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.”

A Father’s Day Prayer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Amidah is so named because it is literally the standing prayer. As nineteen blessings unfurl during its recitation, one must stand perfectly still in the hope of connecting to G-d. I fondly remember the Amidah as my first sustained reading of Hebrew. I came to Hebrew later than my peers in Day School and so I read haltingly my first year there. The Amidah’s centrality and its inherent repetition—it’s said morning, noon and night—made it the perfect vehicle to ride towards fluency. The choreography of the Amidah appealed to me too—there are cues for bowing and for pounding the chest in repentance. In one variation or another the Amidah is the core of Jewish liturgy. And it begins by invoking the old guard at the outset:

Blessed are you Lord our G-d; G-d of our ancestors. G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebekah, G-d of Rachel and G-d of Leah.

What a group to take along on a search for G-d. Maybe the rabbis were on to something when they drew up this list (although the ancient mothers were originally omitted). These names form a canopy of memory over me much like the tent of Abraham and Sarah—the same tent that is the model on which the marriage canopy or huppah is based.

Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides—as exposed to the elements as it was to G-d’s will. On Father’s Day I will step into Abraham and Sarah’s metaphorical tent—buffeted by the winds of fate—fate that sometimes makes no sense to me. Or worse, makes me despair.

The Dads, the grandfathers in our family—the old guard—died in the early 2000s. This makes Father’s Day both sad and joyful as we memorialize them and celebrate their wonderful son and son-law. So here we are, Ken and I, one step closer to becoming the family elders—the old guard ourselves.

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

The traditional Jewish image that I think of when merging joy and sadness is a wedding. Hasidic folklore says that weddings are haunted because both the dead and the living dance together. The new fangled image for that maxim is the wedding video where there are so many of my dead who are alive on that tape (yes I got married in the era of VHS), dancing around Ken and me. It breaks my heart to watch it and so I haven’t in many years. But here is what I would see again: My father-in-law Dennis spiffy in his tux, his smile illuminating the tape brighter than the lights the videographer lugged around. Dennis, whom I called Dad too, died much too young of a brain tumor. In nine months he was gone and the world felt more precarious to me with his passing.

Our wedding video also features my father who was just beginning to decline from Parkinson’s disease. He and I shuffle down the aisle towards stairs leading to the huppah. It was only after viewing the video that I noticed Ken extended an arm to help my Dad up those steps. But that’s not the father that comes into my mind when I remember him. My dad had several incarnations. One of my favorite pictures of him is from the Second World War. He was a young ensign—twenty-two years-old and recruited into the navy as a Ninety-Day Wonder straight out of college. Ninety-Day Wonders were fast-tracked to become officers in just three months. That was my father—a wonder unto himself. A man who could learn anything quickly and completely.

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Then there is the father who had all three of us children in his forties. Throughout my childhood I never noticed that my athletic, handsome father was so much older than my friends’ dads. He was the dad who took brisk walks to do errands a couple of miles away. He put his patriotism on display at every holiday that called for a flag by leading us around the house to the beat of a John Philip Sousa march. He mailed me birthday cards as sweet as the cereals he forbade me to eat.

When I had just crossed over into adulthood there was the Dad who wrote me letters. He penned his advice in neat primer-school ink, placing his missives in envelopes in which he used blue ink for his return address, green ink for me the addressee, and red ink for the return address again, this time on the flap of the envelope. And then there was my Dad in his old age, frightened and confused, after he was stopped for driving over the median. The police officer didn’t have the heart to write him a ticket. He called my mother instead to tell her that he had no choice but to revoke Dad’s license.

Somewhere between the Amidah’s blessings for understanding and salvation comes an invocation for health to “remove from us all suffering and grief.” I don’t expect that to happen especially when I think of my dads. After all, everyone is vulnerable in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But I do pray that G-d sustains us in memory and love on Father’s Day and everyday.

 

 

A Father’s Pain: Andrew Solomon’s Interview with Peter Lanza by Judy Bolton-Fasman

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-yearold Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six school workers. He had also committed matricide before he turned the gun on himself.

