The Harsh Face of Poverty

For three hours last Sunday, I was a 36-year-old man named Kris Knowles who lived in Missouri. I worked a dead-end job for minimum wage. I had an unemployed wife named Kaitlin, a disabled mother and a teenage daughter who could not hold down a part-time job. I was poor. And along with being poor I became increasingly overwhelmed, angry and humiliated. I waited in line a lot for various services. And when I made it to the front of a line the folks who were supposedly there to help me were not all that kind. It was a typical day in a long month of scrimping and clawing to survive paycheck-to-paycheck.

This simulation was not a game and there were no winners. It was the Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Poverty Simulation—a pointed exercise in empathy in which my fellow participants and I struggled with the taxing reality of keeping the Knowles family afloat. To my surprise, the particulars of the simulation effectively mimicked an actual life of poverty.

Various tables were set up in the room to represent a bank, Kris’ place of employment, a check-cashing establishment that charged Kris a high percentage when he couldn’t get to the bank, or it was closed, a social services office, a center to collect utilities and pay the mortgage and a table tucked away in the corner of the room to get emergency vouchers when cash was short.

Things started to fall apart for the Knowles family shortly after the simulator began. The family barely lived from paycheck-to-paycheck and as the breadwinner in the family, I needed to work without interruption. During the first week—a period that for purposes of the simulation lasted 15 minutes—I was harshly turned away from work for tardiness. My lateness was compounded by the fact that I needed to take out a cash advance to pay for transportation.

Missing a paycheck for that week meant that the Knowles family would soon be drowning in debt. We netted approximately $1200 a month after taxes, and after our basics were paid we had just $336 left over. That was all the money we had for extras and even more alarmingly, emergencies.

As a member of the Knowles family, I quickly discovered there is no margin for error when you’re poor. Week two we had to decide between buying groceries and paying our utilities. Looming on the horizon was our mortgage, a car payment, purchasing prescriptions for my mother and charges for transportation vouchers. We were soon notified that our electricity and gas would be turned off. I was frustrated with Kaitlin who seemed to get little to nothing done while I was at my job. To keep the lights on she pawned some jewelry and the family stereo. All that did was increase our deprivation and spike our level of anxiety about whether or not we would end up in a homeless shelter.

In the meantime, our daughter’s part-time job was not working out. She couldn’t get to her job on time and for several weeks did not collect a paycheck that was a factor in the family’s finances. By week three the family was desperately missing my first paycheck as well as my daughter’s financial contribution. At this point, I was running from my job to the bank, with its inconvenient hours, and the cash-checking table. My frustration mounted as I stood in line worried that I would either be late for work again or unable to make a necessary household payment.

My wife became defensive when I told her that she needed to try harder to find a job. I raised my voice to my daughter whose excuses for missing work seemed more and more ridiculous. She claimed that her lost wages were the result of on-the-job discrimination. “Prove it,” I snapped at her. I then told my mother, who had suffered a stroke a few months back and was paralyzed on her left side that we had to sell her car to stave off homelessness. She was upset and accused me of robbing her of her independence. At this point I was so exhausted from making sure that I had my transportation covered to go to work that I almost told my mother she was becoming a burden.

Throughout the morning my “family” and I stayed in character. I noticed other couples also bickering. At one point the children next door were sent to juvenile hall after their parents failed to pick them up on time from school. Some people were incarcerated for various crimes including drug dealing. One family stayed out of the homeless shelter by doubling up with another family. But that had its set of social problems and frustrations.

The simulation happened over a couple of hours and after it was done, I was more dejected than relieved. There is living on a budget and then there is living on the edge of catastrophe. I went through a range of feelings during the simulation, but the one that stayed with me was vulnerability. A tape played over and over in my head—“There but for the grace of God go I.” It was no longer a well-worn cliché, but a deep and meaningful blessing.

A version of this essay appeared on


The First Zangeelee: A Thanksgiving Story

Five years ago I went on a short trip to Cuba—my first—in which I crammed a lifetime of my bright tropical curiosity about the place in just four days. With a mother from Cuba, I lay claim to my Cuban-Jewish heritage in many ways. Among them is that I grew up in a version of Havana transplanted to West Hartford, Connecticut.

Havana in these United States was the equivalent of messianic Jerusalem for my mother’s family. At the Passover Seder, it was always, “Next Year in Havana.” I have always had a genuine longing for the place. “Next Year in Havana” gave way to Hay Cuba como te estraño. I missed Cuba too. It didn’t matter at the time that I had never been there.

