Tag Archives: grandmothers

Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Ruth Leah

by Ruthie Stolovitz (Atlanta, GA)

Regularly, I am told of the weight of my namesake. People tell the beauty of my name, the history and the reason behind my name.

Unfortunately, you died before my birth at age 68, but you continue to impact my life as if I always knew you. I hope this means our souls are connected.

The rings on my mother’s hands each hold a story of my mother’s mother and her mother, a story that will forever repeat itself with the help of my descendants.

Her Spanish-style home near the water in Larchmont, NY was where my mom and her four siblings grew up. The home can be compared to my grandmother; my grandmother no longer inhabits the home, but it is still standing tall. My grandmother’s memory will always last.

Living in Florida for the end of her life, my brother visited her as a young boy and sang “Fly Me to The Moon” during the last stretch of her life.

Eternally her spirit will guide my decisions and daily actions.

A wonderful woman and great role model, my uncle tells me. I am honored to share a name with such a remarkable woman.

Hands that are gentle, my mom would tell me the similarities between me and my grandmother.

Ruthie Stolovitz is a 9th grader at The Weber School in Atlanta, GA. She wrote this poem for an assignment in Jewish Literature class, in which students discussed how biblical poetry can function as a tribute or eulogy. Students then wrote acrostic poems, in the style of biblical poetry, in memory of family members who influenced them.

 

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The Circle of Life

 by Barbara Krasner (Somerset, NJ)

Yiddish births my mama’s mother tongue
Yiddish silences my mama at death
Yiddish curls around the circle of life
Yiddish comes up from beneath the dirt
Yiddish spits, curses, and insults
Yiddish grabs like my bubbe’s cheek pinch
It is the language I cannot speak.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in or are forthcoming in Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Poetica Magazine, Jewishfiction.net, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Minerva Rising, The Copperfield Review and others. She teaches creative writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey. She is the author of Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors (Heritage Quest, 2001) and the forthcoming Goldie Takes a Stand! (Kar-Ben, Fall 2014), a tale of young Golda Meir. You can read more about her at her website www.barbarakrasner.com and blog The Whole Megillah – The Writer’s Resource for Jewish Story.

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Minkowitz and Me

by Judith Fein (Santa Fe, NM)

When I was 10 years old, while other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl, or village, my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin, and ask her about her village in Russia.

My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was 17.

“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.

“Far.”

“What was it like?”

“Feh.”

The less she said, the more my imagination went wild, conjuring up images of a dark, mysterious place in Russia with sinewy alleys. I was awed that my grandmother, the woman who was my mother’s mother and called me “mamaleh,” lived in such a place and knew its secrets.

“Please, Gram, tell me.”

“It’s better to forget about it.”

She never spontaneously talked about Minkowitz, and I never gave up questioning her or trying to find out about her life before she came to America, before I knew her. Who was she before she was my grandmother?

“Tell me what you ate there, Gram.”

“Food.”

“Where did you buy it?”

“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear.

“Are you hungry, mamaleh?” she asked.

When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread, and handed it to me.

“Did you eat schmaltz in Minkowitz?”

She nodded yes. I took a huge bite of bread, relishing the schmaltz, because it linked me to my grandmother’s village.

I was never very interested in religion, but I loved everything about my grandmother’s culture: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded up on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet which smelled vaguely from matza. Most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. It sounded so exotic. It was somewhere across the ocean, in a vast country called Russia. She wasn’t born in America, like I was. She came from a mysterious place and she was a foreigner with secrets. I felt about her the way the ancients must have felt about travelers who arrived in their midst; they wanted to hear stories, to learn about how people lived in faraway lands. The slightest details that my grandmother divulged about Minkowitz became indelibly imprinted on my brain.

“Gram, did you go to school?”

“No, mamasheyna.”

“Why not, Gram?”

“We weren’t allowed to.”

“Why couldn’t you go to school?”

I was like a little prosecuting attorney, and my grandmother softened on the witness stand. She got a faraway look in her eyes.

“I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”

“But you couldn’t….?”

She shook her head no. I wrote down everything she told me, and thought about it until the next time I saw her. Then I started asking questions again.

“If you didn’t go to school, what did you do all day in Minkowitz?”

“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was working.”

“What kind of work?”

“I dried tobacco leaves in the field with the women.”

