Deep into the night I sit at my grandmother’s bedside, feeling the rough skin of her hand in my palm. I watch her slow, labored breathing. The darkness, the rhythmic beeping of the machines and the low murmur of the nurses at their station seem to merge into a hazy mantra, rising and fading in unison around me. But all I see is her face, and all I feel is the pain in my heart.

I close my eyes.

I see a gnarled apple tree in the back of an old stone house. I can feel the rough bark in my young pudgy hands as I sit high in the leafy branches and breathe in the cool country air. I feel the tingly thrill of youth. I am at Bubby’s house.

I smell Shabbat. The aromas of chocolate cake and fish, soup and chicken, are rich, comforting, enveloping.

Shabbat is warm, Shabbat is light, Shabbat is sweet.

Shabbat is proudly walking with grandfather to shul, feeling his hand squeezing mine. Wearing his spotless bekeshe and shtreimel, Zaidy resembles royalty. Shabbat is watching my Zaidy’s shining face, his long beard, his eyes squeezed tight in concentration as he stands ramrod-straight and thunders the words of kiddush. Bubby’s face glows from behind the candles.

Shabbat is the sound of Bubby humming along with the zemirot, correcting us when we miss a word. Shabbat goes late into the night with funny Yiddish words like duchunas and tzifeysen hopping around my little head as we are finally carried upstairs to cuddle beneath the heavy quilts and dream in the cold Monsey night.

I glance at her face. Her eyes are slightly open.

Holding Bubby's hand. ©Yoel Judowitz
Holding Bubby's hand. ©Yoel Judowitz

I call to her loudly. “Bubby!” Her eyes widen for a brief moment. Is she looking? I think I see a reaction. How could she not respond to her Yoli?

She always eagerly anticipated my visits. Only a few weeks ago I came with my wife and children. We sat and talked, and the children ran in for lollipops. Her face shone with joy, and I felt enveloped in her love.

We talked about life. We talked about art.

Bubby is my artistic inspiration. The first real picture I ever drew—a portrait of the Satmar Rebbe, after who I am named—hung right next to her Shabbat table, professionally framed and matted. I remember thinking how good it must have been because of the way she spoke about it. “The eyes,” she would say, “you know how to capture the eyes.”

It is only now that I’m older that I appreciate the rarity of a chassidic girl from Czechoslovakia attending the Rhode Island School of Design. My bubby, the young artist and dressmaker whose scholarship ran out the year before she graduated, vicariously celebrates her love of art at through me.

We talked about life—the meaning of life, what is important, what is real. Bubby listens. She values what I have to say, but knows how much I treasure her words as well.

Bubby loves words. Poems, articles, books, Scrabble . . . the young immigrant from Czechoslovakia who became an English teacher loves the English language. Maybe it was her way of mastering the transition of settling in a new country as a child; maybe it is just her naturally gifted mind. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of her poems and writings, collected over a lifetime, were destroyed in the fire that burned down her house. It is one of the few things we will not discuss. It is too painful.

We talked about her father, my great-grandfather. Still now, at the age of 92, Bubby is her parents’ daughter. There is no greater influence in her life.

Her father came over to America ten years before the war. For ten years he worked at any job he could find, trying to bring over his family. “How did he do it?” I ask her over and over.

And then she tells me the story. “Right before the war broke out, Father sent a letter to Mother saying he would like to visit. Mother responded, ‘If you are coming to stay, fine. But if you are planning to return, please don’t come. The pain of separation will be greater than the joy of seeing you. I would rather come to you.’” Father sent tickets and the family came. “They were so close,” she adds, and her voice trails off, her eyes looking into a past I cannot see.

Each time I hear the story, I think about that letter and my great-grandmother’s honesty and devotion to her husband, which ultimately saved their lives, and mine. I

The author with his grandparents
The author with his grandparents
think about my great-grandfather’s worst tragedy, a business deal gone sour, forcing him to leave his family and live alone in America for ten years. A hardship which ended up meaning salvation for his family, my family and future generations.

We share a love of teaching, Bubby and I. I am the third-generation teacher in my family. Bubby is a teacher, and Bubby loves children, especially the ones in the back of the class. Her students call her every Friday. Her students from 20, 30, 40 years ago, now mothers and grandmothers themselves, still call to be enveloped in her aura of positivity and encouragement. “I believe in you; I see in you things that others may have missed or do not appreciate,” she tells them. So real, so authentic, that it has nourished them from fourth grade well into adulthood.

Humble, authentic, simple and righteous. That is my Bubby.

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you love.

It’s hard when that person can’t answer you because she is lying silently on a hospital bed. It’s harder still when all you can see is an emotionless face, half-covered by an oxygen mask. A face worn deep with the beauty and dignity of age, eyes that shone with joy and wisdom, now silent and dim. And all you want is one chance, one last chance, to look into those eyes and connect, one last time.

It is almost morning. A pink glow lights up the horizon outside the hospital window, and I can hear the nurses changing shifts. It’s time for me to leave and catch my flight back home to my family.

I am still holding her hand. I can see her breathing and I feel close, like a father holding his sleeping child. My face is wet with tears, and the pain is still deep in my chest—“Bubby, I love you,” I whisper and kiss her cheek. “Thank you, Bubby.”

One of my grandmother’s poems:


By Rose S. Ort

It is Thursday—and one o’clock.
With the whisper of the holy day to come,
Peace has descended upon my household . . .

The table is set
Awaiting the first glimmer
From the alabaster candles
That bless the day eternally
And evermore.

The subtle, savory scented air
Wafts about my kitchen
Titillates my senses,
Dances through my house,
Stirs my children in their sleep.

They smile in anticipation
Of the joy that metamorphoses
Each week at this same hour . . .

When the Shabbat preparations mingle
With the Shabbat expectations
Of kedushah (holiness) . . . and menuchah (rest) . . . and
Scented, sanctified food.

May we all rejoice in our profound dream of peace,
Until that true moment when Moshiach will appear
And give us sacred, blessed hours each day—each year
Into infinitum.