Cuba was mythic, imaginary, utopian. I grew up on the hyphen between two identities. My father’s family had a more familiar immigration. From Russia to New Haven, Connecticut via Ellis Island. My paternal grandparents both came to this country as infants. My mother’s family trace their roots to medieval Spain and came to Cuba by way of Greece and Turkey.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m afraid that all of this global hopscotching will be forgotten, or worst, meaningless to my progeny. The sturdy hyphen that bridged my identities will simply disintegrate. My children do not feel hyphenated. My son is practically bilingual in Spanish, but strictly through classroom lessons. The older my children got, the more I should not have only seen to their fluency in a different language, but also in another culture. They think my predilection for Cuba is both odd and endearing. Sometimes they believe I’ve invented Cuba the same way I thought my mother conjured it during the deep and dark Connecticut winters.

Thanksgiving was the only American holiday when my Cuban family came down from the bleachers and played in the game. Christmas was out. Hanukkah was about the light and darkness, nothing more. Giving gifts around the menorah was an American invention. The Fourth of July baffled my people who were on their third exile. But Thanksgiving was based on two groups who understood nothing about one another. That was family.

My maternal grandparents believed they could learn English by leaving the television set on all day. Mostly they stared at a jumpy screen scrolling endlessly. How do I explain this to my 21st century kids with their HD televisions? How do I describe translating soap operas for my grandmother?

The little English that my grandparents did pick up was severely mispronounced. How do I convey that attempting to say something in English is a rite of passage in this country, not an occasion for racism? When my grandmother heard the word Thanksgiving for the first time she took to calling it Zangeelee. At their first Zangeelee in the United States we had turkey with rice and beans and plantains. We were one of those families that also had the cylinder of cranberry sauce—the one with the ribs of the can clearly indented into it. A tower of cranberry sauce in which you could stick a candle. Happy Birthday. Feliz cumpleano, Zangeelee.

Before I went to Cuba I took inventory of our dead in Guanabacoa Cemetery. My daughter asked me if I still had family in Cuba. “They’re dead,” I whisper. “Are you sure,” she said incredulously.

I was. Those tombstones in that cemetery outside of Cuba were the equivalent of my Plymouth Rock. Cuba is, after all, where we first landed in the New World. I took my children to Plymouth Rock when they were small. It’s a good thing that it sits in a structure that looks vaguely like a Roman Temple or else we might have missed it entirely. “This is it?” asked my children looking at the relatively small rock.

I thought I might have some of that small-child mentality at Jose Marti airport in Cuba. Would I also say, “This is it? This is what I have been pining for all these years?” I had been saturated with pictures of the 1950s cars, my grandparents’ house with the heavy wooden door and their ornate balcony. What I found instead was the beautiful crumbling of old Havana that stands as proudly and triumphantly as an aging beauty queen. I had come to the place where my first Zangeelee originated.

This piece originally appeared on Cognoscenti

United Against Hate by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“Make no mistake,” writes the New Yorker’s editor David Remnick, “neo-Nazis and white supremacists are now at the forefront of American politics.” In the three decades since I tracked right-wing extremist groups for a Jewish civil rights organization, the reach of these groups has wildly increased. But their influence? Even in these difficult times, I’m not so sure how effective they really are. The biggest change, of course, has occurred in the way these racists circulate information. Instead of cranking out hate rags on mimeograph machines, they spread their virulence in a millisecond throughout the Internet.

And yes, David Duke is back with another crew of white supremacists who are garnering attention. They make a strong case for the resurgence of domestic extremists. But please look closely at the numbers. The ratio of these purveyors of hate to the good people who oppose them is promising. That was the message I took away from the “Interfaith Gathering of Unity, Love and Strength” this past Friday night at Temple Israel of Boston.

There was something sacred and satisfying about gathering with optimistically minded people. On that night Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy addressed the 1700-strong congregation as one. They stood alongside civic leaders and elected officials and listened to Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, Elaine Zecher, declare that, “I deputize you to become covenanted to one another—interconnected and dependent on another.”

And yet, I can’t forget how a friend’s house was vandalized with Nazi graffiti. Or the time when my mother, a teacher in the same school for years, unlocked her classroom door and found a swastika on the chalkboard. My friend and his family quietly scrubbed away the anti-Semitic epithets that were aerosoled on the front of their stately white home. My mother erased her board and went on with the business of conjugating Spanish verbs with her high school students. We didn’t have vocabulary like “hate crimes” to articulate what happened to them.

I once went down south with a friend and astounded him with my knowledge of the Klan cells that dotted the Carolinas and Georgia. But even as I read those sooty newspapers in my office, never once did I think most people gave these hate mongers any consideration. David Duke was more of a sideshow freak than anything else. Although he was an articulate Klansman calmly talking about the Zionist Occupied Government, who could take him seriously?

