The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

Being Both: Susan Katz Miller’s Interfaith Journey by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It has been more than a decade since my children entered Jewish day school. Our choice was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and I don’t regret a minute of their education there. But in the beginning Ken and I paused over the fine print of the application that asked us to confirm that our children had a Jewish mother or were converted in a mikveh—a ritual bath. A part of us felt that any child with a Jewish parent—mother or father—who sought out a Jewish education should have one. But we are also temple-going Conservative Jews who support matrilineal descent. It was a conundrum—one that after all these years I haven’t fully worked out.

I’ve had this discussion many times with my good friend Susan Katz Miller. Sue grew up Jewish with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. The Jewish community frequently misunderstood her patrilineality and often made her feel like an outsider. Although she had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, she steered clear of a Hillel in college that made her feel unwelcomed. She married her Episcopalian husband in an out-of-the box interfaith ceremony that was almost unheard of twenty-five years ago.

In her new book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Sue chronicles her experiences as a Jewish interfaith child as well as the bold move to bring up her children with both Jewish and Christian traditions. She and her husband are part of an interfaith community called the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Sister organizations exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Through IFFP, Sue and her husband have sent their children to Sunday School and celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays with their interfaith community.

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Over the last decade, I’ve watched Sue grow in her commitment to Judaism in ways that I did not always fully appreciate. And in the end what Sue and her family are doing may not be so bad for the Jews. After all, her children are religiously knowledgeable citizens of the world. Their Jewishness flows from just one Jewish grandparent, yet Judaism gets equal time at the Katz Miller household. As Sue writes in the introduction to her book:

 

“Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians or any other faith or denomination represented in marriage. The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all these possible outcomes as positive.”

 

 

I do too until my bias for rearing children in one religion comes into play. Like me, Sue and her community are invested in Judaism’s survival. She writes that, “Interfaith families who choose both [religions] for their children do feel concern for the survival of Judaism in the world. But many of us also feel that we are ‘making a Jewish choice’ by giving our children access to both cultures, rather than choosing nothing, choosing only Christianity, or choosing a third religion.” But for me it’s not only about demographics; it’s about raising literate Jews committed to Judaism alone. I see that commitment as the ultimate survival tactic.

 

As much support as there is for Jewish continuity at IFFP, there is also the Jesus factor to consider when it comes to embracing Judaism and Christianity. As a Jew who went to a Catholic high school, I’ve thought a lot about the role of Jesus in Jewish history and his place in my Jewish pantheon. Sue unambiguously declares that she sees Jesus as a teacher, not as a personal savior. She describes herself as “a Jew who celebrates interfaithness.” She also reports that her children’s formal religious curriculum presents Jesus as a Jew who lived 2000 years ago. The class explores Jewish history until the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are examined in a Jewish context and also presented as a critique of the Judaism of his time.

 

But it’s a sixth grade interfaith education syllabus in Chicago that forthrightly asks the question that is on my mind:

 

 

“How can we teach this material and not sound like the evangelical group Jews for Jesus? We answer these questions with a very Jewish approach focused on the importance of learning history, a foundation of any good Jewish education. As many of our sister and brother Catholics have discovered, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is key to a much deeper understanding of his wisdom and ministry—an understanding that we have experienced through out marriages with Jewish partners.”

 

I appreciate the sensitivity to Judaism in Sue’s interfaith world. I’d go as far as to argue that she has a very Jewish approach to interfaith education and celebrations. Am I comfortable with everything she’s doing? Not always. It’s similar to the discomfort I felt when I read the fine print all those years ago on Schechter’s school application. But embracing two religions pushes my boundaries even further. And yet, I love that Sue’s kids claim their Judaism, patrilineal or otherwise. And I love that my friend has written an important, thought-provoking book for Jews and Christians, and interfaith families.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Breath of Schoolchildren by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Talmud states that “parents bring a child into this world but a teacher can bring a child into the World to Come.” As I was searching for this quote on the Internet, in its idiosyncratic wisdom, Google also pointed me to the saying that a father is obligated to teach his son to swim.

On the surface, these two Talmudic directives seem to be at odds with each other. The first asks parents to give over their child to a teacher for a proper education. The second is a handson command to teach a child a basic survival skill. But walk into Dr. Jonathan Garlick’s research laboratory at Tufts Dental School and the two dictums come seamlessly together.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Garlick is a professor of oral pathology and the head of a stem cell research laboratory, for which the ultimate goal is “using [stem] cells for personalized therapies for regeneration and repair of diseased or damaged tissues and organs. [And] to develop novel applications for artificial skin made in the lab that closely mimics the form and function of this human tissue.”

