by Bonnie Widerman (Irvine, CA)
When I was very young, my parents would drop me off on a Friday night at my Auntie Ann’s house in the heart of the very Jewish Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles and go off to the movies. Auntie Ann was a petite, gray-haired woman in her 60s who was not my aunt at all — she was my father’s second cousin by marriage. But for all practical purposes, this strong-minded woman, poet, and Orthodox Jew was my West Coast grandmother. And in her home, I had my first exposure to observant Judaism.
Auntie Ann lived in a yellow stucco house on Saturn Street with her beloved terrier, Penny. It was a fascinating house for a young child, with rounded ceilings and doorways thick with mint green textured plaster that made me feel as if I was stepping inside a birthday cake. “Come, let’s bench,” she’d say as the sun began to set. I’d stand beside her in the muted dining room as she lit two thick, white candles in a simple, multi-branched candelabra and recited a blessing over them. The flames made shadows dance on the walls and I remember feeling safe and peaceful there.
Auntie Ann and I would eat Shabbat dinner together in her spacious kitchen where the sink was always full of plants, the oven doubled as a breadbox, and the light bulb in the refrigerator was loosened to avoid turning on a light on Shabbat. When it was bedtime, I’d crawl under the crisp white sheets of a pull-out bed in the brown warmth of her study.
In the morning, we’d walk to Mrs. Van Gelder’s house for “Shabbos Group.”Peeking over the edge of the serving table, I’d marvel at plates loaded with pickles and sweets and other delicious-looking foods I’d have to wait for while the women talked in the living room. I’m not sure what they talked about–the week’s Torah portion or the Vietnam War or Israel–but I will always remember the way my Auntie Ann spoke. Although she had emigrated from Russia to Philadelphia when she was a toddler and spoke English like any other American, her speech was peppered with enough “Jewish” (Yiddish) that it sounded like secret code to me.
Late in the afternoon, we’d walk back to Auntie Ann’s house, where she’d doze in her yellow arm chair with Penny curled up in her lap as the sun began to set. When Shabbat was nearly over, we’d sit in darkness until her timer clicked loudly and turned on the lamp. Later, we’d turn on the TV news to catch up on what had happened in the world until my parents came to pick me up.
On Friday nights at home, my family also had a special Shabbat dinner together and lit candles. But it was different. Being Jewish was very important to us, even though we were not very observant. But it didn’t quite permeate every moment of our lives the way it did in my Auntie Ann’s home. And although Auntie Ann is gone now and so is the house on Saturn Street, the memory of the way being Jewish wrapped around us in that house has stayed with me over the years and has inspired my own Jewish observance in so many ways.
Bonnie Widerman has been a corporate writer and communications manager for more than 20 years. She also writes stories and poetry and has had poems for children published in Ladybug magazine and Fandangle. Bonnie is currently seeking publication for her book-length manuscript chronicling the year she spent saying Kaddish for her mother, who passed away in 2008 from ALS.