The Coronavirus Diaries–On Handwashing

Like all of you, the coronavirus pandemic is front and center in my mind. This is a time of vulnerability yet also a time of gratitude for the ordinary. It is a time when simple acts like hand washing become reflective and holy. Judaism has a lot to say about hand washing. There is a singular prayer commanding us to wash our hands. Ritualwell, an innovative website dedicated to interpreting Jewish ritual and liturgy for the 21st century, has presented the traditional prayer of al netalit yadayim—instructions for washing our hands—with an updated preamble.

As we wash our hands
We pray,
Blessed is the Soul of the Universe,
Breathing us in and breathing us out.
May our breaths continue
And our health and the health of all
Be preserved
In this time of sickness and fear of sickness.
Holy Wholeness,
We take as much responsibility for this as we can
By observing the obligation to wash our hands
Thoroughly:
For as long as it takes to say this prayer.

Barukh atah adonai eloheinume lekhha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and instructed us on washing hands.

I also found another beautiful and extended meditation on hand washing that said a lot about human interdependence. It was broadcast on the Jewish Women’s Archive podcast, “Can We Talk?” featuring Dori Midnight, a community healer and spiritual leader. Here is part of what she said about relearning to wash out hands:

We are humans relearning to wash our hands. Washing our hands is an act of love. Washing our hands is an act of care. Washing our hands is an act that puts the hyper-vigilant body at ease. Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve. Wash your hands like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver… you get the picture. Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach like water is a precious resource made from time and miracle. Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say. Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.

A couple of weeks before this pandemic, I went to visit my son who was in Spain teaching for the year and slipped on a cobblestone street. I landed hard on my right shoulder and knew immediately I did something very bad. I fractured my right shoulder in three places. I couldn’t move my arm, and I was nauseous. I had tripped in front of a café, and a considerate waiter helped me to my feet and brought me a chair. I was shaking uncontrollably when he handed me a glass of water.

On the pain scale, my pain was a certifiable 10, and that earned me a place at the head of the line in the emergency room. The doctor looked at my X-ray and told me, “You need to get back to your country as soon as possible.” She sent me on my way with a padded sling and a raft of painkillers. The next afternoon, I was on a plane back to Boston, but not before my son arranged for wheelchair assistance in the three airports I would be traversing.

Life is very different in a wheelchair. For me, it was the dependence on others that was alternately novel and scary. I would not have made it home without the acts of love and care Midnight calls up in the JWA podcast. My kind wheelchair attendants situated me in vans, and at one point in a catering truck with a hydraulic lift, which enabled me to enter a plane that had no jetway in place. On the flight home, my pain scale had different criteria. I was miserable from the pain yet heartened by the way the airline attendants put “my hyper-vigilant body at ease.”

When I boarded the flight from Madrid to Boston almost three weeks ago it was a different world. The coronavirus was something that was happening elsewhere. People took some precautions. On the plane, the man across the aisle generously wiped down my tray table with his sanitizer; others wore masks. “Social distancing” had yet to enter the lexicon. I never imagined that something was coming none of us had lived through; something that would frighten us on the most granular level. In just a short time, the coronavirus has fully arrived as a disease to outwit. To succeed at this macabre game, washing hands is no longer an afterthought. It is a life-saving measure for us as much as it is for others. This simple fact makes our dependence on one another all the more crucial.

Two poems about the pandemic have comforted me. In her poem, “A Prayer of Hope During This Pandemic,” Rabbi Naomi Levy asks God “to turn our panic into patience, and our fear into acts of kindness and support.” Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks us to think of this time of quarantine as an extended Shabbat. In her poem “Pandemic” she versifies:

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

I have weeks to go until my shoulder heals. As I write this, my son is scheduled to board a flight tomorrow—the same one I took from Madrid a few weeks ago—and come home where he will immediately self-isolate in our back bedroom for 14 days. I pray he doesn’t feel too isolated as we try to support him from the other side of the door. As Ungar continues in her poem:

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

This post originally appeared on JewishBoston https://www.jewishboston.com/the-coronavirus-diaries-part-1-on-hand-washing/

Capturing Family History

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island whose capital was the jewel of the Caribbean. This city had an enchanting esplanade with a sea wall that hugged the ocean. It was called El Malecón. The breezes off the ocean’s turquoise water were refrescante—refreshing. The weather was always warm; the sun was always shining. This was Havana, and my mother, Matilde, lived in a neighborhood called Havana la Vieja—the old section of Havana.

