Launching My Debut Book In a Shmita Year

Judy Bolton-Fasman

Every seven years, Jews prepare for the year of Shmita—a word that means “release,” “letting go” and, my favorite, “letting slip from your hand.” This trio of evocations represents different ways of letting go: allowing the land to lie fallow, cessation of harvesting crops and forgiving debts.

This year, 5782, is another seventh year of Shmita. It is also the year I have launched my first book, “Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets,” into the world. The book took me the better part of 16 years to write, and the timing of introducing it in a Shmita year somehow feels blessed. I release, I let go and I let my words slip from my hand. Shmita also feels like a good time to dedicate the year to late bloomers. In my case, I published my first book at the age of 60. This is also the time to take a breath and a pause to survey what was and what is.

Before this Shmita year, COVID-19 brought humankind to a standstill. Amid the fear, the disinformation, the fog of never-ending illness, a lovely independent literary press offered me a book contract to publish “Asylum.” The press had the book for two years and made the offer out of the blue. In the new norm, I was picking up groceries curbside when the publisher called and asked if the book was still available. It was. My family secrets were about to march out and salute the public. I was conflicted. I wanted to publish my work while I also wanted to protect the people who populated it.

A couple of years before signing the book contract, I was in a world of trouble with my beloved aunt, my mother’s sister. My aunt is a second mother to me and an enthusiastic new Facebooker. She read everything I posted, including an essay I published about my grandfather—her father. The piece conveyed my traumatic experience of him, and she was furious about my portrayal. We eventually reconciled after a health crisis she maneuvered through, but I was afraid of telling her about the upcoming publication of “Asylum,” which went further than the essay, mainly when it came to the portrayal of my mother. But I am steadfast that my truth—a truth mixed with speculation and fact—pays homage to lives I chronicle.

After I wrote to her that “Asylum” would be published in a few months, she responded with a loving message that she was proud of me. I called her immediately and told her that although she and I had vastly different perspectives on our family history, I promised to consider the information carefully from the essay that had upset her. While I would not alter my story’s spirit or truth for an agitated relative, my aunt was different. As I readied the manuscript for publication, I found I could cut a couple of paragraphs without compromising my vision.

And then there was everyone else I imagined lining up for my apology. No one wants their skeletons set loose and waltzing with me in plain sight. But that’s not exactly what happened. Old college friends found me through my website after reading about “Asylum” in the alumni magazine and applauded me for writing the book. Strangers sought me out to thank me for writing an emotionally difficult story that lined up with their autobiographies. My father’s old neighbors tracked me down to reminisce and share pictures of him I had not seen. Our Zoom call was sweetly familial.

Throughout writing “Asylum,” I struggled with how much to reveal and how angry family members and exes might be with me. I was thrilled my book moved my Bolton cousins. One of them wrote: “We need a neologism for your particular and hard-won brand of faith—Judyism!”

Memories of my mother also drive the book. In her prime, she was a wily woman, a rabid woman, and she lurks in almost every chapter. There was silence from her Cubana side of the family about the portrayal except for a distant cousin who pointed out my Spanish phrases were occasionally ungrammatical. It was “jarring to read,” she said. She wondered if I, her half-gringa cousin, born and raised in Connecticut, did that on purpose? I did not. I wonder if she understood how much her comment hurt.

“Asylum” was published as the Shmita year was beginning. After 16 years of working on the book, it was time for me to let it “slip from my hand.” It was time to let the Shmita year’s purpose guide me. However, that proved to be complicated. To write a memoir is like living with a split-screen in your head; the present-day is on one side, and a reel of memories continuously rolls on the other—the prototype of the chaos of perfect memory.

It can be risky to front load the mind with so many memories. If the day’s writing goes well, the memories comfort me. If I am feeling unsteady, the memories torment me. Sixteen years of emotions whiplashing me. Sixteen years of toiling in my parents’ wide, tumultuous cultural and generational gaps. Sixteen years of feeling as if I were writing into a dark void. How would this book end? Would it ever end? When I wrote the last chapter, I surprised myself that I arrived at love and compassion in one take.

When I turned in the book’s final edits, it was eerie. I detached from the rational and willed the supernatural to fill the void of no more book to write. Then, a few days before the publication of “Asylum,” I startled awake in the middle of the night and saw my father’s face hovering above me. I was sure his big brown eyes could see into my soul. His wide grin gave me permission to publish the book, and I knew I was worthy of acting as my father’s medium. Worthy of acting as the channel through which my grown children, who do not remember him, could access him.

The idea of going on a book tour terrified me. As it happened, my first interview was with NPR, and I was out of my mind with gratitude and dread. I was a writer, someone at home with words spoken only in my head. The few times I had done any public speaking, I always had a script in front of me. Not this time—I would be answering questions cold, unrehearsed, vulnerable. I was sure no sound would come out of my gaping mouth.

Here is what happened: I realized that I alone was the expert of my life. That expertise gave way to a certain ease; there were even moments of eloquence. I discovered this at an event when I leaned into the rising crescendo in my voice as I singled out the women in my audience—there was an audience, I saw the number of Zoom participants—and assured them there was no correct way to make art. Art happens when sketching on napkins, scribbling notes on the back of an envelope. There is no age limit for who can make this art, and there is no expiration date on dreams. I had stumbled upon the “Judyism” my cousin had described. All of it—the readings, notes and messages, the pictures people sent posing with my book, and even the criticism—has made my Shmita year one to remember always.

