My Grandmother’ Tallit

It’s been five years since my daughter Anna had her bat mitzvah. In her bat mitzvah state of mind she had read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. She teased out meaning from her Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And she wore a tallit or a prayer shawl she picked out in Jerusalem. I’ve never felt any of the rituals my husband and I gifted her were truly mine, but my daughter didn’t think twice about accepting them. Her Bat Mitzvah was as much about her rights as a Jewish woman as it was her rite of passage.

When I look at Anna’s tallit—pink and silk and uniquely hers—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life. Family lore claims that she and her siblings made their way to Cuba after Greek soldiers kidnapped her sister and held her for ransom. Her father and brothers delivered the ransom on horseback and when the exchange was complete, there was just enough money left for passage to Havana. Abuela was a young teenager when she arrived in Havana.

Even in Cuba, nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important when Abuela intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He held the microphone like a preacher and told me a story from when he was a boy in Turkey. On his way to school he witnessed a Turko soldier stab an Armenian man to death. His family left for Cuba a week later. “Why Cuba?” I asked him. Spanish was easier to learn than English for a Ladino speaker.

The next day Abuelo came back for another recording session dressed for prayer. He wound the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placed the leather boxes on his forehead in the crook of his left arm. At twelve, I was approaching bat mitzvah age yet had no hope of winding leather straps of my own tefillin around my arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Turko,” she screamed at Abuelo as if he had stabbed me. Finding her voice, she said to me, “You can be anything you want.”

A few years ago Anna had a towel draped around her shoulders. She had been drying her hair. “Look Mom, my tallit,” she joked. I wished I had recorded the moment in memory of my Abuela, in honor of the future. But more importantly, I wished that Abuela could have seen her great-granddaughter happily wearing her tallit and celebrating her coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

My Nest

Here’s a joke that I recently heard. An optimist sees the glass half-full. A pessimist sees the glass half-empty. An opportunist drinks the water. Not all that coincidentally, these describe the various emotional states of my half-occupied nest. Sometimes it’s half-full; sometimes it’s half-empty. Although there is more time and space in my house since Anna left for college, I’m still shocked that she packed up and moved away a five hour drive from me. Bearing in mind that our daughter wakes up every day almost 300 miles away, here’s a very short list of what’s changed at my house.

The bedroom. Be careful what you wish for because it may come true. Before she left for school, we blasted Anna’s room, clearing over eight years of detritus. We were sorting stuff that dated all the way back to 4th grade. There was that book project Anna couldn’t part with or that oh so pretty party dress that she wore on the bar mitzvah circuit six years ago! Six years ago?! Mind-boggling. In fact, Parents’ Weekend at Anna’s school falls on the fifth anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah. The quiet, clean bedroom matches the quiet, sort of clean house. I don’t mean to say that Anna is loud. But there is a liveliness, a spirit of wonder and a megawatt smile that she brings into a room. And with her departure for college, I’m now the only girl in the house. Even the dog is a boy and like the men in this house he could care less about the fabulous sweaters and pocketbooks that I find on sale.

The car. Anna never made the deadline we gave her for getting her driver’s license. Even her learner’s permit has expired. This means that Anna needed rides early and often. The longest ride we had together was between her school and Adam’s. I’ll admit I was almost always grumpy about the prospect of driving 15 miles in traffic between schools. But my annoyance evaporated when Anna got in the car and we had a half-hour to ourselves. We put the time to good use. We’d talk about the books she was reading, the people she was hanging out with, the latest doings at Student Council. The car ride was the teenage equivalent of lying down with her before she fell asleep. When she was a little girl that was the time that I learned what was near and dear to her heart, or conversely, what broke her heart.

