This Shabbat (Noach 5779) is the second yartzeit of my grandmother Bubbe Risha Piekarski. I (and some of my siblings) lived in her and my grandfather Zeide Michel’s home (1672 President Street, near Utica Ave) for nearly ten years while studying away from home at Yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There are so many memories, she was so good to me, she was such a wise and understanding woman, she shared so much with me – not even sure where to start.
So for starters (hope to develop this further at a later time) here are some random memories, meaningful & trivial and everything in between, that I shared with my children this Shabbos of her yartzeit – in no particular order, just as it came to mind.
Bubbe shared memories of her Russian home (I’m not sure if this was her parents home or her own newlywed home, can’t remember, I think it was her parents after their move from Klimevitch) was at the outskirts of Moscow, and had a basement entrance. This was of major benefit to many Chassidim because in Russia one had to constantly have one’s documents in order, and passports and permissions had to be carried at all times in the big cities. Being on the outskirts allowed it to be a safe pit-stop or sleep-over for Chassidim on the run because as a basement apartment it didn’t have the usual doorman documenting for the government all of the comings and goings. She often told me of different celebrated Chassidim who spent a night in her home (she said some slept on the table, some under the table, there wasn’t much room), but she had special praise and appreciation for at least 3 Chassidim (that I remember about): Dovid Horodoker-Kievman (who officiated at her wedding), Avraham Elya Plotkin (she showed me his picture in front of his Sefer and explained his story) and Hillel Azimov (who was a relative). Why did she appreciate them? Because they weren’t overly pious and were pleasant people who took the time and interest to speak to the women of the house as well. By the way, about that basement apartment: It appears that the only partitions for rooms were curtains. Something to think about nowadays when we value our privacy and space. Not sure how family life was normal with only curtains as dividers and with guests in the house, to boot!
THE GROCERY ON SCHENECTADY AVE
It didn’t last long, but there was a time that the Shagalov family ran a grocery on Schenectady Ave, near a laundromat, just off Union Street. Bubbe was very insistent that we shop for at least some things there even if the bigger stores on Kingston were better and had more selection. She liked to support the little guy, she valued people’s efforts, she said you have to support someone who is trying and she also said it would be good for that corner of the neighborhood. I think that was the same reason she only bought meat by Chazkel Brod and fish from Shabbos Fish vs. the fancier more established Raskin’s Fish. She liked to help the little guy, individual operator, the smaller business, the underdog.
COUNTING THE SWEATER TICKETS
Bubbe wasn’t well off (though she had a very rich and broad personality and perspective). Even in the years I lived there, while she didn’t work full time, she still worked part-time at Gurevitch’s sweater factory somewhere in downtown Brooklyn. It was somewhere near the Nevins subway stop, an area that has become highly developed in recent years but certainly wasn’t that way back then. It’s almost hard to believe they still made sweaters in America, in Brooklyn, no less! and the way Bubbe got paid was also a relic of the past. Every sweater had a ticket and she would tear off the stubs and at the end of the week she would count the stubs and that’s how she got paid, per ticket stub. I remember her counting the stubs, and I even helped her a few times.
THE SPONGE BATH
Once I had a high fever and was lying on the bed where the Sukkah window/door was and she used wet cold rags or sponges to try to take down my fever. I don’t remember anything else about it, but I distinctly remember her doing it, and her concern for me and this physical expression of it. I remember her taking me to doctor appointments at Dr. Rosen on Montgomery Street. I also remember her heart palpitations and the time Hatzalah came for her in her bedroom. I sat with her at appointments at Maimonides Hospital with a Dr. Hollander when she had her pacemaker put in and with the follow-up appointments. She was the type to sometimes sigh, to give a little krechtz, but always resolute, ever-determined, she had that strong unstoppable stride.
