My Father’s Silence

A few years after my father died in 2002, I sent away for his naval records. K. Harold Bolton, who served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, never talked about his time in the U.S. Navy. His silence about everything made me a snooping little girl, which turned me into a curious adult. There was nothing more I wanted to know than what my father had seen from the deck of his supply ship.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. A recent New York Times front-page article bore the headline: “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.” These children who span the generations want the same thing: to crack open their fathers’ silence about their war.

My father’s silence and his subsequent secrets have haunted me all of my life. My father, who was part of the “Greatest Generation,” is also a member of what the Times describes as the “Quietest.”

His records arrived in a thick packet wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. As I avidly read them, the information that floated to the top was that he was exceptionally stubborn, inexperienced and always one of the youngest officers on any ship to which he was assigned. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s file consistently indicate that although he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism, in the end, he was an average, even naïve, officer.

This was not the answer I had expected when I examined the mystery of my father. Although I was thrilled to have the status reports, solid evidence that revealed facets of the man, they surprised — and ultimately, disappointed — me. I was so sure these reports would confirm that he was larger than life and, at last, make him understandable. Instead, the reports didn’t mesh with the man I thought he was. From the few pictures I had seen of him in uniform, I expected a capable officer who comported himself like a much older man.

Maybe this is the way most children see their parents — through a lens of time and story that ultimately fuses into lore. My father was the man who did push-ups every morning on the green shag rug of his bedroom. He was the man who walked a brisk two miles a day, even in winter. He expected his orders to be followed as he gave them. Yet blue-back nights when my coughing from asthma shook the house, my father stood guard by my bedroom window, gazing out, one of the few times I felt secure and loved.

I found a handwritten note in his file in which my perceptions of him as a young man became clearer. In the letter to his commanding officer, my father laid out his reasons for disobeying orders. He had been waiting to ship out in San Francisco the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor and wrote that he had decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty to boost morale. At the very least, that unilateral decision must have incurred a reprimand.

I also came upon a punishment meted out to my father. It happened toward the end of the war, when his commanding officer remanded him to quarters for 24 hours for going AWOL for a day. Disappearing like that didn’t seem in character. Yet the information rounded out the profile I was putting together of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not “wish to acquaint himself with them.”

My father’s stubbornness also surprised me. He never properly learned to use the sextant for navigational calculations. According to his file, he was resistant to acquiring this new skill. But a spiritual part of me thinks that perhaps it was because those kinds of calculations demystified the heavens, while my father wanted to romanticize them. Over the years, I had seen glimpses of Dad, the romantic, who cried when he listened to opera on Saturday afternoons. Dad, the patriot, who cried when he listened to John Philip Sousa’s crisp, booming marches. Dad, the accountant, who finally, reluctantly, learned to follow established routines.

My brother, who became the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share, had another version of Dad’s punishment to supplement the Navy records. Our father was never AWOL, he says. The real story is that Lt. Bolton had fraternized with the ship’s black cook, called Cookie. Our father had stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around a man who had just received news that his brother had died while fighting in Europe. He called Cookie by his given name, Ernie. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform.

Finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship.

Contrary to the jumbled, sometimes discouraging, naval reports, there was a promotion for my father by the end of the war. By the time the Navy honorably discharged Lt. Cmdr. Bolton in 1945, he had proven himself an exceptional man.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/14/my-fathers-silence-world-war-2-navy-judy-bolton-fasman

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Living in Translation

My grandparents, who were among the wave of Cuban refugees that came to the United States in the mid-1960s, never felt malleable enough to learn English. “No eshpeake Engleesh” was their standard retort. This set of circumstances not only made me bilingual, but also designated me as their official translator. With no English, my grandparents were essentially isolated in America.

A person’s native language is love and memory. It is comfort and familiarity. It is bedrock identity. I thought about that when I read a recent article in The Washington Post with the headline: “Nearly Half of White Republicans Say It Bothers Them to Hear People Speaking Foreign Languages.” Though not a surprise, it still saddened me.

