Last night we saw a one woman performance called "Rose", from the Traveling Jewish Theatre. Rose recounts her 80 years beginning with her life in a "schtetl" (Jewish village) in Poland, moving to the big, culturally vibrant Warsaw as a young woman, falling in love with someone she meets at a party, having a baby - only to crash into "realpolitik" as the Nazis invade Poland and create a crowded ghetto for the Jews in Warsaw. Her husband and child are killed. She manages to escape and after time in a refugee camp, ends up on the famous ship "Exodus" that is refused entry to Palestine. She outlives two more husbands in America. She has another child who ends up moving to a kibbutz in Israel. She is living alone in an apartment on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach when she has a poignant, angry, telephone exchange with her Israeli son.
It's amazing how little he knows of his mother's life.....all the pain she carries and the yearning for her first love, Yossel, and their child, her life in Warsaw or the refugee camps etc. It is reflected in his remarks about how Israelis resurrected the Hebrew language and discarded Yiddish as a relic of a rootless, victimized past. "Israelis look to the future" he says, and between that dynamic and the fact that she never shares her past with her new husband(s) and child, there is an internal life that gets erased from the books even before she's passed away.
It is a familiar story, repeated many times over. My own "Bubbie" (grandmother) somehow escaped the Nazis and made her way to Chicago, America where she and her daughter met my "Zadie", a widower with two daughters, who worked in the stockyards as a "shochet", slaughtering cows by the kosher method of a sharp knife across the throat. I know nothing of where she came from or how she got to America. They spoke Yiddish to each other and lived in a religious Jewish neighborhood called Albany Park (long after all the younger families moved north to West Rogers Park). Bubbie and Zadie obviously took pleasure from our visits at holidays, lavishing us with food, but there was little conversation, at least with us grandkids. It was like going to another planet, though the food was great. They had a red wagon that we played on for hours, but not much else in the way of toys. We played games with nuts since they had many of those.
She outlived my Zadie who died one year after retiring from the stockyards and continued her work as a kindergarden teacher in an Orthodox school. She eventually married another Orthodox man who had a job as a "mashgiach" at a Miami Beach hotel (a mashgiach certifies that all the food at the hotel is strictly kosher). She outlived him and ended up in an apartment by herself on Collins Avenue, just like Rose. I barely ever kept in touch after my stint in Chicago at the Yeshiva and my own Exodus from orthodox Judaism. Deborah and I can vaguely remember introducing her to our baby twins and the pleasure she beamed, though we can't remember where that occurred. I know nothing of her personal story. I don't know how her first husband died and what weights she carried in her heart.
Some time after she died, I received a call from her daughter in Brooklyn. She told me how much Bubbie loved all her grandchildren and that she was able to leave each one a hefty check for $15,000.