My Father’s Centennial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First They Came for the Muslims by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If things become absurd enough, out of control enough, and quite frankly tragic enough, then my friend N and I have a date to register as Muslims together. It will be my only acknowledgement of Donald Trump’s racist mandate to humiliate our Muslim sisters and brothers, our fellow Americans by asking them to wear a metaphoric armband.

The Holocaust continues to teach us lessons about inhumanity. It was not so long ago—in fact in many of our parents’ lifetimes—that Jews were required to come forward in Germany and then throughout Europe. What followed in just a few short years was one of the most horrific ruptures in history.

N and I met at the all-boys private school our sons first attended in seventh grade. Beyond the classroom, our sons gravitated to each other in the debate club, on the soccer field and in chorus. That was the year that my son, one of the few Jewish boys in the class, soloed ‘Deck the Halls’ in the annual Christmas Concert. N and I laughed at the irony. On the soccer field we talked about peace in the Middle East. N, originally from Pakistan, said how much she wanted to see all of the religious holy sites in Israel. Although I understand the rationale behind it, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that if we traveled together to Israel she would be searched and I would not. Perhaps she, in turn, didn’t want to think about the reception my Israel-stamped passport would receive in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. We were simply friends, confidantes and mothers. On Christmas, our boys were among the minority of the minority, not celebrating the holiday. They went to the movies and played video games at N’s house on Christmas Eve.Our boys are now freshman at large universities. But during those early soccer games, N and I wondered out loud if their friendship was a tiny step towards peace.

I tell you this not to demonstrate my liberalism, but to share my humanity. I panic when I think of the kind of world Trump and others want to impose on my children, on N’s children. I think of the plight of Danish Jews during the Holocaust. Contrary to popular legend King Christian X and his subjects did not wear a yellow Jewish star, but neither did the country’s Jewish citizens. No one was labeled.

I just came back from Israel. My time there was in the midst of a terror spree. N texted me to make sure I was safe. That is what our friendship is about—we put aside stereotypes and engage with each other as sisters, as mothers, as women. We’ll often bring up customs in our respective traditions that challenge us. N only covers her head in the mosque. I try and figure out the world through my egalitarian Judaism. N and her family spend Rosh Hashana and Passover with us—it’s a holiday that brings back to her special memories of her beloved elderly neighbor who taught her how to make gefillte fish. We’ve both tasted the bitter herbs of our traditions as well as the sweetness of hope that we find in them.

A writer once described herself as “complicated with Judaism.” I am also complicated with my Judaism as well as with N’s Islam. I repurpose Rev. Martin Niemölle’s famous, poetic speech about the cowardice of Germans who failed to speak against the Nazi persecution of the Jews to my own time. If I do not speak up for my Muslim friend, who will be left to “speak up when they come for me.”

This op-ed originally appeared in the December 11, 2015 issue of The Jewish Advocate

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.”

Monster Love by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I met my first boyfriend Monster by way of the Hebrew Home when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. His great-grandfather had a room across the hall from my grandmother. My mother and his grandmother were often the only relatives visiting the place. They started talking about this and that and soon planned to fix up their children.

Monster’s grandmother brought his high school picture for my mother’s inspection. A portrait really—retouched in rosy-cheeked pink and framed in a heavy dark wood. He was exactly the kind of boy she had in mind for me and for her. Monster’s grandmother saw the proofs of my high school yearbook picture—raw and unfinished and scarred with acne. Monster called anyway.

Rugby-shirted, tall with dark curly hair, he was was the handsomest, most grown up boy I had ever seen. He asked if my big sister was home when he picked me up. That first date lasted eight years.

Shortly after, Monster left me behind in high school for his freshman year of college. I wrote to him like crazy and thought this is what love feels like—the urge to pen long letters about everything and nothing. He wrote back that everyone in his class, including him, wanted to be a doctor.

The next year, I went to college locally. Monster’s mother cooked food for him that she froze and delivered to me. I took a train down to see him and brought those meals in a duffel bag I could barely carry. My roommate called me Judy Birdseye and Monster called me Burger after the frozen hamburger patties. By the time I reached him, the bags were sweating, beaded all over with drops of water.

After I graduated from college, I went to New York to continue with Monster who was in medical school by then. I found a publishing job that came with a meager paycheck. I rented a hole of a room six blocks and two avenues away from my boyfriend in an unairconditioned, overheated Y. This all seemed reasonable at the time.

But as soon as I arrived at the Y Monster abandoned me. He wanted to compare. He met women everywhere—in restaurants, bookstores, buses. Two months later I took him back after just one phone call. He was flunking out of medical school.

I quizzed him until he passed two out of the three classes, but he couldn’t make a go of microbiology. He would have to repeat the entire subject and the only accredited course was in Philadelphia. I lied to everyone about Monster’s whereabouts that summer. I told his roommate that he was on an extended vacation in Mexico recuperating from a tough year.

In an era before cell phones, Monster waited at the same phone booth each night for my call. “Why do I have to learn so much microbiology?” he lamented. “What does it have to do with being a doctor?”

At the end of the summer I walked Monster to his microbiology test. It was like accompanying a condemned man to his hanging. He passed, but barely, and I moved in with him in his third year of medical school. He gave me half of his closet, two drawers and insomnia.

Monster and I never broke up exactly. But I knew our time had run out when I watched him walk across a dais to receive his medical school diploma. Soon after I moved back to the Y and waited for him to call anyway.

Twenty years later, one of my mother’s daily scans of the obituaries in my hometown newspaper turned up a notice that Monster’s father had died. My condolence note brought us to a restaurant in Boston. Monster wore a dark suit to lunch. He gave me a dozen roses. He was bald. His hands shook when he held his turkey club sandwich. He had a lawyer on retainer to keep his teen-age son out of trouble. His soon to be ex-wife frequently locked him out of the house.

That afternoon I talked and Monster listened. I told him that a man should only have to apologize once. I told him that I was happily married and the mother of two beautiful children. I told him that I still have a recurring nightmare in which I call information and the operator says that his number is unpublished.

I almost felt sorry for Monster during that lunch. But then I didn’t. Lunch was finished and so were we.

This essay originally appeared on the Forward’s Sisterhood Blog

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.