Hard boiled in Boyle Heights

As soon as I finished Janice Steinberg’s new novel “The Tin Horse” (Random House, $26), I gave a copy to my 100-year-old Grandma Bea. Steinberg’s richly textured Jewish family narrative echoes my own Bubbe’s past — and that of so many other Jews who moved to Los Angeles in the first part of the 20th century.

“The Tin Horse” was inspired by an unnamed character in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 L.A. detective story “The Big Sleep.” In one scene, hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe shoves his way into the back of a Hollywood Boulevard bookstore and discovers a small, dark woman with “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess” reading a law book. Marlowe and the woman match wits.

Steinberg found herself intrigued by this fictional woman’s backstory. “A Jewish woman reading a law book in 1939 had a profound sense of otherness. What was her Los Angeles?” Steinberg said in an interview. She began researching Jewish life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the ’40s, and concluded that Chandler’s intelligent Jewess would most likely have come from the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. “Boyle Heights was the Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s and ’30s, home to between 50,000 and 90,000 Jews, depending on the estimate,” Steinberg said.

To get a feel for the neighborhood, Steinberg visited from San Diego and walked the streets with her husband. At the library of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, she discovered the oral histories of Jewish men and women who had grown up in Boyle Heights during that era. “I took a cassette player and headset and spent hours listening to those two shoeboxes full of tapes. The stories were fantastic,” she said.

Steinberg found that she so enjoyed her research she could have spent months on it. “Research is a great way to avoid staring at a blank computer screen,” she said with a laugh. But eventually, the stories gave rise to her characters of Elaine Greenstein and her fraternal twin sister, Barbara. The novel begins with 85-year-old Elaine, a retired pioneer civil rights attorney, sifting through her papers with Josh, a USC grad student archivist.

Josh discovers Philip Marlowe’s business card in a long-forgotten box of papers Elaine’s mother had saved. On the back of the card, Marlowe had written a name and address. Could this be an alias used by Barbara after she ran away from home at 18, never to be seen again? Marlowe’s card stirs Elaine’s repressed sense of loss and evokes a flood of memories, renewing Elaine’s abandoned quest to find her missing sister.

A San Diego-based arts journalist, Steinberg has written frequently on dance and is the author of five mystery novels. She was raised in a predominantly Christian suburb of Milwaukee, where her family attended a Reform synagogue. “Our rabbi was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. I grew up with a strong sense of social justice but a weak appreciation for Jewish ritual. My parents’ generation wanted to be American,” Steinberg said. Now, 63, she moved to California in the 1970s and drifted away from Jewish practice. “As a feminist, I felt disconnected from the patriarchal quality of Judaism,” she said.

Steinberg’s re-engagement with Judaism began in 1995, when she attended her niece’s bat mitzvah and observed a distinguished female rabbi leading the service surrounded by a bimah full of women. Inspired by new Jewish traditions inclusive of women as spiritual beings, Steinberg began studying Torah, joined a Reconstructionist synagogue and became a bat mitzvah herself in 1999.

Strong, intelligent women and issues of Jewish identity form the crux of “The Tin Horse.” “One of the guiding principles in developing the characters was how they negotiate the hyphen of being Jewish-American,” Steinberg said. Elaine, the narrator, does so by embracing her Jewish identity and pursuing her American dream of becoming a lawyer. Barbara, however, feels stifled by family expectations in Boyle Heights and discards her Jewish identity to become more American. Danny, the twins’ mutual love interest, doesn’t feel safe as an American Jew and immigrates to pre-state Israel. Thus, Steinberg explores a broad spectrum of the Jewish-American experience through the lens of Boyle Heights. Her novel’s universal familial themes of sibling rivalry, love, loss and the enduring possibility for redemption transcend the neighborhood’s confines.

Grandma Who?

Growing up, I called my grandmother Grandma.

We were Jewish, but also American. There was never any question but that my grandma would be Grandma. Even if she was born in the Old Country and, like all my friends and all their grandparents, spoke with a Yiddish accent. I used to think, in fact, that in order to be a grandparent you had to have been born in the Old Country and speak with a Yiddish accent.

When I became a mother, making my mother a grandmother, I wondered how she could even be a true grandmother, a real grandma, if she was born American and spoke English the way you are supposed to. Nevertheless, in due order she became Grandma to my daughter. And my grandmother moved up a notch. My daughter called her Bubbe.

Jewish as we may have been, that was the first time it entered my head that Grandma could be anything other than Grandma. Of course, my mother could just as easily have been Bubbe to my daughter, but somehow that never seemed an option.

This all seemed very simple compared to the thinking that went into the mental deliberations, considerations, contemplations, ponderings, trying on of this title and that, which arose when my daughter was pregnant. What did I want my grandchild to call me?

The baby’s paternal grandmother quickly claimed Nana. That was fine with me. I had no desire to be a nana. The paternal grandfather quickly became Grandpa, and my husband took Poppy. Leaving me in the undecided column.

Honestly, I wanted it to be something Jewish, warm, with ties to my past and my people. But Bubbe was still too far an old-fashioned stretch. I am way too much a modern American woman who spends time trying to stay young to want to be tagged with “Bubbe.”

An Israeli guy I know from the gym suggested Savtah, which, as I heard him tell it, is Hebrew for grandmother. I loved the thought of it. It worked on the Jewish side. But somehow having a little one tag after me calling me Savtah was not my idea of being a modern American woman.

Yet there was a trace of an idea there.

Recently, I came across Web sites offering gobs of newfangled names to keep a modern grandparent feeling modern, American and not the same-old-same-old, but something more interesting. I can see I am not the only one facing this question. In fact, if you Google “names for grandma” you’ll see this is far from a Jewish question.

Mothers on the DrSpock.com message board, responding to requests for other names for grandmothers, suggested some you might never have heard of, like “Memaw” or “Maw Maw.”

The site Name Nerds asks people to submit their most clever suggestions, and trumpets the fact that the most common names for grandparents, at least in the United States, are Bubbe, Nana, Grandma, Granny, Gran, Gram, Grammy, Papa, Grandpa, Granda, Granddad and Gramps. (Note that Bubbe is first!)

The whole point, as one blogger put it, is to get away from plain old Grandma.

Others in my extended family have their grandchildren call them “GiGi” or GayGay.” I found that a stretch.

Eventually, I settled on good old “Grandma.”

For me that seemed to fit, if only in the default mode, since I had always used it for my grandmother for all those years.

And then my grandson, once he learned to sort of talk, solved the problem all by himself.

We tell him I am “Grandma.” Only 2, he can say the “ma” part, but not the “grand.” So it comes out “E-ma.”

“E-ma.” Hebrew for mother.

“Hello, E-ma,” he says. “I love you, E-ma.”

I like it. A lot. Even after he learns to say “Grandma,” I may even keep it. Jewish. Loving. Something he came up with not knowing how far back in time, out of so many loving mouths, mothers have been called to their child’s side by that name.

And so a child has led me back to my beginnings. As children so often do.

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers,” and a columnist for The Digital Journalist. She can be reached at douglas-steinman.com.

VIDEO: Feed Me, Bubbe! Lukshen Kugel — Noodle Pudding

Today Bubbe shows you her way to make Lukshen Kugel — Noodle Pudding.