This week, my kids visited Grandma. Grandma, my mother’s mother, lives in the upper half of a once stately brownstone, two houses and one vacant lot from an intersection that carries the dubious distinction of the most dangerous in Crown Heights.

Most of her many descendants call her Bubby, an anglicized form of bobbe, the Yiddish familiar term for grandmother. Somehow, I started calling her Grandma. Thank G‑d, my kids have an abundance of grandmothers and great-grandmothers, so calling her Grandma saves us from having to find yet another creative way to distinguish one matriarch from the others.

Grandma is a writer. Knowing that her house full of pictures, furniture, books and papers, we asked to stay outside with her so that the kids would be able to run around without fear of hurting anything—other than themselves, of course. So we sat on her stoop and chatted about this and that. Grandma gave the kids lollipops and rewarded each child with a smiling “Amen” in response to their blessings.

As we sat, the storm clouds came rolling in, and big fat raindrops started falling from the sky. We hauled ourselves and the kids helter-skelter up the narrow stairs into Grandma’s home, and it is a good thing we did.

Within moments, Brooklyn was blanketed in torrents of rain. After quickly pulling down the windows, I asked Grandma if I could show the kids some things.

I showed the children Grandma’s mother’s siddur. Bound in leather and embossed with the Russian initials “RL,” the prayerbook is what was known as a woman’s siddur. Since most Jewish women did not know any language other than Yiddish, women’s siddurim often had Yiddish instructions, translations and techinos (personal prayers to be recited for a host of occasions).

Grandma’s mother died in Moscow during the War. (When people say “the War,” they mean World War II. The reality of European Jewry will forever be divided into Before the War and After the War.) I do not know if anyone knows what killed her. It may have been malnutrition. It may have been illness. It made no difference. There was no food, and there was no medicine.

As an only daughter, Grandma carried the siddur with her through her wanderings to Siberia, Uzbekistan, and wherever else her family’s search of safety took them.

When her family escaped Russia, the siddur went with them. It was her treasured companion as she wandered through DP camps in Europe and eventually crossed the ocean to the United States.

I showed the children that the first fifty pages or so were torn out. Grandma explained that in the DP camp there was a woman who wanted to teach the girls how to read Hebrew. Since there were no books to spare, Grandma’s siddur was divided amongst the girls, allowing each one to learn how to sound out the sacred sounds for a different page.

I also pointed out the painting of Grandma’s grandfather. Painted by the chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman, it shows a man sitting alone on a bench in a plain synagogue. Wrapped in his tallit and tefillin, my children’s great-great-great-grandfather would spend hours every day singing, meditating on chassidic concepts and praying. Grandma remembers seeing her beloved grandfather pray that way. As a Torah teacher, he was arrested by the Soviets for the “crime” of teaching children Bible and Talmud, but he did not stop.

I showed them the upright piano. We had fun opening up the lid and banging on the keys, “making moozik.” I told Y that the keys on the very old piano were covered with ivory, taken from the tusks of elephants.

“Nowadays we do not use ivory anymore. We use plastic instead.”


“Because it is not nice to the elephants.”

“How about if the elephant is not alive?”

“I don’t know.”

That night, back home, my son pulled out a Fisher-Price keyboard (the thing no sane parent would ever buy). “Is this made out of elephant?”

“I don’t think so. Now we use plastic, remember?”