SINGING ON THE ROCKING CHAIR
One of my most beloved memories of both my Bubbe Risha and my sister Esty (both of blessed memory) have to do with my late-night comings-home from Yeshiva. I loved the yeshiva, I was so close with my classmates, I cherished the time there. I stayed late many nights to learn and to share and discuss with friends, and I walked home late and on Farbrengen nights it was much later. This was back in pre-Guiliani days and the neighborhood had a high crime rate, especially the side of town where my grandmother lived. So it wasn’t unreasonable that my grandmother fretted over me walking home late, alone. I couldn’t help it, but I do feel bad for all the nights that she sat up in the front room with all the windows facing President Street. She’d rock in the rocking chair there, a pillow on back of it, and she’d sing and sing as she waited up for me. Often my sister Esty (who slept in the adjacent room) would sit up with her, in the plain (many time reupholstered) wooden chair that my grandfather would study in. My Bubbe sang beautifully. She knew many Chassidic melodies from her childhood, and later years as well, and she also song operas and Russian songs. She stopped waiting up for me as I grew older, but I remember the image of turning the lock, looking to the right, and seeing the two of them sitting together, singing in the semi-darkness…
HER DAILY TEHILLIM
Chabad custom divides the 150 chapters of the Book of Psalms (Tehillim) into 30 day segments so it can be completed in the course of a month. Plus, on the Shabbat morning before Rosh Chodesh (called “Shabbos Mevorchim”) we say the entire book of Psalms in one sitting. That’s a lot of Psalms and no matter how many times we do it, it is still a disciplined undertaking. Bubbe Risha would say a lot of Tehillim everyday, it was a big part of her daily routine. She had this big print Tehillim, someone bought it for her, with oversized words, it wasn’t the Chabad print, I remember it was rectangle-shaped, and she’d sit for time during the morning, and again during the afternoon, and now and then when she had time and she’d say her Tehillim. I don’t know what she said or how many chapters it was but it certainly exceeded the daily Chabad requirement, and it was a passionate and meaningful exercise for her. She had in mind her children, her grandchildren, neighbors, friends, the situation in Israel. Even with the large print, she used her big black rectangular magnifying glass, it was a total, immersive, engaging experience. It was no casual armchair Tehillim. There’s a story where the Tzemach Tzedek (3rd Chabad Rebbe) attributes all his Jewish advocacy successes in Petersburg (the Russian capital) to his wife’s earnest Tehillim recital, and I think of Bubbe Risha’s Tehillim whenever I hear that story.
Bubbe read a lot, but I don’t know how advanced her education went, especially with all the issues in Russia. But she had sound psychological advice, and was very perceptive and understanding of people and life issues. Especially in my middle school days, as an out-of-town kid, she’d sit at the edge of my bed and talk through the day with me. Whenever a crisis arose (as is wont to happen at that age) she’d walk me through it, not merely reassuring but helping me through it mentally and emotionally. My first exposure (before I ever saw it in Tanya 45) to “compassion turning hate into love” was when she validated my bruised feelings when I felt bullied at school, but also helped me slowly understand how pitiful the bully’s situation must be, and what inner issues he must be struggling with to act that way. When there were arguments, whether philosophical or heated ones, in the community, she always gently showed where the other side might be coming from. She had a deep sense of empathy, and an ability to see things from different perspectives, and always encouraged that in me. But she didn’t consider herself to be an expert, and always deferred to those wiser than her, she displayed a deep respect for her husband, my grandfather, to the Rabbis of the community, to people more educated than herself.
BEING THERE FOR GRANDCHILDREN
It goes without saying that Bubbe Risha was there for myself and my siblings who lived in her home. She fed us, cared for us, did our laundry (though insisted that we help out) and really looked after us, though she was already done with raising her own kids. She was very eager to host our Israeli cousins when they came to be with the Rebbe for Tishrei (and was upset with us that we didn’t do more to “find them a place” or help them as we natives should). In addition, there were grandchildren who for one reason or another, needed her support. She was a listening ear, she spoke to some of her grandchildren regularly on the phone, listening, discussing, encouraging. Bubbe had broad shoulders, a strong gut and a very giving (and forgiving) heart. She stepped up and reached out when grandchildren needed it. And that unconditional love and acceptance went a long way.