Although 28 people died that day in Connecticut, 26 is the symbolic number etched on every memorial commemorating the tragedy. It’s the number of times church bells tolled in its aftermath. It’s the number of stars affixed to the roof of the local firehouse. And it’s the number that President Barack Obama invoked on the first anniversary of the shootings.

After reading Andrew Solomon’s powerful interview with Peter Lanza – Adam’s father – in a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is no question in my mind that Lanza commemorates the number of victims at 26. “You can’t mourn for the little boy [Adam] once was. You can’t fool yourself,” he told Solomon.

It’s fitting that Lanza broke his media silence with Solomon who, among his many journalistic and literary accomplishments, has championed the joys and difficulties of parenthood. Last year I wrote about Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” for this column. The book was an 11-year undertaking in which Solomon vividly portrayed children who were born or grew up in ways that their parents never expected. It included a chapter about parents whose children became criminals, focusing on the parents of Dylan Klebold. Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 fellow students at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Solomon’s portrayal of the Klebolds impressed Peter Lanza as fair and just, and when he was ready to talk, he reached out to Solomon. Lanza’s confidence in Solomon is well placed. Although the latter’s carefully reported piece directs a reader’s attention to the fact that things were amiss with Adam Lanza from an early age, he resists the temptation to regard Adam’s deterioration as foreshadowing the horror to come. Solomon further notes that the state’s attorney report found that the mental health professionals who treated Adam throughout his teen years did not predict his future criminal behavior. What strikes me in reading Solomon’s article is how hard Peter and Nancy Lanza tried to save their son, and how dangerous parenthood becomes when a child is as far gone as Adam was.

Adam’s anti-social behavior escalated in middle school and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 13. To be clear, Peter Lanza vehemently objects to any speculation that Asperger’s factored into Adam committing mass murder. “Asperger’s,” he told Solomon, “makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make them like this.”

Solomon similarly goes to great lengths to document that Asperger’s was not connected to Adam’s murderous rampage. “Violence by autistic people,” he explains, “is more commonly reactive than planned – triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition – from psychosis, in about 25 percent of cases.”

Among the other rumors swirling around the Lanzas was that Peter was an absent father. Nancy and Peter Lanza separated in 2003, when Adam was 9, and divorced in 2009. According to Solomon, the Lanzas were amicable when it came to Adam and his older brother. Peter saw his sons every weekend and, as four binders of printouts of emails from 2007 and 2008 suggest, was in constant contact with Nancy about Adam’s worsening condition.

Media reports noted that Nancy and Adam regularly went to the shooting range. Peter Lanza doesn’t overtly comment on the role that Nancy’s guns played in Adam’s psyche. Nor does he blame her, the custodial parent on the front lines, for Adam’s crimes. In that same forgiving spirit, Solomon observes that Adam overwhelmed Nancy and that her instinct was to indulge him.

“All parenting,” Solomon writes, “involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s errors seem to have been that she always focused on the day in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”

In the wake of the shootings, Peter Lanza has met with two of the victims’ families. But as Solomon reports, “The only reason that Peter was talking to anyone, including me, was to share information that might help other families or prevent another such event.” For his part, Peter says, “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.’”

No matter how vigorously Peter Lanza has looked for answers, there is only one chilling conclusion that he comes to: he wishes that his son had never been born. For the rest of us, we’re left wondering what we as parents would do if we were confronted with a child like Adam Lanza. There is no definitive explanation for what Adam did even as scientists analyze his DNA – just a haunting feeling that a parent’s responsibility can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

 

Sorting Through the Parent Backpack by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Anna was 11 years old, she asked if I would read “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her. Not one to want to miss out, Adam asked if he could also listen to the story.

I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain its apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that “Huckleberry Finn” is on Adam’s English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground.

I told that story recently to ML Nichols, author of the very helpful book “ The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.” In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that “reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child’s education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school.”

parentbackpack
Middle school? Isn’t that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols noted that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to: “ They won’t tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary.”

According to Nichols, the best way to support a child’s education is to model read for that child. “Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years,” she noted. “If a child doesn’t develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school.” Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children: “ Whether you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet – let your kids see you reading.”

Nichols’ wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard-won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children’s early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a bird’s-eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering.

“I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees,” she noted. “But it wasn’t until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I’d learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years.”