When I was a child, Cuba was a fairytale. I was sad that the country was trapped behind a rusting iron curtain, shut tight and padlocked. No one left, and no one entered. I longed for Cuba throughout my childhood. My mother and I have talked about Cuba all my life. I was born in Connecticut, but my heart has always been in my mother’s Havana. A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed my mother for over an hour about her life in Cuba and her life as an immigrant. The interview took place at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she is a patient, and I recorded her stories with a new app called “Story Aperture,” published by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).

Although I had my own questions in mind, there are helpful lists of questions right in the app, visible on the screen as you’re recording. In addition to general inquiries, you can cover a range of topics, such as “Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, “Archiving #MeToo” and “Voices of Change.”

Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of JWA, noted that Story Aperture was a natural next step for an organization that democratizes history. “So many of the ways women work and contribute and experience things don’t happen in the public limelight of what has been traditionally important,” she told JewishBoston. “We wanted to make sure we were capturing stories of ordinary people. [Recording these oral histories] helps to remember the moments of daily life as part of the ways that people make history. History is not always a society-changing moment; history is created every day people build families and communities.”

I didn’t expect to learn anything new from my mother. Her history is etched in my mind. She came to the United States in 1958, a couple years before Fidel Castro installed himself as Cuba’s president for life. Her first winter in Brooklyn, she caught pneumonia. “I had never endured such cold,” she said. She went back to Cuba but realized there was nothing there for her. The university was closed and shortages were commonplace. It was the beginning of the end.

My mother married my American father in 1960 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a good life, but something was missing: Cuba, No. 20 La Calle Mercéd and El Malecón, where my mother and her family strolled after their Shabbat lunch. There was El Patronato, which served as both synagogue and de facto Jewish center. “We had beautiful Purim balls there,” she recalled. “One year, Abuela [Grandmother] made me a black velvet gown with little pearls around the collar. It was gorgeous. I felt like Queen Esther.”

My mother attended Jewish day schools until she was admitted to the Instituto—high school in Havana. “I went to the Theodore Herzl Primary School for elementary school,” she said. “We were big Zionists. I remember when Israel became a state, my father was screaming from joy. Abuelo’s [Grandfather’s] brothers had immigrated there—one of them was a rabbi.”

My mother is Sephardic. Her mother was from Greece, her father from Turkey. She told me the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities were separate in Cuba—separate schools, separate synagogues, separate cultures. My mother’s family spoke Ladino, a fortuitous occurrence that enabled them to acclimate to Spanish quickly.

Then the surprise of the conversation: “Abuela was my strongest advocate to go to university. My father was against it. He was worried that I would meet boys who weren’t Jewish. But Abuela was preparada that way, ahead of her time.”

My mother used the word “preparada,” which literally means “ready,” as a way to describe her mother as insightful. I asked her if she thought Abuela was a feminist. “I think so. She was modern, more modern than Abuelo,” my mother said with a laugh. “She knew French and played the lute. She made me beautiful clothes. But she wanted more for me. She wanted me to be educada [educated].”

My mother told me my grandmother took in sewing to help defray the costs of sending her three children to college. My mother, I realized, inherited her mother’s work ethic. She went back to school in the early 1960s to earn a teaching degree and was part of the first wave of women who were also earning graduate degrees and subsequently entering the workforce.

I remember Abuela babysitting me when my mother studied for her exams and cooking picadillo or me. Abuela also made a raft of dresses for my sister and me when we were little. Her most elaborate creation was the flower-girl dresses we walked down the aisle in at my uncle’s wedding. We were all tulle and aqua.

So, my grandmother was a feminist in her own right. This is the kind of discovery that Rosenbaum and her colleagues hope will happen when people use the app. “This is an invitation to have conversations and share stories that have not been shared before,” she said. “We want people to be our partners in documenting history. We want people to see their stories as part of the historical narrative.”

To that end, Rosenbaum encourages women of all ages to document their stories, and their participation in marches and protests—anything that will add to the diversity of perspectives and experiences. “We’ve lowered [the technological barriers] so that it’s not hard to get started,” she said. “We’ve streamlined the process to document history as it is unfolding.”

