*Dreaming in Cuban by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dear Mamá:

You came to the United States in 1958, a year before the revolution. Havana is an aerosoled city—Viva la Revolucion 54 is spray painted everywhere. It’s been fifty-four years since Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and triumphantly marched into Havana on New Year’s Day. You once waved the Cuban flag for him. He was going to change Cuba for the better. Maybe he did for some people. But in the end your family fled along with 90% of the country’s middle class. You like to say that your mother packed a small bag and closed the door on forty years of her life at Calle Merced 20.

Calle Merced #20

Calle Merced #20

Calle Merced was a storied address in my childhood. It was Never Never Land, the place of your eternal youth. When I finally saw it a few weeks ago, the heavy wooden door you described was still there and I recognized the balcony from pictures you had shown me. You lived in Old Havana. But that too was consigned to fantasy. There were no marble steps that a maid had shined in your apartment. You lived simply on one floor, with a courtyard between the dining room and kitchen. Sometimes your mother brought home a live chicken and called the shochet – the kosher butcher – to slaughter it for the Sabbath meal. I imagine he did it right there in that open area between cooking and eating.

When I think of what is now our Havana, I envision the laundry on the balconies hanging like team pennants. But we are no longer divided into them and us. The people of Cuba hope and dream and cry with you for your country. How often did I hear you say in one long sigh – Hay Cuba como to estrano. I didn’t realize how much I missed Cuba too until I went there.

I saw the synagogue where you grew up. Women in the balcony, men gathered around a raised bima. I also went to the Patronato where you dreamed of being married before Castro took over the country. Your schoolmate Adela Dworin stayed in Cuba. She said that to be a revolutionary before the age of 40 is about passion. After 40 it seems like a foolhardy decision. Adela’s parents, who emigrated from Russia in the 1920s, stayed in Cuba because she was committed to the new socialism and they couldn’t bear another exile. Adela remembers you. Your old classmate is now the head of Cuba’s Jewish Community, much honored by Hadassah and others for her work with the country’s 1500 Jews.

There were only 11,000 Jews when you lived in Cuba, but you were a thriving community. Enough of you were committed to Judaism to fill five Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues. You had Hanukkah parties and Purim balls. That’s still happening, but the community is mostly growing through conversion and the number of functioning synagogues has dwindled to two. There’s an old joke that in the days when the revolution was in full bloom, a Cuban minyan consisted of nine people and a Torah.

A rabbi from Chile comes to Havana every six weeks to minister to the community. If someone is connected to a Jew, usually through marriage, they are encouraged to convert. This past Christmas over 70 people went into the warm ocean and immersed. When they came out they were Jews. There are over 140 children enrolled in the Albert Einstein Hebrew School. Some of those teachers are Jews by choice.

Havana is more beautiful than I had imagined. It’s in gorgeous ruins—an aging beauty queen who hasn’t lost her looks amid the rubble of benign neglect and abject poverty. The place is translucent with pastel colors and light. The outside of your house is a pretty light green. Green is your favorite color — the color of your eyes.

But the people are hungry. Rations are strict. The black market is darker than the Buena Noche, the Christmas Eve sky. People trade all kinds of things for an extra pound of meat or a cup of cooking oil.  Something as simple as a pair of jeans or sneakers that a relative in the States has brought gives a loved one a leg up in the barter system.

You should see the scene at the airport in Miami. Daily charters to Cuba all leave from the same place at Miami International and the check-in is transformed into a veritable marketplace. Cuban ex-pats going back for a visit have emptied Costco or Target or Best Buy, buying televisions, microwaves, bicycles, and air conditioners for their loved ones in Cuba. I saw my fair share of fishing reels too. That old chestnut of teaching a man to fish so he eats for life went through my mind like ticker tape.

God Bless America for all of her materialism and convenience.

“God Bless America,” that’s what my cab driver said in his fractured English as he drove me to the University of Havana. Aside from Calle Merced 20, that was the other place you wanted me to see. How you wish you could have studied at Alma Mater. Maybe you did or maybe you didn’t walk up its famous staircase.  You believed that you did, and that’s all that matters.

