in our household practicing this directed and self-imposed isolation along CDC guidelines, it feels as if our family of four is on some kind of psychological lockdown. We’re all in self-exile in our house. My husband has a cold and is socially distancing himself. I’m on pause with a broken shoulder and can’t do much for myself or anyone else.

My daughter, who is 25 and a student, is the only person fully operational at our house. She’s on call to do everything from slicing a bagel for me, to preparing meals that she leaves outside Adam’s door, to bringing the garbage pails out to the curb. She was in tears the other day over how overwhelmed she was with our care and feeding.

In his way, my son is also overwhelmed in quarantine.

Long stretches of time are a liability. Theoretically, the world comes streaming to him on his laptop, but boredom still seeps into everything he does. How many episodes of “Law and Order” can he possibly watch? It turns out not so many when the world feels as if it is coming apart. How can he concentrate on reading a book in this new dystopia?

I can’t focus either. The books I want to read are piling up on my nightstand. I’ve always done my day job as a culture writer remotely, but somehow it feels different in this new reality. For the first time, I feel truly alone during my workday.

I can’t imagine how I would have coped with this pandemic if my children were little. These strange, long days have triggered bouts of anxiety and depression in me. My kids, now adults, calm me. It occurs to me that we’ve had a complete role reversal.

I read a funny piece in the New Yorker in which boomer parents ignored their nervous millennial children and went out to restaurants and theaters, despite the coronavirus spreading like wildfire. Of course, since that piece was published, everything has been shut down. I’m a boomer parent, but I wouldn’t dream of misbehaving that way — I’d never be cavalier in this maelstrom of infection. Quite the opposite: I’m depressed in the way that dystopian movies or science fiction make me feel. I visualize physical and psychological wreckage everywhere.

FaceTime offers connection, for which I am grateful. It’s not a substitute for physical contact, but it’s what I have — my overloaded internet serves up herky-jerky images. My heart aches when I hear my son’s voice from the back room, and his visage pixelates on my screen. Since he’s been home, I have yet to give him a hug and a kiss. It remains an unspoken sadness between us. If I tell him the obvious — how much I want to embrace him — I’m afraid I’ll breakdown and cry.

Since I’m not touching anyone in my family, we’re experiencing what psychologists called “skin hunger.” We long for that all-important human touch. The salutary effects of physical contact have been well documented in medical and psychological studies.

So when my husband asks if he can hold my hand the request feels essential and yet transgressive. Last night, I pressed my lips against my husband’s forehead to make sure he wasn’t running a fever. Maybe I was being cavalier after all. My son, on the other hand, takes his temperature twice a day per the CDC’s guidelines. I’m sure it’s a lonely exercise for him. When he shouts from the backroom 98.4 degrees, we all breathe a sigh of relief.

As my son self-quarantines in our midst, the days are more disorienting. He should be with us. The other day my husband, daughter and I were gathered in the den talking and laughing. On the other side of the door that leads to the backroom, we heard scratching. It was my son. He asked if we were all together. Implicit in his question was abandonment, betrayal, skin hunger. He broke our hearts. And we, in turn, broke his.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti–WBUR’s Essay Page

The Coronavirus Diaries–On Handwashing

Like all of you, the coronavirus pandemic is front and center in my mind. This is a time of vulnerability yet also a time of gratitude for the ordinary. It is a time when simple acts like hand washing become reflective and holy. Judaism has a lot to say about hand washing. There is a singular prayer commanding us to wash our hands. Ritualwell, an innovative website dedicated to interpreting Jewish ritual and liturgy for the 21st century, has presented the traditional prayer of al netalit yadayim—instructions for washing our hands—with an updated preamble.

As we wash our hands
We pray,
Blessed is the Soul of the Universe,
Breathing us in and breathing us out.
May our breaths continue
And our health and the health of all
Be preserved
In this time of sickness and fear of sickness.
Holy Wholeness,
We take as much responsibility for this as we can
By observing the obligation to wash our hands
For as long as it takes to say this prayer.

Barukh atah adonai eloheinume lekhha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and instructed us on washing hands.

