My maternal grandmother would have turned 100 today. She was born on April 29, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s unknown to me whether the wake of the Russian Revolution the year before touched her young life indirectly; her parents had come to this country sometime in the decade or two before her birth, presumably to escape antisemitism and in hopes of a better life for their kids. She experienced a great deal of early loss: Her identical twin sister died when they were babies, and her mom passed away when she was a young girl.
When I was 20 or so, I became obsessed with understanding her choice to convert to Christan Science. When she told me that she had not been allowed to enter the synagogue to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, my heart broke. I pictured her, sitting alone outside on the steps, while the all-male minyan prayed on the other side of the heavy doors.
There was no place in the Jewish tradition of that time for her grief, her voice. As a motherless young woman who was determined to put herself through school — she and her four sisters had moved out after their father remarried and had a new child with his second wife — I imagine she was restless to find a spiritual home that embraced and acknowledged the depth of her yearning for and connection to God.
A close friend, Gus, used to zip off in a hurry after their classes at Hunter College on Thursdays. One day, Celia asked to join her. The way she described that first introduction to the Christian Science church, you’d have thought she’d found nirvana — not to mention how many Yiddish accents dotted the space. In other words, she was not only not alone, she was very much with her people.
There is so much more to Grammy than this, of course, and so much more to this story than I will get into here. Suffice it to say, she was a force of a nature. We — my siblings and cousins — were all “jewels in the crown of [her] rejoicing.” She carried scripture everywhere and believed that God is Love and Love is God. In this way, we are not so different, Grammy and I.
She died when she was 92, I was 28, and my firstborn, Aviva was three-weeks old. She didn’t get to meet Pearl. She didn’t live to see me come out, and I sometimes wonder how she would have responded to that. Part of me thinks she would have fought me tooth and nail on it, and another part of me likes to believe she would have said she’d known all along. (I think this latter part is pure fantasy, but it’s interesting to consider.) Either she and Mani would’ve loved each other or butted heads, both of them so headstrong, with a deep religious fervor informing their worldviews.
In any case, I miss her. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her beyond my childhood, to have had some years with her of real, wrangling conversations, before dementia began to erode her capacity to recall what she already knew. She knew us all to the end, even if we repeated the same conversations over and over. She called out for her mama and her papa the night she died, and reached her arm across my daughter’s infant body as if spanning the generations in the transference of life. I will never forget that.
Happy birthday, Grammy. If you were here, we would eat mint chip ice cream and sing to you, then clap as you blew out the candles. In fact, I think I’ll eat a scoop in your honor.