This is the story of why no one in my family believes in God — no one except me, as you will discover.
In Russia, my great-grandmother Bubby Tsippi gave birth to eleven children, eight of whom lived. The three who died were fair-haired — which was no surprise, according to my mother, who told me Tsippi believed that dark-haired Jews were sturdy, the descendants of those who had survived the hardships of wandering in the desert during the Exodus. Blonds had no such strength. So, although Bubby Tsippi loved her light-haired children and prayed for them, it was to no avail.
The first two who died were boys. This was sad, but it was the third, her youngest daughter, Khava, whose death brought the most sorrow. At three, Khava was a delicate creature with golden curls that hung to her shoulders and blue eyes flecked with gray. Although very sweet, she was also a little spoiled and not too smart.
In Russia at the turn of the century, times were hard. The measure of Bubby Tsippi’s love for Khava was that she took the time to brush the girl’s hair and tie it with ribbons made from scraps of cloth. Khava could be unruly, running through the house in wild bursts. But she was so pretty it was hard to be angry, and so vacant eyed it was hard to scold her. Tsippi gave Khava pieces of dough to knead, and made her a doll from an old dress. Once, Khava climbed over a chair nestled in a corner and couldn’t figure how to get out — one of her sisters had to rescue her. If Khava had grown up, she would have been a dumb blonde.
Each Friday night at sunset, Bubby Tsippi lit the Sabbath candles while her children watched. They loved the magic of her hands moving over the flames, calling in the day of rest. Even a three-year-old should have known to leave the Sabbath candles alone, but Khava must have wanted their magic all to herself, for, after her sisters and brothers had left the room, she stayed behind. Certainly, she wasn’t trying to blow the candles out! She was only trying to warm her face in their flickering light. But she got too close — she wasn’t smart enough to judge — and her long curls caught fire. By the time the others had smothered the flames, her scalp was charred and the smoke had poisoned her lungs.
Khava died late that night. Religious law forbade mourning on the Sabbath, so all Saturday Bubby Tsippi didn’t shed a tear. She moved through the rooms, sat in her chair, and didn’t say a word.
At sundown, when the Sabbath was over, Tsippi began to scream. She let out a high, keening wail that went on and on. She covered her face with her hands and rocked on her knees. Even her husband could not make her get up. The ears of her children burned. Tsippi had gone mad, the children thought, because God commanded the holding of sorrow until sundown. They feared the screaming would never stop.
It did stop, of course, but not before Tsippi’s children understood that madness could result from following the commandments that were supposed to save you.
When, one by one, Bubby Tsippi’s children came to America, none of them stayed observant. Their mother, who was old by then, came with them. Out of respect, they bought kosher foods for her, and she lived with each child a few months out of the year. But the children themselves observed no taboos. They ate shrimp, and sometimes bacon. They did not teach their sons and daughters Hebrew, nor go to services, even on the High Holidays. They claimed they did not believe in God — only in “the possibilities of man.”
The summer she was ninety, Bubby Tsippi came to stay with us. My grandmother — one of Tsippi’s children — had died, and the duty fell to my mother to house Tsippi for a month or two. We didn’t keep kosher, of course, but to accommodate Bubby Tsippi, my mother bought two sets of cheap dishes — one for meat, the other for dairy — and created a “kosher corner” in our kitchen. It wasn’t the real thing, but it would have to do.
Bubby Tsippi never complained. She was very fragile then, with failing eyesight and a sweet temperament that had come with age. She seemed content just to be in the bosom of her family.
One day, my mother had to go to a meeting, and she instructed me to give Bubby lunch. I had wanted to go swimming with my friends, and was resentful. The old woman spoke no English, and I knew very little Yiddish. We could only smile and nod at each other. Besides, Bubby had no teeth; what could she eat? My mother hadn’t said.
At lunch time I found some cottage cheese in the refrigerator and served it on one of the so-called kosher dishes. I helped Bubby to the table, where she gave me a toothless grin and began eating. To be polite, I sat across from her and nibbled a peanut-butter sandwich.
In the middle of our meal, my mother walked in and gasped.
“Oh, no!” she cried.
“You gave her cottage cheese on a dish for meat!” She rushed over and snatched the dish away. Bubby Tsippi looked up, confused, and my mother explained in rapid Yiddish.
Slowly, Bubby stood up and took the dish from my mother’s grasp. Without a word, or even a glance in my direction, she flung the plate to the floor, where it broke into pieces. Cottage cheese was scattered everywhere.
“Tell her I’m sorry,” I begged my mother as I rushed to clean up the mess.
Mother said a few more words in Yiddish, and Bubby muttered something in reply.
“What did she say?” I asked.
My mother shook her head. “She’s going to her room to lie down for a while.”
After Bubby had gone, Mother turned on me in anger: “You should be more careful. What’s so hard to remember? Plain dishes for fleishig, the ones with the border for milchig.”
“But you don’t even believe in kosher laws!” I protested. “You always say they’re twelve centuries out of date. Why did you even tell her? She didn’t notice.”
“I may not believe in kosher laws,” she said, “but Bubby does. Some things you do out of respect. She had a right to know.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. Actually, I was annoyed at being told to feed Bubby Tsippi and then getting scolded for it.
That afternoon, Bubby’s nap lasted longer than usual. My mother finally went in to wake her up. A moment later, Mother rushed out with her hands over her mouth, uttering an odd, strangled sound.
“What’s wrong?” I cried, heading for Bubby’s room.
“No!” My mother stopped me with outstretched hands. “She’s gone,” she said. “Dead.”
Later, my parents said Bubby was lucky to live so long, and then to die in her sleep without any pain, in the home of relatives who cared for her. I did not believe this. I believed she’d been struck down for breaking a kosher law, and that I was responsible because I had fed her from the wrong dish.
I began to question many things. I wondered why young Khava had died from getting too close to a holy candle. I wondered why my mother — a practical, secular woman — had told me of Bubby’s superstition about dark-haired children being protected by their coloring, inherited from the Exodus. I wondered how Bubby Tsippi had kept from mourning during the Sabbath while her youngest daughter lay dead in the next room.
I have never gone to services; it is something I never learned to do. But I still ask the question that in our family is most forbidden: Who is this God anyway, and what does He want?