This essay originally appeared on JewishBoston — https://www.jewishboston.com/read/and-then-launching-my-debut-book-in-a-shmita-year/

My Cuban Mother’s First and Only American Menorah

Judy Bolton-Fasman

December 1958 brings a fierce coldness that is nothing like anything you, my mother, have ever known. Snow touches the nape of your neck, and the chill of it makes you feel lonelier. You see your breath hanging in the air and you believe you will never be warm again. As you walk to your subway stop in Brooklyn, you conjure the Malecón – Havana’s esplanade along the water. Sabrosa – a delicious savoriness was in the salted air. In Brooklyn, it is the first of many times you try to transplant the warmth of your querida Cuba to a freezing American city.

The darkness of the bone-chilling winter frightens you. You are afraid of the dark –afraid of the phantoms populating your small room, phantoms that are people still alive in Havana. You see your parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins – all of them figure into the memories that come rushing to you in the middle of the night.

It seems it is always the middle of the night for you in America. You travel in dark, endless subway tunnels. Someone tells you to clutch your purse on the train, and you sit up stiff and fearful on the subway car’s rattan bench. You miss the pastel colors that stand out in Havana, particularly in the midday sun. Your hometown is infused with light. New York, on the other hand, is the punishing color of lead. Even at midday, it looks like a painting that has been left out in the rain.

Cuba is tipping into revolution, a social experiment that will go very wrong for your family. There is nothing left for you there. You are 22 years old and, shockingly, your father permits you to go alone to New York – a girl who hardly rides the bus alone in Havana. Distant cousins of his will rent a room to you. They will take care of you, your father promises.

You apply to the United Nations for work as an interpreter. When your application is rejected, you convince yourself that your dream of working for the UN is merely on hold. You speak perfect schoolgirl English, after all. You understand French but resent the language because it lords over Spanish as the language of diplomacy.

You tell yourself that typing invoices at the watch factory is temporary. Nevertheless, you make fast friends with the Hungarian girls who work on the assembly line. They have run away from their own revolution gone awry in Budapest. That was 1956, and they have two years of experience over you in your new city. On Fridays, they bring in homemade pastries that you eat and eat, and for the first time in your life, you are overweight.

You are adrift. Your sister is engaged; her wedding is on hold until you, the firstborn daughter, marry. Then come the days when the sun sets earlier and earlier, slowly draping your world in darkness. You wish that one of the Hungarian girls in the factory was Jewish. Hanukkah is coming, and you so want to light the menorah with someone. You scrimp and save and occasionally skip dinner to buy a hanukiyah.

You walk into a Judaica store and see a menorah; the beauty of its simplicity strikes you. The menorah is a golden bronze set on a dark green stand. The effect of the two colors is pretty. And green is your favorite color. Your eyes are a beautiful green that brightens by the ocean or deepens against your dark hair. You run your fingers over the four candleholders on either side of the large Star of David – eight in all for the eight days of Hanukkah. The shamash, the caretaker candle that will light the others, sits atop the all-encompassing Star, inspiring you to pray. This declarative Jewishness, never expressed in Cuba, is a miracle to you.

The woman who sells you the menorah asks where you are from. When you tell her you are from Cuba, she can’t believe that Jews live on your jewel of an island. She further doubts you are Jewish when you answer no, you do not speak Yiddish. You are a proud speaker of Ladino – a Judeo-Spanish your people have kept alive for centuries. She thinks you are a marrana – and hesitates before finally selling the menorah to you. When you light your new menorah, you will feel the shamash’s flame standing guard over you.

New York is the first place where your Jewishness is called into question, and you are angry. You are like Adam and Eve, the first man and woman when they initially experienced the early onset of the winter days. You are sure this darkness, this weather, is God’s punishment for sins you can’t remember committing. The world is reverting to the chaos of creation, and you try to stave off the encroaching turmoil each night as you light another Hanukkah candle. But the winter solstice was God’s restorative gift to Adam and Eve, a phenomenon you will not notice when it arrives the week after you light the last Hanukah candle.

Instead, pneumonia will leave you gasping for breath. The Hungarian girls from the watch factory bring you soup and bread. You don’t ask them if their offerings are kosher – you are desperate for nourishment, for their love. You lose the deposit you put down to take classes at Brooklyn College. You originally think that if you cannot be an interpreter, maybe you can earn a degree to teach.

Another midrash or story about Adam (and Eve too) is an inversion of your first year in America. At one point in his life, Adam’s world was so bright he could see beyond the generations of Noah and Sinai straight through to his descendants. How wonderful if you had had the same power. In 1958, you do not know that you will be married and expecting me, your first child, in two years. I am born a few days after the winter solstice. You name me Judith – Yehudit in Hebrew, the name of the woman who slipped out of her widow’s weeds to seduce a Greek general. She plied him with liquor until he was drunk, and then she beheaded him.  You do not see the connection between my name and the Hanukkah story. Though, I am sure to this day, you wish for me Judith’s bravery, her fierceness, her survival instincts.