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child’s teacher is another cornerstone of his education. “I see our children’s elementary journey like a winding river,” she said. “ We’re on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we’re partners. Each of us does our part.” Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions: “Do your part,” she asserts. “Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don’t be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I’m also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn’t do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. Such conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers.”

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead, she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, “ That place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher.”

Adam is a junior in high school. I’m grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank-you note to his longtime academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone.

“Teachers,” says Nichols, “appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything.”

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

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

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

opt in

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Calendar Year by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve just bought a new calendar that spans from August to August. August is my Rosh Hashana—the head of a new year that holds milestones and obligations. But before I stash my 2012-2013 calendar in the recycling bin, I want to trace the arc of my ordinary extraordinary life over the past year.

calendar

Amidst the panoply of doctors’ appointments and deadlines there is one entry last August that stands out for me—the day we brought Anna to college for her freshman year. I noted it on August 17. Just a quick note to remind me (as if I could forget) that we’d be headed up and out of town. No details of how tightly the car was packed, how my freshman-to-be was so nervous she barely said anything during the six hour ride. There is no mention that on the return trip home, I cried for hours, Ken drove in a funk and Adam was too stunned to talk.

Then in September the world jolts back to life from the summer and there are dates with friends, book readings and more work deadlines. Sandwiched in between spurts of activity is a weekend trip put of town. Other than that brief mention, there is nothing about Anna’s homesickness and our family’s adjustment to Anna away at college. The high holidays are penciled in, but there is no way to infer that Anna would be at school for the holidays—her first time away from us on Rosh Hashana.

Last Rosh Hashana also marked the first time we allowed Adam to go to school albeit for only the second day. That decision was a momentous one for Ken and me. Neither of us had ever attended school on the high holidays under our parents’ roofs. Adam’s well-reasoned request begged the question of whether we had done the right thing to send him to a preparatory school where he bears the workload much like Atlas holds up the world.

October and November blur together except for one bright spot where we go back to college again for an official parents’ weekend. In less than two months our girl has carved out a lovely niche for herself in a big university. She gives us a lengthy tour of the campus and we walk through her busy schedule. Ken and I breathe a sigh of relief. She loves school. She has wonderful friends.

In December we learn to live with Anna all over again. It’s been over four months since she left for school. She has her own way of doing things and we have ours. Life is a series of adjustments and malleable curfews. Adam leapfrogs over the December dilemma in school—Hanukkah blending into Christmas—and all is well in preparation for the New Year. But I have a note in my calendar—Newtown, December 14. Small children gunned down in their classrooms. What my calendar doesn’t reflect is that I’ve carried images of these children in my heart alongside memories of my own children at that age.

By the middle of January Anna is ready to go back to school and we are more than happy to support her return. The past month has been cold and dark and very, very busy. Anna’s high school friends have been ringing the doorbell late in the evening and their powwows go on and on into the night. My girl regularly sleeps until eleven in the morning. And Adam complains about returning back to school from his relatively short vacation.

In my calendar the death of a young family friend will disrupt February forever. In March there is another school vacation for Anna. More late night powwows in our den until Anna finally leaves for school the day before Passover. My Gregorian calendar records an early Passover and my heart is slightly cracked when Anna decides she can’t miss a day of school and stay on for the Seders. Her reasons for finding a Seder at school are sound and sensible. My mind tiptoes around the question that if she were closer geographically, would we have had her for the first night at least.

In May Anna comes home and there is a flurry of activity, which somehow doesn’t include her replacing her expired learner’s permit. The calendar records her appointments and duties to which I must drive her. I secretly love this busyness. I’m a juggler by nature and parenthood has always been the perfect venue for me. By June we have our summer schedule in place. Adam masters the T and my girl finds a dependable ride to work.  The calendar goes quiet for weeks until Anna’s July birthday.

I’ve already filled in the new calendar a bit. Appointments, deadlines and social engagements—yet I very much live the solitary life of a writer. We’re up to year two of college for Anna and that ever-busy junior year of high school for Adam. As I flip through the still blank months, I’m reminded that I am no longer that younger self who can squander time. And no matter how much time fate has in store for me it will never be enough.