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.

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.


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.”

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.”

Reciting Kaddish, As a Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

Since leaving Jewish day school, I had wandered through the various branches of Judaism and settled on practicing Conservative Judaism. At the time of my father’s death, I decided to attend a daily Conservative minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. As I wrote in my journal:

I’m both surprised and fulfilled that the daily recitation of the Kaddish has become part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.

My year of Kaddish so deeply impressed me that, ever since, I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with one daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. Before he died, he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish, which allowed his daughter to recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her prayer.

Despite patriarchal obstacles, the Kaddish has always belonged to women. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote in a letter that year:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

During the year after my father died, I visited Rome on vacation. It was there among the city’s more than 900 churches, I went searching for a synagogue. I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish. I went to Rome’s Great Synagogue where armed policemen surrounded the courtyard. A private security guard asked my husband, not me, what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed.

Inside, the daily minyan was formal — like walking into a sepia photograph — with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. My husband and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish.

The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.”

I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? And how dare anyone tell Jewish women in the name of God not to eulogize their dead or say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This piece originally appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward as well as the paper’s print edition.

A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.



When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.


 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.


The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,



It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”