Friday, January 20, 2017

Bubby Goes to Washington

Exactly thirty-nine years ago,  my Bubby, Rebbetzin Sarah Weintraub did me a huge favor.

It was January 19th, in the middle of the night.

My mother had gotten tickets for the whole family to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, and we had flight out of LaGuardia the next morning at 6:30 AM.

And then my father, presciently, came down with a—malaise.

This rarely happened, and when my mother looked at me with worried eyes, I knew it meant we couldn’t go.
 thought of the boast I’d made to Rabbi Brander, the principal at Yeshiva Central Queens. The grand announcement to my entire seventh grade class. In those days, no one in my life did anything remotely political.

Not to go would have been humiliating.

And then, as the clock ticked, I thought of the one person who had slept outside in a war-torn field, as the wolves howled, so she could see her hidden children. A woman who had secretly crossed a raging river into Switzerland with a baby on her shoulders, and a little daughter held fast by the hand, right under the nose of the night watchmen and watchdogs.

A woman who knew the Torah by heart, had written her own meforash, commentary, and who the Rabbis turned to during their sermons, to check their facts. I thought of the Emunah Chapter president, who made her gefilte fish with pepper, the proper Litvishe way.

A woman who now, despite arthritis, bursitis, colitis and phlebitis, was always up  for a movie and Shimon’s pizza on Main Street and would frankly be annoyed if she found out you went without her.

It was midnight. I called, and she answered on the second ring.


“Bubby, it’s me, Lisa. Daddy isn’t feeling well and we have tickets to go to the inauguration tomorrow—will you take Dina and me? We need an adult.”

“Ver are vee going?”

“To Washington D.C.”

There was a slight pause.


“To see the new President, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.”

Another slight pause.

“Valter Mandel,” she repeated.

Suddenly, a Jewish Vice President.  I didn’t dare dissuade her.

My mother drove us to the airport and somehow, my thirteen-year-old self got my nine-year-old sister and Bubby onto the right plane, into a cab and directly to the Capitol Lawn.

The Lawn was cordoned off with red ribbons. Waiting on the periphery were more people than I had ever seen in my life and I grew up in New York City.

I held Dina in one hand and Bubby in the other. Suddenly there was a sound like a horn and the ribbons were cut and there was a stampede. I don’t remember anyone checking our tickets, specially ordered from Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal’s office.

We were pushed along by the crowd—closer and closer to the East Portico. It was 28 degrees, but there were so many people that we jingoistically huddled together for warmth, like penguins in Antarctica.

The energy was exciting too—remember Jimmy Carter smiling that huge smile and promising a “New Spirit?”

There he was, about two hundred feet in front of us, up on the balcony in a blue suit. Roslyn wore turquoise and it was hard to see little Amy.

“Oy, I have to sit down,” said Bubby.

I startled. Sit down? Where?

I spied an ABC-TV cameraman. He had set up a small stage about two feet high and was standing on it with his tripod.

I pushed our way over and looked up at the cameraman. Bubby sat.

This is the best part of the story: Just at that second, just at that VERY SECOND, my mother and father were watching from their bedroom. My mother had just that VERY SECOND said—“Gee—I wonder if they”—and THERE WE WERE ON ABC-TV, BUBBY, DINA and ME, as the cameraman panned around.

My mother told me she plotzed.

I don’t remember Linda Ronstadt singing “Crazy.”  I don’t remember Aretha Franklin’s hat as she sang God Bless America. I don’t remember the United States Marine Band.

I do remember having been told that when Bubby was a young woman, but already a respected Rebbetzin, she went to visit her cousin to France and the cousin bought tickets to the Folies Bergere.

The cousin told me the story. “We sat down and there was a column partially blocking the view. The dancers came out wearing nothing but black lace and feathers and kicking their legs up in their high heels. I remember turning around for some reason, and when I turned back, your Bubby Sarah had disappeared. The first thing I thought was—oh no. She is such a religious woman! She must have been offended and left! Then I heard a yoo hoo. She was waving to me frantically.

“She had found us better seats.”

I looked at Bubby, happy to be among “pipple,” as she called people.  She was sitting and looking around, and she didn’t look “kalt,” in her winter coat and Roslyn- turquoise legwarmers, even thought she confessed she always wanted a “minik” coat, but the pipple might talk.

Later, our wonderful and generous cousins from Silver Spring picked us up, took us to a nice kosher restaurant and drove us back to the airport. Now that I think about it, they are staunch Republicans, and otherwise wouldn’t have been in town.

But I was relieved to have been relieved of being a grown up.

I wonder what Bubby would make of today's inauguration.

She might recognize the authoritarian figure who seems to be consolidating power all around him. 

She might be familiar with the rising anti-semitism, and ugly talk. She would understand what can happen. What can really, really, happen.

I am a Rebbetzin now, too, Bubby. Thank you for putting my baby daddy on your shoulders all those nights ago. Thank you for holding on to little Aunt Jenny in that river even when she told you to go on ahead without her because the water was up to her neck. 

Thank you for the gefilte fish and for teaching me those Yiddish songs and for laughing at me when I was grossed out by your religious sheitl, your wig, when you used to take it off right before Shabbos lunch and stick it on top of the side table lamp. I don’t wear a sheitl.

Thank you for being a testament to the fact that gam zu ya’avor. This too shall pass, and, mercifully we shall all cross the raging river to freedom and sanity.

And thank you for taking me to that inauguration, thirty-nine years ago. Thank God you don’t have to see this one.