Branches, Leaves And Roots To The Past


The first time I cradle my newborn grandchild in my arms, my mind drifts to thoughts of my grandmother of blessed memory. I find myself thinking about the woman for whom I was the only granddaughter, the woman for whose sister I am named. The woman who called me her shayne maidele, a sweet maiden.

An immigrant who came to America from the Ukraine in search of a better life for herself and the family she hoped she would one day create, my grandmother survived many hardships. She arrived in Philadelphia in 1910 at the age of 15 with a few small coins and a feather pillow, having traveled thousands of miles with no one to accompany her on her journey.

What she left behind was immense and unrecoverable — the name she answered to in the Old Country; Yiddish, her native tongue; her mother’s face. After my grandmother bid her mother farewell, they never saw each other again, a pain my grandmother must have borne all the days of her life.

Fast-forward more than a century, and now I’m a first-time grandmother to a baby named Lila, Hebrew for night, and her eyes are midnight blue.

I remember my grandmother, her determination and courage, who came of age in a time and place where religion and culture were one. When she made it to the Golden Land, with its overwhelming pressures to assimilate, to discard Jewishness the way one might toss out a tattered piece of cloth, she was forced to choose between the New World and the Old.

She chose the New and stopped keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. But even though she learned to speak a heavily accented English, it was sprinkled with Yiddish expressions, and when there was money she fed her family flanken and stuffed cabbage to remind her of her foremothers.

I try searching for rituals for new Jewish grandmothers and decide I have to create my own. My husband and I recite Shehecheyanu, the blessing of thanks for holidays and special occasions. I found I want a prayer to bless the particular occasion of a grandchild’s birth. On I find one written by Ruth Heiges: “Blessed are You, our God, spirit of the universe, Who fulfills the words of the Psalmist: ‘And may you live to see your children’s children’” (Psalm 128). Also, my husband and I are planting trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. Trees symbolize life in their ability to bear fruit, their roots symbolic of family and the generations. When we trace our ancestry, we trace our roots. Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life, refers to Torah, to knowledge.

The birth of my granddaughter is a milestone in my life. Lila is my connection to my mother, her mother and the grandmothers before me. She is my hope for the future, connecting me to deep wellsprings of love. Her presence will teach me about awe and wonder, the grandeur of ordinary moments, bedtime stories, clapping games, lullabies.

At night I lie in bed and imagine holding Lila’s hand. I will read her stories, sing to her the Hebrew lullaby which translates as “Night, night, go to sleep, blow out the candle.” I dream of her floating on a pillowed cloud in a Chagall sky crowded with stars and barnyard animals. Her tiny hands clasp a string of red thread stretching upward toward a small yellow house where my grandmother sits on a plump sofa, a ball of yarn in her lap. She is knitting, my grandmother, knitting together the generations.

Nancy Gerber received a doctorate in English from Rutgers University and a certificate in psychoanalytic training from the Academy of Applied and Clinical Psychoanalysis in Livingston, N.J. Her most recent book is “The Dancing Clock: Reflections on Family, Love, and Loss” (Shanti Arts, 2019). This article first appeared in our sister publication, the New Jersey Jewish News.