It was a dark and dreary, rainy day, perfect for reading, when I recently completed another one of my Jewish novels, The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz, by Michelle Cameron. As I slowly closed the book, I was sent on a mental journey that revealed information of my Bubbe’s past that had never dawned on me before, and obviously, no else in my family!
The book takes place in 13 Century Europe with a rabbi’s daughter wanting to be educated, but of course, as a girl it was looked down upon. Her wonderful father wakes before the sun rises everyday to give her Talmud lessons and Shira becomes a wise and learned woman.
When I closed the book, something drew me to a very old Atlas that was my Dad’s from high school and I looked up how different France, Germany and Russia were mapped back then. I was suddenly taken by a melancholy train of thought about my Bubbe and her life in Kiev.
She had been orphaned before a year old and had four siblings who were divided between two sets of grandparents. She and an older sister, Eve, went to live with their fraternal bubbe and zayde, the rabbi and rebetzen of their town. She would tell me about the huge estate they lived on, with servants and maids, how she never combed her long red hair or drew her own bath, as the maids took care of her and the family. Not only was her zayde a rabbi but also a merchant so they lived quite well for Jews in Kiev. Then the Pogroms of 1917 changed their lives (see attached video narrated by my Bubbe about those days) and then she, like many others, found themselves on a boat to America.
Bubbe led a difficult life in America, she and my Grandfather never seemed to financially succeed, going to Chicago after Ellis Island and then settling in Los Angeles. During her lifetime she lost five children, worked side-by-side with her husband but she always said they had food to eat and nice clothes to wear. After my parents were killed in car accident in 1962, her biggest tragedy, she raised my two brothers and me. Always educating herself (she became a citizen after being in the USA for over 40 years), she was the wisest, funniest, best cook and a true Woman of Valor and our hero!
Now Bubbe never drove a car, me and a variety of people schlepped her everywhere on errands. I tell you this because I do believe when one does not drive, you are not aware of how long it takes you to get from one place to another! Consequently, when I asked Bubbe questions in relation to time, like, “How long did it take you and Pa’s family to walk from Russia to Warsaw?” she just waved her hand in the air and exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and “How long did it take on the boat to get to America?” she yelled, “Vhat does it matter? I’m here!”
Her time elements have always bothered me because I often wondered how much is forgotten through time, what pieces did she creatively insert, not maliciously, as some family members have a few different versions of incidents, like my Grandfather was not allowed on the boat in La Harve, because, he, according to one relative, had pink eye and another insists he had athletes feet! The point is, he had to stay behind when 19 other mishpachah sailed to America while he had some medical condition! PS: Bubbe gave birth on this boat, but the baby died and instead of going on to Chicago with the rest of the family, she got on another boat and went back to her husband! They lived in Paris for two years before sailing to America! Wow! That’s chutzpah! That was my Bubbe! Anyway, the next phase of her story has not always made sense to me but I accepted her story as hers—until this rainy day after reading a book.
While looking at the maps of Europe, I realized I did not know exactly what town Bubbe and her family were from, where was the big estate, where did she attend school. I knew that my Grandfather had come from Zlotopol (back in the 1950s, my grandparents played cards with other people who had come from Zlotopol). And suddenly it hit me that I did not even know my Bubbe’s grandfather’s name! I jolted up racking my brain for her grandfather and grandmother’s names! I did not know their first or last names! How could that be? She told all of us kids so many stories of her beloved grandparents, we have a library of tapes my brother made of her sharing her experiences, singing songs, talking of her life, but never did she utter the name of her bubbe and zayde!
Then the biggest question jolted me—none of us kids are named after her grandparents!
I paced up and down, agitated that this could not be! Her grandfather educated her, her grandmother taught her to be the gracious hostess she always was, these people instilled the sense of love, nurturing and family into her soul. WHY DID SHE NOT GIVE THEM THE HIGHEST OF HONOR TO NAME A CHILD AFTER THEM?
And then I was taken back to the 1980s when Bubbe sat me down on her couch and completed her story for me: After days of the pogroms, her grandmother told her and her sister, Eve, to leave the town, run away and save themselves, they were young and beautiful and could have good lives. The two young girls cried and said they would never leave her, especially, by then they did not know where the grandfather was and suspected he had been taken by the Bolsheviks. But the two girls eventually ran, in different directions (???), one went to Zlotopol to be with her then boyfriend, my Grandfather’s family, and I have to believe that Eve had a boyfriend in another town.