Winter is soon coming again. Daylight will evaporate early. You are an elderly woman, and I am your silver-haired, middle-aged daughter. Our memories fall around us like the snow of your first winter. I rescue your menorah from the frenzied move out of the family home you lived in for 50 years. I don’t have the heart to scrape off the wax on it, symbolic as it is of the pile-up of your years in America. I bring your menorah to you in the nursing home and tell you that I will light it once again.

This essay first appeared on JewishBoston- November 16, 2021 https://www.jewishboston.com/read/my-immigrant-mothers-first-menorah-in-america/

Breathing Lessons

A few months ago, I had my first full-blown panic attack in almost two decades. The pattern was the same: I fall into a black, dreamless sleep and wake up less than an hour later. There are reasonable explanations for the return of my panic—the isolation of the pandemic, the accumulation of life’s stressors, or my favorite: the attack was a one-off. These facile reasons vie to pass for comfort. But for the most part, my panic disorder has been successfully treated with medication all these years.

Maybe what I’m experiencing is breath gone awry. The rise and fall of my chest from short, shallow intakes of oxygen. I swear my chest will pry open at any moment. I wake up and my nerves are so taut that I think this state of hyper-vigilance will last forever. My jagged breathing will kick off more panic and confusion. And then this departure: Did I have a heart attack? Did I die?

More than one therapist has told me that deeply inhaling is calming, steadying. I don’t discount that it can work for others. I wish it worked for me. I take that drag of air—refresh, refresh, refresh. I’m desperately seeking transformation. I want to breathe deeply enough to swipe right, then left, and clear away the anxiety. I envision a blind, whiting erasure. Clarity. A catch and release of breath.

Breathe in, breathe out—it’s constant. A person draws breath more than 25,000 times a day. So much breath—it’s dizzying. Breathing is an involuntary bodily function. You barely notice that you’re doing something so vital. The few times I tried yoga, the instructor said to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. I jumbled her instructions until I was panting.

Here is my downfall: I am a mouth breather. Heavy, loud, sometimes labored. When my husband points this out, I know he’s worried. But I hardly know I’m breathing this way; it’s simply how I exist. I do some reading on breathing and learn that when air enters the lungs, it is called “inspirational.” I love the double entendre. Breath stirs as it oxygenates the body. When air is released from the lungs, it is called “expiration.” I don’t like that double entendre. I feel as if I’ve died a little bit between breaths.

When I was 6 years old, my mother had a bout of pleurisy that inflamed the two thick layers of tissue separating her lungs from her chest wall. It hurt her to breathe. It scared me to see how thin her breathing had become. Her illness stole some of her 25,000 breaths. “I’m suffocating,” my mother croaked. At the same time, I had penicillin-resistant strep throat, and we shared a sick bed. I asked my mother if we were going to die. It was the first time I felt dread and panic. It was the first time I understood death as something that could happen to my mother and me.

I do more research on breathing as if this will rope me back from panic’s stratosphere. The diaphragm contracts during inspiration. The external muscles elevate the ribs and the sternum. A therapist once made a recording for me in which he instructed to regulate my breathing. He called it a relaxation tape. “Fill your diaphragm with breath,” he said in an even and soothing voice. I make a mental note that what goes in must come out. I don’t parse the logic of that observation; I don’t acknowledge that it’s not necessarily true.

Expiration is less voluntary. The diaphragm returns to its resting position, and the external muscles relax enough to depress the ribs and sternum. If all goes right, I know that I will live through the panic attack. I will live to see daybreak even though my mind is hopped up on adrenalin. The lungs inflate, then the lungs deflate. And yet, my breath sabotages me.

“Think of it as a balloon,” the same therapist tells me. “You breathe, so oxygen enters your bloodstream to circulate to the brain and vital organs.” I doubt myself. I’m too jumpy to engage in such a smooth, physiological operation. He goes on to tell me that I expel carbon dioxide when I exhale. It’s a waste product the body produces. But here’s the rub: If I don’t exhale completely, some carbon dioxide remains in the body, and I may yawn or become fatigued.

Here’s what I learn from my insomniac research: If carbon dioxide remains in the body, it affects the nervous system and cardiac functioning. This is the kind of information that trips my body into high alert. My heart is beating so loudly that my vision blurs. Bam, bam, bam—I can’t hear, so I can’t see. A panic-inducing episode, if ever there was one.

Anxiety is attributable to an inciting incident. Panic is the hunter that attacks out of nowhere during the blue-black night. Here is my own cobbled physiology lesson: A river of adrenaline pollutes my oxygen intake. My breath, uneven as Morse code, terrorizes me. The clonazepam brings my heart rate down. I roll into the mantra that “I will live, I will live.” The medicine will work. I will work. Panic is the aggressor, but I will win back my life with that medicine.

I go back to sleep. I am well until the next time.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com

Dear God, What Is Happening to My Country?

Dear God, what has happened to my country, to this sweet land of liberty? When my father taught my Cuban mother and me the words of “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee),” we placed our hands over our hearts. He also patiently coached us to memorize the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Pledge of Allegiance. “Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Those words indicate America’s promise to my parents, to me and to my children.

