Submitted respectfully by Rabbi Susan E. Lippe, at the Raindrop Turkish House at Ladies’ Night hosted by the Raindrop Women Association on February 7, 2016.
Good Evening. Shabbat Shalom.
First, I want to say that I am honored to be here tonight. I’m excited to be included. I want to thank Rabbi Swedroe for not being able to come tonight and asking me to step in for her. And I want to thank my lovely friend Sarah Jew for helping me think about what and how I love.
This – interfaith dialogue – is my passion. And you – people who love interfaith experiences – you are my tribe. Thank you for inviting me and thank you all for listening.
The topic tonight is both simple and complicated. I have a list of many, many things, people, activities, experiences, and even colors I love. Also, I want to represent my culture truly and well.
Every answer I give is only partial, because I am only one small pixel of many bigger pictures. I can’t represent all American Jews, but I will try to share parts of my story that represent being Jewish in the United States. I will try tonight to meet this challenge and to share who I am, how I got here, and what, who, how I love and why.
We called my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother, bubbe. Bubi is a Yiddish word for grandmother. It can be pronounced a few ways, but we said buh-bee. My Bubi arrived at Ellis Island with her parents and her siblings at age 16 in 1921.
Until then she had lived in Poland in a town called Bialystock, famous for those flat bagels that are filled in in the middle with onions or sesame seeds. They are called Bialys. You can get them at Sweetish Hill on West Sixth Street.
When my Bubi and her family arrived at Ellis Island, they were separated by gender for medical examinations. They were starving and wearing all the clothing they owned. Poland was dangerous for Jews then. Even so, her mother turned to her and said: “Your father is sick. If they send him back, we’re going back too.” Thankfully, the US Immigration Officials allowed them to stay. They travelled to Chicago to live and work with family. Eventually, my bubi, her husband, and her kids moved around the United States and ended up in Los Angeles. My bubi drove a Chevy painted in avocado green. She had her hair and nails done every Thursday. She took me for my first manicure.
She worked at the Beverlywood Bakery counter for 25 years. When I was a child, my bubi would take me behind the counter, to the back of the bakery and the guys would make roses out of icing in the palm of my hand. We ate chocolate babka, a kind of rolled up cookie that I still love. These you can get at the Kosher corner of the HEB on Far West.
My Bubi told jokes in English, but she always told the punchlines in Yiddish. She called us Mein Kinder. When I was in college, I would call her before exams and she always told me that I “would pass with flying colors.” She believed that we were the best grandchildren in the world. I’m wearing her necklace now.
My maternal grandparents were born in America. So, we called them Grandma and Grandpa.
My Grandpa’s family originally came from a place that was sometimes Russian and sometimes Polish because the borders kept changing. Until two of his brothers died in the tenements of Lower Manhattan, my grandpa lived in New York where his dad was a peddler. Their family came to Los Angeles where his parents believed the kids would be safer because the buildings were short, only one or two stories tall. My grandfather quit school in 8th grade. His first job was selling newspapers on the corner.
My grandpa was in the auto parts business for a long, long time. In 1942 our government began to relocate Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Before they left Los Angeles, Japanese people my grandpa knew from work asked him and his partners to purchase their refrigerators and their cars. They knew my grandpa would give them a fair price, and they were only allowed to take clothing and some other small possessions with them to the camps. After the war, when Japanese neighbors and business associates were allowed to return to LA, my grandpa offered them credit so they could re-start their businesses and get back to their American dreams.
My grandpa had a big heart. He cried during cowboy movies. He also did a hilarious Tarzan impression, loudly. He wore suspenders and a straw hat. When any doctor would tell him he was obese, grandpa would just switch doctors.
While my grandmother was cooking dinner, my grandpa would play cards with me. After dinner, my grandma would play cards with me while my grandpa washed the dishes. None of them – not my Bubi, my grandpa, or my grandma – ever just let me win at cards.
My grandma grew up with a single mother before it was trendy. They called my grandma’s mom Bubi Schissel. She tutored people in Russian and drank vodka, because apparently that is how you learn Russian. My grandmother’s mother wore sunglasses and slacks and lived in Venice Beach.
My grandmother always wore skirts and red lipstick. She had her hair done every week so she was blonde until she died at the age of 93. My grandma took the bus everywhere.
She was happy to take us shopping, but she also made our dolls sweaters and personally hemmed every pair of pants I owned until I went away college. She, however, refused to get involved with Barbie clothing because it was just too tiny. She and my grandpa would go out for margaritas and chips and salsa.
My grandma could spell anything. She told us that, when she grew up, she was going to be a detective. My grandma would make each of us our favorite meal for our birthdays. In fact, she made my parents’ wedding dinner. I am on a quest to make egg salad or potato kugel or a blintz as good as hers, even just once. I’m also wearing my grandma’s necklace.
At my grandfather’s funeral, my grandma sat in the front row wearing her sunglasses. At her funeral, we played their song, “Night and Day” by Frank Sinatra. I love Sinatra too, and I never go anywhere without my sunglasses.
Torah commands Jews to respect our parents. (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) One of the best ways I know to respect my parents is to love and remember their parents.