Mealtime. Anna’s acute dairy allergy shaped who she was and, consequently, who we became as a family. Over the years Ken and I worked to help her advocate for herself at a birthday party or a restaurant. It turns out that Anna’s allergy also informed our Judaism. Since we had such little dairy in our house and we had made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, it was not such a big leap for us to start keeping kosher. At first, we practiced keeping kosher using our non-kosher dishes. That is to say, we didn’t buy new plates or get a second set of plates to separate meat from dairy more fully. The fully stocked kosher kitchen was a natural outcome of our kitchen remodel. Everything was new including a dishwasher with two drawers—one for meat and one for milk. Nevertheless, we mainly lived a meat and pareve existence. When Anna left for college, I was sure that we would have a dairy fest every night in the house. I’ll admit that for the first couple of weeks we went wild and crazy with cheese tortellini and traded some of our Mother’s pareve margarine for a tub of butter. But it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. There was something disloyal about indulging in all that dairy and so barely realizing it we went back to our pareve life.

The brother. In many ways, Anna’s departure has been hardest on Adam. When it became clear that Anna was indeed going to college he got downright depressed at the thought of being the only child at home. He’d mumble under his breath, “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck with those two. “ Those two, in case you haven’t figured it out, are Ken and me. I tried not to be insulted and chalked up his rudeness to anticipatory anxiety. It’s been six weeks since Anna settled into a dorm room with posters of Coldplay and the Beatles, and Adam still can’t believe he’s stuck with the two of us. I thought he’d be thrilled to be picked up on time and have unfettered access to parmesan cheese. It turns out he was just making noise about those things. He’d rather have Anna home.

When it’s all said and done, this half-empty nest, or depending on a given day, half- full nest, is ultimately emotional limbo. I’m not exactly pushing Adam out the door, but I’m kind of curious about what being an opportunist feels like.

Ghosts of Sukkot Past

Sukkot is here and my guests are on the way. Like Chagall’s lovers they fly over the silver moon; their white gauzy clothing double as wings. I greet them in the sukkah—a makeshift structure akin to a hut that we build from a kit. The sukkah also has a roof with slats generously spaced to see the sun and the moon and the stars.

The company I’m talking about stargazing with is called ushpizin—the Hebrew term for mystical guests who will grace sukkot (plural of sukkah) all over the world on each of the seven nights of the holiday. This is my kind of celebration. When I was a kid I loved reenactments of historical events. The old sitcom Bewitched tickled me because someone like Columbus or Shakespeare came alive for me.

To that end, I have a wish list of historical figures I’ve always wanted to meet. Moses and Leah top my list. No one is more associated with the Torah than Moses. In my mind, he’s an inspiration because so much of his leadership was marked by doubt. As a parent in the 21st century, I take solace in the fact that even with God’s direct intervention, Moses still had a difficult time leading the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Leah is my role model as a mother. Every parent has been a Leah at some point—taken for granted, ignored, but still triumphant in ordinary yet miraculous ways.

The Rachel that I want to meet was Rabbi Akiva’s wife. I like her rebelliousness. She was from a prosperous family who followed her heart and married the illiterate Akiva against her family’s wishes. To complete the fairytale, she recognized Akiva’s natural genius and encouraged him to learn to read when he was 40. Forty! Akiva excelled in his studies beyond their wildest dreams. Rachel was alone for years as he studied and taught in the greatest Jewish academies.

In his absence, Rachel coped with grace and fortitude. I want to ask her how she did it. I want to know if she was as disoriented as I am when my husband is only away for a week on a business trip. I want to know how she controlled herself when her husband finally came home and his students, protective of their beloved teacher, did not let her through the throng to greet him. When Akiva realized what was happening, he ordered his students to let Rachel pass immediately. He told them that she single-handedly was responsible for everything that he and his students had attained. I want to know if witnessing her husband’s success was worth sacrificing his company all those years.

I want to introduce my daughter Anna to Sara Schenirer. Hunched over her sewing machine, she had a revelation. Or was it a moment of despair that gave way to lucidity? She dared to imagine girls in their own schools studying Torah. It was a radical idea in the late 19th century. Although nowhere near egalitarian, the fact that girls had a classroom of their own to be formally educated was inspiring and enduring and just. I want Anna to know that she is the direct beneficiary of Sara Schenirer’s prescience.

