A Chat With Dara Kurtz: 10 Things I Learned From Bubbe
Earlier this summer, our family experienced the painful loss of a huge part of our tight-knit family. Although my grandmother battled a terrible illness for over almost two years, nothing prepared us for such a devastating loss, and even now I'm still in shock that she's no longer physically with us. The bitter emptiness that's left behind is a grim reminder that our many wonderful memories with her are even more precious now.
Around the same time, I was introduced to Dara Kurtz, author of just launched I am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love, who shares her own experiences with life and loss, and the special connection between Jewish mothers and daughters. Nothing happens without a reason, so I instantly wanted to learn more from her story. Dara shares her family's intimate story, and the beauty and tradition and wisdom passed from generation to generation.
As I sit here writing this, I am getting ready to also wish my mother a happy birthday together with my kids, once they're home from school, the realization that everything really does come full circle is not lost on me.
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What I learned From My Jewish Grandmothers:
10 Lessons From Bubbe
I grew up with a close extended family, with both sets of my grandparents playing an important role in my childhood. We would often get together for holidays and family celebrations, long Friday night Shabbat dinners, and conversations around the table. My grandparents were as different as could be, one set coming from Germany, the other from New York and Virginia.
What they had in common was their commitment to family and love for their grandchildren. When I was in high school, both my grandfathers passed away, leaving my grandmothers as widows who lived well into their eighties. I watched them navigate their lives without my grandfathers, survive the loss of my Mom, and manage getting older with grace.
Here are 10 lessons I learned from My Bubbes:
Take pride in your appearance and home. Both of my grandmothers enjoyed clothes and getting all dolled up. While Grandma Millie enjoyed bright clothing and the latest fashions and trends, Grandma Margaret preferred timeless classics. They loved getting dressed up for the holidays, and usually bought a new outfit each year for the Jewish New Year. They believed it was important to keep a clean home, tidy up each day, and make your surroundings as nice as possible. It wasn’t about having a big home, it was about making wherever you lived cozy, welcoming, and a safe haven. I’ve made sure to keep up the tradition of buying a new outfit for the holidays, and my daughters happily love this tradition. I probably have more clutter, but I’m doing my best to Marie Kondo the rooms in my house, something my grandmothers did way before it was trendy.
When you go somewhere, never go empty handed. Whenever they came to my house, they always brought something. And, since we were a close family, they visited my house often. Whether it was a homemade item, a tin of candy, or a small wrapped present, it was nice to be the recipient of this. It was usually inexpensive but meaningful, and it was always fun to see what they would bring. They showered the people they loved with unconditional love, in every possible way. I try to do this also, even if it’s just a little note I leave hidden somewhere for the recipient to find when they don’t expect it.
Cook. Plenty and often. Both of my grandmothers made cooking a huge part of their daily lives and really enjoyed cooking for our family. Grandma Millie loved making Shabbat dinner and we would usually meet for dinner at her house on Friday evenings. We would frequently have the same dinner of baked chicken, potatoes, green beans, a big salad, challah, and chocolate cake for dessert. She adored having us at her home, even though it was small. She believed the more the merrier. Grandma Margaret was a wonderful baker, always making amazing cakes and cookies, and I knew if she was coming over we would have dessert. They were both so comfortable in the kitchen, and believed in adding a little of this or a little of that. Their motto: why follow a recipe? It has been a little challenging for me to emulate this, especially when trying to recreate some of
their dishes. To my family’s dismay, my cooking skills aren’t anywhere near my grandmothers.
Be proud of your Jewish heritage. Both of my grandmothers had a strong commitment to their Jewish identity. They felt that education was incredibly important, and made synagogue the focal point of their social lives. Grandma Margaret fled Germany at the hands of the Nazi’s, and lost her parents and in-laws in the Holocaust. She never wavered in her faith, even though I sometimes questioned how she couldn’t be angry at God. We’ve done our best to teach my daughters about their heritage, and I watched them navigate being the only Jewish students in their grades at school, something that wasn’t always easy. When my daughters were younger, I probably could have done a better job making Friday night dinners for my family. There you are Jewish Guilt, I can always count on you to be around.
You’re never too old for a hobby. My grandmothers were both incredibly active, well into their eighties, and developed hobbies as they got older. Besides cooking, Grandma Margaret volunteered at the hospital and the Jewish nursing home, and traveled a lot. Grandma Millie took on knitting, calligraphy, and played Mahjong several times a week. I didn’t fall in love with Mahjong until after Millie passed away, but I know she would love knowing how much I adore the game. “I won a lot this week,” she would say to us with a big smile on her face, opening up her coin purse and showing us how many dimes and quarters she won.
You don’t have to go it alone. Both my grandmothers were blessed to have other men in their lives. Grandma Millie got remarried and Grandma Margaret had a “special” friend to travel with. They showed me that even though they loved and missed my grandfathers, having a companion, someone to share life with, was a blessing. Of course, the men in their lives were Jewish, proving you are never too old to find a NJB (Nice Jewish Boy.)
Remember to Laugh. Both of my grandmothers had a good sense of humor, and this helped as they navigated the ups and downs of getting older, losing friends, dealing with health issues, and other challenges. Even though they bickered with one another, they were able to put whatever little spats they were having behind them, eventually laugh about it, and move forward. There were times we laughed so hard I had to run to the bathroom for fear I would pee in my pants. I didn’t always make it to the bathroom in time.
Family comes first. Even though my grandmothers were very different, family was their top priority, and they always put our family first. They couldn’t do enough for their children and grandchildren, and loved being with all of us. They had my best interest at heart, wanted only good things for me, and loved me unconditionally. I was “their girl,” and losing my Mom, and then each of them, left a huge void in my life.
Establish traditions that connect the past with the present. I have beautiful family memories, and the traditions they passed down to me have now been shared with my own daughters. I hope this continues as my children get older and establish their own families. Passing down religious objects, customs, heirlooms, funny stories, and hand written letters is such a beautiful way to connect the past with the present. My grandmothers understood the importance of moving forward while taking the people you have loved and lost with you.
You must be willing to adapt. You don’t live into your late eighties without having to face challenges and hard moments. Even though there were situations that brought on sadness, heartbreak, and anxiety, they were each flexible and able to adapt. My grandmothers gave themselves permission to feel all the feels, but then marched forward, even when they were scared. The older I get, the more I realize how resilient they were. I try to remind myself of this,
when I’m questioning my resolve and life feels heavy.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how blessed I was to have both my grandmothers in my life for so long. How I miss the “Golden Girls,” as we used to call them, and the magic that being around them brought. There’s nothing like the unconditional love between a grandmother and her grandchild.
I recently discovered a Ziplock bag of letters, written to me when I first went to summer camp, at age nine, until I graduated from college. These letters were mostly written by my Mom and two grandmothers. Having these letters, and being able to hear their voices and feel their personalities, has been an incredible gift. When I find myself longing to hear their words, I pull out one of their letters to me, something that always puts a smile on my face, and it reminds me just how loved I was. I know they are always with me, whispering in my ear, and for that, I am grateful.
Dara Kurtz is the creator of crazyperfectlife.com and author of I am My Mother’s Daughter:Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love, a newly released book about the connection between mothers and daughters from one generation to the next. She lives in North Carolina, with her husband and daughters. Receive 5 free gifts when you order her book: https://crazyperfectlife.com/i-am-my-mothers-daughter/ Follow Dara on Facebook @crazyperfectlife and on Instagram @crazyperflife.