I also found another beautiful and extended meditation on hand washing that said a lot about human interdependence. It was broadcast on the Jewish Women’s Archive podcast, “Can We Talk?” featuring Dori Midnight, a community healer and spiritual leader. Here is part of what she said about relearning to wash out hands:

We are humans relearning to wash our hands. Washing our hands is an act of love. Washing our hands is an act of care. Washing our hands is an act that puts the hyper-vigilant body at ease. Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve. Wash your hands like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver… you get the picture. Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach like water is a precious resource made from time and miracle. Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say. Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.

A couple of weeks before this pandemic, I went to visit my son who was in Spain teaching for the year and slipped on a cobblestone street. I landed hard on my right shoulder and knew immediately I did something very bad. I fractured my right shoulder in three places. I couldn’t move my arm, and I was nauseous. I had tripped in front of a café, and a considerate waiter helped me to my feet and brought me a chair. I was shaking uncontrollably when he handed me a glass of water.

On the pain scale, my pain was a certifiable 10, and that earned me a place at the head of the line in the emergency room. The doctor looked at my X-ray and told me, “You need to get back to your country as soon as possible.” She sent me on my way with a padded sling and a raft of painkillers. The next afternoon, I was on a plane back to Boston, but not before my son arranged for wheelchair assistance in the three airports I would be traversing.

Life is very different in a wheelchair. For me, it was the dependence on others that was alternately novel and scary. I would not have made it home without the acts of love and care Midnight calls up in the JWA podcast. My kind wheelchair attendants situated me in vans, and at one point in a catering truck with a hydraulic lift, which enabled me to enter a plane that had no jetway in place. On the flight home, my pain scale had different criteria. I was miserable from the pain yet heartened by the way the airline attendants put “my hyper-vigilant body at ease.”

When I boarded the flight from Madrid to Boston almost three weeks ago it was a different world. The coronavirus was something that was happening elsewhere. People took some precautions. On the plane, the man across the aisle generously wiped down my tray table with his sanitizer; others wore masks. “Social distancing” had yet to enter the lexicon. I never imagined that something was coming none of us had lived through; something that would frighten us on the most granular level. In just a short time, the coronavirus has fully arrived as a disease to outwit. To succeed at this macabre game, washing hands is no longer an afterthought. It is a life-saving measure for us as much as it is for others. This simple fact makes our dependence on one another all the more crucial.

Two poems about the pandemic have comforted me. In her poem, “A Prayer of Hope During This Pandemic,” Rabbi Naomi Levy asks God “to turn our panic into patience, and our fear into acts of kindness and support.” Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks us to think of this time of quarantine as an extended Shabbat. In her poem “Pandemic” she versifies:

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

I have weeks to go until my shoulder heals. As I write this, my son is scheduled to board a flight tomorrow—the same one I took from Madrid a few weeks ago—and come home where he will immediately self-isolate in our back bedroom for 14 days. I pray he doesn’t feel too isolated as we try to support him from the other side of the door. As Ungar continues in her poem:

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

This post originally appeared on JewishBoston

Capturing Family History

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island whose capital was the jewel of the Caribbean. This city had an enchanting esplanade with a sea wall that hugged the ocean. It was called El Malecón. The breezes off the ocean’s turquoise water were refrescante—refreshing. The weather was always warm; the sun was always shining. This was Havana, and my mother, Matilde, lived in a neighborhood called Havana la Vieja—the old section of Havana.

When I was a child, Cuba was a fairytale. I was sad that the country was trapped behind a rusting iron curtain, shut tight and padlocked. No one left, and no one entered. I longed for Cuba throughout my childhood. My mother and I have talked about Cuba all my life. I was born in Connecticut, but my heart has always been in my mother’s Havana. A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed my mother for over an hour about her life in Cuba and her life as an immigrant. The interview took place at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she is a patient, and I recorded her stories with a new app called “Story Aperture,” published by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).

Although I had my own questions in mind, there are helpful lists of questions right in the app, visible on the screen as you’re recording. In addition to general inquiries, you can cover a range of topics, such as “Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, “Archiving #MeToo” and “Voices of Change.”

Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of JWA, noted that Story Aperture was a natural next step for an organization that democratizes history. “So many of the ways women work and contribute and experience things don’t happen in the public limelight of what has been traditionally important,” she told JewishBoston. “We wanted to make sure we were capturing stories of ordinary people. [Recording these oral histories] helps to remember the moments of daily life as part of the ways that people make history. History is not always a society-changing moment; history is created every day people build families and communities.”