At Friday evening’s interfaith gathering, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center offered words of wisdom from the prophet Muhammad. “When speaking about the essence of the human condition,” he said, “Muhammad likened it to the body. When one part of that body is in pain, the remainder of the body will stay feverish. Many in our nation are in pain from Charlottesville to Boston, from the Holocaust Memorial in Boston to the streets of Barcelona. It is now time for us to come together and push back with mercy against those elements in our society causing that pain.”

Governor Charlie Baker proclaimed that good always triumphs over evil. He shared his favorite beatitude from Matthew 5:9 which says, “Blessed are the peacemakers. For they shall be called the children of God.” Baker went on to declare that, “Peacemakers say NO to bigotry. Peacemakers say NO to violence. Peacemakers say NO to hatred.” The governor charged his audience to go out and do the “active hard work” of peacemaking.

As he looked out at the congregation, Mayor Marty Walsh said, “This is what unity looks like.” Walsh said he found strength in his own recovery, which taught him to heal and to share that healing with others. “When hatred strikes one of us,” he said, “it strikes all of us.”

Attorney General Maura Healey asserted, “that what we saw this week, what we witnessed was not only lawless; it was godless.” She brought the audience to its feet in a pointed reference to President Trump when she declared that “anyone who struggles to denounce white supremacy or Nazism does not deserve to be president of the United States.”

Is David Remnick right? Is this the moment of the white supremacist and the neo-Nazi in America? Not if the latest numbers that came out of the Boston counter-protest this past weekend are correct. A group of less than 100 racists—racists grandstanding about their right to free speech—was overwhelmed by over 10,000 people protesting against them on the Boston Common. That ratio has been consistent for decades.

These bigots, though, have caught the attention of an administration that won’t repudiate them. They’ve menaced people who thought they were safe in this country. As Rabbi Zecher noted in her welcoming remarks, “many of us have been the object of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.” That’s true enough. But I never thought it would happen to my children too.

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

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

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

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

Thunder, Lightning: A Flash Essay by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Lightning, Thunder

On summer nights, my father stood resolutely on the porch to listen for thunder, to observe lightning. When that lightning cracked the sky and lit the world the color of steel, my father’s rules were absolute: No telephone, no television, no shower. During a particularly window-rattling storm, Dad rushed us into the ’65 Malibu, sure that the car, with its rubber tires, was the safest place to sit out an electrical storm. My father belted us three kids together in the backseat, the silver buckle pressing against my belly, the car never moving off the driveway.

This flash essay originally appeared on “The Thread” as part of the “Stitch” series.


No Equivalent: Trastienda by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Spanish, noun.
A storage room in the back of a business

Each person has a trastienda within them: a place my Cuban mother described whereby secrets thrill the day and deepen the night. No one’s trastiendas were more airtight than my father’s.

My mother never knew my father was a spy in Latin America during the 1950s. That secret was almost assuredly in the grave with him until I did some research discovering his life in espionage. That discovery was like an infinite hall of reflections – trastiendas upon trastiendas as far as the eye could see.

If my father dared to confess his trastiendas, he would do so in a letter. Email was in the offing and my father hated to talk on the phone. One summer when I lived in New York City, my father, back in our hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, began to write me letters. One of the letters arrived in a thick and heavily taped envelope, indicating this was beyond the usual old-fashioned tips for getting over boys who had wronged me, and stories of my mother’s epic temper tantrums in which she railed that he was a feeble, old man. I thought about my father’s growing desperation to leave my mother. I wondered if this was the letter in which he would say he had asked her for a divorce.

Or perhaps the letter was connected to his health, as it had begun to deteriorate that summer. I first noticed something was wrong with his handwriting; his tall, stalwart letters once so commanding on the page had become crabbed and crowded. “Get off my back,” he said, waving off anyone who pointed out his symptoms.

The same day I received the letter, my father left a message on my answering machine, ordering me to burn it. This strange, unexpected order frightened me, convincing me that I did not want to know what was in that letter. His voice was firm, but I could hear the underlying panic; the kind he used when he would come home from work, take me aside in a whisper: “What kind of mood is your mother in?”

Within a few hours of receiving my father’s troubling message, I held the letter up to the fluorescent light of my dorm room, flicking a lighter in the other hand. I moved the lighter closer until the blue-rimmed orange flame caught a corner of the envelope. From there, the fire spread quickly. I threw my father’s letter into my dented metal garbage can and watched it curl into ash. Only the raised bald-eagle stamp remained distinct and resolute until the end.

My father’s health continued to decline; as he slowly disappeared he dismissed our concerns until we stopped acknowledging his shaky hands and shuffling walk. He had Parkinson’s disease, a trastienda he tried and failed to keep from us.

