As I was writing my reflections on the six-month mark of my beloved Bubby’s passing, I received a news alert that Jackie Mason had just passed away at the age of 93—just one year younger than my grandmother. This marks the end of an era for so many people who have come to associate him with the daily challenges of reconciling the old versus the new world, nostalgia for a world now forgotten from war and migration, and the comfort of the famously visual imagery of our mamaloshen while navigating the increasing complexity of the post-war Jewish immigrant experience in America.
Jackie Mason was Bubby’s favorite performer, and it is easy to understand the connection she felt to all that he represented, for she too experienced the physical and psychological trauma of moving to America in the early 1950s after surviving deportation from her native Poland and a five-year internment in Auschwitz. As the sole survivor of her entire family, she found kinship in Mason’s references of life in her native village before Hitler annihilated all that she knew and understood in the world.
As the sole survivor of her entire family, she found kinship in Mason’s references of life in her native village before Hitler annihilated all that she knew and understood in the world.
For Bubby, listening to the “Borscht Belt” performers reminisce in jest of the flavors of gedempte chicken, gefilte fish and pickled herring grounded her with a sense of identity in a place where she felt invisible. Further, Mason would recall the enchanting melodies of “By Meir Bist Du Shein” in a place where American pop culture was foreign to her native Yiddish ears. To Bubby, Mason was a holistic experience of what was left behind and the challenges to understand the world she now inhabited. In her own way, Bubby tried to replicate the kinship and camaraderie of her world by rooting herself at Roxbury Park along with a group of survivors who would become her devoted friends for decades.
Spending so much time with Bubby at the park among her friends was indeed a beautiful sight to witness. The ladies (who I affectionately called the “Oy Luck Club”) played cards at one table, alongside the men at the other table, all kibbitzing in Yiddish about their children, grandchildren, and when they went to Israel for the first time after being liberated from the concentration camps.
Bubby could be challenging at times—as anyone who lived through the experiences she did would naturally be—but she was also incredibly wise and unwaveringly loyal to her family. Having lived next to her and cared for her for close to half of my life, I spent countless hours in her living room, just listening to whatever she chose to speak of that day—be it the meshugana politicians or the geshmacte cholent or even the fakakte pipes in the building, she was such a prominent figure in my life that it is hard to imagine a space that she did not occupy in my consciousness.
It is in the little things where I feel her absence most prominently. I instinctively think to buy her smoked fish at the kosher market, I still expect to see her outside of the building sitting on the chair, I reminisce about all of the shabbat evenings when we lighted candles and I listened to her daven in Yiddish with her hands over her eyes. I miss her profoundly, and somewhere in my heart, I feel her energy infusing her living space, which I now occupy, with her life force and layers of memory. At this stage, memory is what we hold on to as we, her surviving family members, try to imagine the next chapter without her physical being—without hearing her voice, which remains etched on our souls.
In the words of Jackie Mason, “A person who speaks good English in New York sounds like a foreigner,” and the exquisite tapestry of the nostalgia of what once was fused with the reality of the present will always conjure up images of my beloved Bubby. She was indeed a gift to us all—her survival and thus the survival of the vanished world she brought with her.
In loving memory of Hilda Zelmanovitz, Z”L
Lisa Ansell is the associate director of the USC Casden Institute.