Excerpt­ed from Wher­ev­er You Go, There They Are: Sto­ries About My Fam­i­ly You Might Relate To (Blue Rid­er Press, April, 2017) the lat­est col­lec­tion of essays by New York Times Best­selling author Annabelle Gur­witch that Oprah’s Mag­a­zine calls a viva­cious, hilar­i­ous, mad­cap memoir.” 

When it was time to find the next place” for my par­ents, my moth­er decid­ed she want­ed to go tribal.

My moth­er wants to return to her peo­ple,” only she doesn’t mean our fam­i­ly. Between cher­ished long-​stand­ing grudges and more recent per­ceived slights, she is on speak­ing terms with only a hand­ful of fam­i­ly mem­bers. No, she’s mak­ing the great leap back­ward, align­ing her­self with our ancestors. 

My grandfather’s fam­i­ly, the Maisels, were teach­ers and rab­bis. We would like to believe that the name­sake of the Maisel Syn­a­gogue in Prague, a may­or who held office dur­ing the six­teenth cen­tu­ry in the Jew­ish ghet­to, was a rel­a­tive. That’s about as much as we know about them, but we do know a lot about my grand­moth­er Frances’s lineage.

Menasha Lidin­sky, lat­er Angli­cized to Moshe, and then Mor­ris Laden, my grandmother’s father, fled the Ukraine with his wife, Sarah, when my grand­moth­er Frances was five years old. Flee­ing the pogroms, they came over on the Prinz Oscar, hav­ing made their way to Ger­many from Rus­sia in 1913. Moshe’s pro­fes­sion was list­ed as dry goods sales­man. My great-​grand­fa­ther was what vil­lagers referred to as a sway­backed-​mule junk deal­er,” or ped­dler, trudg­ing from town to town earn­ing a mea­ger liv­ing sell­ing goods off of an ancient animal’s back. If we had a fam­i­ly crest it would fea­ture a don­key, a pota­to, the one pot we had to piss in, and the fam­i­ly mot­to: My feet are killing me!” (Moshe and I actu­al­ly have a lot in com­mon, as the day‑to‑day life of a sway­backed-​mule junk deal­er is much like being an author on a book tour. I’ve sold books from the trunk of my car.)

Bub­bie Sarah and Zay­da Moshe opened a dry goods store across the street from the famous Jew­ish Expo­nent news­pa­per on Pine Street in down­town Philadel­phia. They had an apart­ment above their store, like many shop­keep­ers at the time. They nev­er ven­tured far from their com­mu­ni­ty, spoke most­ly Yid­dish, and lived in fear of that mul­ti­task­ing God who had enough time to con­cern him­self with not only the work­ings of the entire uni­verse but with whether a tiny sub­set of a sin­gle species on a spin­ning blue ball in the out­er sub­urbs of the Milky Way dared to defy his grand plans by mix­ing dairy and meat.

This is why the Tel Aviv Gar­dens is on our list of senior liv­ing facil­i­ties to vis­it this week­end. It’s on a twen­ty-​five-​acre cam­pus with hous­ing options that range from inde­pen­dent-​liv­ing apart­ments to hos­pice care. My moth­er imag­ines that her moth­er, Frances, our nan­ny, would have felt at home there.

Nan­ny nev­er spoke of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of cho­sen peo­ple— the tribe entrust­ed with the respon­si­bil­i­ty of keep­ing the plan­et spic-​and-​span. Clean­li­ness was not just next to god­li­ness for her, it was a devout call­ing. In the same way that nuns see them­selves as brides of Christ, Nan­ny pledged her­self to Ajax, lord of germs, whose domin­ion cov­ered the expanse of sur­faces in her home and the domi­ciles of her off­spring. Her idea of keep­ing a kosher kitchen entailed pro­duc­ing fla­vor-​free food; at least that’s how it seemed to us grandchildren.