I had never seen a tobacco leaf. Why did they need to be dried? I wrote down what my grandmother told me, and mulled it over until our next conversation. My mother said I was making my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I loved my grandmother. I was just asking her about her childhood.

“Tell me about your house, Gram. What did it look like?”

“The floor was made from goat dreck.”

Goat shit for a floor. Were there clumps of dung? Who spread them out? Did they stink? What happened if you walked on the floor with bare feet? I clung to each tidbit, marinating it in my mind and imagination, repeating it to myself as though my life depended upon my remembering it.

On one visit, I was playing with cans of food in my grandmother’s hall closet, stacking them, and unstacking them, using them like big tin Legos. She walked by and patted me affectionately on the shoulder.

“Where in Russia was Minkowitz, Gram? Do you know the name of the biggest city in the area?”

Oy. Always Minkowitz. The biggest city was Kamenetz Podolsk.”

Again, I wrote down every word she said. I thought I was getting ancestral gems, but later, when I looked at the content, it was paltry indeed. No stories. No slice of life anecdotes. Just six facts about my grandmother’s life in Minkowitz. That was it. The weekly market was on Tuesday. When she was 10 years old, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung.  Kamenetz Podolsk was the big town. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. It was so vivid that I felt as though I had lived in Minkowitz too.

I knew that in Minkowitz they spoke Yiddish. I started trying to imitate the sounds of the language since I couldn’t speak it. Instead, I invented a sort of fake Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”

“Judie,” she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it: “Eedish.”

The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”

“Judie, I’m sorry. I just can’t understand your Eedish.”

When I was 19, bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis, I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train in Brooklyn, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak a very educated Eedish.” If I had had the energy, I would have leapt out of bed and hugged her.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has written for more than 100 publications. An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, from which this piece is excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us

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A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find?

by Rachel Roberts (San Jose, CA)

She is old and young
all at once.
She carries centuries
and a language no longer spoken
in a stewpot
fastened to her back,
with a ladle to draw deep,
as she smiles, only remembering
as far back as yesterday;

The family complains that
her chicken has cholesterol
and that the flanken is fattening.
There is too much shiny oil
and not enough fresh green
to comport with vain standards of modern health;

But to me, the smell of onions in a pan
is beauty and perfect love
in the midst of a world malnourished
by exact measurements
and starved of substances that cannot
be easily quantified;

She knew how to love without hurting.
She loved us even when we did not love ourselves.
She forgot our infractions,
and stopped us from carrying anger in our hearts
simply by virtue of her example.
She overcooked her food and overwatered her plants.

Simple. Small. Innocent Diviner.
Her price is far above rubies.

Rachel Roberts wrote this poem in honor of her grandmother, Ida Rubin z”l, and  read it at her funeral in Livingston, NJ on February 21, 2011.  You can read more of Rachel’s poetry at her blog, A Postalcard from Ashkenaz: http://postalcard.posterous.com/

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Bubby’s Menorah

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I never scrape off the melted wax
on my mother’s mother’s menorah.
I like the layers of color
and the textures of time
and underneath, the tarnish of greying age.

My mother, when she visits,
picks it off with her varnished fingernails
and the probing tines of a fork,
and then polishes the menorah with pink wax,
to a sparkle that again reflects flame.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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I Never Asked

by Natalie Zellat Dyen (Huntingdon Valley, PA )

My bubba taught me to knit European style, yarn on the left.
What hands had guided her hands,
Which now guided mine?
I never thanked her for that gift.
Or for filling empty jars with cinnamon cookies.
Al heit shehatanu. For the sin of ingratitude.

My bubba could have shared memories:
Of a long-ago village
Of lost traditions
Of melodies sung by her father, the cantor
Who passed on the gift of his voice
Before dying on the passage from old world to new.
But I never asked her to sing those songs.
Al heit shehetanu. For the sin of not asking.

So I must speak for her.
“I remember my own grandmother,” she would have said,
“And you will probably live to see your own grandchildren.
So right now, between the two of us, we share two-hundred years of history.”
And if I had looked into her eyes,
I might have seen her great-grandparents, her great-great-grandparents,
And all who came before.
But I never looked.
Al heit shehetanu. For the sin of turning our backs on the past.

Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. Her work has appeared in The Willow Review, Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers and journals. Links to Natalie’s published work are available at www.nataliewrites.com.

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