14 May 2007

The legend of Little Grandma

Congratulations to Jasia of Creative Genes, whose Carnival of Genealogy challenges gen bloggers to think and write about what we might not ordinarily cover. This month's challenge is, naturally, mothers.

Little Grandma - my mother's maternal grandmother - was a legend.

She lived in Newark, New Jersey, from 1905 until her 1963 death. She barely learned English, but raised educated children, including that American dream, a doctor.

Riva was a daughter of Tzalel Bank, "the famous one-eyed blacksmith." She was born around 1878 in a village near Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania; her sisters were Sanke and Mere and her brother was Hatzkel. The family also lived in the big city of Dnieperpetrovsk for some time.

The girls were tutored and received a good education for that era. One became an excellent dressmaker, another a caterer and businesswoman. Little Grandma was always well-dressed, coiffed and lipsticked, and encouraged us to do likewise.

She ran away from home because her father wanted to marry her to an older man, and we have been told she then lived with Gypsies, from whom she learned healing, midwifery and the arts of reading palms and telling fortunes.

We don't know exactly where she met great-grandfather (known as Zayde) Aron Peretz Talalay, but they married and returned to Vorotinschtina, an agricultural colony near Mogilev, Belarus. The colony, established in 1830 by several Jewish families (including our Talalay), was home to only 300 souls at its most populous. It had a synagogue and cemetery shared with Zaverezhye, the adjacent hamlet, which also had a post office and store. In October of 1941, all of the remaining occupants of the colony were murdered by the Nazis.

We can imagine the more sophisticated Riva's dismay when she walked into her rural home in Vorotinschtina. In a bold move, she hammered rows of nails into the wall, hung clothing on them and put up a blanket around the clothes. This was the first, but not the last, village "closet."

When Zayde, a master carpenter who could carve toys with moving parts out of a single block of wood, escaped to America to avoid conscription in 1904 - a time of anti-Jewish pogroms - Riva was heavily pregnant, and had a toddler. We were told that Grandma was born in an area where Russia, Iran and Turkey meet, and Riva crossed the border "to buy eggs on a string," as she used to say. When I lived in Iran, I began to think that she might have meant eggs in a string bag, which was common for shopping in Tehran, but we'll never know. If readers have any ideas about what else she might have meant, please comment.

Times were dangerous. Riva ran from place to place with infant Chaya Feige (Bertha) and toddler Leib (the future Dr. Louis), wearing a cross for safety and hiding in churches with fellow Jewish refugees, always carrying her samovar, Shabbat candlesticks, feather quilts and six silver spoons. The men threatened to smother her children if they cried; if the mob had discovered the refugees, everyone could have been killed.

They eventually reached Hamburg, Germany, and embarked for New York, where Leib was sick for a few days in the Ellis Island hospital. The doctor prescribed bananas, which Riva had never seen. Another mother demonstrated with gestures how to peel the tough yellow fruit.

She was always the family's mover and shaker - literally. Once she decided on something, that was it. Riva decided she needed a house with a basement (so she could make pickles) and a yard to grow vegetables in, and found one.

Zayde didn't exactly agree to this move, so while he was at work (making decorative patterns for black cast-iron stoves), she simply packed up and moved the entire household. She sent a child - by now, they had several more sons - to the empty apartment with a note, "Here's our new address, supper's at 7."

Riva had it all figured out: a basement, a yard, a room or two to rent and a top floor for them, with plenty of light. The only thing she didn't have was an upstairs bathroom and Zayde didn't understand the fuss.

Finally, she took an ax - about as big as she was - and chopped a hole in the floor for the bathtub and another in the wall for a window. She kept the kids from falling into one and out of the other.

That winter evening, Zayde came home, saw the holes and was frightened for the small children. "Nu? [Yiddish: So?] So put in a bathtub," she replied. "And don't forget the window." She got both.

Riva was summoned when mothers suspected an "evil eye" on a child, and was requested as a healer and midwife. She would often tell stories about unusual births she had seen.

Little Grandma often visited her daughter's family in Brooklyn. The family went out one day; she was left alone at their house. They returned to a delicious roast chicken dinner, but were a bit confused as Grandma hadn't been left a chicken to cook. My uncle enjoyed his dinner and then went to the backyard to feed the fowl he had been raising for a Boy Scout project ... You guessed it!

Also, she didn't understand why Grampa's liquor cabinet had so many half-bottles. She helped by filling up the nicest bottles and throwing out the others. I'm not sure if Grampa ever recovered.

I often think of her life: running away from home, living with strangers, escaping from pogroms, saving her children's lives, hanging onto family treasures - and designing closets and bathrooms. Could I have coped as well?

We must continue telling these stories, reminding our daughters to be goal-oriented. Should ax lessons be required? Should we tell the men they marry?


  1. Schelly, the story about your great-grandmother is wonderful--a legend indeed!


  2. Hi, Janice.

    And these were only some of the events! There were so many more that could have been mentioned ... maybe more next year! :-)


  3. An amazing woman!

    I'm still grinning over that chicken.

  4. Hi, Bill,

    Thanks for writing!

    And my poor uncle was only a few weeks away from earning his Boy Scout badge in urban chicken farming. Disclaimer: I don't know if the Boy Scouts actually have such a badge!