How Did My Great Grandmother Do It? – Kveller
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How Did My Great Grandmother Do It?

There is a poignant scene at the end of the Torah portion,
. Rivka (Rebecca) has helped her son Yaakov (Jacob) steal the birthright from his older brother Esav by deceiving their blind father. Rivka sends her son to her family in a distant land, knowing that Esav will try to kill his brother.

I imagine Rivka kissing her beloved son and watching as he runs off in the distance. I wonder if she knew that she would never see him again. She must have wondered–how will it all work out?

In the Torah’s account, we never “see” Rebecca again–our last glimpse of her is as a bereft mother, watching her child escape a fate she orchestrated.

I was thinking about this the other day as I showed my granddaughter a picture of her namesake, my grandmother, Chava (Eva). At the age of 20, Grandma left her 2-year old son (who became my father) in the care of her parents in their little shtetl in Poland. My grandparents were going by ship to the goldene medinah, America, to escape poverty and build a business in New York City. The Polish government withheld a visa for their son to guarantee that the parents would return.

For the next four years, my grandparents rented a small room in an apartment and together built a business importing feathers and down. They remained true to their faith, keeping kosher and Shabbos despite the difficulties. My grandparents went to visit Poland once or twice over the next four years, before my grandmother returned on her own to pick up her son and bring him to the United States. Neither my grandmother nor my father ever spoke about the trauma of this separation but I thought about it many times as I raised my own young children.

I never thought about my great-grandmother’s trauma, however, until recently. She, too, was named Rivka, as am I, her namesake. She was younger than I am now when she took her grandson into her home and heart as a son. How terrible must that have been for her, four years later, returning him to her daughter’s arms? Watching him as he refused to go to his mother? Clutching at her, the only mother he really knew and now had to abandon? This I know is true, as my grandmother only told me how heartbroken she was, feeling rejected by her child.

But, great-grandmother Rivka, only now do I imagine your tears, ambivalently sending your tataleh across a vast ocean. Happy for a young family to be united, devastated at the thought that you might never see them again.

Honestly, I cannot bear the thought or the image.

Our Rivka, embracing her daughter and placing the reluctant little boy in her arms. Our Rivka, holding on for one last kiss. Our Rivka, silently contemplating the future, one without the mischievous little boy who brightened her life. She must have wondered–how will it all work out?

Well, it did work out for this young family. The war brought a great demand from the army for feathers for the pillows and comforters of the soldiers. My grandparents moved from that one little room to a small apartment, eventually settling in a spacious home overlooking Central Park.

But they never did see Rivka again, and the last image of her is as a bereft grandmother, watching as her grandchild escaped a fate she would soon suffer.

Towards the end of her life, Grandma told me about letters she received from her parents, begging to come to America before the doors shut and the Holocaust was unleashed. She gave me a letter her father had written (which she translated from Polish), inquiring about their new life, their new baby daughter and, especially, what the little boy was up to. Was he good in school? Was he a little man, now?

Once, only once, did my father speak of dreaming about being a soldier and finding and saving his grandparents from death. Where and how did my grandparents and father tuck away the devastation of knowing that these good people, these loving parents and grandparents, ended up as ashes at the hands of the Nazis?

But today, as a grandmother, I think mostly of Rivka and I really just can’t bear it.

Despite believing that her beloved little boy would have an easier life, how does a grandmother let go like that without dying of sorrow?

For more about Jewish grandparents, read how to teach your kids to respect their grandparents, missing your grandparents during the holidays, and Yiddish, the language of “bubbe” love.

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