Dear God, one of my father’s heroes, Abraham Lincoln, declared that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In this dark, fretful moment, it feels like we are in a de facto civil war with other Americans that I cannot comprehend. We cannot hear each other across the great chasm between us.

Dear God, you surely remember when a teacher at my Jewish day school impressed and scared me in equal measure with this image: When we die, our lives are played out like a movie, which God watches with us. Who will view the movie of the insurrection at the Capitol with God? Will it be the man wearing the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt with the grinning skull and the awkward translation of the Nazi motto “work brings freedom”? Will it be the man sitting with his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk? Will it be the man carrying the speaker’s lectern that he ripped out of the House chamber? Will your heart break, in whatever form that may be, like mine did when I glimpsed the brave, resolute bald eagle engraved on the House of Representative’s seal?

Dear God, in the wildest nightmares I conjured during this presidency, I never thought I would see a marauding mob so deliberately assault our democracy. We cannot undo those images of that terrifying breaking and entering into the “House of the People.” Windows smashed and blood splattered on busts. Lives lost and lives upended. Is this my United States of America? I cannot stop thinking that this breach happened during the certification of a presidential election—a crucial part of the regular, peaceful transition of power.

I’m trying to understand that these domestic terrorists are your children too. The election was won fairly; it was an election that reflected the will of the people. I’m repeating what you know. Vulnerable flesh and bone that I am, I can’t stop from looking again and again at the images of people desecrating the House chamber by looting and occupying the sacred spaces of our republic. Those images shock me. They aggrieve me. They terrify me.

Dear God, my love for America, my red, white and blue patriotism runs deeply through my DNA. My father, a veteran of World War II, loved this country with ferocity. His dedication to America was akin to a religious experience. These songs formed his patriotism; they comprised his liturgy. When we review the movie of my life together, you will see me and my sister and my brother marching around our childhood home waving small American flags on the Fourth of July with Dad in the lead. You will see me stand with my father in our den when the national anthem comes on over the television. You will see us once again place our hands over our hearts. As Dad and I sing together, he will cry.

My father was a student of history. A much-older dad, he entered college during the Great Depression; he was an officer on a supply ship during World War II. He revered the secret ballot and never revealed for whom he voted. And I remember how very proud he was of our country for the way we peacefully transitioned power from one president to the next. He proclaimed that we were the United States of America, and there was no country on earth greater or more moral than ours. There was an innocence to my father’s patriotism. It’s an innocence that I will always cherish. I love that this is the unique optimism of a man who lived through a world war. I like to think that I carry that optimism too.

Dear God, it is unthinkable not to stand up and fight for our democracy. I therefore ask you to help me to be calm, to steady my voice so that I will effectively protect this land that my father cherished. I ask you to allow me to sit with my grief until it becomes action. And I plead with you to help me to forgive. Allow me to take to heart the words of the psalmist: “For God’s wrath lasts but a moment; life results from God’s favor; in the evening, weeping may tarry, but in the morning there is joyful singing.”

It will take time for the shock, the anger, to begin to lift. I am not ready to sing yet. But I am my father’s daughter, and I believe that joy is coming. “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

On Turning Sixty and Staying Gray in a Pandemic

There is a wonderful sisterhood ready to welcome me to my 60s—to usher me into a Shechecheyanu moment, that prayerful stopgap that launches “a season of joy” while acknowledging a new or unique experience. The older I am, the more urgent it is to perpetuate the rituals that have sustained me these 60 years. I feel the magnitude of all that has happened in my lifetime, and in 2020, which has felt like an entirely different kind of life. There are so many layers of loss to peel back from this year. As I write, more than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and that overwhelming number is climbing. I sit with fear and devastation. The grief is ongoing.

In the face of so much suffering, it can feel trivial to think about the sweet embellishments of life that we lost this year—holiday celebrations, spur-of-the-moment dinners out, movie popcorn, manicures. Then there is this: I won’t blow out candles on my birthday cake this year. It’s part of my new vigilance. But amid the vigilance, it is powerful, even necessary, to name the losses.

This was the year I let my hair go full-on gray. It was as much a decision to get off the hair-dying merry-go-round as it was to embrace my sexagenarian status. My silver hair tells stories of who I am as a woman—a mother of adults, a wife of 30 years, a woman who cherishes deep friendships, the struggle of getting a life down on the page. Maybe my gray hair reflects wisdom, although I don’t always feel wiser, just more seasoned.

At first, the relentless pace of life in this weird year seemed it would be tentatively paused, but then it came to an eerie standstill. Although I could not physically gather with most people, summer brought a much-welcomed loophole. I saw friends and family in my backyard, or I saw them through glass doors and windows that were picture-perfect frames. And there was always Zoom on which to fall back. Through it all, I felt such kinship. My love expanded. Before my mother’s nursing home went on lockdown for the second time, I saw her through a sheet of Plexiglas. We were masked and she was disoriented. But there was an opening at the bottom to hold hands.

Being with my family for a stretch of time was the most gleaming of pandemic silver linings. I was safe to take a breath to survey what was happening around me, to cope with the gravity of this latest rupture of history. I thought about questions I had been circling for years: How did I want to live going forward? What did I need to pare down? What ultimately fulfilled my soul? Those questions loomed even larger for me amidst rising body counts and the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Even as I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for Black lives and pandemic victims, I was self-conscious about my privilege and my complicity. On the precipice of 60, it was time to tend to a delicate ecosystem in which compassion and fierceness existed together.