My cabbie leaned in close at a light and told me that from one Cuban to another, he was aburrido de esta vida. He prayed that his 30 year-old Russian Lada taxi would start each morning and that he’d catch enough fares to put food on the table for his kids. We both know that aburrido means so much more than just boredom. It’s a kind of lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia I heard when you said how much you missed Cuba.

The driver had a mother-in-law in New Jersey who sent him money every once in a while. It helped more than I could imagine, he said. When I went to pay him he asked me if I had any medicine — aspirin, antacid, anything—that I could spare. He’d take it in lieu of a gratuity. I gave him a half-full bottle of Advil and a 30 percent tip. I had already donated all of the medicine I brought down to the pharmacy run by the Jewish community. The doctor who runs the operation has the same last name as your mother. “We’re all related,” she said jauntily.

Earlier in the day I had passed a state-run pharmacy where a woman beckoned me to come inside. I had an antibiotic prescription with me that I wasn’t going to use. Yes, she would take that, thank you, and did I also have pens to spare? I gave her what I had. She was about your age. Maybe you passed her on the street once upon a time.

“Tell your government we want to be friends again,” she said. “Tell your President Obama, embargo no.”

Aren’t you aburrida of the embargo too, Mamá?

Love,

Judy

*A version of this essay is forthcoming in the Jerusalem Report

 

 

Goodbye 1735 Asylum Avenue

If you have travelled the stretch of Interstate 84 through Hartford, Connecticut, you might have done a double take when you saw an exit for Asylum Street. I grew up about three miles up the road from that exit where the street unfurls into a suburban avenue.

My ancestral address, 1735 Asylum Avenue, is rich with symbolism and irony. But there is something subtler at work here—something beyond connotations of political or insane asylums. A quirky address like 1735 Asylum befit a kid like me—preternaturally grown-up at six—who emerged out of the rubble created by the collision between my father’s mid-twentieth century American patriotism and the fire-breathing communists in Cuba from which my mother fled.

We settled at 1735 Asylum Avenue in 1963—on my third birthday—into a house whose chief merit was that it sat on a main bus line for my mother—a life-long non-driver. If we couldn’t get from here to there via the Asylum Avenue bus, we didn’t go. More than mastering the transit system, my mother charmed the bus drivers; we always had door-to-door service at 1735.

I know that this former address of mine sounds like a cross between the historical and the unbalanced. But Hartfordites understand that the address was neither—this street was the original location of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, built in 1817, a precursor to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.

The original asylum was a gift of love and devotion from Mason Fitch Cogswell to his brilliant deaf and mute daughter Alice. Take Exit 48 of Asylum Street notoriety and you will almost immediately see a bronze statue of Alice Cogswell that sits at a fork in the road in which Asylum Avenue is to the right and Farmington Avenue is to the left.

Alice looks to be about eight years-old when her likeness was cast in bronze, the same age I was when I began to notice her. Two enormous cupped hands tenderly hold Alice, and she clutches a book to show everyone that dumb means mute, not stupid. As an adult I learned that the hands in which she stands—perfectly manicured hands that resembled my father’s—form the word “light” in sign language.

In many ways, now that I know this detail about those giant hands it make sense that Alice was such an illuminating landmark for me. She not only marked my comings and goings on the Asylum Avenue bus with my mother to and from Downtown Hartford, she marked the beginning and end of Sunday drives to my Bolton grandparents in New Haven. The forty mile trek felt interminable to me. But Alice was a touchstone. She limned crucial beginnings and endings in my childhood.

alicecogswell

Alice’s statue also stood near the stretch of Asylum Avenue where the houses were monied and pretty. On the bus ride west to 1735 Asylum, the Queen Anne homes closest to Alice gave way to larger brick homes that ended at Steele Road, the dividing line of wealth. West of Steele Road were boxy colonials and heavily mortgaged roofs; 1735 Asylum—a three bedroom colonial—among them. The house would be the only property my parents would ever own.

1735Asylum,JPG

When my parents and I moved into 1735, I was still an only child. Beige was everywhere you looked, except for the yellow straw wallpaper in the dining room and the deep lipstick-red shellac inside the kitchen cabinets. The previous owner’s neutrality was at odds with the passion and emotion that now rattled the house. My mother eventually redecorated the hallways, and the dining and living rooms in shades of green—the color of her pretty, translucent eyes.

