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.”

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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.

 

The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Breath of Schoolchildren by Judy Bolton-Fasman

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

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

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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