I love spirits. I buy into the notion that there are other times during the year for formal visitation from phantasmagoric souls. There are the seven days of shiva or mourning. The week during which the sheva b’rachot—the seven blessings following a marriage—are celebrated. We boldly mingle with our ancestors on Passover when Elijah joins us and Miriam remembers us with a shake of her timbrel.

But it’s on Sukkot that I reflect on people I would give almost anything to see again. I close my eyes and see my father healthy and strong. I remember my father-in-law’s mega-watt smile and can-do optimism. I feel the presence of Anna’s namesake—a grandmother whom I adored. I miss my friend Miriam so much that I ache. My sukkah is a space painted in a full spectrum of memories and emotional colors.

It makes sense that a holiday that welcomes ghosts to the dinner table would end with Yizkor—the service to memorialize the dead. Yom Kippur and the three harvest festivals—Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot—are the four times a year there is time and space to mingle with loved ones who have died.

What comforts me most about remembering my dead on Sukkot is that I can walk out of my fragile sukkah into the sturdy structure of community where, I believe, a lot of people understand that otherworldly visitors frequently stop by throughout the year.

 

 

In the Gray Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about color lately. Or more to the point, the presence and absence of light that make up white and black. I think all this consideration of color reflects the fact that I’ve been vacillating somewhere between hope and despair this High Holiday season. It’s a state of mind that squarely puts me in the middle of the gray zone. That’s Adam’s term for these ten intermittent days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I clearly remember when he first mentioned the gray zone. It was fifth grade and he had just learned about the Ten Days of Awe—the days between the High Holidays. He didn’t see anything awesome about being suspended in doubt and self-criticism.

Which leads me to the conundrum at the heart of the gray zone discussions I had with him. How do you explain the High Holidays to kids without scaring the living daylights out of them? Just the images alone send me into black hibernation. No light, no consciousness. Let God add and erase names in the Book of Life without my awareness.

But that’s not exactly good role modeling. If there’s anything that should be deleted it’s our understanding of the Sunday School God that dips a feathered quill into ink and enters names as part of some macabre accounting. The God I first became acquainted with had a flowing white beard. When I was a little older, he looked exactly like my Uncle Mac of the booming voice and the rosy cheeks. Uncle Mac was God on earth. I imagine that most kids cope with God as the ultimate abstraction by pretending that He’s some version of their own Uncle Mac.In this patch of gray that Adam constructed as a little boy, it followed that God is also gray. But it’s impossible to see anything through the fog that shrouds Him. Also, note how useless it is to shine headlights in the fog. The light reflects back, illuminating nothing. Maybe that’s the hard-edged perspective of an adult.

I found a lovely children’s book called Because Nothing Looks Like God [(http://www.amazon.com/Because-Nothing-Looks-Like-God/dp/158023092X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347850420&sr=1-1&keywords=because+nothing+looks+like+god)] by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner that breathes life into some of my grown-up jadedness. God is in the details like a birthday cake, the band-aid that fixes a cut. Ultimately, “God looks like nothing. And nothing looks like God.” The authors challenge children to think about how many things we can’t see like the wind, or the sun drying or the joyous moments of a day at the beach. I ‘d also ask kids to think about what love does and does not look like.

But how do you explain God to a teenager whose earliest memories are singed with images of burning towers? What do you say to your children after you’ve been pulled over by airport security for a more thorough search? You’re part of the danger in this very dangerous world? Or let’s turn to the more mundane. You work hard and you study hard and still that A or that role in the play eludes you. Does God have more important matters to attend to than the disappointments in your life?  Or is God simply too distracted these days to care about your problems. “First world problems,” shrugs Adam the now-jaded teenager. That’s his default position to deal with his disillusionment.

Maybe I’m taking all of this too literally. Children grow into more sophisticated thinkers, leaving a parent like me stuck in the concreteness of pshat—the Jewish term for biblical literalism. I envy my teens who, these days, are in the thick of drash—extracting meaning from the subtext of a story or a new situation. Maybe my time in the gray zone is best spent listening to my kids explain life to me.

