Moving Waters: Racelle Rosett’s Debut Short Story Collection

Racelle Rosett, an award-winning television writer whose credits include “thirtysomething” and “Blossom,” has just published her first volume of fiction, “Moving Waters: Stories.” Rosett’s notable successes with the short story include winning the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for Jewish short fiction and the Lilith Fiction Prize. Her work has also appeared in “Tikkun,” “Ploughshares,” the “New Vilna Review,” and “Jewish Fiction,” among other publications.

The title story of “Moving Waters” explores sexuality in all its permutations, including the end of a marriage and the healing effects of immersing in the mikveh. Later, in “The Unveiling,” a young widow’s makeover coincides with the unveiling of her husband’s tombstone. In other stories Rosett ponders the efficacy of lamed vavniks — the 36 righteous people who keep the destruction of the world at bay — and the prohibition of saying God’s name out loud. In a recent interview with the Sisterhood, Rosett discussed her new collection of literary fiction and explained how this latest chapter in her writing life has reflected a deep examination of her Judaism.

BOLTON-FASMAN: You wrote for television for almost three decades. How has that type of writing influenced your literary voice and short stories?

ROSETT: I look for stories in the same places — in moments of transition, places where a character struggles and finds her way. But writing for television is more collaborative. The stories [in “Moving Waters”] represent a very personal exploration. In them, I was immersed in a world that held a lot of contradictions and I needed to get inside of them to make sense of it all.

Your title story is about fluidity in sexuality and individuality. Why did you lead off your collection with the image of a mikveh?

There are two answers to this question. I did a reading from “Moving Waters” for “Zeek” last fall and met a wonderful young artist named Will Deutsch, who heard the title story and shared some of his work with me. His artwork depicting immersion into a mikveh was so tied to what I was doing that I immediately imagined his work adorning the book’s cover. I loved the idea that at first glance the image looked as much like a swimming pool as a mikveh, which underscores the theme of the book that we are in two worlds at once—the ancient and modern.

I also felt drawn to the image of Deutsch’s mikveh because I felt as if I were literally stepping into a pool. I hope this is the experience for the reader in the sense of stepping into the lives of these characters and being engrossed in their world. I also hope readers will be moved to reclaim and redefine mikveh as a ritual that is relevant and useful in contemporary life. I am compelled by the idea of reclaiming and redefining mikveh as a ritual that is relevant and useful in contemporary life. In many communities Mikvah is now being used as a demarcation of transition — to heal from losses like infertility and divorce as well as celebrate new lifecycles like adoption and recovery.

Your stories reflect an intensive interest in Judaism. Can you say something about your own Judaism and how it has influenced your work?

What is most surprising to me is that like the characters in my book, Judaism became relevant to me unexpectedly. I brought Shabbat into our family lives as a way of impressing the idea of community and rest on my children. I did that to anchor them in a place where many forces are competing for their attention.

Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer in the sense that Judaism inspires and moves your stories along?

I certainly feel that [Judaism] informs the stories in “Moving Waters.” My characters embody what I most value and want to keep from my tradition. I think as you mature in your faith you’re constantly holding it up to the light and reappraising it. I was watching “Weeds” recently and there was a plot line with a rabbi and the idea of struggling with yetzer h’rah — the Evil inclination. You write from a place that is shaped by everything you are. Having said that, I may write a story or a script in which the characters are not Jewish but my belief about the world will not change.

Do you still write for television?

I do. I’ve had an ongoing role in television over the years as a consultant working with writers I love. Several months after I completed the story collection I met an extraordinary young woman and I was compelled to write a script about her that is still in the works.

What’s on your agenda this fall?

I’m doing a number of visits to temples and Jewish Book Festivals as part of a Jewish Book Council author tour. I love visiting Jewish communities and seeing their dynamic and energetic engagement. For example, I attended a service in San Francisco that, in addition to being in a beautiful setting, was entirely relevant both socially and politically. It was thrilling to see the kind of deliberate participation not held over from generational guilt but was about bringing together a community in a purposeful and joyful connection.

Family Blessings

May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord illuminate His/Her countenanceupon you and deal graciously with you. May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

A few years ago when Anna was assigned to memorize the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew it was an opportunity for me. I would finally bless my children on Friday nights with those famous words without a cheat sheet, or mumbling so my kids wouldn’t realize how poor my Hebrew is.

