The Secret Ballot

Congratulations, my dear son. This is the first election in which you will vote! I admire you for keeping your own counsel when it comes to selecting your candidates. All I can say is that you are a chip off a chip off the old block. You know that my father, your Papa Harold, was the guy who flew flags out all the windows of our house for every American holiday. Without fail, no matter where he was, he’d put his hand on his heart whenever he heard a patriotic song. He sang the national anthem off-key with a fervor that more than made up for the flat notes he hit.

My father never told another soul for whom he voted. Ever. Not even my mother. She learned to stop asking. As a kid, I took on the ultimate challenge to find out if Papa Harold voted for FDR. (Yes, he was very much a man of the 20th century with a stake in that long-ago election). Figuring out Papa Harold required careful, constant observation coupled with an extravagant imagination. He was like the puzzle in the newspaper that he and I did every Sunday night. The clues were purposely ambiguous so that two choices seemed plausible. When the correct answers were published on the following Thursday, he’d say there’s always next time. That’s good old-fashion American optimism.


Papa Harold would have wanted me to impress upon you the history of suffrage in the United States—even though it is a history rife with sexism, racism, xenophobia and ageism. He’d want you to know that following the trajectory of African-American voting in this country is a crucial civics lesson, which you must never forget—a lesson that you were first exposed to in grammar school. The timeline alone reflects the long and harsh struggle of civil rights in this country. Shortly after African-Americans were given the right to vote, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literary tests were designed to prevent them from even registering in many southern states. The poll tax was effectively in place until the passage of the 24th amendment in 1964.

Another fact, I’d like you to know is that your great-grandmother cast her first vote when she was twenty-nine-years-old and the mother of two children. Voting has always been a hard-won privilege. People yearn for the right to vote. I know that you understand there are still places in the world where voting is a revolutionary act. And still there are other places where people are willing to die for the right to vote.

Politics is also a cautionary tale about how words and deeds can be twisted to ruin a person’s reputation. Nothing proves that more than our current presidential election. Remember the fable about the feathers in a pillow I told you when you were a little boy? It had to do with the consequences of gossip. Talking poorly about a person has the effect of a wind that blows pillow feathers everywhere. It’s impossible to gather all of them together just as it is nearly hopeless to fix the damage done to a person’s reputation by careless remarks.

Aside from protecting his precious and few moments of privacy, Papa Harold imparted to me that voting was as sacred as prayer. The Constitution was his liturgy. He never maligned political candidates. He spoke about them in the larger context of our imperfect yet precious democracy. He was fond of the Mark Twain quote that democracy was flawed, but it was the best form of government on the face of the planet.

Remember when I took you and your sister to the voting booth with me? It saddened me when the two of you noticed our polling place was so empty. But it’s no surprise. The United States ranks 139 out of 172 in voter participation. Only half of the eligible voters in the United States vote in a presidential election. The mayors of many American cities are elected by less than 10% of the electorate.

The statistic that cuts to the bone for me, though, is that half of the children in the United States live in homes where nobody votes. We can’t afford that kind of apathy in this election. You must vote and you must vote for Hillary Clinton. I know I’m casting aside the privilege of the secret ballot. But in this election your vote for Clinton is critical. Your fate, along with the fate of the entire world depends upon it.

For the Sin Of

There is a sweet children’s book called “The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story” that has particular resonance for today. The hardest word, as you might have guessed is “sorry.” During this time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish tradition of apologizing is in full swing. Blanket apologies are not accepted here. They must be one-on-one personal confessions, which brings me to the disgraceful apology that Donald Trump offered this past weekend for bragging about sexually assaulting women.

No matter what one’s political inclinations are, let us agree that in no way does Donald Trump represent the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. His is a virulent policy of exploiting the most desperate Americans with lies and false promises. So no, this is not about politics. This is about what is decent and right and democratic. It makes me sad that no one has used the word “democratic” very much in this campaign season, but what is at stake here is our very democracy. At the Democratic Convention, Khzir Khan, the father of U.S. Captain Humayan Khan killed in action and the recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, emotionally and pointedly asked Trump, “Have you read the Constitution?”