This piece was originally published on JewishBoston.com

Space and Sparks and a Jewish Woman Astronaut

This month, Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir added to my love of all things space and NASA. She and her sister astronaut, Christina Koch, took a seven-plus hour jaunt outside the International Space Station to perform maintenance. The 7-year-old space fan in me resurfaced when I heard about this first all-female spacewalk.

Courtesy Photo (NASA)

I have always imagined space as a black galaxy flecked with infinite stars and dreams and prayers. Space was the place God inhabited. Miracles were shipped down to earth from there. As a little girl in the 1960s and ‘70s, I couldn’t get enough of the NASA launches. There was the rumbling of the rocket engines. The release of orange fire provided the momentum for a spaceship to pierce the earth’s atmosphere. I was mesmerized by images of the Gemini and Apollo launches on a black-and-white television. Those events were almost as exciting as my birthday. I was ecstatic when I heard the scratchy, disembodied male voices connecting the earth to the heavens. Now I am thrilled at the sound of women’s voices transmitting from space.

I loved watching the astronauts of Apollo 11 set foot on the moon’s dusty crater-pocked surface for the first time. The whole endeavor was wild and wonderful. It was 1969, and I had not yet flown on an airplane. As far as space was concerned, my body and soul were blank slates.

In March 1970, space was back in my life during a moment when day became night. It was a solar eclipse. My father, the NASA maven, prepared for it by buying us three kids and my mother plastic sunglasses to shield our eyes in the unlikely event we were exposed to the blocked sun. “Looking into the face of an eclipse can blind you,” he said. I sat frightened on the sofa with my feet sticking out at a 90-degree angle. I didn’t trust those small sunglasses to protect me against the fierce sun. I shut my eyes tightly until I saw a gathering of swirling light.

Meir, who is 42, is the fourth Jewish woman, 15th Jew and first Swedish woman—she holds dual American and Swedish citizenship—to participate in a space mission. She may also become the first woman to walk on the surface of the moon. At this time, she is among 17 candidates who are being considered for NASA’s Artemis program. From Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister, the goddess of the hunt and the patron of women. Meir may do a moonwalk in a few years; the space agency has announced there will be another one in 2024.

Space and moon exploration may have a Jewish antecedent. In the Bible, Joshua begged God to still the sun in the middle of a battle. God heard his pleas, and the day stopped. Only the moon continued to move, slipping in front of the sun as it did for me on that March day of my own solar eclipse.

And now there is Jessica Meir. Her Iraqi-born Jewish father immigrated to Israel and fought as part of the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence. He met Jessica’s mother in her native Sweden. The family eventually settled in Caribou, Maine. Although Meir’s mother did not convert to Judaism, the family identified as Jewish and attended synagogue. Meir was quoted in Kveller as saying, “Personally, I’m not really a religious person, but I think my Jewish cultural background is obviously a big part of my culture and especially traditions.”

It is standard for an astronaut to take three personal items on a mission. On her mission, Meir brought an Israeli flag, a pair of socks with images of menorahs and, according to The Forward, a painting of a phoenix by the late Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Ramon, along with six crewmembers, died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.

Meir is not the first Jewish astronaut to bring Jewish items to space. Ramon brought a drawing by a 14-year-old boy trapped in the Theresienstadt Ghetto during the Holocaust. He also carried with him a miniature Torah smuggled out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Other Jewish astronauts have transported a mezuzah, shofar, dreidel and small Torah complete with breastplate and traditional pointer.

As a child, I had always hoped that just as Moses had glimpsed the back of God’s head, the astronauts would see a defining part of God, however briefly. Maybe someday they will. In the meantime, I squeeze my eyes shut this time to conjure sparks of the Divine.

 

Translating the Holocaust

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was at the center of a firestorm when she referred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention centers as “concentration camps.” In an Instagram Live video, the freshman Democrat asserted: “The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and this is exactly what they are. … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say ‘never again.’”

