When I was a little girl, I used to love hearing my grandmother retell a Yiddish folktale about a miserable couple living in their cramped quarters with their many children.

They went to seek rabbinical advice and were surprised to hear that to solve the issue they need to bring a goat inside the house. The family was confused, but did as they were told by the sage. With this addition, they became even more miserable. The family returned to clarify what to do and astonishingly were advised to bring a sheep into the house. This went on until they had an entire barn inside the house. Finally, the house had become utterly unlivable and they went to beg the rabbi for help, and only then did the rabbi tell them to let all the animals out of the house. The couple did so and was ecstatic to be living in their now-spacious-feeling dwelling with just the family. Clearly, they were back to the beginning, but with a new perspective.

MyMy grandmother taught me about life grandmother taught me about life by sharing meaningful stories such as this one. Life can always get worse, yet we have an opportunity to transcend our limitations and look at the bright side of things, regardless of circumstances.

With my grandmother, a few years after immigration.
With my grandmother, a few years after immigration.

Some might say that the death of a 95-year-old woman should not be shattering. After all, at some point, death is no longer an unforeseen phenomenon but a natural occurrence. Yet a lifetime of wisdom could not prepare me for the loss of my grandmother, Zelda bas David, who passed away on May 6, 2020. Her vibrant spirit transcends her actual years on this earth. How can a heart so full of goodness and resilience just simply stop beating?​​

My grandmother’s life taught me that as a container is defined by its contents, life is identified by how one spends precious hours, days, years and decades.

Cultures, history and generations are divided by societal differences, yet kindness brings one unified identity to all humanity. Zelda was born a lifetime ago in July of 1924 in the former Soviet Union. Those were unsettling times, right after the Communist Revolution. The world was recuperating from the Great War before confronting the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Her mother died in childbirth when Zelda was just 3 years old. Zelda and her two sisters were raised by her loving (and forever exhausted) father, who worked around the clock to feed his three little motherless daughters.

My grandmother was the kindest person I have ever known. Most people remember her as a generous, dynamic and energetic woman. Perhaps people who lived through wars, starvation and poverty had a special passion for giving to others. Their experiences made them want to make life easier for others.

Zelda often repeated the story about a little boy sitting on the stoop in the neighborhood. It was the early 1930s; these were the years of Stalin’s oppression and unbearable hunger. The boy was covered in lice, begging for food. Zelda’s heart was racing as she ran inside the house yelling, “Papa, I want to give my day’s ration of bread to the poor child outside.”

Her own hunger couldn’t stop her, as she snatched a piece of bread and ran into the street. The boy grabbed the bread with both hands, stuffing it into his mouth. Zelda often thought about that boy, remembering how hungry and weak he was.

There was always a long pause after this story. Zelda was reliving this incident again and again. As a child, I felt sad for the hungry boy, and I wanted to know what happened to him. I asked for my grandmother’s reassurance that the boy survived. Yet unlike her own life, she didn’t sugarcoat the suffering of others. “I don’t know what happened,” she answered again and again, looking dazed. “I wish I could have done more for him.”

Later in life, Zelda became a doctor, saving countless lives. She married and had two daughters. Then, at 34, she became a widow when her husband died in a horrific drowning accident. A year after, her youngest daughter, who was 8, year fell off a slide and suffered a traumatic brain injury, becoming handicapped for life. A motherless widow with a sick child, she continued to march on through her personal obstacle course.

My grandmother (at the microscope) as a young doctor in the Soviet Union.
My grandmother (at the microscope) as a young doctor in the Soviet Union.

Zelda spent 12 years of her life in and out of hospitals, doing everything possible to save her daughter’s life. Despite the unimaginable struggles, her spirit remained unbroken. Almost every picture we have of my grandmother is of her feeding someone—cooking, smiling, singing, hugging, dancing or laughing with her entire being. Perhaps this incredible zest for life made it possible to survive these unimaginable challenges. ​​

Our Jewish traditions teach us about the importance of positivity and internal joy. The book of Psalms sings to us to “serve G‑d with happiness!” The Talmud praises those who perform commandments joyously. Famous personalities such as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, Bachya ben Asher all discuss joy as a Divine service.

RabbiI hear her voice reassuring me Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) revolutionized the world by his teachings on how to celebrate life. He entered a sad, dreary world and broke through its melancholy by explaining that every soul can find a path to the Creator through love and positivity. The Baal Shem Tov taught that every event that befalls a person—everything a person sees, hears and experiences—is an opportunity to connect to the higher consciousness. Since joy is the key that opens the door to connection and purpose, it’s incredibly important to feel inner happiness.

During these complicated and uncertain times, before I fall asleep I imagine my grandmother reminding me to learn to narrate my life with positivity and gratitude. I hear her voice reassuring me that “all the memories and experiences that have been accumulated along the way can be rechanneled into a vehicle of light and kindness.”

I listen to this inner voice and hope that my generation will spend our lives on giving, loving and transcending the narrative of our struggles. ​​As I think back to the folktale about the family that brought the animals inside, I imagine that, just like this couple, we, too, will experience a new attitude and appreciation about our lives. Perhaps we are healthy, productive, prosperous, content and vibrant, yet unaware of our blessings.

Just as Zelda dressed up her challenging life into a colorful rainbow of joy and gratitude, I hope and pray that all of us will emerge victorious from this challenging period, embracing kindness and empathy.