This is also the time of year when we read Leviticus 18 on the afternoon of Yom Kippur—a verse that many take in as pshat to condemn gay marriage. At first glance it seems odd to be worrying about forbidden unions on a day when the gates of heaven are clanging shut. (More concreteness.) But who knew that the gray zone could be conducive to a personal and loving discussion on sex education with your kids. Who shall live and who shall die can be transformed into a celebration of whom we love. Who will we love better and more thoughtfully in this New Year?

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century, said “there are many halls in the king’s palace and intricate keys to all the doors. But the master key to God’s house is a broken heart.” That leads up to one of my favorite sayings in the Talmud—“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” And there’s no better place to learn that than in the space that Adam, in his little boy wisdom, once dubbed the gray zone.

Going to School on Rosh Hashana

This year my 15-year old son and I are having yet another conversation about Judaism’s High Holy Days. He’s intent on capitalizing on his hard-won victory last year, the outcome of which was that he went to school on the second day of Rosh Hashana. This was no small concession for his parents. His father and I had never attended school on the High Holy Days while living under our parents’ roofs. But neither of us went to a high school as academically challenging as our son’s.

To read the rest of the essay please go to: http://nyti.ms/Ub6Xsr

The God of Our Foremothers–Why I am a Feminist Jew

I am a feminist Jew because I am the mother of a daughter and a son.

I am a feminist Jew because the God of my foremothers doesn’t recognize a caste system. When my G0d blessed Jacob’s children, he also blessed Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Yet it astounds that mentioning the God of my foremothers – the imahot – is still optional in the Conservative Jewish liturgy. To my mind, this sends a message that the imahot can be optional in the hearts and souls of our children.

I am a feminist Jew because I’m angry over the injustices too frequently lorded over Jewish women.

A few years ago, my children’s day school finally included the imahot in every prayer service. But it came after a struggle. The message that landed in my mailbox announced that in consultation with local Conservative rabbis, the school decided to include the imahot in the Amidah as standard practice. Amen. And yet the message felt perfunctory to me, as if our foremothers were shadowy figures. Had Abraham, Isaac and Jacob finally decided to share their God?

Perhaps lost in redaction, our foremothers are not mentioned as a group in the Bible, but thank goodness they star in many ancient and modern midrashim as role models and prophets.


I am a feminist Jew because Sarah was said to be a greater prophet than Abraham. She understood that God didn’t demand the sacrifice of her first-born son. During her pregnancy, Rebekah knew that she had two great nations inside of her, but that the fate of the Jewish people rested with her younger son. These women triumphed over infertility and infidelity (even when they sanctioned it). I am a feminist Jew because the imahot are summoned to help the Jewish people in times of distress. Rachel was buried at a strategic place on the road where she can hear the cries of her people in captivity. Her prayers uniquely move God on their behalf.

I am a feminist Jew because prayer is instinctively beautiful for Jewish women.

Prior to the modern debate over whether to include the imahot in the liturgy, women had the wisdom and clarity to call upon them in their own prayers throughout the centuries. The imahot are front and center in the techinot, prayers of Jewish women from medieval times through the 19th century.

I am a feminist Jew because our foremothers were called upon to help Jewish women express their deepest desires and most fervent hopes in both set and spontaneous prayer.

I am a feminist Jew because I can frequently call upon the God of my foremothers. God of Sarah, hear my prayers to keep my children safe in planes, trains, automobiles and all manner of place and time. God of Rebekah, help me to recognize perilous situations. God of Rachel, help me guide my children through disappointment and desperation. God of Leah, comfort me when someone doesn’t love my children the way they deserve to be cherished.

I am a feminist Jew because the G0d of Bilhah and Zilpah brings women to the foreground where they belong.

Some sources – the sources that shaped my vision as a feminist Jew – acknowledge Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah – the mothers of four of Israel’s 12 tribes – as matriarchs, bringing the number of imahot to six. In terms of Jewish symbolism, six corresponds to the six days of creation. Who on earth has been more responsible for the creation of the Jewish people than Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah?

I’ve read about the brouhaha of nursing a child in a public space. I am a feminist Jew because I know that Sarah, a mother who weaned her own child when he was 3 years old, would have defended these women asserting their right to be mothers. Rachel would have heard the cries of those hungry babies and interceded so that their mothers could do the most natural and loving thing in the world for their children – nourish them.