Ocasio-Cortez instantly drew both support and ire for her comment. I wondered whether this kerfuffle was a question of semantics or an analogy gone awry. After all, concentration camps call up images of the Nazi genocide, and genocide is not what is happening on the border. On the other hand, as Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” recently told Esquire, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”

Concentration camps did not start out as brutal slave labor camps or extermination camps. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg sagely and calmly wrote in The Washington Post recently that, “We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country now, and they’re known as some of the stages of genocide first articulated by Genocide Watch in 1996.”

When I watch the news clips or listen to radio interviews from the border, I shake as I hear my mother’s Spanish, now my Spanish, being spoken. Ocasio-Cortez and I share the touching intimacy of a common language. Spanish was the language of our childhood, the language of our grandparents. It was the language that distinguished me as a Latina Jew. Though it wasn’t always easy, I’m proud that I was a bilingual baby.

My cousin was 6 months old when she fled Cuba with her parents. I can only imagine the horror if she had been separated from my aunt and uncle. These children who are captured on the border are herded into cages where, terribly frightened and very hungry, they are vulnerable to crimes and misdemeanors by officials in charge. They are prisoners of a war about which no one is talking. I read that a border guard sexually assaulted a 4-year-old girl.

My Cuban relatives were never here illegally, and neither are the migrants in this administration’s concentration camps masquerading as euphemistic detention centers. It’s important to point out that anyone declaring asylum at the border of the United States has a right to a hearing and to due process.

Sometimes Holocaust vocabulary contains the only words that can describe the human rights tragedy happening at our southern border. We’re on the cusp of something revolutionary in terms of our thinking about the memory of the Holocaust. Using some of its vocabulary cautiously is wholly appropriate in extreme situations, like the one we face today. For example, visit T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights online and find a picture of a woman holding a sign that says: “This is what ‘Never Again’ looks like.” How does that dishonor the memory of the Holocaust? Those words are an improvised Kaddish—a prayer of mourning—for the 6 million. The words are also a prayer of optimism. When “Never Again” is evoked it shows that the victims of the Holocaust did not die in vain.

This past year I have spent time in a church basement, and what I do there is called companionship. That is, I watch over a family who is on the run from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE. The people I’ve grown to care about are always a hair’s breadth away from being deported back to the poverty and violence that plague their Central American country.

There is a script for me to follow if ICE comes to arrest this family, my family. I will ask to see a warrant. If they have one, I will let them in, but not before I’ve allowed enough time for the woman and her family to hide behind the broad lectern on the altar of the church. The altar is the most sacred space in the building. To arrest innocent people there would taint the holiness of the place. I will tape the incident with my iPhone and say, “This is the last opportunity you have to check your conscience before you take these innocent people away.” I will then go off-script and ask the ICE agent a final question before these people are handcuffed: “Are you sure you want to take this beautiful mother away from her American-born children?” I will ask again and again until she and her children are out of sight.

One afternoon, the church basement flooded. The mother and I mopped the floor of her living area together in companionable silence until she sadly riffed: “The people here are nice, but I wish they spoke Spanish like you. I don’t know why it doesn’t matter that my children are American. Hace meses que no veo el sol. I haven’t seen the sun in months.”

Good Germans asked themselves in the 1930s what they could do to help their fellow Jewish citizens. (Yes, another imperfect analogy.) We can donate today to organizations like HIAS and T’ruah. When federations like Combined Jewish Philanthropies sponsor trips to border cities like McAllen and San Diego, we can make every effort to go. We can lobby our representatives in Washington, D.C., to stop this madness. We can vote. And we can we sit in church basements in close, loving silence until this nightmare is over.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/translating-the-holocaust/

My Father’s Silence

A few years after my father died in 2002, I sent away for his naval records. K. Harold Bolton, who served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, never talked about his time in the U.S. Navy. His silence about everything made me a snooping little girl, which turned me into a curious adult. There was nothing more I wanted to know than what my father had seen from the deck of his supply ship.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. A recent New York Times front-page article bore the headline: “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.” These children who span the generations want the same thing: to crack open their fathers’ silence about their war.

My father’s silence and his subsequent secrets have haunted me all of my life. My father, who was part of the “Greatest Generation,” is also a member of what the Times describes as the “Quietest.”

His records arrived in a thick packet wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. As I avidly read them, the information that floated to the top was that he was exceptionally stubborn, inexperienced and always one of the youngest officers on any ship to which he was assigned. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s file consistently indicate that although he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism, in the end, he was an average, even naïve, officer.