As for his apology, Trump scowled through it like a schoolyard bully. It was a feeble attempt to sidestep his boasting about a rape culture, to consider his words of hate as merely “locker room talk.” He calls the release of the lewd recording in which he is heard attacking women a “distraction” from campaign issues. “Sorry” is the hardest word – it’s a word that carries notes of contrition and grace. Done with love, these notes harmonize into the sweetest melody in the world.

Our Jewish tradition has much to say about apology. Writing in the Washington Post, Mark Oppenheimer invokes Maimonides as a wise guide on the subject. Oppenheimer writes that, “Maimonides spelled out his rules for repentance in one of the chapters of the 14-volume Mishneh Torah, completed in 1180. This section, though only a few pages-long and little read outside scholarly Jewish circles, is one of the great spiritual documents of the world. The rules are lucid and practical , and they feel absolutely relevant today.”

Maimonides was clear that the offended must be apologized to directly. In Trump’s case that would be the two women he was heard trashing on tape. According to Maimonides if neither of these women want contrition from Trump, he “should bring a group of three of his friends and approach [the women] to request forgiveness.” If this doesn’t work the first time, the atoner must try to apologize up to three times. After that the tables are turned and the person who refuses to grant the forgiveness is the sinner.

I like the direct format of the Al Chet prayer – translated as “For the Sin of.” The actual text is an exhaustive list of sins that is said a total of ten times during the course of Yom Kippur services. The litany is real, hard-hitting. In fact, in traditional prayer one expresses atonement when reciting each line of Al Chet by thumping the chest for each sin recited. And it’s also a prayer that reflects how sin is a communal responsibility. Shaking our heads in disbelief and then disgust is not enough. We’ve all had a part in allowing Trump to get as far as he has.

Herewith is my version of Al Chet exposing the more glaring Trump sins that we have committed these past months.

We have sinned against You through shrugging off criminal behavior.

And we have sinned against You through ignoring misogyny.

We have sinned against You by allowing the insult of our Gold Star families.

And we have sinned against You through permitting disrespect of our veterans and Prisoners of War.

We have sinned against You by witnessing mocking of the disabled.

And we have sinned against You through not supporting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

We have sinned against You through accepting not paying our taxes.

And we have sinned against You through allowing the swindling of people in business.

We have sinned against You through watching the exploitation of fear and vulnerability.

We have sinned against You by listening to hatemongering.

We have sinned against You through exposing our children to hideous and lewd comments.

We have sinned against You through not insisting on the truth.

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Some Late Afternoon Thoughts For My 25th Wedding Anniversary

The late Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is one of my favorites. Ginzburg, who died in 1991 at the age of 75, was born in Palermo, Sicily into a family of Jewish intellectuals. Gifted and uniquely brilliant Ginzburg, who was born Natalia Leví, wrote twelve books and two plays – some of them under a pseudonym because of crushing anti-Semitism. She raised five children and won a seat in the Italian parliament when she was in her sixties.

The book of hers that I always return to is a slim volume of essays entitled “The Little Virtues.” The earlier essays in the book cover Ginzburg’s fascist-imposed exile from Rome to the Abruzzi during the Second World War. In later ones she evokes her life in Turin and Rome as well as her extended time in England.

With my 25th wedding anniversary around the corner, I went back to my all-time favorite Ginzburg essay, “He and I.” It is a straightforward, black and white portrait of a marriage presented in quick, deft strokes. Ginzburg is ostensibly conveying the differences in temperament and outlook between her and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer and resistance leader, died in 1944 at the hands of the fascist police). But like a developing photograph, the more you read the essay, the more you realize that you see a bigger picture of a beautifully imperfect love. It is also an homage to daily life, to routine and to the happiness imbedded in them.

The essay starts out simply, directly: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” Her husband speaks several languages well, she doesn’t speak any well. This is a marriage that exemplifies the old chestnut that opposites attract. But not exactly. Although it’s a study of stark contrasts, Ginzburg goes further and explores what happens after these opposites come together.

Every time I read through Ginzburg’s essay, I see more shades of my husband Ken and me. When we were first married, I gave him a jokey greeting card that illustrated a meeting convened for people who had normal childhoods. There were two people in the picture. Ken could have been the third. He is that person that is calm and steady and kind even in the roughest of times. When I fall apart, he puts me back together.

On our first extended trip together, he did not so much astonish me for driving perfectly through the West Country of England on the opposite side of the road. He astonished me because not once did this man to whom I was engaged yell at me for reading the map wrong or, quite frankly, not knowing how to read the map at all. (These were pre-GPS and cell phones days). He gently took the large crumpled, accordioned paper from me, neatly folded it up, took my face in hands and said the most gorgeous words I have ever heard – words that have come to evoke our life together – “Don’t worry. A car goes backwards and forwards.”


Like Ginzburg’s husband, Ken takes his time in a museum. He goes beyond the audio guide to understand the exhibition at hand. Natalia and I are zoomers. That is, we rush through an exhibit, taking it all in in a whirlwind of anxiety and curiosity.

And speaking of anxiety, I am a hot, anxious mess. Ken is not. He says “I love you” after every phone conversation even if we’ve had a fight. Even though I‘ve held a few grudges since third grade, I can’t stay mad at him for more than a couple of hours. He hates to clothes shop. I can spend hours going through racks of clothing. He sweetly defers to my taste when I bring things home for him to try on. But he was stricter with the children when they were little than I was. He thinks it’s a hoot that I’m still a pushover with our fourteen-pound dog. I think it’s a hoot that the dog is kind of afraid of him.

He knows everything about Gilbert and Sullivan and Bob Dylan. Me? I’m a child of the ‘70s. I like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. We love going to the movies together, but he respects that I can’t abide violence or science-fiction – two things he tolerates very well. He takes his time forming a thought. I’m reactive. He can do differential equations and edit my essays with equal aplomb. I wait for his insightful comments. And as I’ve been doing for 25 years – I learn from him again and again. And I love him more for that each time.



Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashanah Story

Struggling with infertility is a loneliness like no other. I have been blessed with two children, but I can still recall that feeling of isolation, hopelessness and, in some sense, failure until I conceived my longed-for first child. Jewish tradition not only validates this emotional state, but also elevates it by telling Hannah’s story publicly every year.

Hannah, the heroine of the haftarah that is traditionally chanted on the first day of Rosh Hashana, desperately wanted a child. Although she is not the first biblical woman to experience the pain of infertility, she is the first woman to confront God about her situation through personal prayer. In a number of midrashim Hannah is acknowledged to have introduced the model for the contemporary way we pray and approach God.

But like many inventions, there were missteps in Hannah’s journey. When Eli the High Priest saw Hannah moving her lips and praying soundlessly he assumed she was drunk. Hannah quickly corrected him. “I am a woman who is hard of spirit,” she said. “I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to God.”

Hannah’s barrenness echoes that of the matriarchs. Like Sarah and Rachel, she went through a long period of yearning for a child. And like her forebears who found concubines for their husbands, Hannah encouraged her husband Elkanah to take Peninnah as a second wife. A midrash further explains that Hannah reasoned that if she told Elkanah to take an additional wife, God would liken her to Sarah and Rachel and also remember her with a child. But Peninnah, who gave birth to many children, turned out to be Hannah’s cruel rival. Each year the family would go to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice and Peninnah would taunt Hannah about her childlessness. After almost two decades, a despondent Hannah had had enough heartbreak and confronted God in bitterness and desperation.

Hannah forthrightly calls God to account for the injustices in His/Her world. Another midrash depicts her comparing her situation to a woman who has been issued a death sentence. While this idea of a life without children as being the severest of punishments does not resonate with modern sensibilities, Hannah is a woman of her time. In the Hebrew text she refers to herself three times as a maidservant – a woman who observes God’s commandments. Her piousness alone is justification for demanding God to answer her prayers.

Alicia Jo Rabins, a teacher of Bible, a poet, and a song writer who has authored a curriculum on biblical women called “Girls in Trouble,” describes Hannah’s call to prayer as “the most radical fertility technology of her time.” Rabins asks: “Is God a partner in Hannah’s transformation, or a force activated through her demands?” For Rabins the story is “a complicated interplay between Hannah’s power to change her life, and her reliance on forces beyond her control. On one hand, Hannah’s decision to take action after years of suffering is a crucial part of changing her story. But on the other hand, Hannah cannot change her destiny alone; God needs to ‘remember’ her in order for her to conceive.”

This is the season to honor Hannah’s brand of ferocious and brave worship. In that spirit I have also been reading Belle Boggs’ beautiful memoir the “Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood.” There is an undercurrent of supplication in Boggs’ book too. In researching her memoir she came upon a phrase, “disenfranchised grief,” coined by another writer. In an interview with The Atlantic, Boggs explained that, “Disenfranchised grief is grief for a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. And fertility fits into that category really well because it isn’t something that we are comfortable talking about. Because it is an experience of loss if you’re trying for something and it’s not happening.”

“Disenfranchised grief,” perfectly captures Hannah’s state of mind as she prayed to God for a child. Her prayer was a deceptively spontaneous outpouring of grief. It was a beautifully articulated expression of a deep, recurring disappointment. As we move into this High Holiday season, many of us will confront our own disenfranchised grief. May we pray as authentically and movingly as Hannah.








The Contradictions of Summer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Summer has always been full of contradictions for me. The days are long yet the season is short. Summer experiences are like gossamer—try too hard to hold on to them and they vanish. During the summer I take stock, look back and marvel that I survived winter’s hibernation or the frenzy of the calendar.

Summer is a quiet time in the Jewish calendar. There is a slow but steady movement towards the high holidays. And then there is Tisha b’Av—simply translated as the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha b’Av is a day of remembrance filtered through bereavement and mourning that is both as private as a yahrtzeit and as public as a yizkor. Tisha b’Av is a crater I seem to stumble into every year—a crater that filled with ancient and modern traumas. Israel’s holiest Temples were destroyed in different years on the same date.

The symbolism of that wholesale destruction comes back to haunt Jews even on the happiest of occasions as in the breaking of a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. Other historical tragedies befell Jews on that day as well. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and many Jewish communities were annihilated. Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha b’Av in 1492. World War One broke out on Tisha b’Av in 1914 and set the stage for the Holocaust. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz on the ninth day of Av. Old and new history are omnipresent during a month that the Talmud instructs that we must reduce our joy.

In the summer Jewish observance may feel lighter, less busy but it is has its moments. On Tisha b’Av my mother never let us kids swim. We sat on the side of the town pool, sadly dunking our feet. This was a random punishment for nine-year-old me. Under ideal circumstances my mother didn’t let us go into the pool for at least two hours after lunch. This made Tisha b’Av the equivalent of continuously digesting a meal. But food was a moot point because we never fasted. Yet we purposely ate lightly if not more hungrily. The holiday also had a personal resonance for my mother. Her Uncle Baruch, who never observed any aspect of Tisha b’Av, died in a car accident on the very day. A few years later, on another Tisha b’Av, another uncle was run over by a streetcar in Havana.

Tisha b’Av always seemed to sneak up on me when I was a child and then as an adult I lost track of it altogether. Only when I went to work for a Jewish organization was I aware of it again. For some of my colleagues it was a day of true mourning. On the eve of Tisha b’Av they recited Lamentations on the floor of their synagogues. They went to work yet fasted all day. They wore cloth shoes and eschewed comfortably sitting at their desks. I remember my boss consciously trying to stand for most of the day. It was an austere yet functional shiva. I now see that my family and I were in the clutches of a makeshift Judaism, unable to forget Tisha b’Av yet not able to implement its more profound implications. We were on automatic pilot. Our practice never transformed us.

There was the summer when I wanted my Judaism to go beyond arbitrary bans on swimming and I decided to keep kosher. This made my parents anxious about many things including our annual summer vacation. Was there any place within a reasonable distance that we could go to for those two weeks where I would eat? The answer finally came to my father. The Catskills. My parents had honeymooned there and fifteen years later—1975—most of the big hotels were starting to dilapidate. But there was still palpable nostalgia for and loyalty to the Catskills. We stayed at Brown’s Hotel, owned by relatives of Jerry Lewis – a fact you could never forget because his picture was plastered everywhere.

That summer my sister learned to ice skate and my brother perfected his diving. I ate kosher food until I couldn’t eat anymore and fell madly in love with the waiter for my table. Bobby was an aspiring doctor from New Jersey. I was a fourteen-year-old as terrified of mixing meat with milk as I was of imagining myself kissing a twenty-one-year-old. Brown’s was a formative summer experience for me with its hint of summer romance mixed in with my newly found Judaism.

These days there are no bans, no lamentations, no uncomfortable standing for me on Tisha b’Av. I concentrate on honoring memories while living in the present.


A Letter to My Son After Orlando

My Dearest Son—

Orlando. That’s all we have to say now to invoke the horrific reminder of how vulnerable LGBT people still are. Orlando. A portent of how very careful you, a young gay man, must be anywhere in the world.

I am so proud of the man you have become. Your gay identity is just a natural part of who you are. You are not an activist about it. I almost wrote that you are comfortable in your own skin. But I’m not sure that is always true. Each time you are in a new situation you have to come out all over again.

When you came out to your father and me, you were a shy 16-year-old boy. You kept your eyes trained to the kitchen floor and blurted out that you were gay. And then you added, “I’m out of the closet.” How long had you been hiding who you were in such a dark, narrow space?

When you were a little boy, long before you came out, I published another open letter to you and your sister about the debate at the time regarding the status of homosexual men and women in our branch of Conservative Judaism. I said:

You have been taught in school, at Temple and at home that God is compassionate and would not want anyone — homosexual or heterosexual — to live a life without love. That is exactly what Dad and I want for both of you — to find true and fulfilling love with a partner.

I’d like to say that my words were prescient. But somehow a mother knows, and I knew you were struggling with your sexual identity. But I wanted you to come out to me in your own time. Reading that letter again, I also realize how far we have come in ensuring that you live a life in which you can legally marry the man that you love.

When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last year, I wept. And then I phoned you. I wanted to be the first person to tell you. You thanked me for calling and said you appreciated that I told you the good news. Your reaction, though, was cool and collected. I pray we had made you feel confident enough, strong enough to see the Court’s decision not so much as a privilege, but as your human right.

Yet even with the Court’s decision and the Conservative movement’s enlightening interpretations of Jewish law, I know if you kiss another man in public it’s still a provocative, even dangerous act. I read that the Orlando murderer became enraged when he saw two men kissing in public. That reaction is incomprehensible to those of us with gay friends and family. But I suspect you know how cautious you must be in this world. After all, there are too many places where your life as a gay man is threatened.

This has happened to Jews as well. I’ve been writing about anti-Semitism for three decades. But as an American I never felt overtly threatened by it even when your day school decided to lock its doors and hired a security guard. I suspect anti-Semitism does not affect your day-to-day life either, although you, who don’t engage much in Judaism, were disturbed by the anti-Israel protests on your campus.

But being gay is different. In interviews that I’ve heard or read, over and over people said that places like Pulse were supposed to be safe havens for the LGBT community. Pulse was a place to dance, to laugh, to flirt. You’re too young to remember, but before Pulse there was a 2009 shooting at a gay nightclub in Tel Aviv. And a young woman, an LGBT ally, was stabbed to death last year at a Pride Parade in Jerusalem. In our country there is a long history of oppressive violence in clubs like Pulse, upsetting a gay person’s sense of security and taking away his dignity.

In your last year of high school, a teacher asked you to imagine yourself in the future. You wrote a lovely essay that included a scenario in which you and your husband lived on the Upper West Side of New York with your two children. I hope you don’t let anyone or any event keep you from dreaming that dream.

If Orlando has taught us anything, it is that you and your LGBT brothers and sisters can’t always live securely and confidently and openly. We must fix this by safeguarding that something as innocent as a night on the town does not turn into a dangerous experience, or God forbid, a tragedy. Fighting against LGBT hate is as important as fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism.

And no matter where you are, always know how much your father and I will always love you.



The Banana on the Seder Plate

bananabanana.jpgThe moment I saw artist Nicole Eisenman’s seder plate at the Jewish Museum gift shop in New York, I had to have it. Its simplicity gives way to cheekiness. Its bold black lettering and mud-red glaze give it a funky vibe. And the symbols on the seder plate are described in a straightforward, childlike language. My favorite description calls the charoset—the edible stand-in for the material the enslaved children of Israel used to make bricks—“cementy stuff.”

The most declarative symbol on the plate is the bone—the place for the zeroa, or roasted shank bone. That particular object is there to remind seder participants of the 10th plague—the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons—and it screams for attention on this seder plate.

Nicole Eisenman Seder Plate with Pouch

And while this is a dream of a seder plate, there are newer ritual food objects to join the old standbys. The first is an orange. This is a tradition that goes back to the 1980s, when an early feminist Haggadah suggested the radical act of placing a crust of bread on a seder plate in solidarity with Jewish lesbians. Unfortunately the message was that gay Jews were made to feel as if they violated Judaism, like eating bread at Passover. So Susannah Heschel came up with the idea to replace the bread with an orange. In an essay she wrote a few years ago for the Forward, she explained:

“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”

A relatively new tradition on my seder plate is the inclusion of cashews. This is the brainchild of Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton. A few years ago, Rabbi Gardenswartz saw a sign in CVS asking customers to buy bags of cashews for our troops in Iraq. A CVS employee, whose son was on his second tour of duty there, spearheaded the idea. She explained that salted cashews kept the men and women serving in a desert climate hydrated. The next Shabbat, Rabbi Gardenswartz urged his congregation to honor our troops by including cashews on their seder plates.

Now comes the year of the banana. For 3,000 years the Haggadah has reminded us that we were once slaves, and it commands us to experience the Exodus from Egypt as if we had actually gone through it ourselves.

This is where the banana comes in. Like the slaves we were in Egypt, so too are we Syrian migrants fleeing for our very lives. We too are the parents of the little boys—brothers who were 3 and 5—who drowned on an Exodus gone horribly awry. Their mother drowned with them, but their father survived the harrowing journey. In his grief this father remembered how much his boys loved bananas.

Bananas are not easy to come by in war-torn Syria, but every day this father brought his boys a banana to share. Its sweetness was not only a treat, but also a symbol of his deep and abiding love for them. Is this man so different from us? Is he so different from our ancestors wandering in the desert? Did the Israelites make life a little sweeter for their children on their traumatic journey with bits of hard-to-come-by fruits?

In the spirit of Nicole Eisenman’s original plate, what would an updated seder plate convey about these new and sacred ritual objects? Here are my suggestions and their meanings:

  • Orange: cherishing one another
  • Cashews: solidarity
  • Banana: we are all migrants

What would you add to your seder plate?