Of Bubbes, Babies … and Brisket

By Lisa Barr

My Grandma Rachel was my best friend. She was Old World — didn’t read, didn’t write, never went to a restaurant. She cooked, she listened, she gave advice, and she made sure you ate. And if you didn’t eat — she came after you until you did. It ALL came from the heart. She was also a Holocaust survivor — and because of her, her family survived and so did her legacy.

Tiny in stature, wild brown eyes, and a fighter. Family was Everything. I loved her more than any woman in my life. There is not a day that’s gone by in the last 23 years since she passed that I don’t think about her. I talk to her in my head … Grandma, what do I do? Grandma, help me with this one … Grandma, I’m so scared, I feel so alone … Grandma, look at this — you would be so proud. If only you were here, Grandma … if I only I could still talk to you.

I just know — My Grandma is driving God crazy up there in Heaven’s Kitchen. Especially this time of the “Jewish New Year” — Rosh Hashanah, her favorite holiday —  The ‘Eating’ Holiday.

It is my Grandmother in the form of food — just as she would like it.

In my family, we all divvy up the holidays — one has Thanksgiving, one Passover, one Chanukah, one Break-the-Fast (which marks the end of Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement). I picked Rosh Hashanah — because it embodies my Grandmother.

Let me just state right here that long ago my husband bought me a sign (I think I may have mentioned this once or twice before in a blog), but for those readers who missed it, the sign reads: I Kiss Better Than I Cook. At first I was slightly insulted — admittedly, it’s true. But Rosh Hashanah is all about family and warmth, apples and honey — lotsa kiss kiss hug-y moments  — that I can do.

The tradition of preparing the brisket, and then getting up early the next morning and having it sliced at the local butcher with all the other bubbes is one of my favorite things to do all year. It is an exquisite moment, an umbilical cord connection to my Grandmother. I remember how she took me “behind the counter” at her butcher, and watched him slice every piece of HER brisket — each piece had to be perfect. And while he grumbled, he loved her for it …

There is something about grandmothers and granddaughters — all The Crap skips a generation and what you have left is just the Good Stuff.

I would never talk back to my grandmother. I would never lie to her. I would never say:  You’re Driving Me Crazy … or avoid her phone calls. When she rang — even if it was at 4:30 a.m. — Lisa, do you want noodles in your soup or kreplach? (I kid you not) — I took the call.


And then there was the moment when she took MY CALL.

I had moved to Jerusalem, Israel, and I had been trying for over two years to have a baby. I had three miscarriages. With all the right drugs, my body could get pregnant but I couldn’t keep it. It was, to put that time period mildly, total devastation.

One Rosh Hashanah holiday, I traveled home to Chicago to visit my family, and I took a long walk with my Grandma around her park.

“What about children, Lisa?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?”

“Grandma,” I cried. “I’m trying. I keep losing my babies. I want a baby more than anything in the world.”

She held me there in her arms, and when I gazed deeply into her eyes, I knew a plan was being formulated — her way. No one was going to mess with her granddaughter.

I returned to Israel, and went back into all the treatments that those of you who have had a hard time getting pregnant or experienced complications know all too well. It’s hell. It’s the ovulating, the waiting, the counting days and charts, the endless supply of pregnancy tests, and the praying: It’s disappointment after disappointment.

One night I was waiting eagerly to find out the next morning if I was indeed pregnant. Those pregnancy tests are always “stronger” in the morning. In the middle of the night, the phone rang. Israel is eight hours ahead of Chicago time. It’s a fact that those middle-of-the-night calls are NEVER good news.

I had to go to the bathroom, but I held it in as I ran to answer the phone.

My beloved Grandma had died — it was her heart. It was sudden. I dropped the phone and lay there on the floor, curled up into a fetus, crying. When I could finally get myself up, I ran to the bathroom, took the pregnancy test, and I knew before I saw the result what it would be. My Grandma had cut a deal: God, you can take me, but in exchange give my granddaughter a baby. 

If you knew my Grandma, even God could not say NO to her.

I was indeed pregnant (though I was on bed rest all nine months). Noa RACHEL … my eldest, arrived. Finally.

There are so many moments, so many memories, when I think of my grandmother. But on Rosh Hashanah, it is when I FEEL her presence the strongest because it is HER domain. When I cook, she cooks. She is with me with her ever-present large wooden cooking spoon leading the way… adding a little of this, a little of that.

Bubbes, babies … and brisket.  I miss you.

Lisa Barr is the editor and creator of GIRLilla Warfare and author of the award-winning novel Fugitive Colors and The Unbreakables. 

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