I often accompanied my grandfather, my Abuelo, on walks around his neighborhood where we ended up at the corner grocery store to buy packs of M&Ms. “Que dice?” What is this person saying? He always asked me that question when we were out in the world. He tried to pronounce some of the English words he overheard, but the consonants crumbled in his mouth. He proudly told anyone he encountered, pointing to me, “Mi nieta es Americana. Eshpeake Engleesh good.”

My grandmother, Abuela, was a homebody who loved American soap operas. In the pre-cable, pre-Univision years when there was no Spanish programming on American television. My grandmother stayed glued to “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light,” soap operas that reminded her of the novelitas she had listened to on the radio in Havana. I translated a bit for her, but somehow she understood the intricacies of those shows without me. One character was “malo.” Another one was “desafortunado,” unlucky. These imaginary friends of hers kept my Abuela company on long and dreary winter afternoons in Connecticut.

The Post article further reported that according to the Pew Research Center, “Forty-seven percent of such Republicans say it would bother them ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ to ‘hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.’ Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.”

The article described two incidents that were part of a pattern of racism towards others. In the first, a United States Border Patrol agent detained two women for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Montana. It turned out the women were U.S. citizens. The second incident happened at a New York deli where a man was enraged when he heard the workers speaking Spanish. He threatened to call immigration officials.

The United States as a country does not have an official language. I wish I had known that in the days when Abuelo would pick me up from school. “Ándale!” Hurry up. The kids made fun of us. They called me Spic and Span, and one said, “Your grandpa can’t speak English because he’s so stupid.”

When my children were young, I encouraged them to learn Spanish. My son is now as bilingual as I once was. That bodes well in the United States, which has 41 million native Spanish speakers and 12 million bilinguals. If the trend continues, the United States could very well surpass the number of Spanish speakers in any country by the year 2050.

Another important piece of advice I gave to my kids was to engage in deep, meaningful translation to understand people. The example I gave them was that God happily listens to prayers in more than 70 languages. It’s a metaphor that I plucked from a Jewish commentary on the Bible: God has always been an equal opportunity linguist.

When I think of my Latina heritage, I always paraphrase Winston Churchill, who said he was half-American but wholly English. I too was half-American, yet my childhood was completely Cubana. These days my Spanish is more Spanglish, reflecting how rusty I’ve become. But plunk me down in a Spanish country, and it comes back to me much the way a photograph develops in a darkroom. The language is imprinted in me. And while my Cuban Abuelos were not able to communicate with the American side of my family directly, they always had me to translate for them.

This essay was originality published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/05/13/spanish-language-republicans-judy-bolton-fasman

A Letter to President Obama from the Daughter of a Cuban Exile

Dear Mr. President:

Your trip to Cuba is a dream, a miracle, a revolution to me. Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at José Martí Airport — the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro. Yes, Mr. President, I am a child of refugees. Although my Cuban mother came here just before Cuba’s iron curtain clanked shut, the same desperate, fierce homesickness that claimed my refugee relatives overtook her as well.

As a teenager, my uncle left Cuba two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Although on the older side, he was part of the Pedro Pan rescue operation — a CIA undertaking that arranged to airlift children out of Cuba. Many of them were placed with American families. My uncle was lucky. He had an older sister, my mother, waiting for him.

But he almost didn’t make it to America. He was on a Pan Am flight that was suddenly grounded by the Cuban military who claimed there was a draft dodger on the airplane. We’ll never know if it was my 19-year-old uncle they were after, because the pilot declared the aircraft sovereign American territory and took off without permission from the tower. My uncle shakes each time he tells the story.

I was born in my American father’s hometown in Connecticut in December of 1960 as diplomatic relations with Cuba were deteriorating. My grandmother, my Abuela, arrived from Havana to care for my mother and me. She adjusted to the Connecticut winter mostly by rocking me and singing me lullabies in Spanish and her native Greek. (Yes, Mr. President we are a family who hopscotched its way to the United States, but Cuba is where we left our hearts). After three months, she decided it was time to go back to Cuba. My mother pleaded with her to stay and family lore has it that she took the last Cubana Airlines flight out of Idlewild Airport.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I heard my mother softly cry, Hay Cuba, como te estrañò — Oh Cuba, how I miss you, how I long for you. That longing for Havana, for its sea wall along the Malecón — it colored my childhood. I finally walked the Malecón four years ago.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I arrived at José Martí Airport. The ghosts of my grandparents, who finally left Cuba for good two years after I was born with one small suitcase between them, haunted me. I thought about how they shut the door of their home on almost three decades of life and set out for yet another migration. I went to their house in old Havana. I finally saw the marble stairs I had heard so much about. I saw the heavy wooden door my grandfather still had the keys to in his last exile. He carried those keys until the day he died, believing he was going back to Cuba. The current occupants were kind enough to let me in for a look. They wouldn’t take the money I offered them for their hospitality. They told me this was my home too, and I broke down and cried in front of them. Hay Cuba como te estrañe — Oh Cuba, how I missed you.