Blessing one’s children reaches back to biblical times. In the Torah Isaac blesses his sons and Jacob blesses his children as well his grandchildren. One of Aaron’s last acts as the High Priest is to bless the children of Israel. And Moses blesses each of the tribes of Israel. During rabbinic times parents adapted this biblical practice by expressing their pride and love for their children with the Priestly Blessing.

There is nothing sweeter in this life than blessing one’s children especially on a Friday night. When Anna and Adam were little I’d drop to my knees to so that they could look into my eyes and tacitly understand that blessing them was an act of thanksgiving and humility for me.

I recently learned that there are also special hand gestures that accompany the Priestly Blessing. Like the prophets of yore, the kohanim or priests stretched their arms forward (with an outstretched arm!) with their hands palms-down. They also split their fingers so that, counting the space between the opposing thumbs, there were five spaces for each hand.

Another allusion. My reading led me to a reference from Song of Songs 2:8-9 which states that God “peeks through the cracks in the wall.” God watches, God protects, God blesses. Now when I fan my hands on Anna and Adam’s heads, the spaces between my fingers are filled with their goodness, their innocence, their strength and my fragility.

For a while my kids were very clear that this blessing business was not exactly their favorite part of our Friday night festivities. “Do it more quietly,” Anna said. “I don’t think you have all the words down,” Adam said. But I persisted and tried not to let their tween behavior dampen my joy.

Recently I hit on a time-saving method acceptable to both my children and me—blessing them together. After the initial blessing I turn to Anna and ask God to make her strong and wise like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Then it’s Adam’s turn and I ask God to make him a role model like Ephraim and Menashe.

Asking God to give our daughters the laudable tributes of our foremothers is obvious, but the blessing for our sons is less so. The reference to Ephraim and Menashe comes directly from the Bible. Just before Jacob dies he blesses his grandsons with these words: “In time to come, the people of Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.” (Genesis 48:20)

I think that Anna and Adam don’t mind being blessed these days because they like to reciprocate. My daughter is now tall enough to look me in the eye when I place my hand on her head. My son is nine inches taller than I and has to bow his head. These days they offer me a blessing too by saying the words with me.

Anna and Adam’s Shabbat blessing acquired another level of meaning when our friend Susan asked them what they thought of a blessing that asked God to make them like someone else. She pointed out a contradiction that speaks to one of my favorite midrashim about God’s challenge to Rabbi Zusya. When it came Zusya’s time to go to heaven, he had ready answers for God about why he wasn’t a great prophet like Moses or a gifted scholar like Maimonides. But he was worried that God would ask him the most difficult question of all—why wasn’t Zusya more like Zusya in this life.

Susan sent me to Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings for an alternative blessing. The subtitle of Falk’s volume promised New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, The Sabbath and the New Moon Festival. Falk’s didn’t disappoint. The version of her blessing for a child to simply “Be who you are—and may you be blessed in all that you do.” Falk chose these words to echo God’s announcement in

Exodus—“I am that I am”—the ultimate proclamation of authentically being.

In her commentary on her version of the blessing Falk notes that “in its specificity, this blessing seems restrictive rather than expansive: it doesn’t open out to the range of possibility and promise that ought to characterize youth.”

I appreciate Falk’s point that giving our children a strong, unlimited sense of self is crucial. But we—Anna, Adam and I—do not want to give up the ancestors. Our foremothers are not just archetypes. At different points in our lives they are us and we are them. And for me, Jacob directly blessing his grandsons rather than his sons tells me how precious and hopeful the future is. Finally, a pair of brothers in the Bible who don’t want to kill one another!

Anna and I tested each other for a week until I finally got the Priestly Blessing down in Hebrew. We also assimilated the notion that in its three straightforward lines, the beauty and genius of the blessing rests in its simplicity as well as its swift movement from the material world to the ultimate wish for peace.

Dear Sarai: A Letter to a Young Israeli Soldier

In anticipation of reviewing  a collection of linked stories coming out in September called  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid a collection focusing on three young women doing their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces–I revisited an epistolary essay I wrote after I met Sarai, a young Israeli army officer. Sarai was mostly skeptical about peace for her country. But towards the end of our conversation I heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. Here’s the letter I dedicated to her after our encounter four years ago.

Dear Sarai,

There is a lot on your young shoulders. Twenty-one years old and you’re already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.