I didn’t expect to learn anything new from my mother. Her history is etched in my mind. She came to the United States in 1958, a couple years before Fidel Castro installed himself as Cuba’s president for life. Her first winter in Brooklyn, she caught pneumonia. “I had never endured such cold,” she said. She went back to Cuba but realized there was nothing there for her. The university was closed and shortages were commonplace. It was the beginning of the end.

My mother married my American father in 1960 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a good life, but something was missing: Cuba, No. 20 La Calle Mercéd and El Malecón, where my mother and her family strolled after their Shabbat lunch. There was El Patronato, which served as both synagogue and de facto Jewish center. “We had beautiful Purim balls there,” she recalled. “One year, Abuela [Grandmother] made me a black velvet gown with little pearls around the collar. It was gorgeous. I felt like Queen Esther.”

My mother attended Jewish day schools until she was admitted to the Instituto—high school in Havana. “I went to the Theodore Herzl Primary School for elementary school,” she said. “We were big Zionists. I remember when Israel became a state, my father was screaming from joy. Abuelo’s [Grandfather’s] brothers had immigrated there—one of them was a rabbi.”

My mother is Sephardic. Her mother was from Greece, her father from Turkey. She told me the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities were separate in Cuba—separate schools, separate synagogues, separate cultures. My mother’s family spoke Ladino, a fortuitous occurrence that enabled them to acclimate to Spanish quickly.

Then the surprise of the conversation: “Abuela was my strongest advocate to go to university. My father was against it. He was worried that I would meet boys who weren’t Jewish. But Abuela was preparada that way, ahead of her time.”

My mother used the word “preparada,” which literally means “ready,” as a way to describe her mother as insightful. I asked her if she thought Abuela was a feminist. “I think so. She was modern, more modern than Abuelo,” my mother said with a laugh. “She knew French and played the lute. She made me beautiful clothes. But she wanted more for me. She wanted me to be educada [educated].”

My mother told me my grandmother took in sewing to help defray the costs of sending her three children to college. My mother, I realized, inherited her mother’s work ethic. She went back to school in the early 1960s to earn a teaching degree and was part of the first wave of women who were also earning graduate degrees and subsequently entering the workforce.

I remember Abuela babysitting me when my mother studied for her exams and cooking picadillo or me. Abuela also made a raft of dresses for my sister and me when we were little. Her most elaborate creation was the flower-girl dresses we walked down the aisle in at my uncle’s wedding. We were all tulle and aqua.

So, my grandmother was a feminist in her own right. This is the kind of discovery that Rosenbaum and her colleagues hope will happen when people use the app. “This is an invitation to have conversations and share stories that have not been shared before,” she said. “We want people to be our partners in documenting history. We want people to see their stories as part of the historical narrative.”

To that end, Rosenbaum encourages women of all ages to document their stories, and their participation in marches and protests—anything that will add to the diversity of perspectives and experiences. “We’ve lowered [the technological barriers] so that it’s not hard to get started,” she said. “We’ve streamlined the process to document history as it is unfolding.”

This piece was originally published on

Space and Sparks and a Jewish Woman Astronaut

This month, Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir added to my love of all things space and NASA. She and her sister astronaut, Christina Koch, took a seven-plus hour jaunt outside the International Space Station to perform maintenance. The 7-year-old space fan in me resurfaced when I heard about this first all-female spacewalk.

Courtesy Photo (NASA)

I have always imagined space as a black galaxy flecked with infinite stars and dreams and prayers. Space was the place God inhabited. Miracles were shipped down to earth from there. As a little girl in the 1960s and ‘70s, I couldn’t get enough of the NASA launches. There was the rumbling of the rocket engines. The release of orange fire provided the momentum for a spaceship to pierce the earth’s atmosphere. I was mesmerized by images of the Gemini and Apollo launches on a black-and-white television. Those events were almost as exciting as my birthday. I was ecstatic when I heard the scratchy, disembodied male voices connecting the earth to the heavens. Now I am thrilled at the sound of women’s voices transmitting from space.

I loved watching the astronauts of Apollo 11 set foot on the moon’s dusty crater-pocked surface for the first time. The whole endeavor was wild and wonderful. It was 1969, and I had not yet flown on an airplane. As far as space was concerned, my body and soul were blank slates.