Bubbe was a great cook. My favorite dish of hers were the fish-latkes, katlyeten, the gefilte fish mixture lightly fried into patties, sometimes in a tomato-type sauce. She made a delicious chicken soup with thyme as a key spice, she’d serve it Erev Shabbos (Friday afternoons) when her son Ephraim (and sons) would come for the regular weekly visit, sometimes Abi came, too. It was a big highlight of her week, a special ritual. A lot of her meals for the weekday were one-pot meals. She’d cook whitefish with potatoes and onions and carrots, and that turned into a soup, a fish dish, and the potatoes made a great side dish. I know it doesn’t sound like it tastes good, but it really was very good. The first meal I had in their home as a 6th grade student coming to Yeshiva in NY for the first time was a cold dairy Borscht. I remember it, because I didn’t like the whole boiled egg floating in it, but I got used to it with time. I think she realized it wasn’t for an American kid and she didn’t make it often.
BAKING, BASHA & UNCLE CHAIM
She had this complex about baking. Her sister Basha (married to R’ Chaim Grund) was an expert baker, and she made tall free-standing sponge-cakes in a bundt pan that didn’t flop when serving and sliced beautifully. Bubbe always fretted that she couldn’t bake like Basha did, but she did fine. Generally, Basha was fancier than Bubbe Risha, and Bubbe was simpler and more informal, but they were very close. Aside for the oldest brother Alexander who went to Israel before the war, they were all they had left from their immediate pre-war family. (Bubbe did feel very close with the Pewnsers and others from her extended Klimevitch family that came to America). When R’ Chaim Grund spoke on the Yiddish radio fundraising and sharing Parsha on behalf of the Bikur Cholim Hospital in Israel, Bubbe and Zeide both listened very attentively, and always said (every time!) what a wonderful orator Chaim is! During the years I went to Lubavitch Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway, I would sometimes go visit my great-aunt Basha in her yellow tidy home with all the knickknacks on the corner of Ave I. And one thing about Uncle Basha and Aunt Basha’s kids, they feel very close to family and come to all the family Simchas.
BAKING DURING THE RIOTS
In August 1991 the famous Crown Heights riots broke out on her street corner, President Street corner Utica Ave. In fact, in her yard hung a shingle with the words “Jewish Community Council” because they had a satellite office in a space they rented in her basement, with a small office and a food pantry there. That was enough for the mob to tear down the brick wall of her yard and smash 17 (yes, 17!) windows of her home. I was still in Albany, getting ready to come down to NY for Yeshiva that year, it was the third week of August or something, and Yeshiva called asking all out-of-towners to stay home while this dangerous mayhem was going on. My mother called my grandmother all frantic, but my Bubbe said that she was baking a cake! Baking a cake? While there is wild destruction in the streets outside and your own home is under attack? In her style, my Bubbe told my mother, “What else should I do? Besides, the kitchen is the only room in the house that has no external windows!” (The kitchen window faced the inner closed courtyard that we shared with the next door attached house neighbor). That Zeide Michel Piekarski insisted on going out to Minyan the next day and got hit in the head (an elderly man!) and needed stitches, is another story.
FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Bubbe Risha had a real thirst for learning. Her youth didn’t lack for Chassidic warmth or richness, but she didn’t have opportunity to do formal Jewish learning in Russia. She was always absorbing, listening, very eagerly. She would ask me to share things I learned in Yeshiva, she listened in when Zeide would give Bar-Mitzvah lessons or tutoring to some kids from the block. Inthe dining room there was an extra dining room chair (from the big black wooden set with the lion or dog claw feet) that sat alongside the bookcase at the threshold of the dining room (across the doorway from where the folding chairs were kept) and she would sometimes sit there, so as to be present when my Zeide studied, but not to be intrusive. When she stopped working, and when classes started to be offered for women, she was eager to take advantage of every opportunity. She especially liked Rabbi Yossi Paltiel’s classes for women in the upstairs of 770. At first she sat towards the back, in keeping with her low-profile character, but then moved up to the front row (probably to hear better). Rabbi Paltiel asked, “Mrs. Piekarski, why did you change your seat to the front all of a sudden?” She answered (with her characteristic bluntness and misuse of idioms): “I wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth!” All kidding aside, she loved learning and used to come home all inspired (while shlepping groceries) and eager to share the beauty and wisdom of the Chassidus she learned. She loved the ideas.