Mr. President, you will undoubtedly notice that Havana is like an aging beauty queen. So is my mother who is now marooned in a nursing home wheelchair. When she calls me to tell me that you are in her city, she can barely contain her excitement. Wistfully, she asks me if she will again see a Havana without a Castro in power before she dies. All I can tell her is that you made a return to her country feasible. No matter how remote the possibility that her health will allow her to go back, you have given her hope. Se lo agradezco, and I thank you with all my heart and soul that you have opened up prospects for peace with Cuba for my children.

Felicitaciones,
Judy Bolton-Fasman

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/03/22/obama-in-cuba-judy-bolton-fasman

First They Came for the Muslims by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If things become absurd enough, out of control enough, and quite frankly tragic enough, then my friend N and I have a date to register as Muslims together. It will be my only acknowledgement of Donald Trump’s racist mandate to humiliate our Muslim sisters and brothers, our fellow Americans by asking them to wear a metaphoric armband.

The Holocaust continues to teach us lessons about inhumanity. It was not so long ago—in fact in many of our parents’ lifetimes—that Jews were required to come forward in Germany and then throughout Europe. What followed in just a few short years was one of the most horrific ruptures in history.

N and I met at the all-boys private school our sons first attended in seventh grade. Beyond the classroom, our sons gravitated to each other in the debate club, on the soccer field and in chorus. That was the year that my son, one of the few Jewish boys in the class, soloed ‘Deck the Halls’ in the annual Christmas Concert. N and I laughed at the irony. On the soccer field we talked about peace in the Middle East. N, originally from Pakistan, said how much she wanted to see all of the religious holy sites in Israel. Although I understand the rationale behind it, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that if we traveled together to Israel she would be searched and I would not. Perhaps she, in turn, didn’t want to think about the reception my Israel-stamped passport would receive in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. We were simply friends, confidantes and mothers. On Christmas, our boys were among the minority of the minority, not celebrating the holiday. They went to the movies and played video games at N’s house on Christmas Eve.Our boys are now freshman at large universities. But during those early soccer games, N and I wondered out loud if their friendship was a tiny step towards peace.

I tell you this not to demonstrate my liberalism, but to share my humanity. I panic when I think of the kind of world Trump and others want to impose on my children, on N’s children. I think of the plight of Danish Jews during the Holocaust. Contrary to popular legend King Christian X and his subjects did not wear a yellow Jewish star, but neither did the country’s Jewish citizens. No one was labeled.

I just came back from Israel. My time there was in the midst of a terror spree. N texted me to make sure I was safe. That is what our friendship is about—we put aside stereotypes and engage with each other as sisters, as mothers, as women. We’ll often bring up customs in our respective traditions that challenge us. N only covers her head in the mosque. I try and figure out the world through my egalitarian Judaism. N and her family spend Rosh Hashana and Passover with us—it’s a holiday that brings back to her special memories of her beloved elderly neighbor who taught her how to make gefillte fish. We’ve both tasted the bitter herbs of our traditions as well as the sweetness of hope that we find in them.

A writer once described herself as “complicated with Judaism.” I am also complicated with my Judaism as well as with N’s Islam. I repurpose Rev. Martin Niemölle’s famous, poetic speech about the cowardice of Germans who failed to speak against the Nazi persecution of the Jews to my own time. If I do not speak up for my Muslim friend, who will be left to “speak up when they come for me.”