How was I going to help? Like the book says, my participation had to happen “bird by bird.” The first thing I did was speak. In the noisiest, most contentious presidential election of my lifetime, I called voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, reminding them that they could vote early or that they could vote on the day of the election. I had information at the ready about where to get a ballot and where to vote in person. Most people didn’t answer my call. Some were hostile on the other end. A good many were undecided; others were apathetic. Ask me questions, I begged the people who didn’t hang up on me.

I like a podcast called “On Being.” Krista Tippett is the very smart host and almost every week she reminds her listeners “to hold space for the questions.” It’s an idea based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s lines from “Letters to a Young Poet.” Ten months into the pandemic, on the eve of marking 60 revolutions around the sun, I want to share them; I want to make them my manifesto:

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

It is vital to not only stay with the questions, but to immerse in them. Think long and hard about what makes us despair. What enables us to find hope? And the hardest question of all: What does it mean to be human? There is no right answer. Forge ahead and keep naming the losses; it is the greatest memorial to this time. Read the death notices—say the names out loud. The season of joy is now the season of resilience. I didn’t intend to be retrospective. Nurturing the questions is the work of a lifetime. And, in the end, it is the beginning of how to live going forward.

This piece was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-on-turning-60-and-staying-gray-in-a-pandemic/

The Twelve Days of December



I am a Jew who loves the pomp of Christmas and adores Hanukkah’s mystical lights of creation.

1

As daylight evaporates, we’re hurtling toward the darkest day of the year, but I don’t mind. I am a December baby, a child of Connecticut winters, and I love being enveloped in the early darkness. There is something restorative about the sun setting early in a world that becomes a blank, old-fashioned blackboard. My father said I was a night owl. But I don’t harbor the wisdom of an owl. I simply love the velvety night beckoning with possibility.

2

December is full of contradictions. It is streamlined. It is sloshy. At the first hint of a snowstorm, my father lined up our boots to spray them. He called them galoshes. My dad peppered his speech with contractions like “shan’t” and “whilst.” But he was not pretentious; he was formal—a U.S. naval officer during World War II who admired Winston Churchill and the Royal Air Force. He told me that December was his favorite month because I, his little girl born when he was 42, came into the world. I arrived on the second-to-last day of the year. My accountant father said, “You were the best tax deduction of my life.”

3

When my children were little, Christmas decorations twinkling on houses and draping bushes awed them to no end. “Oh my gosh!” exclaimed my Jewish kids as if they were the very light of creation. Oh my gosh, indeed. I took them holiday joyriding because I loved extravaganzas of light and color and cheer as much as they did.

4

In one school, I learned the Latin version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Amidst everything Christmas, I had my small menorah, steadily emitting the candlelight of the ages. Every Dec. 25 we went to family friends who had a shining tree done up to the hilt. At the base of the tree there were presents for my siblings and me. One year I received a Santa ornament—red and velvet and plump with jolliness. I kept Santa on my dresser all year round. My mother spent Christmas with this family when she was heavily pregnant with me. She told me that she ate so many slabs of fruitcake that year that everyone thought I would be a Christmas baby.

5

My affection for Christmas is linked to its proximity to my birthday and grew from there. At one point, I all but forgot about Christmas when I went to a Jewish day school. The school was Orthodox, and I attended classes on Christmas Day. I segued to an all-girls’ Catholic high school for reasons having to do with my hesitation around being near boys. No one thought I would last more than two weeks at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. After a few months of coping with the shell shock of being surrounded by so much Catholicism, I came to cherish the literal and figurative sisterhood around me. Years later, my best friend at the Mount said it was only natural for her to marry a Jew. Her husband reminded her of me.

6

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jose Feliciano’s Christmas hit, “Feliz Navidad.” Finally, a Christmas song was an extension of me, a Latinx kid in an English-only world. My love of Christmas comes in part from my Cuban mother. Although she is Jewish, growing up in a Catholic country made her comfortable with Christmas. My mother and I belted out “Feliz Navidad.” Christmas joy. We adored that part of our identity played over the airwaves. I had not yet heard of Flory Jagoda, who sang a Hanukkah song in Ladino called “Ocho Kandelikas.” My children learned the song in their Jewish day school, and when they sang it to my Sephardic mother, she cried. That was the recognition for which she was truly yearning.

7

Every year we lit the modest menorah that my mother bought the first Hanukkah she was in the United States. It was a straightforward hanukkiah with a large Star of David anchoring the Shamash, or caretaker candle. We lit the standard-issue Hanukkah candles—short, stubby, practically toppling against each other. My aunt, my dad’s sister, kept a small, glittery Christmas tree on her coffee table that infuriated my mother. My father said the silver tree was subtle. My mother, so fond of celebrating Christmas with her friends who were not Jewish, thought it was disgraceful for a Jew to have any kind of tree. My shouting mother made her limits very clear.