Thank you for defending Israel. Thank you to your mother for sending you out into the world to do this work for the Jewish state, and for Jews everywhere. Back home in Boston descriptions of what you and your unit do sound surreal. People will shake their heads in disbelief as much as in admiration that your unit—18 and 19 year-old young women—monitors the Israel security barrier and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s only a job for girls,” one of your charges proudly says. “Because girls can multitask better than boys.”

Girls with long, shiny ponytails—the same ponytails I see swinging up and down the soccer field when I watch Anna play. They’re eating the same junk food teenagers everywhere eat. But these teens munch on potato chips while wearing their country’s uniform and focusing on their monitors. They blink as often as the guards at Buckingham Palace. The room where they work is uncannily silent.

I wonder what your subordinates think of the American visitors cheering on one of the girls as she follows a suspicious character and then communicates with soldiers in the field to pick him up for questioning. It’s stunning to realize that the decision is hers alone on who warrants a closer look. And it’s even more stunning to know that the soldiers on the ground have only her judgment to rely on. She’s the one who guides them if they have to crawl around brush and barbed wire to capture a suspect. If things go badly, hers is the last voice a soldier hears in his earpiece.

Sarai, your charges are only four years older than my daughter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were resentful that my daughter and her friends are relatively carefree. I can understand if it bothers you that American groups observing your work sometimes relate to it as if watching a video game. Please be patient with us. The first Gulf War was beamed into our living rooms like a remote video game. But that was in 1991. You were only 3 years old and the soldiers now in your charge were babies. None of you remember being bundled into your safe rooms.

I was so sad when you said you’ve lost all hope for peace. You chide your friends for being unrealistic, even naïve about peace between Jews and Arabs. You say it’s because you’ve seen too much. I can understand why it disheartens you to see 5 and 6 year-old Palestinian children throwing rocks through the fence at your fellow soldiers.

But your hopelessness coupled with those Arab children’s burgeoning hatred are also casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I’d like to share a personal story with you. When I was a little older than you I worked for a civil rights organization where my job was to monitor right-wing extremists. You have infrared cameras and the latest communications equipment to do your job. I collected my information by reading hate rags put out by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust revisionists. I was 25-years old and had never encountered such raw hatred. I monitored these right-wing extremists for 3 years. I knew where every Klan cell was in the United States.

After reading so much hate material day in and day out, it skewed my vision of the world. A few hate-mongers led me to believe that the United States was a country full of racists and anti-Semites. I had to pull out of that job to get my bearings again. Maybe you need to do the same after you honor your commitment to the army.

Sarai, your name tempts me into midrash. Sarai was Sarah’s name before God changed it. Perhaps this is a before moment for you. Maybe you’re more pessimistic as a younger Sarai. But I think you’ll find your optimism again. I saw a glimmer of that optimism when I asked you why witnessing the conflict up close wouldn’t want to make you work that much harder for peace.

Even though you were stunned by the question, I saw an older, wiser Sarai briefly emerge. “I never thought about it this way,” you said. “I need some time before I can answer you.”

While you are thinking my dear Sarai, I want to leave you with a saying from the Talmud. “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

I know that your duties as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces wear on your soul. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem you encounter. But please marshal your strength, your experience—and yes—your optimism to work for peace.

Tefillin Barbie and Me

The other day I was in my rabbi’s office for what she and I like to call my 10,000-mile tune-up. And there she was on a bookshelf in a plexi-glass frame—a super hero ready to wrap and unwrap at a moment’s notice to redeem the world—my old friend Tefillin Barbie.

Tefillin Barbie is modest and learned and devout. She wears a long denim skirt. Her sleeves are below her elbow. She wears a head covering and is draped in a tallit—a prayer shawl. And, of course, the most notable thing about her is that she wears tefillin. Prominently, proudly and naturally.

I know all the feminist arguments against Barbie, but I can’t help myself, I’ve always loved Barbie. She came into my life when I was six-years-old and bedridden for three months. My aunt sent me a Barbie along with the doll’s extensive miniature wardrobe. I kept her outfits in a black patent leather wardrobe created just for her clothes. I spent hours dressing Barbie in ball gowns, tennis skirts and my favorite—a bridal gown.

Over the years Barbie’s outfits have used over 105 million yards of fabric. She has owned over a billion pairs of shoes. Through it all it never fazed me that Barbie was blonde and tall and I was not. She measured an impossible 36-18-38, but I attributed that to the fact that she was a doll.

