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Thoughts on Being a Bubbie

When I was growing up in the Jewish corner of the East Bronx more than half a century ago, “intermarriage” meant a Litvak (a Lithuanian Jew) marrying a Galiciana (a Jew from Poland), or even more outrageous — an Ashkenazi (Jew of Eastern European origin) marrying a Sephardic (Spanish or Middle Eastern) Jew. But, in my own case, when, after divorce ended the twenty-two-year marriage to the Jewish husband I had married at seventeen, my second marriage was to a Roman Catholic. When I told my mother that I would be intermarrying, she said, “What about the children?” “Mom,” I replied, “the children know they are Jewish and our home will be a Jewish home as it has always been.”

In the more than a quarter century since our wedding ceremony, which was officiated by both a rabbi and a priest in our living room, our family has grown to include Catholics, Protestants, Secular Humanists, and Buddhists. Meanwhile, along the way, my former altar-boy husband Myron converted to Judaism.

Twenty-one years ago the phone rang. It was my eldest son, “So, Mom,” he asked, “what do you want to be called?” A bit of mental telepathy flashed through the phone wires. “Oh my,” I sighed, then shouted: “a BABY!! I will be a bubbie; call me “Bubbie.” Bubbie is Yiddish for grandmother and it was the most natural choice for me. Yiddish was my mame-loshen, my mother tongue. My mother had been called “bubbie” and now I would be. “And what does Myron want to be called?” my son asked. That was not as simple a decision since my second husband was not yet Jewish and wasn’t comfortable using “zayde,” the Yiddish appellation for grandfather, and since “grandpa” was already spoken for. Myron chose to be called “Papa” which has worked out marvelously over the years as we have accumulated, thus far, a total of six grandchildren, all being raised Jewish even as our family has become increasingly multi-ethnic.

Two decades after becoming a bubbie our patchwork family looks like this.

My first son has two daughters by his first wife, who is Jewish. Each has had a Bat Mitzvah and they identify as Jews. This son, the great-grandson of a Russian-Jewish peddler, is now married to a descendant of Mayflower voyagers — a family that has been in this country long enough to have received land grants in Maine from The Royal House of England. My new daughter-in-law, a caring stepmother and devoted aunt, hosts, along with my son, their favorite holiday celebration, which is Thanksgiving. Members of his family and members of her family all blend as our family celebrates the gift America has given us all.

My second son has two children by his first wife, who had converted to Judaism from Catholicism, and one child with his second wife, who is from Thailand and is Buddhist. At their baby’s naming ceremony in a Reform synagogue, my daughter-in-law sang a beautiful Thai lullaby. All three children attend religious school classes at their synagogue and the youngest goes to a pre-school at the Jewish Community Center.

My daughter is married to a man of Catholic background and their child is being raised in a Jewish home environment and preschool. At the party after her Reform synagogue baby-naming ceremony, talented musicians entertained the family with multi-ethnic tunes as we all enjoyed our bagels and lox.

There is no English word for the Yiddish machatunim; in Spanish it is consuegros and means “co-in-laws.” The parents of the people my children have married are my machatunim. Having a word in one’s vocabulary to define the relationship gives that relationship the importance it deserves. My wonderful grandchildren are not mine alone but are shared with my machatunim. Together we have celebrated the marriages of our children, baby namings and the Bat Mitzvahs of the two oldest grand-girls. Hopefully we will be together for more Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and we will all dance at the grandchildren’s weddings.

So how do we get along? Really well. What must be taken into account in this discussion is the reality that divorce and remarriage affect the family climate at least as much as cultural and religious differences. That said, all of the assorted machatunim make every effort to be open with one another and to be respectful of one another’s traditions. As Jews living in America we know more about Christianity via the general culture than the other way around. It has often fallen to me to do some of the educating about Judaism.

In the fall before the High Holidays I send Rosh Hashanah cards to everyone in the family. My Christian machatunim send us Hanukkah cards in December, which we respond to with Christmas cards. I’ve had long conversations with the nana of my next-to-youngest grand-girl about the “December Dilemma.” It was hard for her to understand that the emphasis during Hanukkah is not on the gifts. She has since discovered a Jewish bookstore in her area and enjoys buying assorted presents for her granddaughter there. Along the way she has picked up some books and knowledge of her own.

During a visit with our Thai-Jewish-American part of the family, we had a lovely Friday night Sabbath dinner at home and went to a Reform service. The next night we went to an Asian community dinner-dance, and I found myself happily on the dance floor with all the women during a special women’s dance, which felt extremely bonding. Later, the whole family danced. Music, movement, and celebration soften the edges of difference. My task as the bubbie is to keep a Yiddish tam, Jewish flavor, in the food, music and observances.

Yiddish was my first language; I didn’t speak English until I entered kindergarten. It never occurred to me to teach my children the language, although they have picked up some expressions from me and some which have entered the popular culture. Now, I am sorry that I didn’t make an effort to teach them this very geshmak, tasty, language. What I do, however, pass along from my mother’s kitchen is chicken soup. Even though we lived more than two hours away by public transportation, my Yiddishe mama would bring me quarts of homemade chicken soup in very large plastic containers. She would freeze them for the trip. I now do the same for my children, whether we travel to see them by car or plane. The recipe below is very simple and can be made with a whole chicken or with the equivalent amount of thighs and legs. We prefer it made with Chicken breasts. Enjoy.

Bubbie Bella’s Chicken Soup
Best made the day before.

4 chicken breasts with skin and bones
1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into “pennies”
½ of a small bunch of celery (use the top ½ with leaves or 4-6 stalks of celery, chopped
½ of a bunch of broadleaf parsley, including stems, chopped
Salt, paprika, saffron to taste, pinch of garlic powder
Place in 5-quart kettle with the chopped celery, parsley, carrots and seasonings. Cover with cold water.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for one hour.
Cool 10 minutes, remove chicken from broth and while still hot remove the meat form the bones. Return the meat to the broth and discard skin and bones.
Chill in the refrigerator. When cold remove fat from the surface.
Cook noodles separately and add to each serving bowl as desired.

Es gezuntereit — eat in good health!

Mae Rockland Tupa

Mae Rockland Tupa is an artist and author. Her books include The Jewish Yellow Pages, A Directory of Goods & Services (1976) and The New Work of Our Hands, Contemporary Jewish Needlework and Quilts (1994). When not in the kitchen making chicken soup, she can be found in her studios in Brookline, Mass., or Castellon, Spain.