8

An ex-boyfriend once took me to his family’s house on Christmas Day. I settled on bringing a poinsettia that I was sure was the reddest and most glorious plant my hosts would ever see. I also learned the plant was known as the “Christmas Star.” My ex noted that I mispronounced “poinsettia” when I added a “t” and glossed over the “i.” He also told me not to romanticize kissing under the mistletoe. “Mistletoe is just a parasite,” he said.

9

My seasonal reverie includes annual viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Love Actually.” I like the former film’s “what if” stance. What if George Bailey had never been born? Mary would have been a spinster librarian and the Granville House would have remained spookily uninhabitable. My own “what if” thoughts take up a lot of space in my head. Right or left? Go to the party or stay home? I went to the party and met my future husband. He’s a sweet guy who always cries during “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But I like “Love Actually” better, which makes me some sort of Christmas heathen. Billy Mack, the washed-up rock star, is my man. He’s all about second chances and late bloomers as he miraculously shoehorns one of his old songs into a Christmas hit. Billy also delivers a line that always cracks me up: “Hiya, kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free.”

10

In 1994, there was a spate of antisemitic incidents in Billings, Montana, culminating with someone throwing a cinder block at a home displaying a menorah. The brick shattered a little boy’s bedroom window; luckily, he was not in his room. Law officials suggested that the family remove Jewish symbols visible from their home. The advice did not sit well with them, and soon, the town resolved the problem in an act of solidarity and stunning community goodwill. The local newspaper published a full-page drawing of a menorah for readers to cut out and display. Thousands of families who were not Jewish placed them in their windows, and Billings became a full-on celebration of Hanukkah. It was reminiscent of Denmark’s King Christian’s willingness to wear a yellow armband with a Star of David should the Nazis try to round up Danish Jews. The Nazis never invaded Denmark, but that story, and now what the good people of Billings did, have become legendary.

11

This year I’ve noticed some people have very publicly decorated their houses for Hanukkah. I’ve seen blown-up menorahs and dreidels on people’s front lawns. Blue and white lights are strung up. More lights of creation. As much as I enjoy the Christmas season, I’m delighted that Hanukkah has emerged in its own right. As one of my friends, Susan Katz Miller, who has written a book about growing up as an interfaith child and has a blog called “Being Both,” so perfectly says: “Don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.”

12

Oh my gosh….

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-the-12-days-of-december/

The Ghost on the Zoom Call

It is four in the afternoon on a Thursday, time for the weekly Zoom call my mother waits for in her nursing home. This is the time of day that sundowning can likely happen—when patients lose track of the world, lose track of themselves. Their minds have gone away with the sun, confusing day and night.

I log in to the same message every week: Recurring Meeting for Matilde Bolton—Hebrew Senior Life—Three East Berenson. It’s as if my mother stars in a local cable television show. I wait for the host to let us in; the host is the social worker whom my mother can’t stand. On a full week, there are eight of us who anchor six cubes—three middle-aged children and one son-in-law, along with four grandchildren, are suspended in space, waiting to enter.

As if a wand has been waved, we suddenly appear on the screen. We’re an oddball crew of cheerleaders for my mother, but she does not want to be cheered up or placated. She wants to be sprung from the awful food and her fellow residents who, she complains, drool and smell.

“No me gustan viejos,” she says in her native Spanish. She doesn’t like old people. She doesn’t like Zoom much either. It disorients her. Are we real, or has she imagined us crowding on-screen for this bizarre recording? The word Zoom in this context is new to my mother. In another iteration, it implied quickness, the smooth glide of going somewhere fast—things she can no longer do.

Including my mother, we inhabit seven squares. At the beginning of each Zoom session, my mother asks who we are. The grandchildren call her Abu, short for Abuela—a moniker my daughter invented as a toddler when she could not pronounce Abuela.

“Abu, you’re silly,” they’ll playfully say to her.

The comment makes my mother either furious or giggly. When she laughs now, her voice is as scratched up as the old vinyl records of Cuban dance music to which we used to listen. That same voice is still as frightening as it ever was when she’s angry.

We try mightily to engage my mother on these calls by asking her what she had for lunch. My mother scrunches up her face and says the same thing each time: “Porquería! Basura!” Junk! Garbage! If it’s a bad week, she’ll go on to stamp out her entire life with those same words. It was the same when I was a kid. Her life was mierda.

My mother is agitated when everyone speaks at once or, worse yet, if we have side conversations. She’s sure that we’re talking about her or deliberately confusing her. “Sha, sha, sha,” she’ll scream when she’s had enough. “Secreticos, secreticos, secreticos!” She thinks that we’re telling little secrets about her, secreticos that are planted everywhere like mines. The sun is neither up nor down. Her paranoia is a throwback to those years she pulled my hair and accused me of talking basura behind her back: “I can hear you wherever you are in the world.”

There are weeks when my mother is visibly delighted to be on Zoom. Those are the times she sees her mother, my abuela, inhabiting a Zoom cubicle. “Look, there’s my mother,” she says, waving and smiling. Abuela has been dead for over forty years. Over text, my sister and I debate whether to tell my mother this hard, bedrock fact. “Is it dementia?” my sister asks. I type back that I think Mom spends too much time alone in her room. “It’s a by-product of the Covid-19 lockdown—a hallucination,” I write back.

“Look at Abuela,” my mother says. “Mira, look, my mother is smiling and waving back at me. ‘Hola, Mamá!’ Can you see her?”