Leah continues to hear the prayers of all mothers who send their children to serve their countries in dangerous places. Rebekah hovers near mothers who must make tough choices for their children. Bilhah and Zilpah understand women who feel marginalized.

I am a feminist Jew because women recovered Leah’s story to teach my children and their children that the woman thought to be plain with weak eyes, was as strong and holy as her husband.

One of my favorite midrashim on the imahot addresses the order in which the matriarchs appear in the liturgy – God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. After the name Leah appears in the text, the next word is Ha-el – The God. Ha-el is Leah spelled backwards. This wordplay elevates Leah from second class wife to matriarch. Hers is the last name to linger after the initial blessing. Hers is the name that inverts the name of God.

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.

Swimming in the Sea of Parenthood

There are a few universities and colleges in this country from which I could never hope to graduate. These schools require matriculated students to pass a swimming test. I do not know how to swim. And I am terrified of making my way into water in which I cannot stand with my head above the surface.

Before World War II, passing a swimming test was part of the curriculum in many US universities and colleges. But by 1982, passing a swimming test was mandatory in less than 10 percent of them. Anna is matriculating at one of the holdout schools. Not a problem for her. I made sure that both of my children learned to swim at a very young age.

And, yes I’m aware that in the old-fashion parlance of the Talmud, a father is required to teach his son three things: The Torah, a trade and how to swim. That’s as great a blueprint for success as I could have hoped to devise. It presents a child with opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, financial security and self-protection.

My girl has to swim a few laps and then off she dives into her college career. I can remember the first time she put her face in a pool. She was 4, and my husband wisely said it was time for her to learn to swim. Off went my little girl to summer camp, where she’d have proper lessons. I never went to summer camp, and we all know the consequences of that missing link in my life.

I wasn’t so sure I wanted my little girl to go to a big-kid camp. But it was a camp that had a prekindergarten division with the sweet name of Owls’ Nest. Within days, she was proficient in the survivor’s float (known as the dead man’s float until someone wised up). Soon enough, she flipped over and floated on her back. I was amazed. I was relieved. My kid could swim. Almost.

The next summer my daughter graduated to two hours a day of instructional swim. Rain or shine – minus thunder and lightning – she was in the pool learning the breaststroke and the crawl. This was one way I measured that my girl was getting bigger and stronger. But then one day she got in the car and expressed my worst nightmare: “Today my counselor jumped into the pool with his clothes on to save me.” Then she asked me something mundane like what was for dinner that night.

When I got home, I found a message from the camp. Anna was never in danger. Her counselor saw that she had ventured into the deep end and scooped her up before she was literally in over her head. The word “save” was not mentioned. Later in the evening, my girl started grumbling that she didn’t want to go back to camp, and she certainly didn’t want to swim. I, the nonswimmer, knew she had to get back in that pool.

I’m reliving the arc of my child’s swimming story because it mirrors my feelings about my first child going to college. Once upon a time, swimming was completely new to her. It was a skill that challenged her and, at moments, frightened her. Ultimately she triumphed, and now, like the old cliché, she swims like a fish.

As for me, I still struggle mightily, learning to tread water in the shallow end. Right after Anna’s scare in the pool, I thought the camp was trying to cover up that she almost drowned. But soon after, I realized that she was never in danger. It just looked that way. So much parental worry stems from emotional perception.

Thirteen years later my little girl is going to a big school. I daresay she’ll pass her college swimming test. To say this is a time of transition for our family is a bit like thinking of Moby Dick as a big fish. But I have made sure she can swim. Take that as you will and apply it to other skills. I believe that my husband and I have invested in her academic success by supplying her with an education in which she has been challenged and has ultimately thrived. So, I suppose you could say that we’re well on our way to teaching her a trade by giving her a college education.

On the spiritual side of things, all we can do is hope that her Jewish day school career will emerge at various flashpoints during her college years. You can’t teach a child to be observant or to take the Torah into her heart. You can only instruct her in Torah so that she can make meaningful choices about her spiritual life.