A few facts about Barbie and her creator. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959 and named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler went on to co-found the toy company Mattel. Barbie was not her only significant invention. Recovering from a mastectomy in 1970, Handler discovered the need for a suitable prosthetic breast and invented Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in weight and density to natural breasts.

Barbie has had over eighty careers ranging from a rock star to a presidential candidate who focused on educational excellence and animal rights. She has served in every branch of the military and was a medic in Operation Desert Storm. In addition to being a devout Jew, Barbie is also black and Hispanic. Forty-five nationalities claim her as their own. She has been present at diplomatic summits and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And now she is a baal koreh—a woman who reads Torah.

I’m not surprised that Tefillin Barbie’s inventor is a soferet—a woman scribe who is trained and certified to write holy texts by hand. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive Jen Taylor Friedman is one of six soferot (plural of soferet) in the world. She has a workshop in her native Southampton, England handwriting an entire Torah for a congregation in St. Louis..

Discovering the occupation of this late incarnation of Barbie led me to do a bit of research on soferot. I learned that the first woman soferet was certified in October of 2003. A congregation in Seattle underwrote the cost of training additional soferot in order to be the first synagogue in the world to have a Torah exclusively hand calligraphed by women. Additionally, women metalwork artists are creating the breastplates, crowns and a clasp for the Torah.

All of this wonderful female energy sent me on a virtual journey that ended up at the Jewish Women’s Archives site where I came upon an entry for Joan Snyder’s lithograph “Our Foremothers.” Serendipity. I have a copy of Snyder’s print hanging in my living room, a gift from my mother-in-law. She thought it was my destiny to have it because the name Judith is so prominent among the Jewish women’s names that Snyder commemorates. Snyder uses shades of red and pink—the colors of blood and tutus—to write names like Hagar, Leah, Rachel and Sarah. She pairs these iconic names with those of her mother, daughter and life partner.

People have two reactions to the print—some are mesmerized and others think it’s the work of a child. “Did Anna make this?” more than a few people have asked me. Snyder’s presentation is both basic and profound. The listing and mixing up of these name reminds me that at some point in a woman’s life she has been cast out like Hagar. She has been adored like Rachel. Taken for granted like Leah or not taken seriously like Sarah. Our foremothers are not simply archetypes. They are us and we are them.

So where does this newest incarnation of Barbie fit in with our own mothers and sisters and foremothers? For one thing she’s an all-American girl who is at ease with every aspect of Jewish ritual. I’m envious of her. A couple of years ago I went to the World Wide Wrap at my synagogue where I was the lone adult among a group of bored pre-teens. I didn’t get a lot of support for trying to learn how to wrap tefillin as a grown woman, so thank God for Tefillin Barbie. When I look at her I remember that nothing in Judaism is off limits to my daughter and my nieces.

Here’s another fun fact about Barbie. Every second of every day a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world. And here’s a wish inspired by Barbie’s sales numbers. Every time that a Jewish girl comes of age, may she be comfortable in her own body and wrapping her own tefillin.

 

 

 

The Graduate

Thank you for asking; the graduation was lovely. But you can probably sense that’s the party line. The ceremony was actually surreal, emotional and intense. We are, as the old saying goes, in the big leagues. Next stop, university.

I’ve known a lot of Anna’s fellow Gann Academy graduates since kindergarten at Schechter in Newton. Over the years, I’ve stayed quiet in my role as chauffeur to eavesdrop on their arguments and their gossip. When they were in that state between dog-tired and overwhelmed, I heard about their dreams and their fears.

In the mix of growing up together these kids have loved each other, hurt each other, admired each other and, in the end, I think they’ve come to appreciate the time they’ve shared together. Who knows when and where they’ll resurface in each others’ lives. As for me, I’ve watched the Class of 2012 sing and dance. I’ve watched them cry and fail. I’ve watched them whoop for joy when they aced a test. I’ve watched them be remorseful as well as get away with murder.

No one grows up without witnesses. As I dabbed my eyes during the ceremony, what flashed through my head as quick as lightning was that no one parents alone either. Whether or not we admit it, we’ve all been in it together. By that I mean we have some piece of real estate in each other’s hearts and memories. We’ll think of each other at random times when we remember the eighth grade play, or the stunning senior class presentation that melded poetry and song and choreography, bringing us to our feet. Or maybe we’ll just sigh over that long-ago last day of kindergarten.

