Today would have been my grandmother’s 95th birthday. I’ve been thinking about her non-stop since writing my previous post. I even had a dream about her last night in which we were at the old Covenant Club in Chicago eating creamed spinach and laughing hysterically while she told me family stories. My grandmother died in 1990 but I can still hear her voice ringing in my ears and the unique way she said “Danny,” extending the “a” sound with a slight accent. It wasn’t a Yiddish accent. Although her Jewish parents emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century, my grandmother was born in the unlikeliest of places: Newport, Kentucky. She was a real country girl.
This picture was taken in Kentucky during the first World War. That’s my grandmother in front with her brother Bernie. In the back are her mother, Sarah Schutz, and her sister Rose. It kills me that I can’t sit down with my grandmother and talk to her about her life, starting with her earliest memories of childhood as a tomboy in Kentucky. I know so little about her early years. My grandfather’s family was so large and powerful that marrying it into it meant that your previous identity was partly subsumed by the new dominant culture. When I was growing up everything was focused on my grandfather’s side of the family. We only saw my grandmother’s relatives once a year on the second night of Passover (being second-tiered relatives they were never invited to the first seder). So, while I can trace my grandfather’s journey at the age of three from Staszow, Poland to 35 Baldwin Street in Toronto, I barely know anything about my grandmother’s history. I remember a few dribs and drabs but even those stories involve my grandfather such as the terror my grandmother felt the first time she met her imposing in-laws, and how she was so clueless as a newlywed that for the first Shabbat dinner she made my grandfather in 1932 she didn’t realize she had to take out the little bag of giblets inside the chicken before she cooked it.
My grandmother had never finished high school in Kentucky because she had to go to work in her mother’s candy store. In the early 50s, when she was already a grandmother, she decided to go back to get her diploma. This was highly unusual back then but she did so well that she applied and got accepted at Northwestern University with a major in journalism. The notion of the grandma coed attending school with students younger than her own daughters was so unheard of that newspaper reporters followed her around on campus and wrote feature articles about her exploits for the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. She graduated at the top of her class in 1958 and wanted to go for a master’s degree but my grandfather put his foot down and said enough was enough. Too bad. My grandmother was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She read constantly and their Lake Shore Drive apartment became a kind of lending library for us, containing everything from the classics to the latest bestsellers. One of my most cherished possessions is my grandmother’s red leather-bound copy of “Madame Bovary.”
I desperately want to take my grandmother to tea in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s and talk for hours and hours about every aspect of her life, her dreams and hopes, her beliefs and fears, her triumphs and disappointments. Why oh why didn’t I do that while she was alive? Why do we so seldom acknowledge what the older generation can offer us in this insane youth-obsessed culture?
I saw a magnificent documentary last night called “Watermarks” about a group of champion women swimmers from the legendary Jewish sports club, Hakoah Vienna. Director Yaron Zilberman said he had this image of European Jews as intellectually gifted but physically frail and was surprised to learn about the astonishing Hakoah (which means “the strength” in Hebrew) athletes who broke many world records in a variety of sports until the organization was shut down following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Zilberman interviewed seven members of the women’s swimming team at their homes in Israel, England, and the United States. He then arranged for these amazing women, now in their mid to late-80s, to reunite and swim one last time in the pool in Vienna where they trained.
These kind, tough, seen-it-all women reminded me so much of my grandmother. Some of the swimmers were reluctant to return to Vienna for the reunion. Elisheva Schmidt-Susz, now a renowned child psychotherapist in Tel Aviv, had a chilling encounter in the taxi from the Vienna airport to her hotel which was captured on film. She was happily chatting to her mild-mannered taxi driver who asked her why she left Austria. “I was kicked out,” she said and then spoke about her experiences as a Jew living in Austria in the 1930s. “Bad times,” the driver concurred, “but it’s because you were all non-natives.” Elisheva, whose family had lived in Austria for over 400 hundred years, got quiet and stared out the window. Hanni Deutsch-Lux told the story of her sister Judith who broke 12 freestyle records in 1935 and, even with the large Star of David adorning her Hakoah swimsuit, was considered a national hero at a time when anti-Semitism was running rampant throughout the country. But her hero status changed when Judith refused to represent Austria at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She was stripped of all her medals by the Austrian government, deleted from the record books, and permanently banned from competition. (Her medals were finally returned to her in 1995.)
I hope this inspiring film wins an Oscar next year. Listening to these vibrant, intelligent, warm, funny women, I thought how much more interesting they are than the vapid young people all the commercials tell us we want to be around. Give me the weather-worn face, irascible wit, and tell-it-like-it-is attitude of an elderly Jewish woman any day of the week—that’s who I want to sit next to at a dinner party. I went to a screening last week of a new documentary about Hollywood and the Holocaust (premiering tonight on AMC) and I started talking to screenwriter Norma Barzman who is interviewed in the film. She is 85 now and recently published a book about the blacklist (she's the one who led the protests on the Motion Picture Academy for giving Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar). I wish I could have talked to her longer, what an extraordinary woman. Glad to hear that she's working on her third book because she has enough life experiences for 10. I’m sad that so many of the great older women in my family are no longer with us and it pains me that my daughter will not grow up with my grandmother and mother as regular fixtures in her life, hearing their stories, songs, and endless kvelling and kvetching. I urge every one of you with older relatives to grab the nearest digital video camera or cassette recorder and start talking to them about every detail of their long, fascinating lives.
I remember having dinner with my grandparents 30 years ago this very night. I was 15 years old and my grandmother was showing me the new pass she just received to ride the Chicago transit system at a reduced fare now that she was a senior citizen. At the time I thought that turning 65 put my grandmother one step away from senility and obsolescence. How ridiculous. She was as sharp as a tack until she died of esophagal cancer at the age of 80. Oh, how I miss her, and how I wish I could hear her say my name one last time.
Happy Birthday, Bub.