This was not the answer I had expected when I examined the mystery of my father. Although I was thrilled to have the status reports, solid evidence that revealed facets of the man, they surprised — and ultimately, disappointed — me. I was so sure these reports would confirm that he was larger than life and, at last, make him understandable. Instead, the reports didn’t mesh with the man I thought he was. From the few pictures I had seen of him in uniform, I expected a capable officer who comported himself like a much older man.

Maybe this is the way most children see their parents — through a lens of time and story that ultimately fuses into lore. My father was the man who did push-ups every morning on the green shag rug of his bedroom. He was the man who walked a brisk two miles a day, even in winter. He expected his orders to be followed as he gave them. Yet blue-back nights when my coughing from asthma shook the house, my father stood guard by my bedroom window, gazing out, one of the few times I felt secure and loved.

I found a handwritten note in his file in which my perceptions of him as a young man became clearer. In the letter to his commanding officer, my father laid out his reasons for disobeying orders. He had been waiting to ship out in San Francisco the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor and wrote that he had decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty to boost morale. At the very least, that unilateral decision must have incurred a reprimand.

I also came upon a punishment meted out to my father. It happened toward the end of the war, when his commanding officer remanded him to quarters for 24 hours for going AWOL for a day. Disappearing like that didn’t seem in character. Yet the information rounded out the profile I was putting together of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not “wish to acquaint himself with them.”

My father’s stubbornness also surprised me. He never properly learned to use the sextant for navigational calculations. According to his file, he was resistant to acquiring this new skill. But a spiritual part of me thinks that perhaps it was because those kinds of calculations demystified the heavens, while my father wanted to romanticize them. Over the years, I had seen glimpses of Dad, the romantic, who cried when he listened to opera on Saturday afternoons. Dad, the patriot, who cried when he listened to John Philip Sousa’s crisp, booming marches. Dad, the accountant, who finally, reluctantly, learned to follow established routines.

My brother, who became the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share, had another version of Dad’s punishment to supplement the Navy records. Our father was never AWOL, he says. The real story is that Lt. Bolton had fraternized with the ship’s black cook, called Cookie. Our father had stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around a man who had just received news that his brother had died while fighting in Europe. He called Cookie by his given name, Ernie. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform.

Finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship.

Contrary to the jumbled, sometimes discouraging, naval reports, there was a promotion for my father by the end of the war. By the time the Navy honorably discharged Lt. Cmdr. Bolton in 1945, he had proven himself an exceptional man.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/14/my-fathers-silence-world-war-2-navy-judy-bolton-fasman

Living in Translation

My grandparents, who were among the wave of Cuban refugees that came to the United States in the mid-1960s, never felt malleable enough to learn English. “No eshpeake Engleesh” was their standard retort. This set of circumstances not only made me bilingual, but also designated me as their official translator. With no English, my grandparents were essentially isolated in America.

A person’s native language is love and memory. It is comfort and familiarity. It is bedrock identity. I thought about that when I read a recent article in The Washington Post with the headline: “Nearly Half of White Republicans Say It Bothers Them to Hear People Speaking Foreign Languages.” Though not a surprise, it still saddened me.

I often accompanied my grandfather, my Abuelo, on walks around his neighborhood where we ended up at the corner grocery store to buy packs of M&Ms. “Que dice?” What is this person saying? He always asked me that question when we were out in the world. He tried to pronounce some of the English words he overheard, but the consonants crumbled in his mouth. He proudly told anyone he encountered, pointing to me, “Mi nieta es Americana. Eshpeake Engleesh good.”

My grandmother, Abuela, was a homebody who loved American soap operas. In the pre-cable, pre-Univision years when there was no Spanish programming on American television. My grandmother stayed glued to “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light,” soap operas that reminded her of the novelitas she had listened to on the radio in Havana. I translated a bit for her, but somehow she understood the intricacies of those shows without me. One character was “malo.” Another one was “desafortunado,” unlucky. These imaginary friends of hers kept my Abuela company on long and dreary winter afternoons in Connecticut.

The Post article further reported that according to the Pew Research Center, “Forty-seven percent of such Republicans say it would bother them ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ to ‘hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.’ Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.”

