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Jenny Kurzweil

Excerpt from memoir in progress - Jewnami

        “There’s nothing like this in Brooklyn,” said Grandma Rose, putting her hands on her hips and looking up in wonder. We were under the apricot tree in Dad’s front yard in San Jose. I leaned my head against her belly and looked up too.
        Grandma wrapped her arms around me. The tree was green and shimmering in the heat of the afternoon and loaded with fruit.
“Gorgeous,” she murmured. “Absolutely gorgeous.”
        Grandma and I picked all of the ripe apricots we could carry, placing them gently into the folds of her red checked house dress and the sling I made out of the front of my rainbow unicorn t-shirt.
        “There’s nothing like this in Brooklyn,” she repeated again, as we carried the fruit into the house and then walked, holding hands, around Dad’s backyard.
        “Fifty cents a pound that would be!” Grandma marveled, looking at the tomatoes. “And who knows how much a bunch of chard like that would cost?” she said waving her hand toward the rows of white stalked greens Dad planted in abundance, but that my brother and I hated.
        “Sam,” she called, rustling my grandfather out of his afternoon nap in the lawn chair, “San Jose is like paradise, isn’t it?”
        “Yes, Rose,” he nodded, barely opening his eyes.
        This was our routine, Grandma Rose and I, for the two weeks that she and Papa Sam were visiting Dad’s house during the summer after kindergarten.  Pick apricots. Walk around the garden. Sit with her on the couch while she sang me Yiddish songs and played the game where she took both my hands in hers and clapped them together singing.

        “Patche patche kichelach
        Die mame vet kiefen shichalach
        Die pape vet bringen zekalach
        Zein ich ben kishen en de bekalach”

        On the last line, Grandma brought our four hands to my cheeks, squished them so tight my lips felt funny, and then gave me a big wet kiss on each side. I couldn’t get enough. I begged her to do it again and again and again.
        “What does it mean, Grandma? What does it mean?” I asked, already knowing, but wanting to hear.
        “It means, ‘Clap your hands! The mother will buy shoes. The father will bring socks! So I can kiss you on the cheeks.’ The real last line is supposed to be, ‘so your cheeks will be healthy.’ But you are too delicious. I have to change the last line so I can eat you.”
        I loved sitting in the kitchen at Dad’s speckled white Formica table, watching Grandma bustle around preparing my favorite foods like latkes, applesauce, mandelbroit, and her special tuna fish that had cottage cheese in it instead of mayonnaise. Dad, Josh, and Papa Sam were stars in a different galaxy. My orbit was around Grandma Rose and the love she slathered on me, thick, like the generous layer of cream cheese she put on my bagels that she brought, frozen, in her suitcase because “Californian’s don’t know how to make bagels.”
        My mom’s parents lived a few blocks away from Dad’s house and I saw them all the time so it was Grandma Rose I craved. At night, I would climb into bed with her, Papa Sam snoring away. During their visit, Dad gave up his room and slept on the couch.
        Grandma would wrap her arms tightly around me and pull me in close. I wanted to crawl inside her and stay there next to her warm, beating heart. I asked her anything I could think of, anything so that I could stay there for a long, long time.
        “Grandma, why did your mother name you Rose?”
        “What? What are you talking about?”
        “When you were born….why did your mother name you Rose? Did she like roses or something?”
        “Oh, I see…” Grandma paused. “My mother didn’t name me Rose. She named me Rashka.”
        “Rashka?” I haven’t heard that kind of a name before. What is it?” I asked, crinkling my forehead.
        “Rashka is a Jewish name. We all had Jewish names. Some were changed when we came to this country. Some weren’t.”
        “Tell me everyone’s name,” I said, snuggling in for a story.
        Grandma said in a sweet voice, “Well, my father was Meyer Wolf Stein, yeah. I always loved my father.” 
        She sighed, “He was the best father any child could have. He loved the children. He fawned over them. When he sat down to eat, he always had a child on his lap to eat together with him. He was just a wonderful man. And when I was going to school, he never missed an open school night. You know, where parents come to school to meet the teachers, and I happened to be a good student, and he was very proud of me. My mother didn't go, but he never missed a night.”
        “And what was your mother’s name, Grandma?”
        “Brynna was my mother. Her English name was Beatrice. My mother, she was a very beautiful woman, and a good wife.” Grandma shrugged and then adjusted the pillow, as if she didn’t know what else to say, “And she kept on having children and raising them. Nettie was first, then me, then Yetta. Gertie was after Yetta, and then Sophie, and then Izzie, and then Ruthie.”
        “And everyone had Jewish names when you lived in Poland?”
        “Yes. They named me here in America, Rose. And Nettie's name was Nicha, and they called her Nettie.” Then Grandma mumbled, “I think Nettie was a nicer name than Rose. But, whatever.”
         “What does Rashka mean?
        I asked my question again.
        Grandma laughed quietly, “It doesn't mean a thing. Just a name, that's all. Then when I came here, what's the closest thing to Rashka?  Rose. Either I changed it, or we started going to school and they changed it.”
        “Well, if you didn’t like the name Rose, why didn’t you keep the name Rashka?” I asked.
        “And look foolish?! No, you come in and change your name. I couldn't go by this name, Rashka. It's not an English name, and I had to have an English name.”
        Grandma looked down at me in the crook of her arm, “You heard the story about a man who made an application to go to America? He gets to America and they asked what his name was, he was so excited he said, ‘Shoin far gessen.’  Which means in Yiddish, ‘I already forgot.’  Shoin far gessen. ‘Oh, so your name is Sean Ferguson.’  Sean Ferguson. Shoin far gessen. And they gave him the name.”
        We giggled quietly, trying not to wake up Papa Sam. “That was my name, Rashka. Rose was the closest thing to Rashka. Rose. It's a very common name. Everybody's named Rose.”
        “I want to learn Yiddish,” I declared.
        “What?! Why?” asked Grandma.
        “Because, I want to know what you know. I want to be Jewish too.”
        “Oh bubeleh, nobody speaks Yiddish anymore,” Grandma said, shaking her head.
        “You do. You and Papa speak Yiddish. And you speak Yiddish with Aunt Nettie,” I protested.
        “All right, all right. I’ll teach you some Yiddish. Here, repeat after me: Ich ben a shaineh maideleh.
        I tried repeating the sounds and, after a couple of tries, got it right. Happy, I asked, “What does it mean?”
        “It means, ‘I am a pretty girl,’” Grandma said, smacking my cheek with a big kiss. “Now go to sleep.”
        “Ich ben a shaineh maideleh,” I repeated to myself, over and over again, until I found myself awake in my own bed the next morning.

Jenny Kurzweil is a mom, writer, nonprofit storyteller, and pie-baker. Once upon a time she wrote the book Fields that Dream: A Journey to the Roots of our Food (2005, Fulcrum Publishing) and her recent essays have appeared in Sinister Wisdom and the Feminist Wire. Like many other writers, she has a memoir in her closet and lots of ideas for future projects. In terms of pie, she is one of the founding members of Pie for the People-Santa Cruz, a seasonal community pie potluck that benefits grassroots non-profits. Learn more at:

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