In March 1970, space was back in my life during a moment when day became night. It was a solar eclipse. My father, the NASA maven, prepared for it by buying us three kids and my mother plastic sunglasses to shield our eyes in the unlikely event we were exposed to the blocked sun. “Looking into the face of an eclipse can blind you,” he said. I sat frightened on the sofa with my feet sticking out at a 90-degree angle. I didn’t trust those small sunglasses to protect me against the fierce sun. I shut my eyes tightly until I saw a gathering of swirling light.

Meir, who is 42, is the fourth Jewish woman, 15th Jew and first Swedish woman—she holds dual American and Swedish citizenship—to participate in a space mission. She may also become the first woman to walk on the surface of the moon. At this time, she is among 17 candidates who are being considered for NASA’s Artemis program. From Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister, the goddess of the hunt and the patron of women. Meir may do a moonwalk in a few years; the space agency has announced there will be another one in 2024.

Space and moon exploration may have a Jewish antecedent. In the Bible, Joshua begged God to still the sun in the middle of a battle. God heard his pleas, and the day stopped. Only the moon continued to move, slipping in front of the sun as it did for me on that March day of my own solar eclipse.

And now there is Jessica Meir. Her Iraqi-born Jewish father immigrated to Israel and fought as part of the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence. He met Jessica’s mother in her native Sweden. The family eventually settled in Caribou, Maine. Although Meir’s mother did not convert to Judaism, the family identified as Jewish and attended synagogue. Meir was quoted in Kveller as saying, “Personally, I’m not really a religious person, but I think my Jewish cultural background is obviously a big part of my culture and especially traditions.”

It is standard for an astronaut to take three personal items on a mission. On her mission, Meir brought an Israeli flag, a pair of socks with images of menorahs and, according to The Forward, a painting of a phoenix by the late Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Ramon, along with six crewmembers, died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.

Meir is not the first Jewish astronaut to bring Jewish items to space. Ramon brought a drawing by a 14-year-old boy trapped in the Theresienstadt Ghetto during the Holocaust. He also carried with him a miniature Torah smuggled out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Other Jewish astronauts have transported a mezuzah, shofar, dreidel and small Torah complete with breastplate and traditional pointer.

As a child, I had always hoped that just as Moses had glimpsed the back of God’s head, the astronauts would see a defining part of God, however briefly. Maybe someday they will. In the meantime, I squeeze my eyes shut this time to conjure sparks of the Divine.


An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump:

I write this letter to you as a daughter of a Cuban immigrant and a daughter of a naval officer who served in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. I am also an American Jew. The growing anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, and your recent comments about Jewish “disloyalty” if we vote for Democrats deeply trouble me. In our country alone, hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions have risen by almost 60 percent in the last year.

In this centennial year of my late and very patriotic father’s birth, I believe that this statistic, and your assertion would have devastated him. My father was not a religious man; he was what is typically described as a cultural Jew. Born in Connecticut in 1919, and a 1940 Yale graduate, as a Jew he kept his head down much of the time. He experienced anti-Semitism in this country while also taking part in the best of what it has to offer in education, culture and the freedoms that they afforded him. He was also very much a man of the 20th century. The Holocaust deeply affected him. Although I was born a number of years after the Second World War, I saw glimpses of his five-year tenure in the navy. He was a disciplined man who did pushups every morning. He had tears in his eyes whenever he heard our national anthem.

My father was a very private man who believed in the power and the right of the secret ballot as integral to our democracy. He never told a soul for whom he voted. He was old enough to vote for Roosevelt but would neither confirm nor deny if he cast his ballot for our 32nd president. He simply answered me with a wry smile when I asked. He followed his heart and married my immigrant mother at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, actively assisting her family to come to his beloved United States. That might resonate with you.

My mother, on the other hand, was a Kennedy Democrat. After she arrived from Cuba, Fidel Castro descended on Havana. She left her home to attend university and partake in American democracy. This was the beginning of the 1960s and for my mother the Kennedys represented vibrancy, youth, freedom and the dream of Camelot. In the early 1970s she and my father were involved in Latinx social justice issues in Hartford, Connecticut.