And then at some point we’ll try to figure out when our children grew up. I can’t give you an exact event or call up that one defining moment that Anna and Adam became autonomous, fully separate from Ken and me. It might have happened as Adam shot up 11 inches in the last two years and steadily improved his running times.

For Anna, maybe it was when she was able to reach into her soul to articulate insights that were hers alone. These past couple of years her spirit and brain were in synch when I read her English essays or rabbinics papers. And yes, there was the college application essay about why she hadn’t learned to drive. (She still doesn’t have her license.) She wasn’t thrilled about the other cars on the road or having to parallel park. But mostly she was worried about losing the intense, personal connection that uniquely incubates on our car rides. With Ken she talked science and music. With me it was the latest family news or class intrigue. But mostly she just needed us to listen as she took apart and put back together the personal conundrum of the moment. At the graduation ceremony, Anna gave the invocation for the Class of 2012. She wore a graduation cap that made the claim that one-size fit all. But I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that that cap looked unique and beautiful on every single graduate. And yet even in her three-inch wedges, Anna still looked like my little girl going to a big university. That is until she told her fellow graduates and their families that:

Gann is truly a place that fosters individuality while still emphasizing the importance of community. Who we become as a person before we leave Gann is just as significant as who we become as a class. In Numbers Chapter 24, Bilam, a member of the enemy nation of Bnei Yisrael, finds himself blessing Jacob and Israel as he looks upon their camp. As the spirit of G-d enters Bilam, he utters the famous phrase “ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, how lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel!” In a moment of genuine awe and humility, Bilam first blesses the individual, Jacob, and then the community, Israel. Like Bnei Yisrael, Gann should be admired not only for the amazing individuals it produces, but also for the classes as a whole, each unique in character and reputation.

Our class of 2012 is no exception. Amongst us we have varsity athletes, talented artists and musicians, jugglers, a cappella enthusiasts and even the lone Irish step dancer. However, each individual connects to those around them, latching on, creating a network that when viewed from the outside is beautiful both for the entities, and the class as a whole. These individuals together make up something much larger, perhaps even awe-inspiring when looked at with the spirit of G-d. May we always take pride in our individuality while finding strength in our community.

The first time Anna read her speech to me, I broke into song. Literally. One of the first tunes I learned in Hebrew contained Bilam’s famous blessing. Lovely, billowing tents. The croaking chorus of 6th grade voices. I still remember those kids. Anna and I sang my version of “Ma Tovu” on the way to one of her graduation rehearsals.

How lovely you are, Class of 2012.

Help is on the Way: Meredith Goldstein on Relationships and Jewish Identity

There is an impressive trifecta of female Jewish advice columnists based in Boston. Among them is Meredith Goldstein, the popular relationship columnist at the Boston Globe. Goldstein has an active blog on the paper’s Website called Love Letters: Sometimes Love Stinks. Let Us Help. [(http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/relationships/blog)] /

Meredith GoldsteinIn a recent conversation, Goldstein observed, “I’m following in the great tradition of Jewish women who were advice columnists. It’s not surprising that most of these advice givers are Jewish. We’re good listeners and talkers. And maybe we’re a little nosy too.”

Her local colleagues are Margo Howard—daughter of Ann Landers with a syndicated column that is as blunt as it is wise—[(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margo_Howard)]  and Robin Abrahams. [(http://robinabrahams.com/)] Abrahams is the woman behind Miss Conduct, a cross between personal advice and a discourse on formal manners that appears in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Goldstein says that each part of the trifecta distinctly approaches her job. “Robin knows what to do. Margo knows what she wants to do. I’m more intuitive. A problem can be told in many different ways for which there is a different framing.”

Goldstein receives hundreds of letters a week, five of which are published on her blog each weekday. It’s not unusual for a given conundrum to garner over 2000 comments. For print, she picks her favorite letter of the week from subjects that can range from a boyfriend repaying a loan to the best way to end a relationship. Goldstein then curates the best readers’ comments and prints them along with the letter for the Globe’s Saturday entertainment section.

Meredith Goldstein, who is 34, says she is happily single. She can also add best-selling novelist to her self-description. Last month Plume published her book, The Singles, [(http://www.amazon.com/Singles-Novel-Meredith-Goldstein/dp/0452298059/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337026199&sr-1)]  as an original paperback. Goldstein adds her own twist to modern-day nuptials by focusing on five guests who attend a no-holds-barred country club wedding without dates. She calls these floaters “plus ones.” She admits there are autobiographical resonances in the book. A few years ago she attended the wedding of an ex-boyfriend as a plus one. The experience led her to imagine a story that focused not on the bride and groom at a wedding, but their unattached guests.