Last week my sister, brother and I said goodbye to 1735 Asylum Avenue. The house was sold to a contractor who will take it down to its studs and rebuild it into something unrecognizable to us. But the truth of the matter is that these past couple of decades, 1735 Asylum was not the house in which we grew up. Like its proud matriarch, it had declined. Not beyond recognition, but to something else—a memory tinged by inevitable age and benign neglect.

When we were done cleaning out 1735, my sister Carol and I took pictures in front of the house, smiling the smiles of the brave, the weary and the sad. We walked through the rooms slowly, mournfully, as if following some sort of casket. “Do you mind if I say a Kaddish for the house,” I asked Carol.

She told me to say goodbye in my own way and in my own time. The Kaddish is a prayer of mourning that does not say a word about death. It’s all about praising God when one feels least inclined to do so. But there was a lot to thank God for even as we emptied our childhood home. On the way out of town I drove the Asylum Avenue bus route so I could say goodbye to my old friend Alice, still stalwart and serene in the hands of God.

 

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: The Boomer and The Holocaust Survivor

Boom goes my generation with all of the energy and chaos of an atomic blast. Born between 1945 and 1964, there are seventy-six million of us in the United States. Boom goes my generation as we take our places on a historical continuum of social and political revolutions. Boom goes my generation as we take care of aging parents and the children many of us had in our thirties and forties instead of our twenties.

I write this column in my mother’s room at the Hebrew Senior Life Rehabilitation Center. Her house has just been sold. At the moment, her world has shrunk down to one bed as in, “a bed’s come available.” She’s been poked and prodded and operated on while, boom, my siblings and I chase her benefits, balance her checkbook and watch her assets dwindle until Medicare kicks in.

I also write this column after reading Susan Kushner Resnick’s funny, poignant and storied memoir about her relationship with a loveable, difficult Holocaust survivor named Aron Lieb. Boom goes my generation and some of us will blow up before we can appreciate the multi-generational relationships that can so enrich us. Kushner’s memoir is a vital reminder of how important it is to reach across the generational divide, and simply put, love each other.

The title alone—You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving and Swearing in Yiddish— maps out Kushner Resnick’s book to some degree. The reader is cued into the fact that it is also a Yizkor book—A Book of Remembrance. Kushner Resnick tracked down the prototype of such a book about Zychlin—Aron’s shtetl in Poland. “This is not your first appearance in a book,” Kushner Resnick writes to her dear friend. “The other one, published when I was eleven years old [in 1974] is called The Memorial Book of Zychlin.” Boom. Most of that generation of Europe’s Jews disappeared in a pestilent cloud of Nazi genocide.

But You Saved Me, Too is a book of life as much as it is a Yizkor book. It begins with the fact that Lieb and Kushner Resnick both liked to talk to strangers. It tells the truth that their friendship rescued Kushner Resnick from a crushing post-partum depression. That was in 1997. Kushner Resnick has a baby that she leaves in babysitting at the JCC so that she can swim off her depression. She meets Aron Lieb on a lark at the same JCC. “[Aron was] my faux father, my son, my crush, and my cause.”

You Saved Me, Too is also a quixotic book. For anyone who has shepherded a parent through the murky health care system, Kushner Resnick’s advocacy for Lieb’s benefits and his dignity will resonate, deeply and painfully. Kushner Resnick is not shy about indicting the Jewish community and its leaders for Lieb’s benign neglect. In her tongue-in-cheek style, she takes on the honchos, the machors, who made empty promises to help a man who bore the ultimate tattoo of Auschwitz.

That tattoo, the number 141324, takes up residence in Kushner Resnick’s imagination. She notes the sloppiness of the letters—the tattooist must have been in a hurry to go down the long cue of people arriving at Auschwitz—the fact that, “for fifty years, every time you’d taken off your shirt at night or reached out to adjust your side-view mirror on a summer day, you saw those numbers, 141324, the brand the Nazis gave you when they thought you were theirs.”

Boom. Kushner Resnick becomes, in essence, a third-generation survivor or a 3G. She’s bent on keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, intent on telling stories that go beyond the blue Yizkor books from Polish shtetls. “Eventually all the tattooed arms will disappear” she writes. “Then the forgetting will truly commence. … How would the numbers look on my arm? I could get the same tattoo in the same place. 141324. Whenever people asked what it meant, I could tell them about you.”