“So Bubbe, how long did it take you to get to Pa’s town?” Another one of my stupid questions! She did say it took her awhile to just get out of her town by sneaking through alleys, hiding in burned out houses and stores and in and out of the woods and then finally to Zlotopol. Then within time, she decided to go back to her home and find her grandparents. I continued my illogical questions of “How much time passed before you decided to try and find them?” and “How long did it take you to locate where they were?” All I got was the waving of the arm and that dismissed draykop look!
With thanx to G-d, Bubbe did discover that her grandparents were in “an old folks home” outside their town. This was interesting to me because she had always told me how young her bubbe and zayde were, and again with the questions, I asked, “Bubbe, how long did it take you to go visit them from Zlotopol?” and “How often did you go?”
She hated that they were in an institution because as the rabbi and rebetzen of such a community, she was indignant with their surroundings of two beds in one little room, while being treated like old people.
But here is the ah-ah moment for me: One day she walked into the facility and a nurse told her the doctor wanted to see her. He sat her down and told her, “I am sorry to tell you that your grandparents died last night.”
As I jumped off Bubbe’s couch, she continued to tell her story as though she said we were having brisket for dinner. I stopped her immediately and asked, “What do you mean they died last night?” and without missing a breath, she continued with anger and a loud voice, “And they were buried in a corner of the cemetery! Can you imagine, such a prominent rabbi and rebetzen to be buried in such an undignified place?”
Suddenly my 1961 Confirmation notes appeared in my brain with reference as to why Jewish people were buried in the corner of the cemetery! Now in real time on that rainy day, a huge shock wave went through me: The reason none of us kids are named after my Bubbe’s grandparents is because they committed suicide!
When I stopped Bubbe to confront her with this fact, well, let’s just say that I had never seen my five foot, 110 pound grandmother so enraged, at me! She screamed and hollered, “How could you say such a thing! He was a rabbi!” I let it go and never mentioned it to her again. I felt as though she found a way to cope with her life and all its heartaches and I had no right to interfere. But somewhere, down deep within her gitte neshomah, in her heart-of-hearts, I believe, she knew the truth.
And that is why none of us, not even her only living child today, knows the name, first or last, of his grandparents. In fact, it was only months before my Bubbe passed away did my uncle ask his mother who he was named after and she told him a story that he was born early so they did not have a name picked out for him and a nurse in the hospital gave him a name. I don’t buy it! In fact, her other children, me and my cousins all have names from my Grandfather’s family. Was her youngest child her last chance to bestow her grandparents name on a child of hers? We will never know.
My Bubbe died in 1984 and it was 2013 when I figured all this out!
AND, here is another kicker to the story. One Wednesday morning, 1956, 8:00am, the phone rings. My Mother answers it and starts to scream! Around the breakfast table we all are startled and when my Mother hangs up the phone, she says that Bubbe just got a letter from her sister, Eve, from Russia! Bubbe had never seen nor heard from her since that fateful day they left their grandmother and ran from the Bolsheviks!
Written in Russian and translated, Eve says she thought Bubbe was dead but through Jewish organizations, she found her, tells her she has a family in Russia and they are well. She asks simple questions, revealing nothing of the life they live in Russia. It seemed obvious the letter had been censored, it’s the Cold War. My Mother and Bubbe packed up boxes of pictures, clothes, foods and send them to Eve. There was one letter of thank you and then nothing. Not ever again has there been communication from Eve.
Another jolt for me that rainy day:
Bubbe and Eve last saw each other in 1917, I was born in 1946. My name is Sandra Eve. My younger cousin is named Eve.
Our name is after a woman who was still alive when we were born. Did Bubbe or anyone else in my family realize this fact? We will never know.
Oh, what secrets we hold….
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
— Lawrence Kushner
While Reform Judaism tends to stay away from superstition, the practice of naming after a deceased relative (and specifically not living ones) is still practiced by the vast majority of Reform Jews out of a sense of tradition and a desire to honor those who have passed on prior to a new life coming into the world. With that said, the naming customs in the Reform movement tend to be based on the ancestry of the family.
Editor’s Note: Hear Bubbe tell her story in her own words in the video below.