The article described two incidents that were part of a pattern of racism towards others. In the first, a United States Border Patrol agent detained two women for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Montana. It turned out the women were U.S. citizens. The second incident happened at a New York deli where a man was enraged when he heard the workers speaking Spanish. He threatened to call immigration officials.

The United States as a country does not have an official language. I wish I had known that in the days when Abuelo would pick me up from school. “Ándale!” Hurry up. The kids made fun of us. They called me Spic and Span, and one said, “Your grandpa can’t speak English because he’s so stupid.”

When my children were young, I encouraged them to learn Spanish. My son is now as bilingual as I once was. That bodes well in the United States, which has 41 million native Spanish speakers and 12 million bilinguals. If the trend continues, the United States could very well surpass the number of Spanish speakers in any country by the year 2050.

Another important piece of advice I gave to my kids was to engage in deep, meaningful translation to understand people. The example I gave them was that God happily listens to prayers in more than 70 languages. It’s a metaphor that I plucked from a Jewish commentary on the Bible: God has always been an equal opportunity linguist.

When I think of my Latina heritage, I always paraphrase Winston Churchill, who said he was half-American but wholly English. I too was half-American, yet my childhood was completely Cubana. These days my Spanish is more Spanglish, reflecting how rusty I’ve become. But plunk me down in a Spanish country, and it comes back to me much the way a photograph develops in a darkroom. The language is imprinted in me. And while my Cuban Abuelos were not able to communicate with the American side of my family directly, they always had me to translate for them.

This essay was originality published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/05/13/spanish-language-republicans-judy-bolton-fasman

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.

The Names of Yizkor

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The names of my dead come to me at night. The women are always first: Anna, Corina, Gladys, Miriam C. and Miriam R. Grandmothers, aunts, the closest of friends. They’ve been gone a long time, some of them for decades, yet it feels as if they have vanished suddenly. I hope they have come back as stardust.

Memories of the men begin with Dennis and end with a jolt of Z for Ze’ev. In between are Jacobo, K. Harold, Mac and William. Father, grandfathers, uncle and friend. They band together to tick off the decades of my life. The initial K of my father’s name casts a long cool shadow in my life.

The Yizkor service, the service of remembrance, is a liturgy of names. The impromptu prayer book for Yizkor is a customized booklet of those names that congregants in a given synagogue have memorialized. These are the names of people who were loved or feared or even hated in their lifetimes.

Every year I read each of the names in the booklet, my lips moving slowly, deliberately, as if I’m praying. I did the equivalent in the wake of 9/11 when I read every victim’s short biography in the newspaper. Every life deserves intense concentration. On the first anniversary of 9/11 the names of all the dead were read out loud where the towers stood. It took hours, but was that enough to grieve for them?

In some ways, the Yizkor service is the ultimate one-size-fits-all ceremony. There are options in that service in the form of many fill-in-the-blanks. Check off if you’re mourning a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a partner, a sister, a brother, a daughter, a son, other relatives or a friend. Anchoring that list is a blank space for “others.” So little space for so many people. Who are the “others?” Are they the people who populate our daily lives? Teachers, servers, commuters. Versions of us, versions of our families — people we might eventually notice were missing from the fabric of our days.

At its core, Yizkor means to remember. My dead walk out of my darkest dreams into the clarity of day. These spirits are the honor guard of my life. The first time I encountered Yizkor, it was an accident. My grandmother clamped down on my shoulder and told me to leave immediately. At that point, I had not known anyone who died. My grandmother’s superstition meant to protect me from death. Years later her spirit perches on my shoulder. She knows that I’ve been staying for the Yizkor service for over two decades.

Towards the end of Yizkor, mourners are asked to make room in their hearts to remember the martyrs and the six million. The heart is asked to expand again to remember all the dead. That’s when the service gets noisy. So many names to gather in the heart, so many names to whisper in ad hoc prayer. “Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda. When my father was dying, I indulged in the magical thinking of the rabbis and changed his Hebrew name. I did it so that my dad was hiding in plain sight from the angel of death. It’s not a physical image like blood on the door indicating that the angel “passes over” the household. Altering his name was a quiet game of hide-and-seek — a game the angel eventually won.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is the capstone of the Yizkor service. It’s a prayer for the dead that does not say a single word about death. Instead, God’s name is magnified and sanctified and exalted. All of God’s traditional names: Father, King, Master of the Universe, Divine Spirit (that one is feminine) indicate what I suspected all along: God is gender non-conforming.