This op-ed originally appeared in the December 11, 2015 issue of The Jewish Advocate

Introducing Abby Stein by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing that Abby Stein wants the world to know is that she did not leave her ultra-Orthodox community solely to become a woman. Since she came out this past August, Stein has been garnering attention as the transgender ex-Hasid. Although she acknowledges that the two events in her life are “intertwined,” she says her initial leave taking from her Hasidic sect “had to do with beliefs. I was done with Judaism, and for over a year, I had nothing to do with it.

AbbyStein

Abby Stein

Stein chronicles her transgender experience and her religious transformation on her moving blog, The Second Transition. In one of her first posts she wrote, “[t]here is something amazingly relieving about ‘knowing’, knowing and coming to terms with the reality I have been trying to run away from for years — I am a girl.”

Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.

 

One Stitch at a Time: Anne Lamott’s Homespun Theology by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Anne Lamott is one of my rabbis. I know Ms. Lamott is not Jewish, but over the years she has crafted a homespun theology that is kind and wise and downright sensible.

In her latest book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair,” Lamott tells readers we live “stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.”

Stitches
Hope, meaning and repair are in the details of life.When I was younger, I used to fixate on the big picture and get overwhelmed. Here is what I tell my children when they start to get anxious: Take life in 10-minute increments. It will give you the time to notice the fine, intricate parts that create a life.

Lamott’s book is also a response to the first anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. To that end, Lamott does not hesitate to tell her readers that life is grim, the world is a mess and, quoting the writer Barry Lopez, “[all] that is holding us together is stories and compassion.”

A number of years ago, I was at a school meeting in which the principal asked what we, as parents, hoped that our children would get out of Jewish day school. We went around the room and most parents said that they hoped their children would be happy and satisfied with their lives. I love the sentiment, but I don’t want my children to be happy and satisfied all the time. How will they help to repair the world if the never get fed up with the poverty, hunger, racism and all of the other maladies plaguing our world? I want my children to be compassionate, and then I want them to be even more compassionate. But coupled with that, I want them to be optimistic. In my mind, an optimist doesn’t close her eyes and wave away the bad and the ugly in an “everything is going to be all right” way. That feels empty to me. An optimist takes Lamott’s stitches and makes something of them. “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next,” she writes. “Without stitches, you just have rags.” That’s the kind of belief in the power of good that I’m taking about.

And God bless Anne Lamott for bringing up the overly sensitive child. I want to say this as clearly as possible: There is no such thing as being overly sensitive. I know what I’m talking about. People call me overly sensitive all the time. The overly sensitive child is the fifth child in the Passover Seder. Nobody says it better than Lamott when she writes, “Almost everybody worth his or her salt was a mess and has been an overly sensitive child. Almost everyone had at one time or another been exposed to the world as flawed and human. And that it was good, for the development of character and empathy, for growth of the spirit.”

When Anna was little, she told me that she couldn’t stand it when people were angry with her. My guess is she felt misunderstood when a friend or a parent berated her. As the overly sensitive child grows up, she never quite gets over the events that made her sad in childhood.

And then there is the quandary of what you say to people when they ask you how you are. You don’t want to open a dam of feeling and possible sadness, so you say you’re fine even though your child may not be faring well in school or your elderly parent is having trouble remembering your name. Things are so perfunctory in our society. But like the great teacher and spiritual counselor that she is, Lamott’s good news on the subject is that “if you don’t seal up your heart with caulking compound, and instead stay permeable, people stay alive inside of you, and maybe outside of you too, forever.”

When I said the Kaddish for my father eleven years ago, I was determined to keep him alive in my heart by not missing a day of prayer. Sometimes I brought my kids to minyan in their pajamas. There was Adam shuffling around the chapel in his Scooby-Doo slippers. Anna sometimes participated in the service with her friend Jackie, whose mother was also mourning her father at the same time I was. We called them the “Ashrei” girls because they opened the evening service with the ubiquitous Psalm of David.They were overly sensitive children in training.

Like this startling world of ours,children don’t always grow up the way you expect them to. Love and beauty have infinite forms. Once again, I summon Anne Lamott to explain “that we are shadow and light. …We are raised to be bright and shiny, but there is meaning in the acceptance of our dusky and dappled side, and also in defiance.”