WATERMELON PAINT & SEA OF PHOTOS
One day Bubbe decided that she was going to repaint the dinette (the room off the kitchen where they ate most of their meals aside for Shabbos) and she came home with a big bucket of watermelon paint. I’ve since learned to appreciate that pinkish peach color often called coral, but back then my brother Abba and I thought it was the craziest thing ever. But we helped her paint it. Btw, Zeide Michel used to do a lot of the house’s repainting himself with Bubbe, but for some reason this dinette became her project and we helped her with it. These reason this is so memorable is because of all the family pictures she hung there. There were old pictures and new pictures, large group pictures at weddings and single pictures from graduations or Upshernish. It was eclectic, random, few frames matched, but all that added to the charm. Soon the room wasn’t coral or watermelon anymore, instead it was but a subtle backdrop to the sea of family on all 3 walls. And the phone, can’t forget the black rotary wall phone that hung from the kitchen wall… The main point is that family pictures were a very big thing for Bubbe. She had one old black and white picture of herself, her parents and siblings from her childhood, maybe there were two such vintage pictures, but all the rest was from what she and my grandfather built anew after WWII. She had pictures filling up every inch of space under the glass in the dining room, in frames standing upright on top of it, and also in the forgotten hulk of furniture tucked away out of sight in the living room. And yes, all walls of that dinette, all heights, every space.
DEFERRING TO ZEIDE
Bubbe always spoke of herself as uneducated, but that her husband, our grandfather, was the learned and scholarly one. Indeed, Zeide kept a disciplined and organized structure of Torah study even in his retirement. He sang as he studied, he loved the texts and was always learning. But somehow, while Zeide seemed more scholarly and encyclopedic in Torah knowledge, Bubbe seemed wiser and more perceptive. She always encouraged us to seek Zeide’s counsel, even as we consistently felt better much understood by Bubbe. Why do I tell you this? Because (and this is only a hunch) Bubbe knew her strengths but she also understood Zeide’s need to be valued and respected for his learning. She knew Maslow’s hierarchy of needs without ever hearing of Maslow (or maybe she read about it in her reading?) and knew that learning and scholarship was Zeide’s whole life and she made a priority to value and cherish that and honored him for it. It’s important that we do this for each other, to make each other feel valued, to help each other excel, especially in a marital relationship. I hardly ever remember her putting Zeide down, at least in front of us. As we discussed this trait as a family, we realized that this was true of each of the 3 grandparent sets of ours – and great-grandparents of our children – sometimes it was the husband doing this for the wife, sometimes wife for the husband, but the same crucial deep respect in a relationship trait held true.
THE NOSH IN THE CLOSET
The kitchen was small. There was a big double sink with a heavy sliding metal cover, a big fridge that changed midway of our tenure there (it went from a side by side to a top-bottom) some counter space with a big cabinet above it. I can’t remember if the washing machine was always there (it had a usable counter-top that would fold down above it) or it came up from the basement while I lived there. Just behind the kitchen was a closet that mostly held dishes, one side meat, the other dairy. Probably also held pots, I don’t remember. It was a pretty tall closet. I don’t remember much paper-goods in Bubbe’s house, especially when it was just the few of us eating. And on the back of the door of that closet there were several hooks that held plastic bags (the kind you get from the grocery store) that had different types of nosh hanging in them. It wasn’t anything extravagant, mostly the small thin salt-free pretzels, the big thick hearty sourdough pretzels and the trays of packaged cookies by Liebers or Blooms or whomever, either chocolate chip or the iced oatmeal circles. Sometimes the Ostreicher Choco-Chip that are great with milk. There was also an occasional pint of Tofutti pareve ice-cream in the freezer that she’d chisel away at. Sometimes a Schmerling chocolate bar. Why share this nosh detail? Two reasons: First of all, Bubbe used to treat herself, but it wasn’t extravagant or fancy. Just a little treat. She lived simply but wasn’t into self-denial. She relished things, she was geshmak, had good taste, she recognized a good pleasure but didn’t fall all over it. Secondly, she must have known that we were stealing from the stash, but she never said anything.
will try to add to this over time…
May her memory be a blessing and may she be a good (feisty!) advocate in heaven for all those she cared for and loved.