The novel is also natural movie material and was recently optioned by Lime Orchard Productions, the same company that produced A Better Life. [(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1554091/)]

Goldstein grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a bedroom community between Baltimore and Washington DC. Her parents were the first couple on the block to get a divorce and Goldstein says the experience adds depth to her work as a relationship columnist. “Dozens of nuclear families in the Jewish community were put off by us. I grew up unaffiliated, but always had a strong Jewish identity.”

The Goldstein home was a busy one. Her mother gave piano lessons in the living room and there was a constant flow of music and people in the house. The fancy bat mitzvahs that Goldstein attended as a young teen presented her with a skewed view of Judaism until she arrived at Syracuse University. “Journalism became my identity [in college],” she noted. “But I also met broad diverse groups of Jewish women who expressed their Judaism in dance, song and even their relationships with grandparents. They were hilarious, warm and loved their families intensely even when they despised their families.”

After graduating from Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, [(http://newhouse.syr.edu/)]Goldstein worked as a reporter at the Providence Journal and began stringing for the Boston Globe. Her freelance work for the Globe led to a full-time job covering communities north of Boston. After a couple of years she came back to the city proper as a reporter for the Globe’s living arts section. “It was the dawn of online-dating and the first generation that did not depend on a land line to communicate. I was writing a lot of trend pieces on how technology affects relationships.”

In Boston, Goldstein also gravitated to her aunt and her family who are modern Orthodox Jews. “I didn’t realize how Jewish I was until I moved to Boston. Spending time with my aunt’s family I realized that Hebrew is a different way of talking to God.” In addition to sharing holidays, Goldstein wrote a lot of The Singles in her aunt’s basement.

As for Hannah, her main character, Goldstein identifies with her confusion over her Jewish identity. Although Goldstein’s parents are both Jewish, in the book Hannah is a patrilineal Jew who embodies some of the marginalization Goldstein felt growing up. “I only felt kind of Jewish and tried to fit in. I identified, but I didn’t know how to say it.

These days Goldstein says she embraces her Judaism. At a recent conference for Jewish teenagers celebrating their own Judaism and power as young women, Goldstein encouraged each member of her audience to follow their intuition and stay true to their values when negotiating relationships.

A Heroine for Mother’s Day: Bunny Shapero

I met Beatrice Shapero, known universally as Bunny, 10 years ago in a preview class for Me’ah. Me’ah is an adult learning program that, in a hundred hours of classroom time, begins with Biblical history and continues through the founding of the State of Israel. It’s a two-year course of study. But if Bunny was up for it, what excuse could I possibly have not to enroll.

As it turns out, Bunny was the coolest octogenarian any of us had ever met. In fact, she was cool, period. She was also an incredible role model. Me’ah was just one of the stops on her journey of learning and becoming. Bunny came to Me’ah already primed for Jewish learning. A decade before, she had become an adult bat mitzvah and before that, well, she did a million things for the community. She was the young woman who sold bonds door-to door for the newly-created Jewish State in 1948. Rae Gann was the captain of her team, and for 12 years running Bunny sold the largest number of bonds in the group. Israel was so new, and Bunny never promised people that they would get a return on their money. But that was beside the point. Bunny loved Israel, and Israel needed the funds.

Bunny Shapero/Jim Weber Photography

Bunny also loves her synagogue. She’s been a member of Temple Emanuel in Newton for more than 50 years. During that time, she’s been the heart and soul of Sisterhood and the temple’s branch of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism. No one comes close to selling Bunny’s quota of Torah Fund cards. She’s not sure how many she’s sold over the years, but at the last Torah Fund brunch she was close to moving 500 of those cards for the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bunny may not call herself a feminist, but that’s what she is. Her daughter, Susan, was the first girl at Temple Emanuel to have a bat mitzvah on a Saturday. Susan is a twin, and Bunny insisted that Susan and her brother, Martin, celebrate their b’nei mitzvah together. “They studied the same material, why shouldn’t they get the same recognition?” she reasoned. The ritual committee agreed and consented to the Saturday morning ceremony. Was Susan’s bat mitzvah in 1959 an exception? Yes. But it set an early and important precedent.