A typ­i­cal meal at Nanny’s might include ice­berg let­tuce, meat, and a starchy veg­etable. Let­tuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vig­or that each life­less leaf emerged from these inter­ro­ga­tion ses­sions vir­tu­al­ly translu­cent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exot­ic item offered on din­ner tables in sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca. Not only was it a pun­ish­ment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suf­fer for their own fail­ure to be more appe­tiz­ing. The legumes would be lib­er­at­ed from a can, only to be sub­ject­ed to a pres­sur­ized mois­ture-​ex­trac­tion process that includ­ed sev­er­al rounds of squeeze-​dry­ing in lay­ers of paper tow­els. Chalky and gran­u­lar; eat­ing them sucked the mois­ture from your mouth.

Beef was pur­chased only from a kosher butch­er, but you could nev­er trust peo­ple entire­ly, so it was sub­ject­ed to repeat­ed rins­ing and salt­ing and then would be secret­ed into paper tow­els for addi­tion­al dehy­dra­tion. Bit­ing into it was like gnaw­ing on par­ti­cle­board. The num­ber of trees sac­ri­ficed for meals pre­pared in Nanny’s kitchen is unfath­omable. I hope those quar­ters we col­lect­ed in the ubiq­ui­tous tree-​plant­i­ng cam­paigns for Israel in the 1970s added to the aggre­gate num­ber of trees in the world enough to bal­ance it out.

My moth­er nev­er showed any inter­est in keep­ing kosher, but she’s pin­ing for Nan­ny, whose per­son­al­i­ty she expe­ri­enced as exact­ing. Death has con­ferred an almost saint­ly qual­i­ty on her mem­o­ry. My moth­er has adopt­ed Nanny’s mer­cu­r­ial house­keep­ing habits and is reach­ing fur­ther back to Bubbie’s duti­ful obser­va­tion of hol­i­days. My moth­er wants to attend the week­ly reli­gious ser­vices at the Gar­dens. She has start­ed light­ing Sab­bath can­dles. She pic­tures her grandmother’s hands gen­tly rest­ing over her own as she mouths the words to the prayers recit­ed in a lan­guage that she her­self nev­er both­ered to learn.

She’s also tak­en to needle­point­ing mezuzah cov­ers and prayer shawl hold­ers, which in my sec­u­lar house­hold become make­up bags. I have so many of these that my make­up bags have their own make­up bags. Dur­ing my child­hood, she craft­ed intri­cate Japan­ese designs, but her lotus flow­ers and white cranes have giv­en way to mourn­ful scenes of East­ern Euro­pean vil­lage life. It’s all Cha­gall, all the time. The way she churns these things out, you’d think she was com­mis­sioned by an army of nomadic zealots who need car­ry­ing cas­es for their tal­is­mans. I tried to con­vince my son to take his lunch to school in a sack dec­o­rat­ed with a for­lorn goat wrapped in a prayer shawl play­ing the vio­lin. For the record, why wouldn’t that goat look pained? Inner mono­logue of Cha­gall goat: Why do I have to play the vio­lin and wear this schma­ta? The Bible is like a goat geno­cide, can’t I catch a break? It’s real­ly hard for a goat to keep a scarf on. My son looked at me like I’d sug­gest­ed he pack his sand­wich in a moldy sneaker.

Mom rarely attend­ed ser­vices dur­ing her child­hood, and although my par­ents insist­ed on a Jew­ish edu­ca­tion for us, after my sis­ter and I left home, nei­ther she nor my dad went back to tem­ple. Not even once. Sud­den­ly, forty years of sec­u­lar life are imma­te­r­i­al to her new­found identification.

Actress and New York Times Best­selling author Annabelle Gur­witch’s new col­lec­tion of essays, Wher­ev­er You Go, There They Are: Sto­ries about My Fam­i­ly You Might Relate To, is one of Oprah’s May book picks. You can read about it in, Shalom Y’all, bit­ter­sweet fam­i­ly tales from the Deep South” in the J Week­ly of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

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.