Thank goodness you haven’t arrived yet so I can still figure it out. You’ve got four choices: Grandma, Nana, Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) or Savta (Hebrew for grandmother). Am I making this too complicated? Impossible! Whatever you may be — boy or girl — you will be a chacham, a wise person, a genius!
“What difference does it all make?” you may ask, grandchild of mine. Once your Ima’s, or mother’s, mother was not Jewish. When I decided to become a Jew, like you, I chose a new name. I thought and thought and thought some more. I picked two names. One was Tirzah, a Jewish name from the Song of Songs. The other was Shoshana, for my own name, Susan. I remembered the name my parents gave me and I also took these new names. Even more so, Baby Schultz, I will think and think about the new name you will call me.
I, Tirzah Shoshana, am complicated, too. I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Daughter of the American Revolution and for 30-plus years now, a Jew. My daughter, also known as your Ima-to-be, is now not only a Jew and an American, but a citizen of Israel. You, Baby Schultz, who will be born in the holy city of Safed, will be a sabra, a native Israeli.
Bubbe? Real bubbes have grandmothers with Yiddish names like Mindel and Fayge and Sheindel. They sound like the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof who could burst into “Tradition” at any moment. They certainly don’t have grandmothers named Mary who became a faculty bride in the shtetl [small town] of Williamstown, Massachusetts and spent summer Sundays at Quaker meeting waiting for the spirit to strike.
Real bubbes came from places like Pinsk or Minsk. My bubbe grew up in the Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University and all spectrums of the rainbow coalition. Many, many bubbes back, her ancestors were immigrants too, but they came to Plymouth Rock in the 17th century, not to Ellis Island in the nineteenth.
Real bubbes make a mean matzah ball. They don’t immediately panic and run to the store for the Manischevitz matzah ball mix. If they made only two matzah balls, dayenu, it would have been enough. Two of their matzah balls would multiply and fill up your entire digestive tract. They don’t make matzah balls that sink to the bottom of the soup bowl or disintegrate into clumps of gelatinous sludge at the top.
Real bubbes actually speak Yiddish, preferably when they don’t want the American children to know what they’re saying. They don’t confine themselves to Yiddish insults: they should have stones, not children. All this is giving me a kopveytik, a headache. I don’t think I’m destined to become a bubbe.
Perhaps I could be a savta then. After all, Baby Schultz, you will be a sabra, living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. It would only be fitting, yes? First off we have a basic problem. I can never remember which word means grandma and which word means grandpa. Does savta mean grandma or is it grandpa? Perhaps you can be a truly liberated child of two American immigrants and have two grandmas or two grandpas.
Real savtas know whether Ariel Sharon is alive or dead or in some bizarre state of suspended animation. They know what prominent politicians are on the take and how many terms Teddy Kollek was mayor of Jerusalem. Real savtas know how many days Gilad Shalit was held captive. They know what land was part of Israel before 1967 and what is now considered the territories, whatever Americans may have to say about it.
Real savtas are scrappy. They don’t take any guff from taxi drivers and demand that they put on the monit, the meter, instead of paying a fee fit only for tourists. They know how to drive in Israel without becoming a traffic fatality. During the intifada, they elbowed their way onto Jerusalem buses, vehicles which might blow up and scatter their remains on the sidewalk. They have grandsons who never came back from the War in Lebanon or clashes on the West Bank and in Gaza. They do not have husbands who were conscientious objectors and who are ambivalent about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. No, sorry, sabra Schultz, I cannot be a savta.
Perhaps being a grandma is the way to go. Grandmas are an equal-opportunity job category, open to all comers. They celebrate Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanzaa. Or perhaps celebrate Christmas and Chanukah and Kwanzaa. They grew up in Sandusky, Ohio or Scarsdale, New York or the South Bronx. They voted for Obama or McCain, or perhaps did not vote at all. They are the face of the melting pot. But do I really want to blend in? Isn’t part of being a Jew to be somehow apart?
So what’s it to be, Baby Schultz? Nana, perhaps. Real nanas speak with a brogue or a Scottish burr. They know how to pronounce Edinburgh and Siobhan. Their nana’s nana spoke Gaelic. They will actually eat a haggis, even if it is a sheep intestine.
Nanas have names like Campbell with a long and inglorious history. They have not been forgiven for the Massacre at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands over 300 years ago. After enjoying the hospitality of the MacDonalds for a week, Campbells killed 78 of their unarmed hosts. Tour guides still point out their dastardly deeds. They have ancestral castles which dun them for money for their upkeep. They’ll sell anyone a coat of arms, C.O.D. Close your ears, Baby Schultz, the Campbell coat of arms has a big yellow boar’s head. Not for eating, of course. Their motto is “ne obliviscaris,” “never forget” to the non-Latin speakers among us.
Nanas wear tartans. The Campbell tartan is like the Black Watch plaid, navy and forest green. A nana would know whether it was the tartan of the Campbells of Argyll or the Campbells of Cawdor. (Psst, Baby Schultz, keep it simple. You can get a Campbell tie at L.L. Bean. I wonder if they have a crib blanket?)
So, Baby Schultz, the time is fast approaching that I must decide. The fact is that you will have plenty of bubbe-ness and savta-ness. Your Abba’s [father’s] mother makes an unsinkable matzah ball. You will have plenty of savtas pinching your cheek in the supermarket and watching out for you on the street. That’s what Israelis do. You won’t forget the grandmas either as you listen to your parents talk in English and speak Hebrew with their foreign inflections. But who will keep the memory of the nanas? Just me, this Nana. It’s about the feel of a wool tartan scarf against my cheek and the echoes of Scotland the Brave at my Dad’s memorial. As all Jews know, it’s about remembering.
Susan Gelfman is a first-generation Jew and a 13th-generation American who writes about the ironies of this strange heritage.