Capturing Family History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was originally published on JewishBoston.com

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

My Father’s Centennial

This year marks my late father’s centennial. He was born in January of 1919 in New Haven, Connecticut on the second floor of a two-family house. Woodrow Wilson, the stony-faced Princetonian, was the president of the United States, negotiating placebo treaties in top hat and tails.

This was an era when modernity and Puritanism mingled as child labor laws, pure-food laws, free love, free verse and Prohibition were all in play. The gross national product had tripled and the national debt had gone from one billion to 24 billion dollars. A jury acquitted eight baseball players from the Chicago White Sox of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, but barred them for life from playing baseball.

Mobility was on the rise — faster cars, changing neighborhoods, increased consumption. Toys, stocks and birth control were for sale; my grandparents bought all three. Energy was abundant and houses were wired for electricity. Cars reached speeds of forty miles per hour. Life was moving fast and my Grandpa and Grandma were early adopters of the changes that went with it.

By 1919 the First World War was over, but the Bolshevik Revolution was in full swing. My father lived his entire life with Russia menacing him. He inherited his patriotic DNA from his father. America was everything to my grandfather, who changed the family name from Bolotin to Bolton to ensure that his children assimilated even further into American life. This was a country that had enabled my grandfather, an immigrant from Ukraine, to receive a high-profile education at Yale and in time to send his only son to the same institution.

Beginning in the summer of 1919 my grandparents rented a beach house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut — a town name that sounded fresh and breezy. A town that accepted the Boltons over the Hurwitzes, relatives who tried to rent there too. My grandfather had the chutzpah to pass, the nerve to hobnob with the sons of Connecticut Yankees.

My grandfather did well in the stock market. He drank illegal liquor to keep warm at his alma mater’s football games. Walter Camp, the father of American football and the coach of the Yale team, introduced calisthenics and packaged them to America as the daily dozen. Hemlines rose, although my grandmother still could not vote.

The tango was a forbidden dance. Ragtime was considered “black music,” yet too good to not to be played; a Jew named Irving Berlin wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Thirty years later he sealed his fame with a song called White Christmas.

My father lived his entire life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but he wanted to distinguish himself from his father who was exempt from serving in World War I. The Second World War was my father’s grand, personal adventure. He served on a naval supply ship in WWII, drifting and dreaming and ultimately steaming ahead on the Pacific Ocean to magical places like the Philippines that his father could only imagine.

He married my Cuban mother who was two decades younger than he was. She periodically inspired him to set aside his American ways and allow the dream-laden music of Spain to animate his soul. The clashing percussion of bullfight music and rousing zarzuelas brought out a life force in him he otherwise rarely showed the world.

He took his love of Spanish music to the airwaves for two hours on Sunday afternoons to broadcast a show simply called “The Music of Spain.” My father had somehow collected hundreds of imported records with covers showing bullfights and ladies dressed in mantillas. All of this happened from the Hartford, Connecticut studios of WEXT, a country-and-western music station that donated space and time for community programming during an otherwise dull, blue-law day of the week.

In a black-and-white picture of my father as a DJ, scattered white lines break up the photograph’s glossiness. My father wears a no-nonsense white shirt, black pants and a five-o’clock shadow even though the clock in the picture is just coming up on 12:15 p.m. In his left hand is a stopwatch. Behind him are consoles with large buttons and instruments to gauge sound levels — instruments that look as if they belong in a war room rather than a radio station. Two turntables unfurl the music. There is a record cover propped in front of him, announcing in a ribbony script: Suspiros de España, Spanish marching music that has an accompanying pasa doble, a two-step dance that acts out the drama of the bullfight. My father is smiling, a toothy grin that announces his happiness born of music and memory.

“Caballeros y damas,” he says into a large microphone suspended from the ceiling. Gentlemen and Ladies. His voice pours out of the radio and fills the house; his heavy American Spanish so distinctive from my mother’s light velvety version. We three children gather around the radio with my mother and thrill to the sound of my father’s voice. In that moment, he is a celebrity.

Solar Eclipse: A Short Excerpt from Asylum Avenue, A Memoir by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There was a glimmer of my father’s naval life of stars and moons and discipline on a bright Saturday morning in March of 1970. My father announced there would be a solar eclipse that afternoon. I was a big fan at the time of Lost in Space, along with most anything to do with space. Each week I watched the Robinson family in their sleek space suits act unfailingly lovingly toward one another despite their predicament. I was thrilled that the oldest daughter was also named Judy. Maybe I, too, could be a Robinson, a member of their dream family. Here on earth I was bound to the Boltons.

As the appointed hour for the eclipse approached, my father ordered us to stay in the den. He explained that the moon would pass over the sun so that, for a moment, day would become the perennial night of the moon. The inversion fascinated me. Outside there would be no light, no glare to enable us to gauge the intense, prolonged rays emanating from a hidden sun — rays that could burn through our retinae and blind us, as my father reminded.