All this to say Mr. President, is that people and their politics are complicated. This especially applies to people with whom we disagree. I am firmly opposed to the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement (BDS) that has been orchestrated against Israel. I love Israel, warts and all, and I believe in her right to exist. But I also affirm Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s right to free speech. I wish you had not obstructed their trip to Israel. Among the ways for them to understand and appreciate the country is to see it in person. During a visit they might have encountered some of the 500 organizations on the ground there actively working for peace in Israel and Palestine. Perhaps the congresswomen would have been moved when they observed how thin the Green Line is.

Which brings me back to your latest observation that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” As I understand it, at the time you made that statement you were talking to the press in the Oval Office about Israel, and how you persuaded the Jewish State to bar Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s entry to the country. What you might have thought was defending Israel and the Jewish people actually called up the dangerous and horrendous anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”

Mr. President, we live in a democracy that protects all points of view. Some of those views are upsetting, some are even heinous. One of the pillars of our great country is everyone’s right to free speech. However, please bear in mind that free speech that is hateful and inciting does not fall under this rubric. Think of the rhetoric of men—and they have all been white American men—responsible for mass shootings in these last years. Any one who has taken an eighth grade civics class understands the distinction.

You are the president of all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and anyone who checks off the “other” box. One of the privileges of being an American is the right to disagree openly with our government, and directly with you, without fear of being maligned or persecuted. Again, please note that these are bedrock American rights.

I am a proud American, Latinx, and Jew,. As the great American poet Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” We all do. To that end, I hope and pray you will come to welcome and respect all of our citizens, residents and immigrants.


Judy Bolton-Fasman

Yousef Bashir’s Journey To Peace


Yousef Bashir was 11 years old when the Second Intifada began in 2000 and the Israel Defense Forces took over his family home and farm in Gaza. The land had been in the family for over 300 years. Bashir’s father, Khalil, refused to move. For the next five years, up to a hundred soldiers occupied the second and third floors of the house at any given moment. “They smashed holes through the upstairs walls to set up gun positions,” Bashir writes in “The Words of My Father.” “They covered all the windows with camouflage netting and installed automatic machine guns at each corner of the roof.”

The Bashir family, which included his parents, seven siblings and grandmother, were confined to the living room at night. They needed to receive permission to enter their kitchen to cook or to use the bathroom at night. They were only allowed to leave the house during the day for school or work.

Throughout their ordeal, Khalil remained cordial to the military and steadfast in his belief for peace. Despite the daily humiliations, he called the soldiers his guests and invited them to have coffee with him. The invitation was rebuffed over and over, but Khalil never stopped asking. He was grace under pressure when the soldiers made him undress to ensure that he wasn’t bringing weapons into his home. All of this duress attracted international media attention. The BBC and CNN regularly reported from the family’s home, highlighting Khalil’s unwavering commitment to peace.

Yousef was alternately terrified and angry throughout those years. The culmination of that fear and anger happened in 2004, when he came home from school and found three United Nations officials visiting his father. From their guard tower next to the house, the Israelis ordered the U.N. officials to leave. As Yousef and Khalil accompanied them to their car, a single shot rang out. An Israeli soldier had shot Yousef in the back with an M-16 automatic rifle.

Through his father’s connections, Yousef was admitted to Tel HaShomer Hospital in Tel Aviv. It was the first time the boy had positive interactions with Israelis. Despite his rage toward Israeli soldiers—military officials visited him in the hospital to apologize but Yousef refused to acknowledge them at the time—he grew close to the other Israeli and Palestinian patients. The Israeli nurses were kind; the doctors were caring. Yousef found himself appreciating his father’s hopes and dreams for peace. In subsequent months, Yousef endured many surgeries and painful therapies.

In the second half of the book, Yousef rallies and goes to Seeds of Peace camp with Israeli kids in Maine. It’s his first time in America and his first time speaking publicly about his experiences in Gaza. Yousef eventually wins a scholarship from a boarding school in Utah and begins his rocky journey toward peace. He ultimately graduates with a master’s degree from Brandeis University.

Bashir recently spoke to me about his late father, Khalil, his new memoir and his hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

How can a Zionist like me reconcile the behavior of Israel’s soldiers, who held you and your family as virtual prisoners in your house, with the Israel I know and love?