Although Kushner Resnick, is speaking metaphorically, there are 3G grandchildren who have actually tattooed their grandparents’ numbers on their arms. It’s a radical act that has stirred up as much pride as it has consternation among their survivor relatives. Those numbers are also an address of unimaginable tragedy and entrenched optimism. For all of his heartache and kvetching, Lieb survives because he has dealt with unbearable horror as much as he has thrived in the small joys of life like meeting his friends for a daily cup of coffee at McDonald’s.

With no significant family willing to care for him, Kushner Resnick becomes Lieb’s healthcare proxy and has power of attorney over his affairs. She secures his reparations and learns that she has to open a separate account so that the money is not taxed and therefore not counted as an asset. Boom. She learns that the Boston Jewish community pays mostly lip service to the survivors among them and that it’s a problem also prevalent in Israel.

Halfway through the book she questions her involvement in Lieb’s life. “I can’t write anything conclusive until I figure out why we’re together,” she says. “Some writers say they find the answers by writing their way towards them. But I need to know the last line before I type the first word.” I think I know what she means. My mother sleeps as I type these last words about Aron Lieb and Susan Kushner Resnick, the woman who made his life a blessing for the world to read.

 

A Visit to Poland with a Camera and a Tombstone: Evan Kleinman’s ‘We Are Still Here’

The family was warm, familiar, Jewish. The grandparents’ English was charming, old-fashioned – glazed in a Yiddish accent.

Meet the Kleinmans, the focus of Evan Kleinman’s new documentary. The 28-year-old filmmaker turned the lens on himself to make the aptly titled “We Are Still Here,” about his trip to his grandparents’ Poland – a Poland that held sweet memories turned bitter and unimaginable.

Kleinman’s paternal grandparents grew up in shtetls near Krakow and were deported to concentration camps. On screen, his grandmother remembers her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and how she volunteered to go to Bergen-Belsen with her best friend.

Although Kleinman’s film records his particular legacy trip – a return to his roots with his father, mother and younger sister – it’s a universal home movie. The message of the film is that every Jew survived the Holocaust. This shared survival is what led to the founding of Boston 3G in 2009, the sponsors of the Boston debut of Kleinman’s film last week.

The group’s name, 3G, stands for the third generation of survivors. The group is made up of people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom are the grandchildren of survivors.

Liz Bobrow’s involvement in Boston 3G stems from her close relationship with her paternal grandparents. Both of them are Holocaust survivors whom Bobrow remembered as “very different from my other set of grandparents.

“While they loved me just as much, they were different,” she added. “They spoke with an accent and had funny quirks like always making sure I had enough to eat. I also recognized [as a child] that we didn’t have the big family reunions with my father’s side as we did with my mother’s side.”

Bobrow, Boston 3G’s president, also noted that this third generation has the “unique privilege of connecting with the survivors in a different way from the second generation. While our parents have become caretakers of the survivor generation, we are able to focus solely on who these people are and their incredible stories of survival. It gives the survivors comfort seeing that their stories are not being forgotten, that we are still telling them so many years later.”

“We Are Still Here” was organized around the central event of taking a tombstone back to Poland – a stone to mark Leib Kleinman’s grave. Leib was Evan’s great-uncle, his grandfather’s kid brother who died in a small concentration camp in central Poland.


“The stone is heavy,” the grandfather tells his grandson. The younger Kleinman has set up the context of his film so well that it’s clear that the weight of the tombstone is as difficult to bear as the history of the Jews in Poland.

But in an e-mail interview, the New York native was ebullient about his grandparents and unequivocal about their positive influence on him:

“They are the most powerful and inspiring people I know, and I wanted to be able to share them with other people and with future generations of my family. By doing a film it provided us with an exercise that would bring us closer together, capture our story, and also perhaps bring closure for them because they had not seen these places in 70 years. When my grandfather revealed to me that he could pinpoint the place where he buried his brother I felt beyond compelled to make sure his brother was memorialized.”

Kleinman’s preparations for the trip to Poland are as poignant as the trip itself. His grandfather sketches a map to help his family find his house in the small town of Sediszow. The grandson dutifully brings the map with him to Poland, and it’s almost miraculous when it proves to be useful and accurate.