Bunny is a natural at setting precedents. This year, at 88, she is the oldest participant in the annual walkathon for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There have been nine walk-a-thons in Boston, and Bunny has walked the three-mile course at each one of them. A founding member of the Boston chapter, Bunny is committed to NAMI because she is devoted to Martin, who had his first schizophrenic breakdown at the age of 15.

“Mental illness is low on the totem pole when it comes to any kind of funding,” Bunny said. “That’s why I got so heavily involved in fundraising for NAMI the past few years.” As of Monday, Bunny had raised close to $10,000 for the organization – and that’s for this year alone.

She’s passionate about erasing the stigma of mental illness, ensuring research on schizophrenia and reducing homelessness among the severely mentally ill. “At the time Martin was diagnosed there was no awareness of the disease. People in the profession blamed the mothers,” she said. “Martin is 66 now, and sometimes I think [society at large] still blames the mother. But mental illness is all over the country, and no one knows exactly what goes wrong with the wiring in the brain.”

Bunny is also dedicated to bringing mental illness out into the open – to have the necessary conversations to give patients and their families hope. The mother of four, she remembers the veils of shame and secrecy that isolated families with a mentally ill child. Martin’s three siblings rarely invited friends to the house for fear he might have an outburst. “It was a silent illness. We didn’t talk about it. I’m so grateful for the support circles and the Family-to-Family programs that NAMI runs.”

Family members with a mentally ill relative staff NAMI’s Family-to- Family program. These volunteers are trained to provide information on everything from medication to day programs. Family-to-Family serves as a resource for the latest research and as an information clearinghouse for caretakers dealing with a loved one’s relapse.

Bunny has helped Martin through his own relapses. Like many people diagnosed with schizophrenia, he has often stopped taking his medication when he felt better. Bunny observes that he underestimates the role that medication plays when he begins to improve. “Medication is tough,” Bunny said. “A lot of it has been trial and error for Martin, and sometimes he feels like a guinea pig. But mental illness is like any other chronic disease. If you have a heart condition or diabetes, you need your medication in the same way.”

The day after the walk-a-thon is Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum. It’s also Mother’s Day, and Bunny and Martin plan to spend the afternoon together at one of their favorite places among the flowers.

Thank You, Gloria Steinem by Judy Bolton-Fasman

 

A while back, my son Adam and I struck a deal. He could stay up late for a Harry Potter flick if he watched a documentary with me called, Gloria in Her Words. The “Gloria” of the title was, of course, Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem is what Maya Angelou calls a “shero” of mine. She cleared the way for my mother to go to graduate school and open up her own checking account. She is the woman responsible for the fact that medical and law school classes are almost 50 percent women.

True, there can never exactly be another Gloria Steinem. She oversaw an unprecedented social revolution that transformed the world forever. But there doesn’t seem on obvious heir ready to take the mantle of feminist leadership from Steinem. Why is that? By my count we’re on the fourth wave of feminism.

Where is this generation’s Gloria Steinem?  Where is the one true, clear voice decrying the Ultrasound Bill? In 2012 seven states require a woman to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. And that bill was downgraded from a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound—a decidedly more painful and humiliating procedure. Where is the outrage over degrading a woman that has elected to have a legal medical procedure?

I’d like to tell you that discovering Steinem and understanding the origins of gender equality thrilled Adam. Alas, he passed most of the time playing with his Game Boy (note there is no Game Girl) until it was time to board the Hogwarts Express. But I take his disinterest as evidence of Gloria Steinem’s stunning success. Professional women, working women are the rule rather than the exception for him. He doesn’t think it’s unusual that his sister wants to become a doctor.

At one point in the documentary, Adam paused his game when archival footage of the suffrage movement caught his attention. He was shocked that women had not always been allowed to vote. His great-grandmother – who came to this country when she was barely 2 – was 30 years old when she legally cast her first vote.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. When I was a child that meant that women finally had their own cigarette brand. By the time I was a teenager, we got our first national magazine. One of the documentary’s biggest hoots was to hear the male anchormen of my childhood predict the demise of Ms. Magazine and trip over the dated words: “women’s liberation.”

Ms. Magazine took off and in high schools and colleges more women were gradually added to the cannon in literature courses. Thank you, Gloria Steinem. But we’re not there yet. According to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, women have been notably absent on a number of literary prize shortlists this season. That might only seem reasonable to the novelist V.S. Naipaul, who thinks no woman is his literary equal. I dare him to say that in front of Toni Morrison.

