Annabelle Gur­witch, author of Wher­ev­er You Go, There They Are, will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil this week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribes series. 

Many years ago, dur­ing my career as an actress, while read­ing for one of Mar­tin Scorce­ses’ films, he men­tioned to me that he’d nev­er been hap­py with his film The King of Com­e­dy. He just hadn’t got­ten it right. If he could do it again, he’d make changes, he said in so many words. What? I love that film, it’s per­fect,” I replied. In my cor­ner of the cre­ative uni­verse, I can relate to that sen­ti­ment. It’s not unlike those old Gin­zo knife infomer­cials that always includ­ed the phrase, But wait, there’s more!” and here’s one sto­ry about my moth­er that I wish I’d found a way to include in my lat­est col­lec­tion of essays, Wher­ev­er You Go, There They Are.

A year before her death, when we knew that her time was lim­it­ed, I asked her a series of ques­tions for an arti­cle I was writ­ing for Oprah’s web­site about end of life con­ver­sa­tions to be sure to have with your loved ones. My moth­er told me that she was the hap­pi­est, When I am being use­ful to oth­ers.” I have to con­fess, this took me by sur­prise because all of our con­ver­sa­tions of late had cen­tered on my par­ents’ health and finan­cial woes. 

Dur­ing the mid-nine­teen sev­en­ties, my moth­er and her friend Dean­na signed on to a tour of major cities of Rus­sia and small­er towns fur­ther east. Both Dean­na and my moth­er loved to trav­el, but they had anoth­er agenda.

Through con­tacts assem­bled by Hadas­sah, Dean­na and my moth­er obtained a list of med­ica­tions that were bad­ly need­ed by Jews in Rus­sia known at the time as Refus­niks. These were both sec­u­lar and reli­gious folks who were seek­ing to emi­grate from Rus­sia who’d been denied or refused visas. Many had been arrest­ed, were unable to find work and were suf­fer­ing an impov­er­ished existence.

Shirley and Dean­na made appoint­ments with their doc­tors in Mia­mi Beach and asked for pre­scrip­tions. Not a sin­gle one of the doc­tors they approached said no. In addi­tion to the med­ica­tions, they packed suit­cas­es full of cloth­ing, like blue jeans, that the Refus­niks could wear or sell on the black market.

When they arrived in Moscow, they had to sneak out of the hotel past the key ladies,” the tour guides who sat watch in the hall­ways to make cer­tain that tourists didn’t wan­der off. Once on the street, they locat­ed pay phones and dialed the phone num­bers they’d been giv­en. Because she was flu­ent in Russ­ian, Dean­na was able to con­verse with the con­tacts in Yid­dish and they got direc­tions and took sub­ways to the apart­ments of the var­i­ous peo­ple to deliv­er the med­ica­tions and clothing. 

They returned to the states with emp­ty suit­cas­es but with rich mem­o­ries of their encoun­ters with these mar­gin­al­ized Jews. This trip remained one of the high­lights of her life. 

Because my moth­er passed before this book, which is about fam­i­ly lega­cies, was pub­lished, this story’s absence seems par­tic­u­lar­ly bit­ter­sweet to me. As aware as I was that I’d inher­it­ed numer­ous of her attrib­ut­es: her long limbs and her wry sense of humor, I didn’t con­nect my own do-good­er streak to an inher­i­tance from her while I was writ­ing the book. That only came more recently.

Annabelle Gur­witch is an actress and New York Times best­selling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Toma­to, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and doc­u­men­tary. Annabelle co-host­ed Din­ner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in

Dex­ter, Sein­feld, Oprah, Bill Maher’s Real Time, The Today Show, New York Com­e­dy Fes­ti­val, and The Moth Main­stage. She was a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on NPR and humorist for The Nation. Check back on Thurs­day to read more from Annabelle Gurwitch.

Annabelle Gur­witch is a Thurber Prize for Amer­i­can Humor Writ­ing final­ist and New York Times best­selling author of five books, most recent­ly You’re Leav­ing When? Adven­tures in Down­ward Mobil­i­ty (Coun­ter­point, now out in paper­back) a New York Times’ Favorite Book About Healthy Liv­ing 2021 and a Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca Must Read. She was the long­time host of Din­ner & a Movie on TBS, a reg­u­lar NPR con­trib­u­tor, and has writ­ten for The New York­er, New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Los Ange­les Review of Books, and WSJ amongst oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She co-hosts the Tiny Vic­to­ries pod­cast on the Max­i­mum Fun Pod­cast Network.