Bubby 2.0

February 6, 2019

5 min read


I used to yearn for the perfect Bubby – wise and kind, unshakeable in her faith, kvelling over the grandchildren. But I had Nanny instead.

Bubby is lighting Shabbos candles, a white kerchief on her head. Tears trickle slowly down her soft, lined cheeks as she sways before the flames, murmuring prayers with intense devotion. Her granddaughter, scrubbed clean and wearing a fresh Shabbos dress, watches silently, in awe.

Any clichés missing? How about a worn, leather siddur with yellowed pages? Let’s put a framed sepia photo on the wall, too, of long-bearded relatives from the Old Country, just to emphasize the holiness of the moment. And we’ll put Mommy in the room, lighting candles next to Bubby, because it’s so sweet and multi-generational. Then the scene is perfect.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this image. I even find the stereotypes heartwarming. It’s just that I really can’t relate. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to have the older generation puttering around the kitchen and calling the grandkids endearing Yiddish nicknames like “sheifele” and “zeeskeit.” I did have a grandmother, of course – but I never had a Bubby.

Nanny reading to me

My grandmother was called Nanny – a name I must have invented at some point before I could say “Grandma.” Nanny was a powerful force of passionate contradictions: a therapist with an astonishing unawareness of her own inner world; a fiercely independent-minded woman easily swayed by dramatic stories; a lifelong hypochondriac who, above all, valued being “real.”

Nanny was stubborn, impulsive, opinionated, and intensely curious about people. She felt stifled by social niceties and took a mischievous delight in people going against the flow. Nanny was not exactly the matriarch of the family, but more like the cornerstone, the perpetual temperament to be reckoned with. Even now, just after her second yahrzeit, it feels inconceivable to me that she is no longer alive. Regardless of her physical presence, her energy and drive remains an inherent part of our family dynamic.

Nanny would have had no patience for Bubby and her pure, simple faith. Nanny was a college-educated woman, a licensed psychotherapist who worked outside the home – even in 1950’s suburban America.

Bubby, in my imagination, crochets baby blankets. Nanny built my mother’s childhood bedroom furniture.

Bubby walks slowly around the block, for her health. Nanny traveled to China, Greece, Turkey, Alaska.

Bubby teaches her granddaughters how to hem skirts. Nanny taught me how to play gin rummy.

Bubby’s bookshelves are filled with leather-bound books of timeless Torah wisdom. Nanny’s bookshelves were filled with Freud.

Nanny in Japan

Bubby is a calm, gentle presence – soft and nurturing. Nanny, even in her 80’s, could beat anyone at ping-pong – including the men – and the look of focus and determination in her eyes made it clear that, for her, this was more than just a game.

At the age of 88 in Jerusalem for our wedding, she said, “For the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Jewish.”

Nanny felt no particular personal connection with Judaism. For her, being Jewish evoked childhood memories of gentile neighbor boys spitting at her from trees, or college admission quotas, or High Holiday fashion shows at the local Reform Temple. Nothing about being Jewish was “real” or meaningful for her. Yet, although she couldn’t relate to my move towards greater observance, she was thrilled by my choice of husband and flew around the world, at age 88, to attend my Orthodox Jerusalem wedding. The family fretted and fussed about how she would handle the event. Rapt and bright-eyed, she joyfully participated until 2 a.m. – and even stood up and spoke at our Shabbos sheva brachos, stating, “For the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Jewish.”

I used to yearn for the perfect Bubby – wise and kind, unshakeable in her faith, kvelling over the grandchildren. But as the years have passed, I appreciate more and more that I had a Nanny instead. Although she never wore a white kerchief or fervently whispered verses of Psalms, she handed down a legacy of passion and determination to a family that desperately needed to feel that fire.

Nanny with her first great-grandchild

As a young adult, having grown up with Nanny’s desire for “realness,” I was compelled to consider my life decisions with authenticity. Nanny’s relentless attempts to push aside her inner sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction energized my own search to find greater purpose and meaning in my life. Her resolve and force of will gave me the strength to follow my dreams, even when no one else understood them. And the same stubborn independence that fueled her international travels gave me the courage to move to Jerusalem – where my children, on a daily level, experience being Jewish not as an afterthought or a liability, but as a connected, living reality: everything that Nanny held dear.

There’s a wholeness that comes when we glean the good from what we’ve been given – a deep, settled sense of belonging that’s found by focusing on the value of what is rather than what we think should be. My childhood may not have been picture-perfect, but the way I grew from it would make any Bubby proud – and I think my Nanny, too.

May her memory be a blessing.

L’ilui nishmas Sarah bas William

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