Babushkas — occupational hazard or unexpected gift?


In college, I lived in a house named after Kate Bush, so it’s only fitting that my nearly four months in Europe have been punctuated by babushkas — though I suppose Kate would insist that the proper word is "Babooshka."

When I visited Vilnius, Lithuania, in late August, a wizened crone screamed at me as I was crossing the street: "You! Jew! Go to the synagogue!" In retrospect, I’m not sure how she knew I was Jewish. I wasn’t wearing a yarmulke, and the only identifier of my religion was my admittedly prominent nose. My response was simple and swift, though: I scowled at her and took her advice, heartily enjoying my visit to the city’s Choral Synagogue, a gorgeous building that dates back to 1903. I mean, who am I to judge? God works in mysterious ways.

The babushkas didn’t like me much in Russia either. Over the course of an approximately two-week trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, ex-Soviet women of a certain age seemed to love nothing more than to scream "nyet" at me — as I handed over inappropriately large bills to pay for subway tickets, as I attempted to mail expense forms to JTA "bean counter" Lee Silverstein, as I tried to navigate Russian pharmacies to purchase a razor.

I was beginning to think that the sturdy old women of the world were allied against me, but today’s encounter at "?", a popular Belgrade tavern, changed my outlook.
The restaurant’s name is kind of a quirky story. Originally named something along the lines of "by the cathedral," the "?" was a placeholder name instigated when the church objected to the tavern’s original moniker. It stuck.

Anyway, I was sitting alone at a table by the window, eating my veal soup and Serbian sausage and beans, when a babushka approached me and pointed at my table’s other stool. I assumed she wanted to borrow it, to sit with friends or whatnot, so I nodded. That was her cue to plop right down.

As I began to eat my meal, she began to sweetly smile at me and gesture at my food. Assuming she was like every other kind older woman in my life — I was too skinny and I needed to eat faster — I began to quicken my pace. That’s when she changed her tactics, asking if I spoke English and then offering a "How do you do?"

I finally got what she wanted: my food. With a sigh and a chuckle, I forked over my meal — and she wasted no time before unscrewing the table’s pepper shaker, dumping it over my meal and digging in. She’d claim another 50 dinars (a little less than $1) before I left the joint.

It was a phenomenally bizarre experience, but not an unwelcome one. With this job, you get so steeped in the modern-day practicalities of Judaism — the Holocaust, the financial struggles of different communities across the continent — that you sometimes forget about the religion’s timeless tropes: kindness to strangers, mysterious lessons, unexplainable encounters. Each experience I’m having over here has a lesson to be untapped, unscrewed — maybe even dumped all over my life.

The whole thing was so weird — and over so quickly — that it was hard to feel that it wasn’t a bit b’shert.

I don’t know that my "?" babushka was Elijah (or perhaps Miriam) — but there’s no denying that my Shabbat in Serbia is feeling a little more spiritual after our encounter.

And she was right, of course — those beans needed some pepper.

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