Recently, I have had to face an identity crisis. It seems hard to imagine that although I feel more like twenty-five, my Dorian Gray was only living inside my body and everything on the outside was screaming ‘you have gotten older’. The birth of my first grandchild confirmed it. But the crisis wasn’t coming to terms with the fact that those AARP magazines, for which I refused to subscribe, were still going to come. The dilemma was in choosing my own grandmother’s name. This is the first grandchild on all sides of the family so there are no limits to my choice. What’s a grandmother to do?
Years ago, I thought that bubbe sounded like the perfect endearing name for a grandmother. It conjured up memories of kind, doting grandmothers who spent their days in the home, in the kitchen, over the stove. My grandmothers happened to have been older than most. I never knew them as young women or even middle aged, so my perception was skewed. Suddenly I realized this is not the bubbe I wanted to be as it was never the woman I had been. I could not take on this name that engendered visions of a woman whose major activity is to cook and clean. However, even though my grandfather was also very elderly, the name zayde seemed to offer a different view; the picture of an older gentleman who is loving and affable, ready to gather the grandchildren around for bits of wisdom and charming stories. Why is this? Am I the only one who thinks this way? As I discussed this dilemma with my friends, most agreed. Their husbands can be zayde, but they will not be bubbe.
So what is the real problem? It is only a matter of perception? Over time, the bubbes we knew became caricatures of themselves. I wouldn’t even blame the media, TV shows or comedians. It is ourselves; women who feel that they need to distance themselves from this model. But what is the model? Who were these women really?
The collection of letters in the Bintel Brief and those sent to the Jewish Daily Forward of the early 20thcentury attest to a generation of women, who alongside their husbands, could not afford to remain in the home. They managed stores, made deals with other businessmen and organized unions, while teaching their children and encouraging them to become Americanized. These women quickly understood what was needed to ‘make it in America’ and fully contributed to the raising of a generation.
It was exactly at this time that Hadassah was born. Henrietta Szold was a product of that spirited mindset. As a strong and educated woman, she created a place to use her skills and creativity. With other women who possessed a similar ability, she helped to change the face of Israel. Hadassah women were resilient, bright and committed. Women came to Hadassah in droves as a place to exercise their talents and teach it to others, while initiating programs in Israel that had never before existed.
And yet, there came a time when the image of Hadassah seemed old, your grandmother’s and mother’s Hadassah. Is this beginning to sound familiar? This is just what happened to the image of a bubbe. Did it become a word that lost its concept or the concept that lost its word? It’s not the image that needs to be changed but an image that needs to be refreshed.
Hadassah is our grandmother’s Hadassah. Hadassah of 1912 was new, vibrant, groundbreaking and brilliant. The women were fearless, thinking outside the box and refusing to be refused. In a world that seemed to be dominated by men, Hadassah women made their way in this world and were very successful.
When you stand up to say that you are a member of Hadassah, you are associating yourself with an organization that built and maintains world class hospitals, an academic college, more than one hundred medical clinics and three youth villages. And this work no longer only exists in Israel. The work that Hadassah does is present in Africa, the United States, Central America, South America and Europe as well as other parts of the Middle East.
We pride ourselves on being a volunteer organization. That doesn’t mean that we only prepare the pastry and stuff envelopes. It means that we, as volunteers, write our own speeches, our own articles, organize major events, meet with directors of other organizations and heads of state and prime ministers and even our own U.S. president. Professionals don’t do this for us, we are the professionals.
I did finally agree that I would proudly bear the name of bubbe. But I also decided to take the responsibility to give it the image that Iwant it to have. For me it is a bubbe who cooks a little less and is out of the house a little more. I would like to think of myself as doting and loving, but in my own way. And especially, as we begin the second century of the Boston Chapter of Hadassah, I proudly extol my grandmother’s Hadassah. Not the grandmother that I thought I knew, but the grandmother who was – the Henrietta Szold-type grandmother, a younger, vibrant woman who began a movement that is changing the world one person at a time. I invite you to be that Hadassah woman.