In Poland, the four Kleinmans move through the country in a hazy dream. But their disorientation is frequently punctuated by moments of triumph. They find a birth certificate of another greatuncle. They find Leib’s burial place through determination and his brother’s description of a place he hadn’t been to in more than seven decades.

Kleinman is similarly scrupulous in showing that the buildings in Poland are a mixture of the old and the new. The observation is a living, breathing subtext of his portrayal of his family and the intense family history attached to them.

Kleinman’s film was also presented last month at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City as well as at a number of film festivals. Since the film’s debut, Kleinman has been gratified by the positive responses from his third generation of survivors.

“Many have voiced to me that the film inspired them to explore their own family history,” he said. “Also, many have told me that my family even reminds them of their own families.”

It’s the ultimate recognition for a young man who movingly portrays his third generation as “living links” to history.

The Care and Nourishment of a Parent by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing to go was my father’s inimitable printing.

His letters—straight and precise—were self-portraits of sturdiness and discipline. I associated Dad with the single initial that grounded his name—K, as in K. Harold Bolton.

The K stood for Kenneth—a name he never used, a phantom name. Unlike its counterpart C, K is like the father of my childhood—unambiguously hard, unyielding to e or i. K— ramrod straight on one side—was like Dad’s perfect posture making it a letter to lean on, a letter from which to fly the flag that Dad revered. In Dad’s stately block printing K was declarative—shorthand for the unsolved mystery of why he preferred to be called Harold instead of Ken. And then one day K dissolved on the page as he tried to sign his tax return.

There is a Spanish saying that when a parent gives to the child, both the parent and the child laugh. But when the child gives to the parent, both the parent and the child cry. It’s strange and disorienting to watch our parents walk slower, remember less, pepper a conversation with non-sequiturs.

My Dad died ten years ago and I can hardly remember the shrunken old man to whom I fed strained carrots. Instead, in my mind’s eye he is stocky and vital and strong. Against his better judgment, he taught me to drive in the winter. “No one learns to drive in January,” he sighed as he told me to put the car in reverse to get out of a snow bank. Fifteen years later a policeman pulled him over for weaving in and out of lanes. The officer called that same night and said how sorry he was that he had to revoke Dad’s license.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Be Nice To Your Children—They Choose Your Nursing Home.” I was horrified. Caring for our parents with grace and humility, without agenda, is one of the most crucial and moral lessons we impart to our children. Acquiring a new level of patience and love and fortitude is critical to helping a parent grow old in peace and security. It is also one of the most challenging aspects of trying to honor a father and a mother. Resisting the notion that one is parenting a parent—no matter how dependent a parent becomes that person is still the mother or the father—requires an iron-willed patience that insists on nothing less than dignity and respect at all times.

Over the years I have watched family and friends accompany a parent to chemotherapy sessions, stock a mother’s refrigerator each week, balance her checkbook at the end of the month or closely supervise health care aides for a father with a broken ankle. It’s the same skills they have acquired and honed as they bring up their own children. It’s the same admirable behavior that they learned from their own parents.

The day my father could no longer sign his name—the day his signature crumbled before my eyes—was the day he was trapped in his body and his existence curtailed to just a couple of rooms in his house. During the decade that he was ill my mother built a life that depended on the devotion of caregivers, the kindness of family and friends, and more often than not, favors from strangers. And when she could not keep up with Dad’s overwhelming needs the first things she set aside were her own health and sanity. During those years my mother and I had our disagreements over my father’s care, the medications he should or shouldn’t be taking. We had our difficult moments over whether he should go to a nursing home.

As my young children grew more aware of my father’s illness, they saw that I was helpless, frustrated, and angry. I was the one who was vulnerable as I tried to spoon food into my father’s mouth. It was my voice that was shaky when I read books to him. I was the one who looked clumsy as I tried to prop him up in bed. By watching me trying to care for my father, my children and I gradually realized that this kind of encompassing help included loving him anew as my father—a grown man who only appeared as a helpless child.

Neither Dad nor I imagined such a sad, drawn out ending to his life, but I buck against the idea that during that time he was anyone but my father.  And so in his memory I choose to focus on things like the precise checkbook he kept or the glitzy Valentine’s Day cards that he unfailingly sent me every year and signed in red ink—“With all my love, Daddy.”