This is the time of year that names that were cremated, names that were murdered, names that were buried at sea, names that were buried under a thwack of dirt are directly acknowledged. Some of the names I weep for, some of them I no longer remember — names that went with faces I tangentially recognized. The swirl of names dances and jumps off the tip of my tongue. “So many names,” writes the poet Billy Collins, “there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”

Yet there is always room for one more name.

 

 

 

 

 

Dialoguing with God: A High Holiday Reflection

Since this is the season of confession, I want to admit to two things. For many years, I have been jealous of people who can not only pray but also get into the groove of prayer. And I’m terrified of the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana is an odd time of the year for me. My father died two days before the holiday after a long illness and was buried on the eve of the Jewish New Year. Somewhere in the midst of his sickness, I lost my will to pray.

It did not help that my shiva was truncated to just a few hours and then the needs of the community took over—that is, the power of coming together as a community was first and foremost. And so I stood up in front of hundreds of people and publicly said the Mourner’s Kaddish for the first time in my life. I was hardly comforted. Instead, I felt raw and even more grief-stricken. Here I was when immersion into prayer is at its most intense, and I could barely utter a word to, or toward, God. But I continued to say the Kaddish for my father throughout the year. Mostly I did it to reconnect with him posthumously. “Do the deed and the feelings will follow,” said a wise friend. I waited.

The story of Hannah https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hannah-bible, for whom spontaneous prayer—praying from the heart—was said to have originated, has some significance for me. Hannah’s grief generated an outpouring of supplication to God for a long-awaited child. She spoke directly to God, summoning God’s presence for a deep conversation.

I took my concerns about my inability to pray to my rabbi, and she said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had the same apprehensions about prayer. He would walk in the woods and speak out loud to God. She said I should not think of talking to God as a one-way conversation, but to think of God as a sounding board. I tried it. As my rabbi predicted, it felt awkward. And then it turned into something I decidedly did not want to happen: it became a litany of complaints. It turns out I was angry with God. And so praying to God was still a non-starter for me.

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Although I am mostly unable to pray, I frequently attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. I let the words, which have been with me since my day school days, wash over me. I once stood with others and recited the Amidah or the standing prayer with kavana—intention. Now I glance at the 18 blessings that comprise this longish prayer. Many phrases jump out at me, but I don’t utter them in a coherent pattern. As for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, another learned friend told me that if a machzor or High Holiday prayer book is doing its job, I could turn my attention to the margins and read the commentaries—modern and ancient—to engage with the holiday. That sort of worked, until it didn’t.

This year I went in search of something that would not exactly replace prayer, but would heavily supplement it for me. I found the “Hebrew College High Holiday Companion” published by the college, and it offered me something I didn’t even know I was searching for: accessibility. Rabbi Daniel Klein, editor of the Companion, confirmed my feeling. In a recent telephone interview, he told me, “The Companion is intended to be an actual companion to the machzor as well as to accompany someone who is yearning through the holidays.”

Yearning. The word resonates. It’s Hannah praying. It’s the subtext of Dr. Judith Kates’ beautiful micro-essay on Hannah and her groundbreaking outpouring to God. Kates writes: “We can be grateful that the rabbis of the Talmud chose to include the story of Hannah, the beginning of the biblical book of Samuel, for us to read as the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana. It plunges us into an experience of heartfelt, individual prayer, which can guide us toward finding our own voices in the midst of community.” With that observation, my small still voice—the voice that shakily said the Kaddish publicly for my father a day after he was buried— had resonance and value.

But there is still the terror of the holidays for me. The drama of “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?” makes me anxious. In her essay on U’netaneh Tokef, the prayer that directly asks those dreaded questions and gives us no choice but to face our mortality, Rabbi Suzanne Offit presents words of comfort and redemption in a lyrical prose poem. She asserts, “Perhaps there is a quiet moment amidst all the words we say/ on these days/ When we allow ourselves to come more fully into this awareness./We imagine that the judgment of our lives will be sealed at the/end of Yom Kippur./And in facing death, we face the limits of our own lives./We are beckoned to become our own judge./There is time./And now is the time.”

