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.