After my father died, I went on an extended treasure hunt in my childhood home. I rifled through his closet searching for more of those rare trastiendas. Had he left behind a diary or other letters? Were there pictures to unearth from his time in Latin America? My father was careful not to be a character in his own life. The only fact I learned about my father posthumously was from his best friend who said that he and my father served together in Guatemala.

There is a Jewish saying that posits a dream that goes uninterpreted is like an unopened letter from God. God’s letter, after all, must contain some of the secrets of the universe. But sometimes it’s wise to sit on those divine trastiendas for a while. I never told my family about the letter my father told me to burn, or the fact I burned it. I wonder some days if I should have kept it, tucked it away until after my father’s death and read it to further demystify my father’s presence. But there was something so alluring about singeing that letter as my father had ordered. My father’s legacy was an inheritance of secrets, yet only one was mine to keep.

This essay originally appeared in “Off Assignment” —

The Rigetousness of Khizr Khan by Judy Bolton-Fasman

According to Talmudic legend there are at least 36 righteous people in every generation whose good deeds keep the destruction of the world at bay. These people are called lamed vavniks – an appellation that comes from the two Hebrew letters – lamed and vav – that make up that wonderful Jewish number 36. In other scenarios 36, a multiple of 18, which spells out life in Hebrew, stands for double fortune.

Lamed Vavniks are scattered throughout the Diaspora and there is a group of them in every generation. A point of information: a lamed vavnik is too humble to think of him or herself as one of the anointed 36. He or she is also anonymous. But one can have a fairly good idea about who are the lamed vavniks among us.

It’s not a big leap of faith to suggest that Khizr Khan is such a person. Mr. Khan is the Gold Star parent who, supported by his wife Ghazala, impressed the world with his fervent love for the United States and his reverence for our Constitution. His son, United States Army Captain Humayun Khan, died in 2004 protecting his unit from a car bomb. I will never forget Mr. Khan holding up his personal copy of the Constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and imploring the world, and Donald Trump in particular, to read it.

Mr. Khan, who is an attorney, was in Boston last week to speak to 1500 middle school and high school students attending the Anti-Defamation League’s Annual Youth Congress. Mr. Khan said he was humbled by the opportunity to stand in front of so many young people. “I want them to walk away from this convention with the full realization that they are our future. They are the custodians of the goodness of this country.”

At an event the night before, Mr. Khan spoke to a smaller group of Jewish and Muslim leaders. Soft-spoken yet forthright, Mr. Khan is a spokesman for our national conscience. “I am a witness,” he said, “to personal intimate conversations in which America remains a beacon of hope for the rest of the world regardless of what is taking place inside our country. How can we give up? We are all patriots.”

He pulls no punches when he talks about “tyranny in Washington,” or when he compares the content of the president’s speeches to Nazi rhetoric. “You will be amazed,” said Mr. Khan, “at how fear of immigration, fear of the other was exploited then and is exploited now.”

As I reflect on Mr. Khan’s patriotism I have come to understand that he is an avid student of history who looks towards the future. In his wide-ranging remarks he noted, “I remind myself loudly that this bigotry and hate in my county is nothing new. The most vulnerable community is always attacked. In 1882 it was the Chinese community subject to indignities in the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1942 it was the internment of Japanese Americans and the indignities and crimes committed against them. In 1939 the [German ocean liner] the St. Louis brought my Jewish brothers and sisters ashore from persecution only to be declined entrance to this county, fully knowing the fate of those wonderful men and women. The reason I remind myself is that now it is the Muslim’s time to be subjected to this un-American hate.”

During the course of his remarks it became clear that people want to confide in Mr. Khan. He recalled that a Latina-American who recognized him on the street in Washington, DC, had to share the fact that her 10 year-old son found the strength to confront his bullies after watching Mr. Khan’s speech at the convention last summer. A retired army nurse who served in the Second World War wrote him a 26-page letter encouraging him to continue to speak out so the atrocities she witnessed would never happen again. A hand-delivered envelope that he found in his mailbox turned out to be from a fifth grade class, fearful that their Latina friend would be deported. That last incident was reported in the press. The story caught the attention of Hillary Clinton’s staff and they extended an invitation to the Khans to speak at the convention.

Mr. Khan said that he and his wife were reluctant to step into the spotlight. But for two days – in a small room in their house in Charlottesville, Virginia that they have dedicated to their fallen son who was just 27 when he died – they considered whether or not to accept the invitation to speak in Philadelphia. During that contemplative time they realized they were safeguarding the stories of people who had to be heard.

After Mr. Khan spoke I went up to him and shared the story about the legend of the lamed vavniks. I told him I thought he was one of those 36 people. He bowed slightly and said, “I think you are describing my son.”