“Science is about communication,” says Tufts University Professor Jonathan Garlick.
In short, Garlick harvests stem cells that allow him to model the way your skin behaves. But read the summary of his research closely and you’ll pick up subtext that the two Talmudic dictums suggest: designing experiments that further our understanding of how stem cells can be used to fight disease and developing the hands-on laboratory protocols that are required to expand that knowledge. As novel and innovative as Garlick’s scientific work is, there is something else just as extraordinary happening in his laboratory: He is deliberately and effectively training the next generation of scientists and science-literate students. And he is capturing their hearts and minds while they are still in high school. There has now been a long line of Gann Academy students and others, including my children Anna and Adam, who have completed immersion programs in Garlick’s laboratory specifically geared to pre-college students. It began when Garlick welcomed high school seniors from Gann into his workspace through Ma’avar – the school’s six-week externship program. The experience proved to be so powerful for both the students and Garlick that he went on to design a two-week immersion experience for high school students in the summer.

Garlick is passionate about his work and dedicated to his mission “to be an incubator for student learning of all ages. This isn’t just about research, but about the broader impact of science in their lives. I want kids to converse in science, and by that I mean that I want to inspire them to be empowered citizens in ongoing conversations about science.”

Garlick’s vision of educating students is couched in the Jewish values that he holds dear. He explains that his research with stem cells is a type of regenerative medicine that he views as “molecular ‘Tikkun Olam’” – he sees replacing damaged cells with cells that he grows in the laboratory as contributing to healing the world.

Garlick recognizes that aspects of stem cell research are open to public debate. He says that his mandate to teach science to younger generations and beyond evolved from his experience as a stem cell researcher. He observes that his work is often surrounded by “moral, political and legal issues that have a direct impact on scientific research. I needed to learn about these broader impacts in order to better understand how social, moral, philosophical and ethical issues that are grounded in science can play an increasingly larger role in our contemporary lives.” To that end, Garlick relishes teaching students how to wrestle with issues at the interface of our capabilities and conscience while also emphasizing respectful debate.

“Science,” notes Garlick, “is about communication. There is value to communication and teamwork when doing scientific research.” Students in his laboratory also learn that they have personal stakes in the work to which they are exposed. Garlick cites the human genome as a prime example. What does a researcher, an insurance company or, for that matter, a private citizen do with the information that is generated? With whom do we share it? What is confidential and what is public? What does one do when she learns that she may be at risk for a particular disease?

“I teach my interns about probabilistic information versus deterministic information, judgment versus uncertainty,” says Garlick. “It’s crucial to help these students develop powers of discernment to appreciate the broader impact of this technology in their lives.”

As with much of science, failure is a “welcomed part of the experimental learning process. We get unexpected results. In fact, at times, we don’t get it right, but every result has a purpose and kids end up using critical-thinking skills to teach each other.”

In addition to growing stem cells, Garlick emphasizes that he is cultivating a culture of “derech eretz” – respect – in his laboratory. “Mutual respect and collaboration is a value that transcends cliques in high school. We engage individuality for the greater good. And that individualism has meaning and value whether it is from a 10th-grader or a postdoctoral student. My goal is to humanize the science.”

Jonathan Garlick’s dedication to nurturing the next generation of scientists and informed citizens brings to mind another Talmudic saying that joins the work of teachers and parents: “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.”

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.”

 

 

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My husband and I are folding clothes on a Sunday night. Bless him for helping me tackle the mountain of wrinkled shirts and pants. Not to mention that we were running out of underwear. And bless him for not blaming me for letting the laundry get so out of control; I blame myself enough for the two of us. It’s all bound up in my underlying confusion with regard to work and child rearing.

What prompted me to think about whether I’m actually in or out of the workforce is a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine by Judith Warner on women who opted out of working outside the home in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly these women—and it’s a very select group—left lucrative jobs to stay home and raise children.

opt in

 

Reevaluating their decision almost two decades out, these women have decided to go back to work. For some, it was figuring out what to do with too much time on their hands now that their children were older. For others, it was the only option after divorce or other economic difficulties. For example, one woman’s husband had been a higher earner who was adversely affected by the 2008 recession. In any case, Warner asserts that, “the culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time round-the-clock, child-centered devotion.”

I mention that the group Warner’s research is based on is select because, for the most part, these women are well off and well educated. The majority of them are white and live in affluent neighborhoods. Her article doesn’t touch on women for whom staying at home was an economic sacrifice—women whose net pay would appreciably shrink when childcare became a line item in the budget. As far as I could tell the women in Warner’s article did not significantly alter their lifestyle when they initially left the workforce. But they had measured their worth by their paychecks and ten or fifteen years out, they were unable to assess that worth without a dollar sign in front of it.

I suspect that my situation is more typical of the women who opted out of the formal workforce. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew that I would stay home with my kids while they were babies. My first-born was a couple of months old and we had had a difficult, colicky night. I was up every couple of hours with her. After her five A.M. feeding I brought her into bed and we fell asleep until nine in the morning. That’s when I knew that I didn’t have the fortitude or the organizational skills to balance a job outside the home with new motherhood. I’m in awe of women who have done both. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s not magic.