I’ve never been asked that question before, and I appreciate you asking me. Is Zionism about taking over a house and shooting a 15-year-old? The obvious answer to you is no. I want to find a way to reconcile what Zionism stands for and how it became a movement where we all work and come together. Zionism was never about someone taking over a house. That’s the best advice or answer I can give you. Having said that, no one brainwashed me against the army. I saw it in my own living room, and yet my dad kept reminding me that Jews are good. He said I had to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. The Jewish faith seeks peace, and to live in harmony. Jews feel they are God’s chosen people and have an even higher form of responsibility to do the right thing. The Jewish people have been suffering for all of their history. I hope you never change your views of Zionism, but I hope you also take the initiative to see what Zionism is about and should be about in today’s world.

After an Israeli soldier shot you in the back, you were eventually transported to a hospital in Tel Aviv. You write extensively about the relationships you formed there. How do those relationships continue to nurture your desire for peace?

First of all, my dad explained what the soldiers were doing in my house. Then all of a sudden I’m in Israel surrounded by different Israelis. Until then, I thought Israelis were only capable of pointing a gun at my dad. Suddenly they are lifting me up and teaching me how to walk and swim again. That was very transformative for me. To this day, with every step I take, I am reminded of the Tel HaShomer Hospital. Yet nothing has changed. I could argue that things are worse for my people. For example, Israel never stopped building more settlements. But I look at this from the standpoint of faith. If I didn’t, I couldn’t write this book and share it with Jewish audiences across the United States.

How do your father’s wisdom and commitment to peace continue to inspire you?

I would need to write 10 more books to explain my dad. In the end, I only spent five memorable years with my father. Starting in 2005, I truly came to see my dad through many lenses in a short period of time before he died in 2010. Those five years are all I have of him. But I saw him as a husband, a father and a headmaster. I saw him dealing with the soldiers in our house. Despite my questioning him about his strategy, he got our house back. It was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. He never used the rhetoric of revenge. He stood his ground and was true to his message. In the end, after the last soldiers had left, my father went upstairs and said, “I told you we’d get the house back.” That was when I was fully convinced my father’s ideas weren’t just romantic; they truly worked.

At the end of the book, you write a letter to the soldier who shot you. How were you able to forgive him?

I forgave him for my father. When I was paralyzed in a wheelchair, my father told me to think of my situation as an opportunity. My mother said a new door had opened for me. At the time, the things my parents told me didn’t register with the kid stuck in a wheelchair. Fifteen years later, I walked, I wrote a book and I went to college in the United States. I got everything I dreamed of because of what my parents said to me on that day.

The letter makes two important points: That I stay committed to my dad’s message and that I stay true to what could be possible for me in the future. I didn’t want to use my pain. To my dad, doing that would be the ultimate defeat. The painful actions of others should not define what kind of human beings we’ll be in life. We are peaceful people, and the soldiers were wrong. They didn’t need to do 90 percent of what they did in the house. I was not going to let their actions determine my future. Plus, my dad didn’t want me to add another layer to the cycle of rhetoric and violence that has been happening in Israel for years.

I still have nerve damage in my back, and I get frustrated and mentally tired at times because of that experience. The pain is still there no matter what I do, but I’m always thinking of my father. I would let him down, especially after everything he did for my family, my people and me.

Building on your work with Seeds of Peace, what is your vision for the future?

The first time I spoke about my experiences publicly was at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine. And I’ve been speaking out ever since. I am currently a Seeds of Peace Fellow. Like the camp, the fellowship brings together people including Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Pakistanis. Some of these people have become authors. Some have opened a school in Bosnia that brings together Israelis and Palestinians. Some work on hunger issues. All of them have a vision of promoting human connection.

What are you doing now?

I’ve been on a book tour since February and presented at the Jewish Book Council. The PLO office where I worked as a congressional affairs advisor shut down in December. My work had consisted of promoting Palestinian interests and engaging congressional staffers. I think we Palestinians deserve better and more representation in Congress and across the country. I have been in the United States long enough to see that many Jewish Americans are not against Palestinians. It’s time for Palestinians and Congress to have more conversations that lead to policies based on an understanding of what’s happening on the ground. Although it’s not the right time now with the current administration, when we are upset with each other is when we need representation. The PLO office in Washington, D.C., should be reopened.

I also like to think I am spreading my dad’s message. The world has been generous to me despite some of the unjustified things that happened to me. I want to make this time count not only for my fellow Palestinians but for my fellow Israelis, some of whom are convinced they don’t need to live in peace with me. I want them to understand that a life of war doesn’t have to be our destiny.

A version of this interview was published on