When I was Adam’s age I was stumped by a riddle about a father and son who get into a car accident and need surgery. The surgeon on call takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child; he’s my son.”

“Why?” I asked Adam. “That’s easy,” Adam said. “The surgeon is the boy’s mother.”

Thank you, Gloria Steinem.

 

 

The Modesty Wars by Judy Bolton-Fasman


Dear Chaya Mushka:

I read that your name is the most popular one among young Lubavitch women. It’s the name of the late Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the fabled Lubavitcher Rebbe. Anywhere you turn in a Bais Yaakov seminary there’s a Chaya Mushka.

I admire the Lubavitch movement for many reasons, not least of which is that my children will soon set off into this great big world. Who knows if they’ll go hiking in Peru, ashram hopping in India or honeymooning in New Zealand? What I do know is that there is likely to be a Chabad outpost nearby to help them be Jews when they most need it. Even a post-modern, skeptical Jew like me can’t help but admire your movement’s dedication and organization. You’re like MasterCard, for heaven’s sake; you’re everywhere I need you to be.

In that spirit, your sisters in Israel – and anywhere else there is oppression of Jewish women – need you, Chaya Mushka. It isn’t just that they’re relegated to the back of a public bus in Israel or even New York. They are the victims of a so-called modesty movement.

Scene from “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women.
We all know that modesty is crucial to an observant woman. Skirt hems and sleeve lengths must cover most of her body. I try not to be judgmental. I know that sometimes we get into situations that are not of our making. Sometimes these dilemmas are as suffocating as a locked trunk. Not many of us are Houdinis, so we do the best we can to survive. But this time, we must speak out.

I’m not asking the Chaya Mushkas of the world to desegregate the public bus lines in Israel singlehandedly. I want you to do something much more long term. I want you to tell your sons that obsessing about a woman’s modesty is, in fact, wantonly sexualizing her.

And if you can manage to see one film this year, watch “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women. Better yet, view it with your sons and daughters. The film, which centers on two young women who have left their haredi communities, will probably make you uncomfortable. But I sense you’ll recognize a bit of yourselves in Sara Einfeld and Shulamit Weintraub. They fled their Gur Hasidic families. I realize your world is more expansive than that of the Gurs. Yes, you follow strict guidelines in dress, behavior and food. But you are educated women, the dream progeny of Sara Schnerir, a seamstress who lived in the late 19th century and founded the Bais Yaakov seminaries.

Equality is a slippery word between us. You think you’re exempt from certain commandments because motherhood is a higher calling. I think that’s a convenient excuse to exclude you from Jewish ritual. But let’s leave equality out of our discussion for the moment and talk about human dignity. You may not completely empathize with Sara and Shulamit as you watch “Black Bus.” But Sara writes a popular blog in Israel called “The Hole in the Sheet” that’s a window into your sisters’ lives in haredi communities. At one point, Sara interviews a former Hasid who tells her that he was taught to be disgusted by women. Not only would he avert his eyes when he saw a woman on the street, he would order women old enough to be his grandmother to wear a scarf over their wigs when they entered the synagogue.

Shulamit takes pictures on the busiest street in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. The women react to her camera as if she’s pointed a gun at them. No one wants to talk. No one wants to be seen. One woman hides behind the stroller she’s pushing. Off camera she tells Shulamit that she rarely leaves her home, and when she’s in public she tries to use side streets.

Chaya Mushka, you have more authority than I do to tell these men that this is not the Torah of their fathers or their mothers.

I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is about a siddur from 1471, which replaces the traditional prayer recited by women – “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for creating me according to Your will” – with this: “Blessed Are You Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for You have made me a woman and not a man.” Clearly, this is a response to the prayer said by observant Jewish men: “Blessed are You for not creating me a woman.” Maybe a woman commissioned this medieval Italian prayer book, I don’t know. But I think the degree to which women have been recently degraded is strictly the depraved interpretation of a few cruel and insecure contemporary haredim.

The second is a picture I recently saw in The Jerusalem Report. Someone caught haredi girls frolicking in a public fountain in Jerusalem. Despite their teachers’ warnings to stop, the girls continued playing. The picture captures the pure joy of simply being a young woman.

Remember that image of your younger sisters when you refuse to step to the back of the bus.