But I also knew I wasn’t a 24/7 type of mother. I wanted to write. And so I began to freelance with an eye toward going back to work when my children were in school all day. When they were, I went back part-time as an Internet magazine editor until I was laid off. That was ten years ago. At the time, my husband and I decided that it didn’t make economic sense for me to pursue full-time employment. He was able to support us and our version of luxury was having me at the ready for our children.

I became a full-time writer seven years ago. My income is not that significant. But working from home or the library, I’m always around even if mountains of unfolded laundry surround me. I’m working on a book that may or may not get published, but my husband understands that I’m driven to do it if only for the accomplishment of telling my family story.

Which brings me to the crux of the problem with women who opt in or out. The husbands portrayed in Warner’s article sounded unreasonably difficult. One woman complained that as her kids grew older, her husband’s role as the wage earner and hers as the de-facto housekeeper became problematic. Warner quotes her as asserting that, “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage. I think he preferred the house to be ‘kept’ in a different kind of way than I was prepared to do it. If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising kids, but it was about sweeping.”

Raising children is an art, a soul-giving endeavor. Housework is drudgery. These high-flying husbands didn’t appreciate that cleaning was their responsibility too and if they didn’t like it they should hire a house cleaner.

The advice I would give my daughter is not whether or not she should opt-out and then back in when she has children.  It’s to marry a partner who will fold clothes with her while watching reruns on a Sunday night with nary a complaint.

 

 

 

 

 

Sex and the Boy Scouts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

By the time you read this there will have been a raft of articles and columns about the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to allow openly gay boys to participate in the organization. The new policy states that, “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, called the decision “compassionate, caring and kind.”

GENERIC-BOY-SCOUTS

The outcome of the vote, however, is a deceptive one. The BSA will continue to exclude openly gay leaders, and when a gay youth member turns eighteen he will have to turn in his badges and bid farewell to his scouting career. Quoting from the BSA’s internal documents, Reuters reports “when youth members become adults they ‘must meet the requirements of our adult standards’ to remain in the group.”

It’s disorienting to think that just last summer the BSA reaffirmed their anti-gay policy in bureaucratic doublespeak.“ We do not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open to avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

The BSA describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations.” If you look at the membership roster it is, in many respects, a faith-based organization. The majority of troops are affiliated with churches. The biggest feeder is the Mormon Church, which to its credit did not have a knee-jerk response to the BSA’s latest change in policy and, as of this writing, is studying the proposal. But contemplating theological issues is not within the scope of this particular column. The real issue for me is the unhealthy national obsession with our children’s sexuality.

For a more nuanced look at the subject, I take you down to Florida where an 18 year-old teenager named Kaitlyn Hunt faces 15 years in prison for having sex with her 14 year-old girlfriend. Hunt and the younger girl were on the same basketball team and the girl’s parents brought the criminal charges against Hunt. As CBS reported, these parents blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter’s homosexuality.

Reporting on the story in Slate magazine, Emily Bazelon writes that “[i]t’s hard for me to see how you can take the homophobia out of this case.” Yet that’s exactly what the mother of the younger girl and the prosecutors in the case are doing. The State Attorney charged Hunt in February with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child. Additionally, Hunt has been expelled from school. The only leniency offered to Kaitlyn in this sorry affair was a plea bargain to lesser charges of child abuse. The offer was two years of house arrest rather than face the possibility of onerous jail time and the prospect of having to register as a sex offender. So far Kaitlyn is not budging.

Bazelon’s article gets very interesting as she ponders the outpouring of support for Kaitlyn. Hunt’s family has used social media to great effect to draw attention to Kaitlyn’s case. A Facebook page called “Free Kate” has links to T-shirts, bracelets and a petition, which more than 45,000 people have signed. The Florida ACLU is also behind Kaitlyn calling the relationship “harmless and consensual.”

But Bazelon goes a step further in considering Kaitlyn’s plight by citing:

the denunciation of various 17 and 18 year-old boys who have been charged with sex crimes because of their relationships, or encounters with 15 or 14-year old girls. Is this case really so different because it’s about two girls? Or does it reveal a larger problem with charging older teenagers for having sex with younger ones?

I originally cited Kaitlyn Hunt’s case as one of homophobia. Like Bazelon, it’s hard for me not to see anti-gay sentiment exacerbating the situation. But Bazelon also brings up a much more complicated issue—should sex between older and younger teens spanning less than a five-year difference be decriminalized? Hunt’s parents are calling their daughter’s case an example of selective prosecution. I think they’re right. How often do the police get called for heterosexual consensual sex between a freshman and senior in high school? I daresay, not very often.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may wonder how we began with the Boy Scouts of America’s new policy towards gay scouts and ended up talking about consensual sex between teens. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for sex between teens. What I am saying is let our teens figure out their sexuality without shunning them or prosecuting them.

Toward that end, let’s free Kaitlyn Hunt and the Boy Scouts of America from the hate and prejudice that dogs both of them.

 

Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe