Introducing Abby Stein by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing that Abby Stein wants the world to know is that she did not leave her ultra-Orthodox community solely to become a woman. Since she came out this past August, Stein has been garnering attention as the transgender ex-Hasid. Although she acknowledges that the two events in her life are “intertwined,” she says her initial leave taking from her Hasidic sect “had to do with beliefs. I was done with Judaism, and for over a year, I had nothing to do with it.


Abby Stein

Stein chronicles her transgender experience and her religious transformation on her moving blog, The Second Transition. In one of her first posts she wrote, “[t]here is something amazingly relieving about ‘knowing’, knowing and coming to terms with the reality I have been trying to run away from for years — I am a girl.”

The Last Chapter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This week in Jerusalem a new normal has taken over the city. It’s a tenuous calm that prevails until I notice a lone man walking towards me with his hands in his pockets and I instinctively pick up my pace. But friends here don’t see the new normal as a nod to peace. One woman tells me that she is more frightened now than she was during the second intifada when buses were being blown up. She could better calculate then the risk she was willing to take by shopping in a crowded market or riding the bus home from work. This time, there is no obvious calculus for safety. It is a time fueled by the arbitrariness of panic and adrenalin.

This was also the week President Clinton was in Tel Aviv to remember his friend Yitzhak Rabin on his 20th yahrtzeit. Clinton spoke in the square that commemorates the late prime minister—the square where an Israeli Jewish zealot gunned down Rabin. The various estimates I’ve seen of the crowd’s size for the memorial—numbers that range from 40,000 to 100,000—tell me that many Israelis not only mourn Rabin, but also mourn the dashed hopes for peace in the wake of his death. Clinton’s charge to the crowd— “to decide when you leave here tonight…how to finish the last chapter of [Rabin’s] story”—was pointedly singular in its directive.

Clinton’s words especially resonate during this current rash of violence—a violence that is both blurry and distinctive for its randomness. These polar states of fuzziness and clarity are also the underpinnings of coexistence in Jaffa, a mixed town at the southern edge of Tel Aviv. The Arabs call this very old city Arous al-Bahr—the bride of the sea. Arabs and Jews have always lived here together. Pre-statehood the majority was Arab, but in the beginning of 1948, even before Israel’s War of Independence, Jaffa collapsed when its wealthier Arab residents and community leaders sought refuge in places like Lebanon and Syria. Jaffa surrendered and was taken over by a Jewish majority. Today the city is part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.


Coexistence in Jaffa is neither violent nor friendly. There are no knives here, nor are there any olive branches. Jews and Arabs live alongside each other leading parallel lives, except for the Jews who step out to eat the famous hummus on Abu Hassan Street. Soldiers on furlough comfortably stroll the cobbled streets. The old flea market here has given way to trendy clothing shops and art galleries.

I brought an Israeli friend with me to Jaffa. He jokingly calls himself my fixer, which means he acts as both tour guide and steadfast translator during my afternoon in the city. We walk the streets of Old Jaffa taking in the sea, eating the freshest hummus I have ever tasted, and making our way to the Arab Jewish Community Center (AJCC) in the Ajami section of Jaffa. It’s a 20-minute walk from the city center and along the way we see another kind of blending—ramshackle houses just yards away from expensive condominiums.


Founded in 1993, the AJCC is a cornerstone of this Arab neighborhood. It aims for the look and feel of an American Jewish community center. It offers school children and teenagers after school programs called chugim or electives that range from dance, gymnastics and martial arts to tutoring in the newly constructed library.

The AJCC,, which also aims to undo the de facto segregation of Israeli society, is not unique in that quixotic goal. What is different is that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality underwrites part of the center’s expenses. According to a staff member at the center no other overt peace initiative has that kind of city government funding anywhere in Israel.

In addition to the various chugim, the AJCC sponsors classroom exchanges between Arab and Jewish schools, a youth parliament that focuses on diplomacy and three choirs that perform their own ecumenical outreach. Numbers are important in these endeavors. The activities are purposely populated with an equal number of Arabs and Jews, and tolerance is the watchword associated with them.

It may just be a matter of semantics, but I bristle at the word tolerance. I hope and pray Israelis and Arabs go beyond tolerance to loving kindness and ultimately peace. But for now tolerance is how people survive in Jaffa. Still I give the AJCC credit. Its policy of tolerance encompasses a celebration of differences too. Children who would normally not interact with one another come together here. And the center also fills in a vacuum for Arab schools that lack the facilities and funding for extra-curricular activities.

As I left the center I fantasized that the philosophy behind the AJCC’s programs could one day be part of a different, better new normal in Israel. And as I reflect on President Clinton’s words, I think that maybe this is also the place to begin the last chapter of Yitzhak Rabin’s life story—a story that has yet to unfold.

The Situation by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Fear has been my companion in Jerusalem.

Last Sunday I went to the Kotel—the Western Wall–by myself. I was among the few people who braved the rain and the wind to pray and to wish and to marvel. But I was well aware of the boundaries around me. When I went into the Old City, I didn’t cross into the Muslim Quarter. When I walked around Jerusalem’s City Center, I noticed that taxi drivers advertised they were Jewish by flying the Israeli flag atop their cabs.


The other day a Palestinian boy and his blind grandfather begged me for money. “Mrs., Mrs.,” the boy said in Hebrew. “Kessef, money.” I quickened my steps. “No money,” I said in my fractured Hebrew. “Please, Mrs.,” he said in his equally fractured English. He followed me all the way to the café where I was meeting friends. There he conducted a long, convoluted negotiation with my friend, which yielded him 20 shekels or about $5.

“I’m sorry he frightened you,” said my friend.

“I’m sorry I let myself be frightened by a little boy and his disabled grandfather.”

I felt a mixture of shame and relief.

This is the week of the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Israeli right-wing, extremist Jew. This is also the week that Richard Lakin, an Israeli-American who was originally from Newton, Massachusetts, died of wounds he sustained when a Palestinian stabbed and shot him on a bus in Jerusalem. Lakin immigrated to this country decades ago with hope and optimism and advocated for co-existence and peace in this country.

I have promised my husband that I will not take public transportation on this trip. It’s a promise I easily keep because fear keeps me from boarding the Number 18 bus on Emek Refaim, a busy thoroughfare. During the second intifada in 2003, a suicide bomber blew up a Number 18 leaving ten people dead and over a hundred hurt.

I’ve taken to meeting colleagues and doing work in the Grand Café on Beit Lechem Road. Beit Lechem is Hebrew for Bethlehem. It means house of bread, and I have spent my mornings in a house redolent with the smell of bread and coffee and pastries. Every once in a while it occurs to me that it could also be a house of tragedy or even carnage. I tell myself that a stabbing or a suicide bombing is highly unlikely here. Things have been relatively quiet except for the occasional siren piercing the calm. That’s when my mind blows up my fear into the size of a balloon floating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

“Blood is flowing in the streets of Israel,” a well-meaning friend said to me just before I left. Her comment felt like a throwback to the first and second intifadas. But my Israeli friends are adamant that this is not an intifada. That would imply there is some organization behind this latest spasm of violence. But rather these scattered, random acts of violence are borne of pent up rage. A thirteen-year old Palestinian boy stabs an Israeli Jewish boy. A Jewish settler attempts to stab a peace activist, a rabbi who has accompanied a group of Palestinians harvesting olives on the West Bank.

A journalist friend says that this country runs on magical thinking. During the second intifada, her children were small and every morning she made sure to know what clothes they were wearing as a protection, a charm against getting a call to identify their bodies. In that same conversation she casually mentioned that Palestinians are throwing Molotov cocktails a few streets over from her house. She shrugged her shoulders and told me this is how it is these days.

Ireland had “The Troubles” and Israel has “The Matsav” — the situation.

There is an Israeli saying that, “If you were once burned by hot water, you will be afraid of cold water, too.” There is so much cold water rushing around me—Palestinian construction workers, women in hijabs, little Arab boys looking for a handout.

My fear is valid. My fear is exaggerated. I indulge in magical thinking to keep me safe. Maybe tomorrow I will not be afraid.

Three Sabbaths by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Jerusalem is a city with three Sabbaths—holy days that make for a long weekend often rife with prayers and recriminations. This is a beautiful, tense, chaotic, sometimes violent city that comes to a short peaceful halt during the call of the muezzin, the songs of a Shabbat evening, or the tactile recitation on the rosary.

Prayer is a serious, pervasive business in Jerusalem. On a Friday night I sit alone on the terrace of a friend’s apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. The rush to finish all the preparations before the Shabbat siren goes off have left me exhausted and I’ve decided not to go to Kabbalat Shabbat services with my hosts. But Kabbalat Shabbat—the receiving of the Sabbath—comes to me anyway. I hear the traditional songs of the service saturating the night sky from a not too distant synagogue. In the lull, there is the Muslim call to worship, its minor key making the imperative to pray sound doleful. Prayer is a sad, provocative, life and death affair in this country.

Jerusalem Shabbat

One of the descriptors I’ve heard for this latest spasm of violence in Israel is “The Lone Wolf Intifada.” So-named because the Arabs stabbing Jews and the Jews beating Arabs are not acting in concert with any particular organization. This is vigilantism at its fiercest. Israelis are scared. Arabs are enraged. As one friend quipped, “When it’s quiet for 24 hours, we’re almost hopeful that the danger has passed. And then there’s a stabbing and the whole cycle of despair starts up again.”

Despair is not what I feel and yet I’m not hopeful either. At Friday night dinner my friends have a lovely tradition of passing around “angel cards.” Printed on each card are words, in Hebrew with English translation, like friendship, nourishment, synthesis, finding one’s way, truth. The words are a catalyst for conversation. But they are also resonant in the way they are both consoling and provocative.

My angel card bears the word refuah or healing. Refuah shelama—a complete healing—is the Hebrew phrase for wishing someone a full recovery. The most immediate explanation would be to state the obvious: Israel is ailing, hemorrhaging literally and figuratively. Only a refuah shelma can save her. But like the knifings that have been daily occurrences in this country for the past month, the wounds—physical and emotional—are deeper than ever. Later in the night, helicopters hover and sirens wail.

Jerusalem is under attack again, from within.

In Memory of Haptom Zarhum by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I do not speak Tigrinya or Arabic, but I speak the language of grief.

As soon as I was off the plane in Ben Gurion Airport, my best friend Susan and I locked arms, on our way to a Tel Aviv Park to join a memorial, a de facto shiva minyan for an Eritrean man.

That previous Sunday, Haptom Zarhum was killed in the chaos that followed a terrorist attack in a Beersheba bus station. An Israeli security officer shot Zarhum believing him to be the attacker. On the ground bleeding, Zarhum was beaten by an Israeli mob beat as he lay in a pool of his blood. He died shortly after from his wounds.

I do not speak Hebrew, but I speak the language of rage.

Haaretz, Israel’s English language daily newspaper, reported Haptom Zarhum’s death as a lynching. He was just 29 years-old.

In Levinsky Park, families lit white candles with their children. The candles were arranged in the shape of a cross. There was crying, there was keening. Women, with white scarves wrapped around their heads and holding babies, quietly wept. Men openly wailed.

Eritrean Memorial

“It’s good to be together,” an Eritrean woman conveyed to me in a fractured, earnest English.

There are about 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. The Israeli government is unresponsive to their pleas for asylum.

“Sometimes,” an American Israeli woman whispered to me, “I’m so ashamed of my country,”

The Pope’s Chair by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I thought I loved Pope Francis. Like many people I admired him for the way he shunned limousines, skipped out on a power lunch to eat with the homeless and insisted his accommodations always be humble. And while as the head of the Catholic Church he won’t endorse gay marriage, surely there were better people for him to meet on his first trip to the United States than Kim Davis.

Until that rendezvous with Davis, my affection for the Pope also stemmed from the fact that I am a Jew who graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school—the lone Jew in my class. Since then all things Catholic have fascinated me including the vestiges of the mid-50s Catholicism that were still omnipresent in my 1970s high school.

While it’s not typical for most American Jews to attend parochial school, it was a tradition in my family that spoke to our foreignness. My grandmother learned to crochet and speak French in a convent school in Greece. Nuns tutored my mother in literature when she was in high school in Cuba. When it was my turn, I was sent to the Sisters of Mercy at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a seemingly odd choice for a girl from West Hartford, Connecticut.

It quickly became apparent that I had stumbled into an ecumenical experiment—not only for me, but also for the other girls in my class. I was notably exempt from wearing the school emblem on my blazer, a thick ornate patch of cloth that displayed a cross inside of a crown. I was allowed to sit out chapel services along with the handful of Protestants in my class.

The Mount had once been glorious, palatial. By the time I arrived, it was dull gray wood and fraying maroon velvet. A large crucifix with a half-naked Jesus nailed to it floated above the chalkboards of each of the rundown classrooms. Only a couple of hundred girls, down from an enrollment of a thousand in the Mount’s prime, rattled around the place.

Despite the Mount’s decrepitude there was one room that seemed suspended in amber. In a first-floor parlor, a room whose graciousness lingered along with the cobwebs, there was a chair with an austere mahogany wood back and plush dark red seat, cordoned off with fancy braided ropes. It bore a plaque proclaiming that Pope Pius XII had once sat there during a visit to the school. Someone had obviously still taken great pains to polish the chair’s intricate arms and dust the seat.

By my senior year I had settled into the Mount. My classmates no longer expressed overt sympathy that I didn’t celebrate Christmas. Some had even happily tasted the matzah I brought for lunch on Passover. I was still different, but no longer an outsider. The Mount was my school too. And yet there was the very curious Pope’s chair, an abandoned piece of furniture that was worshipped. And so on a bone-cold winter day—uniformed and knee-socked according to the school’s dress code—I did the most defiant thing a Jewish girl at Mount Saint Joseph Academy could do: I snuck into that parlor and sat in the Pope’s chair.

I’d like to say that at the time I was striking a blow against Pius’ immoral silence during the Holocaust, but I did not know that bit of history until years later. I only knew that what I was doing was provocative, even blasphemous and it felt good.

The longer I sat in the chair, the more my palms perspired and my knees shook, until my lookout, Pauline, reported that the principal was marching down the hall towards us. I bolted out of the chair and hid behind the heavy curtain until it was safe.

My class, the class of 1978, was the last to graduate from the Mount, but the building is a historical landmark—its exterior has to be preserved in perpetuity. For the past decade it has been an assisted living facility with the elegant name of Hamilton Heights. It offers impromptu tours for Mount alumnae, and so on one of my trips back to West Hartford I decided to visit my old high school.

I used the front entrance, which was disorienting. Entering that way was strictly prohibited when I was a student. Tracy, the head of admissions for Hamilton Heights, greeted me in the foyer with a story about an older Mount graduate who came to see the place as a potential resident. She was so overcome with memories of the nuns rapping her knuckles with their rulers that she refused to get out of the car.

The school that had been in such a state of deterioration was now decorated in the false, institutional cheer of silk flowers and bright, cheap art. Tracy and I worked our way from the top of the building where the nuns once lived down to the basement cafeteria. The nuns’ quarters and classrooms had been converted into small apartments. The model apartment I saw encompassed the rooms where I had taken English and history. The gym was now the Alzheimer’s unit. The chapel was a meeting room; the stained glass windows representing the Twelve Stations of the Cross were intact.

On the first floor Tracy stopped at the doorway to a waiting room that I immediately recognized when she asked me if knew why it was called the Pope’s Room. I told her that Pope Pius XII had visited the Mount in the school’s glory years. “I once sat in his chair,” I admitted sheepishly.The Pope's Chair

Now when I see Pope Francis or pictures of his immediate predecessors sitting in various chairs, I think of that iconic Pope’s chair at the Mount. And while I thought this Pontiff had an abundance of loving kindness, (I’m certain he’d forgive me for being a teen-age outlaw), why doesn’t his love extend to our gay sons and daughters as the children of God that they are?

A Tale of Two Cubas: Why An Exile Still Won’t Return by Judy Bolton-Fasman

For the past half-century, my mother has desperately missed her native Cuba.

Yet the recent and stunning reversal of Washington’s long-time policy towards Havana has left her resolute that the Americans are coddling the Castro brothers’ dictatorship. Cuba is still as closed to her as the day my grandmother, after an extended stay to take care of me, her newborn grandchild, boarded one of the last commercial flights from New York to Havana in 1961.

“I’ll never set foot in my country as long as Fidel and Raul are in charge,” says my mother with an exile’s fervor. She wants the doors to open to the Cuba she once knew, not the country she sees as grotesquely frozen in time. When I show her pictures that I took just a few years ago of her house on La Callé Merced in Old Havana, she weeps.

My mother epitomizes the suffering of her fellow Cuban exiles.

My mother epitomizes the suffering of her fellow Cuban exiles. I first saw it as a little girl, when she stood at our kitchen window in Connecticut and moaned, “Hay Cuba como te estraño.” For my mother’s sake, I missed Cuba too, even though I had never been there.

The closest I got to Cuba back then was Little Havana in Miami. I was 9-years-old the first time my mother took me there. It was 1970; the height of Cuba’s isolation, and my family was hungry for news of our relatives trapped on the island. We headed towards the dull neon of my cousin Estersita’s Miami Beach neighborhood. All I knew about her and my other Cuban relatives was that they had escaped from Castro’s oppressive regime a few years earlier. They settled near Lincoln Road, among other anti-Castro Cubans, while waiting to return to Havana.

The courtyard, as seen in 2012, of the house on La Callé Merced in Havana, where the author's mother once lived. (Judy Bolton-Fasman/Courtesy)

Every morning in Little Havana, my mother treated Estersita and her family to café con leche and eggs at the Cuban diner. She slathered our pan Cubano with butter the same way she applied our suntan lotion against the strong Miami sun.

My mother, who immigrated in 1958, was the first in her family to come to the United States. She married my American Dad a couple of years later. No one in my mother’s family had ever married out of its Sephardic-Jewish-Latino constellation. In Miami, she played the role of an affluent Americano’s wife in earnest, never letting on that she and Dad had separated.

Like my relatives who pined for Havana, I waited for a sign that my father had not forgotten me. I hoarded dimes to call him in secret from a payphone around the corner.

In the evenings, I sat in the living room of my relatives’ small apartment as Estersita’s husband Pepé adjusted the rabbit ears on the television. The electronic snow gave way to a fuzzy picture of Castro with his woolly, raggedy beard. Castro, in his drab military uniform and lidded cap, spoke in one long streak of breath, like the Cubans I knew in Miami. “Patria o muerte! Venceremos!” — “Fatherland or death! We shall overcome!” he said. Pepé and his poker buddies screamed, “Hijo de mala madre” — “son of a bitch” — at the screen. The ladies at Estersita’s kitchen table, where she gave manicures in front of Spanish soap operas, novelas, during the day, joined the men in cursing the television.

Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade over Cuban radio and television as seen on a television monitor at Key West, Fla., Oct. 23, 1962. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Castro jabbed an index finger in the air. The broadcasting interference made him sound as if he were hoarse. Yet he spoke in a pellucid Spanish that came to us all the way from La Plaza de la Revolución.

I got up for more ice cream, and just as I passed the television, the room burst into exclamation. “Para!” One of the poker players screamed at me to stop. “No te mueves!” — “Don’t move!” I had stumbled upon the sweet spot in the room where the reception happened to be perfect. I, the Americanita, had brought Fidel Castro into focus. They watched him with the same curiosity with which one gawks at an accident.

Por Dios,” cried my mother. “Castro talks forever. La niña can’t stand there all night.”

“She can for 10 cents an hour,” Pepé bellowed.

I was a human antenna, catching signals from Cuba.

From then on, night after night, in real time, I was a human antenna, catching signals from Cuba.

When I arrived in Miami, I spoke a clunky, simple Spanish that Estersita and the others thought sounded funny. I struggled to read menus and understand the novelas. But with each passing day, I slipped deeper into the language until one day, when I realized that I understood Castro without first having to translate him in my head. I was becoming fluent but tried to stop myself from sliding completely from American to Cuban, from two parents to one.

I finally collected enough dimes to call my father a thousand miles away in Connecticut. When I got him on the line, he called me sweetheart and promised to come down to see me. A few weeks later, he made good on his word. We packed our bags and left Little Havana to move into a fancy motel on Collins Avenue for the occasion. My parents reconciled, and we went north to a place where Castro was once again a silent picture in the newspaper. No longer just 90 miles away from Cuba, we were north, where my mother will always miss the Cuba that was.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti (, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station