To demonstrate the rarity and import of the event, Dad bought us sunglasses at the FINAST supermarket. In his world, sunglasses weakened young eyes, and yet here he was adjusting round pink plastic sunglasses atop our noses. I sat in the creaky brown tweed rocker, my feet sticking out at a ninety-degree angle, and shut my eyes tightly until I saw a galaxy of swirling light. Then I opened my eyes narrowly, like the thin beams of light that streamed in between the slats of the venetian blinds. My father faced the shaded window, his sunglasses perched on his head. He was wide-eyed and unafraid of the pure light disguised as night.

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.”

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo love to tell the story of how they founded their website, everyoneisgay.com. “The short answer is that it began as a joke,” says Owens-Reid, 29. In 2010, Owens-Reid, an actor and comedian, had started a comic website called Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. “I was getting a lot of flak about stereotyping lesbians, and I felt that was unfair.” She mentioned her dilemma to an acquaintance, Russo, 33, who also has a theater background but at the time was studying for a master’s in gender studies. In response, the two women decided to launch a website that addressed Owens-Reid’s negative feedback while also fielding advice questions from the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning community. That idea evolved into everyoneisgay.com, their website and organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth. To support their cause the women tour schools, give advice weekly from their Tumblr account, and offer support to families through a companion site, theparentsproject.com. They estimate that over the past four years they have answered more than 50,000 questions, ranging from what happens when “I fall in love with my best friend” to coming out to religious family members. Owens-Reid and Russo’s most recent project is “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life.’’

Q. What are your coming out stories and how have they influenced your work?

RUSSO: I was home on Thanksgiving break from college in 1998 and was working through feelings I had for a woman from high school. Yet I was unsure about identifying as gay or homosexual. My parents had been asking me since I was 13 if I was gay. When they asked me again at the Thanksgiving table that year, I unexpectedly came out. My parents shaped the moment for me. They told me that they loved me. But my dad worried about discrimination, and I struggled with my mom who was raised a very religious Roman Catholic. She was taught that being gay was a sin, and anyone who acted on those feelings would go to hell. Because she loves me with every bone in her body, she couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t join her in heaven. Luckily, my mother never stopped challenging herself and revisiting those feelings.

OWENS-REID: I’m from South Carolina and was raised in a very proper Southern way. But when a girl kissed me in college, I came out almost immediately after that. My dad has always put my happiness before anything. Nothing fazed him about my sexuality. All he wanted to do was help and that was very comforting. My mother has had a few struggles. It wasn’t an easy road for the two of us. She would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Don’t you want to get married?’’

Q. Can you talk a little about how the coming-out process works its way through families?

RUSSO: “There’s so much benefit in allowing parents to go through their own [coming-out] process. A woman came up to us the other day on our book tour and told us that “you saved my relationship with my daughter. She reads your work and you told her that I need to come out as well.’’ It’s giving permission to everyone involved to assess the moment.

OWENS-REID: One of the most meaningful things that we write in the book is for kids to think about the process of the person they come out to. Your mother or father has to tell family members, the people they work with. It’s also important for parents and kids to understand that the first reaction to a kid coming out will not always be perfect. People have to work through the news and not talking about it is one of the worst things you can do.

Q. Should parents refrain from directly asking their child if he or she is gay?

RUSSO: My mother asked me about my sexuality when I was 13, and the question confused me. I wasn’t aware of my identity yet, and I thought that she was asking me because people perceived me as gay. Also, if a kid is not ready to tell a parent he can panic and say he’s not gay. In addition to tackling the coming-out moment, he feels as if he’s lied to his parents. Even in a particular situation where your child is leaving hints, it’s not the best idea to ask. Instead, make a welcoming environment in which you love and accept all people regardless of their identity.

OWENS-REID: A cool thing you can do as a parent to make it easier for your kid to come out is to ask if she is interested in someone at school. Give your child gender-free triggers.

Q. In the book you condemn the words “choice’’ and “fault’’ when discussing sexual identity. Why do those particular words concern you?

RUSSO: I find conversations troubling when parents say that “homosexuality wasn’t my kid’s choice.’’ It implies that if you could choose you wouldn’t be the person that you are. Sexual identity is not a choice, and I don’t feel that I was born with a particular sexual identity.

OWENS-REID: Fault and choice are terrible words. Nothing in particular makes your kids gay. A television show or a piece of clothing does not influence sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense. When people assign fault or blame they imply that there is something wrong, that there is a negative air about gayness.

Q. Do you think parents of LGBTQ children feel they have more to worry about than those whose children are not?

RUSSO: Parents of gay children may struggle a little more because they don’t have a clear picture of what LGBTQ lives look like. The best thing that parents can do is gather information and figure out what throws their picture of the future into disarray.

OWENS-REID: Parents worry. It’s in the job description, and they would also worry about their heterosexual child finding a good partner. Talk to your children. We have learned so much from the LGBTQ young people we meet. They know things and want to talk about them.

Interview originally published in the November 18, 2014 edition of the Boston Globe

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.