And so it began with the doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool at a preschool summer camp and ends with swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool in a large university. That’s as good a metaphor as any, about parenting a child who is leaving home.

A Visit to Poland with a Camera and a Tombstone: Evan Kleinman’s ‘We Are Still Here’

The family was warm, familiar, Jewish. The grandparents’ English was charming, old-fashioned – glazed in a Yiddish accent.

Meet the Kleinmans, the focus of Evan Kleinman’s new documentary. The 28-year-old filmmaker turned the lens on himself to make the aptly titled “We Are Still Here,” about his trip to his grandparents’ Poland – a Poland that held sweet memories turned bitter and unimaginable.

Kleinman’s paternal grandparents grew up in shtetls near Krakow and were deported to concentration camps. On screen, his grandmother remembers her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and how she volunteered to go to Bergen-Belsen with her best friend.

Although Kleinman’s film records his particular legacy trip – a return to his roots with his father, mother and younger sister – it’s a universal home movie. The message of the film is that every Jew survived the Holocaust. This shared survival is what led to the founding of Boston 3G in 2009, the sponsors of the Boston debut of Kleinman’s film last week.

The group’s name, 3G, stands for the third generation of survivors. The group is made up of people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom are the grandchildren of survivors.

Liz Bobrow’s involvement in Boston 3G stems from her close relationship with her paternal grandparents. Both of them are Holocaust survivors whom Bobrow remembered as “very different from my other set of grandparents.

“While they loved me just as much, they were different,” she added. “They spoke with an accent and had funny quirks like always making sure I had enough to eat. I also recognized [as a child] that we didn’t have the big family reunions with my father’s side as we did with my mother’s side.”

Bobrow, Boston 3G’s president, also noted that this third generation has the “unique privilege of connecting with the survivors in a different way from the second generation. While our parents have become caretakers of the survivor generation, we are able to focus solely on who these people are and their incredible stories of survival. It gives the survivors comfort seeing that their stories are not being forgotten, that we are still telling them so many years later.”

“We Are Still Here” was organized around the central event of taking a tombstone back to Poland – a stone to mark Leib Kleinman’s grave. Leib was Evan’s great-uncle, his grandfather’s kid brother who died in a small concentration camp in central Poland.


“The stone is heavy,” the grandfather tells his grandson. The younger Kleinman has set up the context of his film so well that it’s clear that the weight of the tombstone is as difficult to bear as the history of the Jews in Poland.

But in an e-mail interview, the New York native was ebullient about his grandparents and unequivocal about their positive influence on him:

“They are the most powerful and inspiring people I know, and I wanted to be able to share them with other people and with future generations of my family. By doing a film it provided us with an exercise that would bring us closer together, capture our story, and also perhaps bring closure for them because they had not seen these places in 70 years. When my grandfather revealed to me that he could pinpoint the place where he buried his brother I felt beyond compelled to make sure his brother was memorialized.”

Kleinman’s preparations for the trip to Poland are as poignant as the trip itself. His grandfather sketches a map to help his family find his house in the small town of Sediszow. The grandson dutifully brings the map with him to Poland, and it’s almost miraculous when it proves to be useful and accurate.

In Poland, the four Kleinmans move through the country in a hazy dream. But their disorientation is frequently punctuated by moments of triumph. They find a birth certificate of another greatuncle. They find Leib’s burial place through determination and his brother’s description of a place he hadn’t been to in more than seven decades.

Kleinman is similarly scrupulous in showing that the buildings in Poland are a mixture of the old and the new. The observation is a living, breathing subtext of his portrayal of his family and the intense family history attached to them.

Kleinman’s film was also presented last month at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City as well as at a number of film festivals. Since the film’s debut, Kleinman has been gratified by the positive responses from his third generation of survivors.

“Many have voiced to me that the film inspired them to explore their own family history,” he said. “Also, many have told me that my family even reminds them of their own families.”

It’s the ultimate recognition for a young man who movingly portrays his third generation as “living links” to history.

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.