The photos of my bar mitzvah celebration that arrived in the mail from my parents coincided with the forty fifth anniversary of that celebration. Metaphors, perhaps, for an adolescence I would prefer to forget, the pictures are blurry and poorly composed. Miraculously, I can identify nearly every one of my classmates from middle school, along with family and friends of family, some of them long gone. Alone among these out-of- focus gems of my history, the photograph of my bubby, the Yiddish word for my great grandmother, Anna, is sharp and well developed. The black-and-white conveys with a simple delicacy the woman I remember, or at least wish to remember. She sits with her daughter, my great aunt Ruth. With her left arm in Ruth’s lap, she placidly looks at the photographer, her signature half smile, pearls, corsage and dignified posture the accoutrements of a deeply satisfied matriarch.
I have not thought about my bubby in a long time. Slipping her picture out from among the thirty or so photos in the envelope, I felt my eyes lock with hers, then my entirety slip back into my childhood that we were privileged to share. By the time I was born, bubby was seventy-six years old, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who had experienced dislocation, poverty, the death of her daughter, my biological grandmother, widowhood, the blessings of a home in America and of a large, engaged family. She spent quite a bit of time with us, mostly on weekends and during the Jewish holidays. She and my mother were very close. I assume that their bond had been cemented and sealed by mutual grief and the need to survive, after my grandmother died when my mother turned eight. From what my mother has told me, bubby raised her and my aunt Selma in the lap of their vast extended family. She continued to do so even after my grandfather remarried and the woman I knew and loved as my grandmother became a fixed presence in their lives. Bubby did spend more than a fair amount of time with us, not because she needed our home, but because she was our home, as she had always been for my mother.
Bubby was our home and bubby was my home. This strange, quiet queen of the broken English, who hailed from a foreign story that was our story, taught me about simple pleasures such as eating farmer cheese and singing Yiddish folk tunes. She amazed me with her ability to sweeten scalding hot tea by sipping it through a sugar cube held in her mouth without acquiring so much as a blister, a magical feat that convinced me of her demonic powers. I longed to understand her Yiddish and to read along with her the mysterious daily, the Forverts, her beloved Yiddish newspaper. It never occurred to me until I wrote this essay that she may well have been a rarity among her peers in that she was literate.
Yet bubby’s story was not entirely old country. One of her greatest pleasures was her steadfast devotion to a steady diet of daytime soap operas, which I suspect taught her English and integrated her into American popular culture. One night when I was fourteen, I listened in as she babbled on and on to my mother in Yiddish with a recap of that day’s soaps and their casts of villains. As she ended her impassioned soliloquy about one such bad boy, she switched to her thickly accented English and pronounced summary judgment on him with the words, “And that guy is a bum!”
Bubby’s story came to an undignified end when she was ninety-two. I know because I was the last one to see her before she died. Stopping one day after school at the hospital where she was a patient, I found her propped up in a chair. She miserably and haplessly called the nurse for assistance, her bare feet dangling across the cold, linoleum floor of her room. As timid a teen as I was, I marched out to the nurses’ station, barked at one of the staff to help her out and refused to leave until they did what I said. She died the next day and a living piece of my story rapidly became fading history.
Which is why, forty-three years after her death, I am astonished at how much of her poured out of me just from looking in her eyes in an old photo. I should not be surprised. The ancient biblical love poem, Song of Songs, declares that love is stronger than death. Love takes crisp, clear photographs loaded with images of pain and pleasure and consigns them to memory, our hearts’ picture album. My photo of bubby allows me to open the album and be with her again.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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