Last Monday was my Birthday. Less than two days after I turned 25, my grandmother in Israel died. It is truly the end of an era for me. Before last week, I was in another age demographic for television viewers. I couldn't rent a car without a high insurance rate, my early twenties were still happening, and my favorite lady in the Middle East (and the world, really) was still alive, though not well.
I can't help but feel how fortuitous the intersection of these two life events are. A chapter has closed but another one is beginning, and this next part of my life will be rich with the memories and moments I shared with my Safta (Hebrew for "grandma") throughout years zero to 25. How lucky am I to have known her that long?!
Some of you may know that my "side job" as an actress is academic tutoring. I tutor students in all kinds of subjects, but my favorite thing to tutor is writing. I always tell my students that no matter how hard it is to start, when they sit down to write, something unexpected and even therapeutic may come out to surprise and delight them (and then me, as the reader). I also ask them to simply tell me stories - not to worry about tying up their essay ending neatly with a bow. So I guess I'm trying to do that right now. There is no moral to the story of why I'm sad about my Safta passing away or how much she's taught me. Because all of that is a given: there is no way that I could have not been changed and inspired by knowing and being loved by my grandma, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor and the bravest person I've ever met. For now, I just wanted to write down some things I want to remember about her, because by writing them down, I get to relive them and smile.
* * * ******************* * * *
When I was little, my grandpa would take out his dentures at the lunch table (lunch used to be the big meal of the day in Israel) and show me his hilarious, gummy smile behind Safta's back. I would laugh hysterically, and he would put them back in his mouth just in time before she turned around. Sometimes she would catch him, toothless, and yell at him in Yiddish for being gross.
Safta had a funny relationship with animals and creatures. She was FEARLESS when it came to bugs and insects, especially cockroaches. One time late at night, a giant, long-legged, Israeli cockroach decided to perk itself on my toiletry bag in the bathroom. I freaked, of course, and woke up my mom and sister for help. They were even more terrified than I was. We decided to wake up Safta, who slowly trudged out of her room in her nightgown, using her walker. She killed that little sh*t with her slipper with one carefully-aimed smack, and went back to sleep. On the other hand, Safta HATED rodents. Hated them with a passion. When I was four, I showed her a little wooden mouse toy I had and she almost fainted. And even though she thought they were unsanitary, she let me buy baby chicks at the pet store to keep me company all summer long when I was three, four, and five years old. I kept them in a cardboard box in the living room by the window, and they would chirp nonstop and poop all over the newspaper at the bottom of the box. Safta kept her apartment beyond spotless, so this was probably very difficult for her to watch. And then there were the stray cats. My sister and I used to sneak downstairs with leftover cottage cheese and food to feed them. Safta used to allocate food specifically for us to give to them, but warn us never to give them any of her good, usable food. More recently, Safta would Facetime with me and I would show her my three little dogs. She laughed at how many I had, and even though she never had her own dog (too dirty!) she would say hi to them and wave to them and ask how they were doing regularly. She also told me which one she thought was the cutest (Stella).
When Safta was still up and cooking and baking all the time, she used to call me within a week of when I would arrive in Israel for a visit and take my baking order. I could request homemade cheesecake, rugelach, cookies, or whatever else I wanted, and it would be waiting for me in the fridge when I arrived. But if I didn't finish eating it, she would guilt me into eating it until it was all gone.
When I was a kid, Safta would take me to the supermarket down the street at the beginning of my visit to Israel and let me stock up on all of my favorite Israeli snacks. But again, if I didn't finish eating them, she would guilt me into eating everything until it was all gone:). As we both got older, she would give me money to go to the store alone or with my sister to buy whatever treats we wanted. I did this when I was there in August, and got extremely nauseous from eating an enormous bag of Bisli.
Safta always lit Yahrzeit candles for every single family member of hers and my grandpa's who died in the Holocaust, on the exact day that they died, every year. She never forgot to. Who is going to do that now???
Speaking of Safta's impeccable memory, she remembered everyone important's Birthday. Including my boyfriend's and all of her great-grandaughters'. She would recite them to me by heart over the phone. She knew it was my Birthday on Monday, even right before she died.
Safta loved a good deal. She knew where to buy everything at the best price, and still looked over every receipt to make sure no one was trying to swindle an old lady. When I visited her over Chanukah about six years ago, we went to buy jelly donuts at the bakery down the street. The guy at the counter mis-read her the deal about 2-for-one prices that she knew they had going on, and she ripped him a new one right then and there until he gave her a bunch for the correct price. But at the same time, Safta was the most generous person in the world. She gave the best gifts because she would simply allow me to buy whatever it was that I wanted most at the moment. She also understood the saying "you can't take it with you." Over the last couple of years, she made it a regular habit of giving her worldly possessions away. When my boyfriend and I visited her last year, our carry-ons were full of newspaper-wrapped teacups and bowls that she wanted us to have.
Safta loved movies and good stories. I used to watch tella novellas with her or old episodes of American soap operas or later on, Israeli TV shows. She would talk to the screen or explain what was going on to me in her own words. In August, I saw that Orange is the New Black was coming to Israeli primetime. I told her how much I loved that show, so she said she'd give it a try, even though it was on late at night. My mom, sister, and I watched the pilot episode with her, and she loved it. She continued watching it on her own over the next couple of weeks after we left.
After I studied abroad in Moscow during the Fall of my junior year of college, I visited Safta on my way back to school in New York. Safta didn't speak a word of English, but she spoke many languages over the course of her lifetime: mainly Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and Russian. Her caretaker at the time was Russian, and the two of them would chat nonstop while no one else in my family could understand what they were saying. When I arrived from Russia, Safta was so proud that I could understand and speak a little bit with the two of them. And, even though we thought they had been gossiping and talking about juicy stuff in Russian, I can vouch that all they talked about was food. Whether something was good, bad, too salty, too hot, etc.
Two years ago, I hadn't come to Israel for three years: the longest I had ever gone without visiting. When I told Safta I wanted to come visit, she paid for my plane ticket and I made the trip with my boyfriend, who had never been to Israel. She welcomed him into her tiny apartment and communicated with him even though they didn't speak the same language. And she practiced saying his name for weeks, trying to pronounce the letter "J," since there isn't that phonation in Hebrew. Until the very end, she would ask how he was doing and talk about him each time I spoke with her on the phone.
* * * ******************* * * *
I could go on and on. These are just a few things that came to mind immediately. Overall, what I felt from Safta was that she really loved me for me; not for my talents or accomplishments or anything peripheral. Sure, she cared about those things, but in Israel, I am always asked what I feel like are the most questions about my life from my family: Are you healthy? Pretty happy? Spending time with people you like? Having fun?
What's interesting is that not much will be different in my day to day life, because aside from the time I spend physically in Israel, I am always missing my grandma from far away in America. I'm used to that. So I guess I will just continue to miss her, every day. Her attention to detail. Her hilarious ways of doing simple tasks. Her love of food. Her weekly phone calls and Facetimes. The sound of her transistor radio at maximum volume while she was napping.
It's the end of an era.