I’m the oldest of my mother’s three children, and I know it will fall to me to tell her that her mother is dead—the ultimate secretico unleashed, darkening my mother’s world like a solar eclipse.

“I know she’s dead.” My mother is insulted that I am stating the obvious to her. “I’m not stupid.”

To read the rest of this essay go to the Catapult website https://catapult.co/stories/the-ghost-on-the-zoom-call-mothers-pandemic-sundowning-judy-bolton-fasman

Blessings

CW: Suicide

I was recently driving home from the dry cleaners when I saw my first boyfriend’s number light up on my dashboard. It was the middle of the day. In the semi-annual calls he’s placed to me over the years, my ex hardly calls during daylight hours. I knew something was very wrong. We have been in touch intermittently since I wrote him a condolence note a decade ago. His mother had died too young at 62, and I was moved to tell him so. I loved her dearly when my ex and I were together.

My ex and I met when I was 16 and he was 18. He wore rugby shirts. I wore ribbons in my hair. Now we’re almost the same age that his mother was when she died.

My ex’s latest phone calls began like this: “I’ve got some bad news,” he said in his halting way. In the past, this one-size-fits all preamble signaled he was divorcing, his sister had stopped speaking to him, or his son had once been missing for a week. Through it all his radio voice hadn’t aged. It was a slow mellow voice, smooth and dreamy. If things were not so consistently sad for him, he could have been delivering a version of “Bedtime Magic,” a radio show local to me that plays easy-listening, chaste songs hovering on the edge of sexy.

I always wondered if he had inherited his voice from his father, whom he hadn’t seen since he was 12. My ex never talked about his father so I was left to conjure him in my imagination. But I had seen my ex a few times in our middle age, and his still youngish deep voice didn’t match his ever-balding head and stooped posture. Yet there were traces of his once handsome face, which made me sad.

“Like Rock Hudson,” my mother used to gush.

She and I and his mother were his adoring fans.

This phone call, however, began differently.

“I just bought a cemetery plot for my 31-year-old son,” he said.

No stammer. No emotion. Just raw fact.

“And I bought the plot next to his for me.”

I never met the son, but I knew from these phone calls that his son had been a troubled little boy who grew up into a troubled man.

“I keep a lawyer on retainer for him,” my ex once told me.

This essay was originally published by Signal Mountain Review. To read the rest of the piece please go to: https://signalmountainreview.com/2020/11/12/judy-bolton-fasman/

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Privilege of Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish

 

I write this essay for the incomparable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a week of aninut—the time between death and burial. It is the disorienting time between shock and grief. The week of aninut for Justice Ginsburg was exceptional, taking place in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Capitol. The sorrowful words of El Maleh Rahamim—words that are chanted at Jewish funerals—rang out in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Two days later, her casket was brought to the Capitol building, where she was the first woman and the first Jew to lie in state.

Amid those honors, Ginsburg—or “The Notorious RBG” as she is affectionately known the world over—is uniquely mourned as a feminist icon and a bridge-builder among the generations. She was the woman who won legal cases that accorded women and men so many of the rights they have today. In the 1970s, Ginsburg argued some of the most important women’s rights cases of her generation before the Supreme Court. She put her gentle manner and inherent shyness on pause to win the majority of those cases. As Ginsburg’s rabbi, Lauren Holtzblatt, eulogized, “Justice did not arrive like a lightning bolt, but rather through dogged persistence all the days of her life.”

Among the many incidental RBG facts that I love is the one about the unique jabots she wore. Shortly before her death, Ginsburg donated a white lace collar to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv with a signed copy of her autobiography, “My Own Words.” Ginsburg’s various lace collars, artful and feminine, often signaled her position on a case before she uttered a word. The collars also reflected her status as a role model. In 2009, she told NBC News: “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show and the tie. So, Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included [a lace collar] as part of our robe, something typical of a woman. So, I have many, many collars.”

The lace jabot distinctly announced Ginsburg’s presence in the Court’s historically male environment, but the first male bastion from which she was barred was her synagogue minyan. Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation, and a devastated Ruth was not allowed to say Kaddish for her. Celia profoundly influenced her daughter—famously imparting wisdom such as keeping one’s temper in check while diligently forging ahead. Celia worked as a bookkeeper, and Ginsburg liked to say the difference between a Brooklyn bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice was just one generation.

Much to Ginsburg’s amusement, a cottage industry sprung up over the years around her RBG moniker. In addition to being known as “The Notorious RBG,” she was also called “Super Diva,” the nickname famously proclaimed on one of the sweatshirts she wore to her workouts. Ginsburg will also forever be associated with the words, “I dissent.” When she broke the record for dissents from the bench, another million memes were born. Memes aside, Ginsburg had a brilliant legal mind and was a proud Jew who lived by the Hebrew words framed and hanging in her chambers: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

In her essay for the Jewish Women’s Archive 2005 online exhibit, “Feminist Revolution,” Ginsburg wrote:

“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.”

