Posted Monday, July 18th, 2005
I was an outsider in this shtetyl in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Most of the bubbes and zaydes who lived there had emigrated from Russia in the 1920’s, raised families in the crooked brick houses which tilted crazily in the marshy soil, and stayed long after their children married and moved to wealthier communities in Manhattan Beach or Flatbush. Just by looking at me they knew I wasn’t Jewish. Depending on their mood and temperament, they called me shikse or tatelleh. But I loved Richard, so I followed him to Brooklyn and moved into his grandmother Bertha’s house.
I wished she were still alive. I needed a grandmother, a family. Mine was lost to me because I was marrying a Jewish man. My parents viewed my decision to wed outside the Catholic faith as an act of defiance and rejection. We fought. They gave me an ultimatum. In choosing Richard, I knew I’d pay a high price for my happiness, but I did not realize how much strength it would take to strike out in a new direction and find my way to another place I could call home.
Bertha’s house was a memorial of devotion and dust. Out of grief and domestic incompetence, her youngest son Eddie, who had lived with her, had never picked up a sponge or mop in the five years since her death. I marveled over the extravagance of Eddie’s sorrow. This kind and gentle man still spoke about Bertha with tears in his eyes. So did Richard and his relatives. Bertha Bornstein was the glue that held her five children and extended family together. In photographs, this petite, blonde woman was always smiling. Her striking sky-blue eyes reappeared occasionally in her sons and grandchildren. Her Passover Seders were legendary. The dining room table, stretching through two rooms, was filled with forty or so children, grandchildren, cousins, and assorted in-laws. Although she wasn’t a terrific cook, every year she transformed an unsuspecting carp, which only hours before swam in her bathtub, into delicious gefilte fish. I wore her diamond ring, ate dinner off her plates, scrubbed her sink, and slept in her bedroom, but she remained an intriguing stranger.
That August Richard and I were married under a chupuh. In protest, my family refused to attend the wedding and severed all communication. One year passed, then another. Their silence was a weight pressing against my chest. I couldn’t allow myself to feel the overwhelming anger and hurt. Instead, I threw myself into my teaching and studies, and worked hard to fit into Richard’s family, hoping they could fill the void left by my own family. I embraced Judaism, but it remained abstract, impersonal. When I converted, I took Bertha’s name, which in Hebrew means bracha, blessed. More than a name, it was a hope that one day I’d feel that way.
Late one night on the long train ride home from Columbia University, I was studying, my body tense with concentration. But when the train stopped at King’s Highway, I stared out the window, my eyes burning with fatigue. Like many religious experiences, what happened next defies logical explanation. At once, my mind was filled with a name. Bertha. I could almost feel her hands touching my shoulders. She was whispering, “It will be all right.” I wasn’t frightened. Almost instantly, the tension and weariness drained out of me and were replaced with a quiet peacefulness and hope.
Despite all rational arguments to the contrary, I remain convinced that Bertha’s touch has opened my mind and heart. I have started to absorb the hard lessons of exile, which the Jews understand so well. They have taught me that important spiritual work occurs precisely in times of darkness, and that out of ostracism, new and powerful territories are opened to us. Bertha’s touch loosened my reliance on rational proof and convinced me that love could stretch beyond the boundaries of death. She did love me. I knew it deep in my bones.
As I started letting go of the anger and hurt trapped in my body, I felt lighter, freer. I opened myself to new relationships—finding friends who left marriages, homelands or abusive families to strike out in new directions. Their understanding and support reassured me that I had every right to fight for and claim my own happiness. I also learned that parents need not be blood relatives. My in-laws, Rhoda and Marty, gave me the type of unconditional love I craved. With their encouragement, I challenged myself to try a new career in writing and publishing. Confidence built on confidence and I started trusting my instincts more. In time, I believed I had enough love to mother a child of my own. Several years later, I gave birth to a son. Alex has his great grandmother’s blue eyes. He makes us laugh. His love and goodness fill our hearts. It did not take very long for my parents to love him.
Many years have passed since I moved into Bertha’s house. My husband, son, and I have traveled far from Brooklyn, lived in several states, but we take Bertha’s wooden bowl and half-moon knife wherever we go. She used it to make gefilte fish. I use it to make pesto. “Bubbe’s bowl,” Richard murmurs when he sees me stirring and chopping, creating a meal that we will share tonight with friends. This prompts him to tell Alex about the poor carp swimming in Bertha’s bathtub. Although Alex has heard this story many times, he grins, his blue eyes sparkling just like his great-grandmother’s. Our love for her and for each other radiates around us like the glow from a candle. We are blessed. “You see, Bubbe Bertha?” I whisper. “You’ve shown me the way home.”
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Katrina Denza on Wednesday, July 20th, 2005 at 3:15 PM
Spiritual, hopeful, grace-filled--and so beautifully written.
Posted by ann levy on Wednesday, July 20th, 2005 at 11:18 PM
patti an absolutely beatiful story of rhoda's mom. realy enjoyed reading it. love, ann
Posted by Donia Carey on Thursday, July 21st, 2005 at 11:32 AM
This is a wonderful story, and so beautifully told. I love the idea of this strong woman, Bertha, whose presence still lights up this family and reaches out to embrace a new family member in need of love. Mention of the blue eyes scattered like flowers throughout the generations give us a lovely image of hope.
Posted by Elaine Little on Friday, July 22nd, 2005 at 12:28 AM
Beautiful, touching, heartfelt!