by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)
The Baba, as she was called, was not my baba, nor was she my bube nor my bobe. I must have first set eyes on her when I was two and a half on a frigid February day, my first in Philadelphia, having been carried in tow by my parents from Cuba, my birthplace, along with my older sister. I don’t remember the Baba at that first meeting, but the image of her that grew in my mind in the ensuing years was indelible. Short, wiry, sporting a stern, weathered face, and piercing green eyes, her gray hair in a bun, she was a force to be reckoned with. A look from her was enough.
Like I said, she was not my Baba. She belonged to my six-year-old cousin, or better put, he belonged to her. She watched over him intently, such that no evil, and, no evil eye, should befall him. Pu pu pu! As doting as she was to him, that’s how nasty she was to me. Why? What had I done to deserve such treatment? For him, she tolerated his fondling her soft dangling earlobes with his fingers. For me, a cold stare. The Baba, doubtless, regarded me as an intruder. Truth be told, my entire family was the intruder. The four of us moved into my aunt and uncle’s already crowded row house for several months until my father could find work and we could rent a house of our own. Doubling and tripling up in bedrooms, competing for the single bathroom, and accommodating Cuban cuisine, were only some of the tensions. For the Baba, I became the focus of her displeasure.
The Baba, I later learned, actually had a name. Khave. She was the youngest of nineteen children, and the only person of that generation that I had encountered in my early life. I had assumed all in her generation, the generation of grandparents, had died before the war or were murdered in the calamity. The Baba, in sharp contrast to my parents, was tied to traditions against which many in my parents’ generation rebelled. She lit candles on Shabbes, wearing a delicate white lace on her head when she did so, and recited the brokhe in an undertone. Unlike my parents, aunt and uncle who were “modern” Jews despite their Eastern European roots, she was a relic from the old country.
She also happened to be a terrific cook and literally made everything from scratch. No dish more so than the gefilte fish she prepared for Peysakh. I learned this in dramatic fashion when I wandered into the bathroom of my aunt’s house and saw several very large fish swimming in the bathtub. They moved in the tub, ever so slightly, suggesting they were not dead, yet. I was startled, a bit disgusted, but asked no questions. I imagined the fish ended up in Baba’s kitchen but did not dwell on the thought. And I certainly never dared poke my head into the Baba’s command center. Entrance was strictly forbidden, lest I risk meeting the same fate as the fish.
As may seem obvious by now, I found life with the Baba frightening. Her demeanor toward me was unkind. She was harsh and uncaring. In one instance, she barred me from riding my cousin’s tricycle, even though he was at school. Of course, I was a bit of an antikl (a rare piece of work, a “pistol”) myself. Once, when she proclaimed I was not permitted to sit on the sofa in the living room for fear I might soil it, I decided to pee on it out of spite. To finish the story, my father, in what I still regard as among the greatest acts of kindness I have been blessed to receive, bought me my own tricycle with his very first paycheck.
These early years in Philadelphia were difficult for my family and I recall them as being somewhat dark. But Peysakh, and the seders we shared with my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and yes, the Baba, were bright spots of those years. The Baba would start things off with candle lighting. My father and uncle, both lifelong Bundists, Jewish socialists who abandoned religion in favor of a Yiddish cultural milieu, took turns chanting from the Haggadah in fluent Hebrew at lightning speed. They had attended kheyder in Poland as boys, and the words and trops returned each year as reliably as monarch butterflies. The effect was hypnotic, albeit strange and out of character. They stopped reading when they got tired, or when the rest of us clamored that it was time to eat. Whatever commentary accompanied the seder was in Yiddish, the lingua franca of our families. There were nine of us sitting around the table; five in my aunt and uncle’s family, and four in ours. These were the survivors, and these were their children. Except for my father’s sister and her family in New York, there were no others. As a boy, I was both aware and not aware of the smallness of our group. They were the only family I knew, and no one spoke of those who were absent. What was the point?
But there were other unseen spirits at our seder. My cousin took pleasure in secretly shaking the table, causing the wine within Eliyohu’s kos to lap the insides of the cup. This was presented as evidence that the prophet’s spirit was among us. I was taken in by the deception which made me anxious. I was already fearful of a prophet-ghost who wandered from seder to seder. My angst reached a climax when we opened the door to allow him to enter. I hid, terrified he might actually show up.
Later in the seder, after the meal consisting of kharoyses, an egg with salt water, gefilte fish, with roe, carrots, jellied fish yokh, and khreyn, chicken soup with kneydlekh (the small, hard kind), some version of gray meat, a peysekhdike kugl, and tzimmes, I felt comforted. This feeling of well-being only increased after we broke out in Yiddish Peysakh songs: Tayere Malke, gezunt zolstu zayn, a Peysakh drinking song.
As Peysakhs came and went, I grew less afraid of the Baba, and less afraid of Eliyohu. My fear was replaced by an empty sadness, a yearning for the ghosts who might have distracted me from the smallness of our seder table. It was a longing, perhaps, for even more than a brand-new tricycle, a Baba of my own.
Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister. He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school. Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature throughout his career and his short fiction pieces have appeared or will soon appear in The Minison Project, Sortes, Jewishfiction.net and The Concrete Dessert Review.
Click on the link to read Mark’s previous story on The Jewish Writing Project: https://jewishwritingproject.com/2022/03/07/yosl-and-henekh/