In that same essay, Ginsburg cited two Jewish women as her inspiration: Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” is etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Ginsburg lauded both women for their “humanity and bravery.” Lazarus’s work moved Ginsburg, and Szold’s determination to say the Kaddish for her mother in 1916 drew Ginsburg’s admiration. I have also turned to Szold’s words, grateful for the privilege of saying the Kaddish as a Jewish woman as an equal in various minyans around the world.

As Ginsburg observed, Szold was one of eight sisters and refused a male riend’s offer to say the Kaddish on her behalf. She quoted from a letter Szold wrote to her friend about his generous offer:

“You will wonder then, that I cannot accept your offer…I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom [that only male children recite the prayer, and if there are no male survivors a male stranger may act as a substitute]; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community, which his parent had, so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.”

Ginsburg went on to comment: “Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s position betrays a certain lack of understanding.”

The loss of Justice Ginsburg brings out a very personal kind of grief in me and in women across the country. I worry about who will be her replacement, as if she can ever be replaced. With her gone, I am more upset than ever about our teetering democracy, the looming election, the undoing of my rights and my children’s rights—rights which Ginsburg so assiduously won for us.

I think back to Ginsburg as the 17-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to assuage her grief by publicly saying the Kaddish for her mother. I thank God I am counted in a minyan to say the Kaddish for my father. I don’t think it’s a stretch to acknowledge Ruth Bader Ginsburg for that privilege. She delivered much of the agency American women now have over their lives.

Rest in peace and power and revolution, Justice Ginsburg. And in the parting words of the Kaddish, to which I’ve added pronouns to honor her legacy:

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He/She/They who creates peace in His/Her/Their celestial heights, may He/She/They create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-the-privilege-of-reciting-the-mourners-kaddish/

Bygone Days at Lord & Taylor

Lord & Taylor, once the grand doyenne of American department stores, is shuttering its remaining locations after nearly 200 years in business. My mercurial Cuban mother and I bonded when we shopped at Lord & Taylor, and its closing breaks my heart. Looking for the right dress for a special occasion, we were game to make the pilgrimage from Hartford, Connecticut, to Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue, between 38th and 39th streets, whether or not we had the money.

Other times, we took the Asylum Avenue bus that stopped across the street from our house, riding the two miles west to a Lord & Taylor satellite in suburban Hartford. That store was a chunk of white-brick elegance in an otherwise drab shopping center. Lord & Taylor stood out on that concrete strip as a mansion, a Mecca, a refuge. The lightly perfumed, gently lit spaces were all the more alluring for my mother after my parents fought over finances.

After many of those fights, my mother jumped on the bus with me in tow to empty my father’s coffers at Lord & Taylor. For my mother, it was revenge shopping at its most exquisite. Our first stop in the store was always the Bird Cage restaurant. We ate amid small wire cages dangling from the ceiling — intriguing mobiles in which pastel birds, against all reason, were real. The waitresses pushed carts offering tea sandwiches and precious desserts. Nothing was steaming; nothing was sliding down mounds of grease under those silver lids. Lord & Taylor was the epicenter of a well-mannered society.

After lunch, my mother and I headed to scout out the fancy clothes and shoes. There she wielded her hunter green Lord & Taylor credit card like a scythe with its white swirl of script that was the store’s distinctive signature. In raised letters, the card read: Mrs. K. Harold Bolton. My mother was the first in her Latinx family to marry an American. To her, Lord & Taylor was not about pretense; it was about aspiring to the best life.


I remember when my mother found a suit in classic gray wool in that hushed fancy-dress section, with the sleeves, collar and skirt hem outlined in black gross-grain ribbon. The large stamped silver buttons commanded attention and respect. She bought the suit in a quick, blinding flash, and whenever she wore it, she felt rich. She initially hid it from my father in her closet, an island of eternal twilight and forbidden possibilities. Her closet was a place of mostly pretty clothes where I played dress-up — a place where I buried my face in the neatly folded hand-me-down cashmere sweaters from her sister-in-law.

Lord & Taylor eventually moved further west to the area’s first indoor mall, a place harder to get to for my non-driving mother. The store’s previous location on the bus line — the place that I had loved so much — evolved into the cluttered, fluorescent chaos of a discount store. Over the years, my parents continued to struggle financially and my mother grudgingly downgraded to other stores — perfectly nice stores that had neither the history nor what my mother called “the refinement” of Lord & Taylor.

I’m the one who now buys my mother her clothes at regular mall stores. When I bring the clothes to her nursing home, I stage a “fashion show” in her small, shared room. In her dotage, my mother has left behind her enigmatic and chic blacks and grays and embraced a red and green and blue palette. Her 100-year-old roommate, a fashion plate in her own right, wears a white denim jacket as she sits on her bed in anticipation of seeing the skirts and blouses I’ve put together — my mother has never, ever worn pants.

I may be my mother’s shopper, but I’ll never quite have her discerning eye. I try to create the excitement of those bygone big department store days in her 9-by-11 room as I hang up the new clothes. My over-the-top-cheer almost never works. My mother cries a lot. She misses her mobility. She misses her freedom to jump on a bus and shop to her heart’s content. She misses Lord & Taylor. With my father gone now, she misses being Mrs. K. Harold Bolton.

I will never tell her Lord & Taylor has closed forever.

This post originally appeared on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2020/09/01/lord-and-taylor-closing-mother-shopping-judy-bolton-fasman#_=_