I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.
I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.
Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.
Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.
“What do you see?”
“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”
I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.
“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”
I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.
“Yes,” I said, “always.”
“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”
– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30
Bubbeh, or La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.
We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.
What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.
This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.
To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.
My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.
I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.
My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.
Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”
With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.
Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.
“Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.
Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.
“Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.
Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.
I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.
This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.