Klein offers a further observation: “The holidays are like various forms of prayer. For some people reciting all the words of the liturgy on a given morning or afternoon resonates with their souls. Other people are more calibrated for silence.”

Silence. All of my adult life, the inability to pray has been partly about my discomfort with God’s silence. Indeed, prayer can feel like a monologue. But what if it is a dialogue with a strong, silent God? It takes imagination and faith to believe that. This High Holiday season I will reconcile with God and not be afraid of jumpstarting my faith with an out loud conversation with Him/Her/Them. God is listening, and I am too.

 

 

 

 

Back to School

My husband Ken has come to Mineral, Washington, to help me bust out of the eponymous Mineral School. I’m a student of sorts here, but now I’m not sure I want to leave the place. I’ve been at the school for two weeks as the Erin Donovan Writing Fellow where I have had precious time to write and think and to write some more. And I’ve been treated like a queen thanks to the magnificent Jane Hodges, Mineral School’s founder, and her incredible team.

This is Jane’s fourth year running the school’s residency program. She bought the building in 2013 expressly for the purpose of transforming it into an artist’s retreat. She’s pretty much a one-woman show who will tell you that the Mineral School works because she has an incredible board by her side. Practically speaking, this means Jane has a cadre of amazing, can-do volunteers. I have to pause here for a moment to tell you that Jane cooked almost all of gourmet-style meals for me and the three other residents who lived and worked in these old-style classrooms.

Yes, you read that correctly. We lived in classrooms with wood floors and several feet of chalkboard. This could have been triggering, but it wasn’t. It was mostly amusing and always cool. These classrooms are their own counties—800 square feet that tempted me to do cartwheels. It’s a shame I don’t know how to do them. I mostly doodled on my blackboard, but the visual artist here used his board efficiently to tape his drawings in progress accompanied with descriptions of the work. Another resident finished her novel and another is almost done compiling her poetry manuscript. And as for me, revision was the watchword during my stay. I’m deep into the next round of edits on my memoir.

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I have to point out that the chief feature of my room, and I am including my large bed in this accounting, was the rocking chair. I’ve been self-soothing in rocking chairs for most of my life. As soon as I saw the rocker in my room, I knew everything was going to be fine. That implies that I had my doubts. Not about the Mineral School, but about me roughing it in a sixty-year-old schoolhouse that hadn’t been in use since the early 2000’s. I am not a great traveler—flying across the country by myself was not something to which I was looking forward. Flying to a place that I heard had intermittent Internet and no cell service was downright frightening to me. Never mind that I don’t like to do things like share a bathroom down the hall or have to find it in the middle of the night, something I haven’t done in almost four decades since I went to college. (The Mineral School to the rescue on that one: they provided a flashlight!)

Many of my neuroses fell away the moment I saw Jane. She hugged me and I knew I would be comfortable and productive in this place. All Jane and her volunteer staff wanted were for my fellow residents and me to be our best, creative selves. It turns out this meant something beyond just producing work—it meant reveling in our work. And how I’ve reveled. I read books that fed my soul and stimulated my brain. I have started on revisions that I know will revitalize my book and me, and I have been preternaturally calm. Calmness does not come easily to me. Nor does contentment. But content I have been these past two weeks.

After I received the notice of the Mineral School residency, Ken and I planned to go to Seattle together afterwards. That entailed him coming to the school and rescuing me after two weeks. He arrived this morning, and I could not be happier to see him. But I hardly needed saving. In fact, I wanted a few more days here to keep working on a knot of an essay that I’m just beginning to untangle. I have this big classroom where he can easily stay out of my way and hang out with me when the spirit moves me. I was devising a plan as he and I lay in bed staring at the acoustic tile ceiling and the fluorescent lights. Although he was trying to nap, I asked him if this was the oddest place to which I had ever brought him to stay. “It’s the coolest place,” he said sleepily.

I’m not quite ready to leave for the big city yet—the city being Seattle. But maybe it’s time. I admit that I have a touch of homesickness and I miss my family and friends back home. But the Mineral School has given me incredible gifts: direction and independence. And the Wi-Fi connection; I only told everyone back home it was intermittent so they wouldn’t bother me in my beautiful, spacious classroom.