I am the daughter of Selma and Moish, granddaughter of Henrietta and Edward, Rebecca and Jacob. My mother was second-generation American born and my father first generation. My paternal grandparents braved the high seas as they escaped persecution in Russia during the pogrom. Recall the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye, his family, and the villagers needed to leave Anatevka. They came, like many immigrants, to seek asylum and create a new life in a land of opportunity where they were told that ‘the streets were paved with gold.’
They made their way in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the native language. I never met either grandfather since Edward, for whom I was named, died when my mother was 18, and Jacob passed somewhere between the time my parents were married and when I was born. My paternal grandparents spoke Yiddish in the home but learned English well enough to communicate and assimilate which was an important endeavor for them. My father told me that the expectation was that they speak only English in the larger world. Interesting to me that none of my uncles, father, or aunt had a Yiddish accent.
My grandfather was a presser in a clothing factory and my grandmother was a stay-at-home mom who raised four children with likely the same ‘smother love’ she treated my sister, Jan, and me; a classic helicopter parent, I imagine. She worried incessantly. When she would babysit, Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) wouldn’t let us ride our bikes, answer the phone, or be outside after dinner. She became a U.S. citizen and signed her name only once and never again, according to my mom. When we were sorting through my father’s belongings after he died in 2008, we found her naturalization papers.
She spoke five languages: English, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German but couldn’t read or write in any of them. Bubbe had a list of phone numbers of family and friends, but of course, no names next to them. She knew which number belonged to whom. Since she couldn’t read recipes; she cooked ‘by ear’ as I referred to it, with a pinch of this and dab of that, and tasted to be sure they were yummy. They were. My favorite dish she prepared was blintzes. Imagine delectable crepes filled with sweet apples, cherries, or savory potatoes. She also made potato latkes, ingredients grated by hand, usually eaten at Hanukkah with applesauce or sour cream.
She lit the Shabbos (Sabbath) candles each Friday night and would recite the blessing, covering her eyes with her hands as she invoked the spirit of rest for the next 24 hours. She sang Yiddish songs that filled me with a sense of warmth delivered from ‘the old country’.
When she was unable to live alone, she moved from her South Philadelphia row home (another movie reference: the streets where Rocky trained) to our suburban home in Willingboro, New Jersey (one of the original Levittown communities). Our next door neighbors’ family included their Polish-born grandmother, who was referred to as Babcia. Although there are different pronunciations, they pronounced it ‘Bah-chee’, like the Italian game bocce. A scene remains in my memory banks of these two aged women, Bubbe in her housedress and Babcia in her cut off jeans and men’s sleeveless tank top conversing over the fence, piecing together their various languages, laughing at jokes we didn’t get. Bubbe died when I was 13 or 14, which I can place because she was buried in the dress she wore for my Bat Mitzvah.
A few years ago, I officiated a wedding in Central Park. The reception was on a boat in the New York harbor. At one point in the evening, a touching revelation occurred. I was leaning over the railing feelin’ a bit like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl; except no one was raining on my parade. In the evening twilight, the Statue of Liberty was beaming brightly and a thought occurred to me. My Russian immigrant grandparents, Rebecca and Jacob had landed at Ellis Island in their youth, not knowing what awaited them. This was likely the first sight they saw when approaching New York. Their trip across the ocean was not first class, of that I’m certain and here was their grand-daughter enjoying the luxury of this boat trip around the harbor. I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me like the waves on the water.
Recently, my son, newly married was talking to me about the name he wanted any prospective grandchildren to call me. He told me it should be Bubbe. Keep in mind that Adam is not religious, so that wasn’t the impetus. I sense that it was to tweak me since he knows that in no way does my style resemble that of his great-grandmother. She was Russian peasant zaftig, wearing housedresses, pink bloomers, stockings rolled to her ankles, and what I called ‘old lady’ orthopedic shoes. She spoke with her thick accent and could say “Oy vey” with the best of them.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be called, but like my own mother, didn’t want to be referred to that way. Her grandchildren called her Grandmom or Mom Mom. I referred to my maternal grandmother as Giggie, and she was one of a kind, so that wouldn’t be it. I sat with it, until last year when in the midst of grating potatoes for our annual Latke Party, I had a revelation. I began using a recipe and mixing them with onions, flour, oil, and eggs, measured carefully. After a while, I found that I was ‘channeling Bubbe’ and using her dab of this, a pinch of that pattern. They actually turned out to be the best batch I had ever made. Hmmm….maybe being called Bubbe wouldn’t be so bad since I could decide what that was. Buddha Bubbe? Bubbles? Either would suit this far more fashionable, colorful, creative, less cautious woman who has newly entered her 61st year.
As I look back to my ancestral lineage, I behold resilient, loving, get it done against all odds people who were determined to make a difference in the world. May their memories be for a blessing.
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