I think of my Bubi every time I make chicken soup or matza balls. I’m sure my dad does too. My grandfather loved office supplies. I do too. Just like my grandma did, my mom does a lot of laundry. In fact, my dad says that he only gets to wear 3% of his shirts because my mom always washes them and puts them back on top of the pile. I love laundry, too.
I’m not exactly like any of them though. My grandma washed her face with Ivory soap. My mom still does, but I love all creams, lotions, and essential oils.
So, that’s where I come from. My DNA comes from Russia and Poland. Both sides of my family were Jewish. I grew up in Los Angeles with almost all of them close by.
I know that some of you are thinking of tonight’s theme “Love” in terms of relationships like marriage, maybe because Saint Valentine’s day is coming soon. That is not really my expertise, but I will pass on this wisdom from my mother who has been married to my father for 52 years. She advises: “Staying together is based on choosing to grow in the same direction.”
But I’m not here to give relationship advice. From my long list of what I love, I’ve chosen to focus on what is different about me and what might be common to American Jews and/or to this particular interfaith group in Austin tonight.
I love this city.
I love the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in South Austin. I love the Natural Gardener and learning to grow vegetables myself. I love Deep Eddy and Shipe Pool. I love my neighbors. I love the tofu spring rolls and peanut sauce at Yaya and Mitad y Mitad tortillas from HEB. I love live music at Gruene Hall and the Continental Club. I love the Austin Public Library system. I love air conditioning and ceiling fans. I love taking visitors to bingo at [Ginny’s] Little Longhorn Saloon and to Sinners’ Brunch at Jo’s on Sundays on South Congress. I love that tipping is part of our city’s culture. People in Austin never ask me why I’m not married or why I don’t have kids, and I love that more than you could ever guess.
I love our country.
I know that the United States of America isn’t perfect, but I love it anyway. I love our democratic right to disagree. I love freedom and feminism. I love the Separation of Church and State. I love that we have an opportunity to educate ourselves and to share what we learn with others in the hope of making our country and our world better.
I also love Israel.
I’m not talking about politics, borders, or birthrights. I’m talking about my friends and my cousins in Israel. I love the Hebrew language. I love Israeli art. I love films by Yoav Shamir. I love the Mediterranean Sea. I loved living in a place where Jewish holy days shape the civic calendar. I love an Israeli December where you don’t have to listen to the same twelve Christmas songs everywhere you go. I love hummus and jachnun. I love the store in the Jerusalem market called Machaneh Yehuda that only sells halva. In fact, I assert that every vegetable is better in Israel with the sole exception of celery.
I love being Jewish.
Until I was ten years old, we were mainly gastronomical Jews, unaffiliated with a synagogue. For every Jewish holiday, my family got together and ate Jewish food. Then, I started going to Jewish sleep-away camp every summer and fell in love with Jewish life and tradition. I love arguing about Torah and truth. I love Shabbat and Passover. I love that the Jewish calendar keeps me organized so I won’t miss an opportunity to celebrate or to mourn or to learn, every year. I love that there are multiple authentically-Jewish, time-tested, ethical answers to almost any question we might ask.
I love to crochet, and I love my camera.
I love using my eyes and my brain for more than reading and typing at a screen. I love sharing what I crochet and the photographs I’ve made. I love these things, not only because they are fun to do and fun to have, but also because they are fun to give away.
I love connecting in person.
My assignment tonight was to speak about love from my cultural perspective.
When I edited this speech, I searched for ways I can best represent the American Jewish experience. Most American Jews I’ve met have great-grandparents who arrived at a port like Ellis Island from a far away country where Jewish safety was threatened. Most Jews whose families came from Europe eat the same things at holidays: gefilte fish, matza balls, chicken soup, and challah. Most American Jews I know have some relationship to Israel, though our relationships vary greatly.
We, as a group, talk with our hands, and we argue when our families are together. Jews seem to argue the way puppies play-fight. It looks and sounds like we are angry, but really we are loving interrupting each other and ripping apart each other’s theories. Our funerals are in Hebrew, and somewhere we all have a record of our parents’ or our grandparents’ Hebrew or Yiddish names. In a variety of ways, American Jews fulfill the obligation of tzedakah, righteous giving. Whatever we each call it, Jews share what we have others.
Not all Jews in America have family who worked with their hands, like mine. In fact, the stereotype that Jews love school and succeed there only describes the most recent generation of both sides of my family. Not all Jews are attorneys or doctors.
According to the National Jewish Population Survey, the one thing that we all have in common is Passover. More than any other Jewish holiday or life cycle event, Jews in the United States celebrate Passover
In addition to Passover and righteous giving, the main thing Jewish Americans share is humor. It’s true that I am hilarious in my own unique way. In this, however, I am not alone. The Jews who have sought refuge in the United States of America collectively brought a dark sense of humor, which has kept our people alive and hopeful through tough times. We laugh at each other, we laugh at ourselves, and we try to laugh in the face of danger.
So, to reduce my cultural background to a short slogan:
We American Jews dearly love Passover, tzedakah, and humor.
These three things give Jewish Americans the strength and stamina to remember where we come from, to stick around, to help each other and our neighbors, and to make friends with people who aren’t just like us.