They called her a tzaddik(a). They memorialized her and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish on the steps of the Supreme Court. And at the Capitol, after all the pomp, solemnity and distancing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first woman ever to lie in state. But, for myself, all of those flag-covered ceremonies, salutes and accolades from around the world were overshadowed by a single word spoken by her granddaughter, Clara Spera: bubbie. Because, at that very moment, it dawned on me just how much RBG and my own bubbie had in common.
To start off with, they shared a surname through marriage, merely a single vowel setting them apart (my bubbie was a Ginsberg, nee Berkover). Over time, both became diminutive in size; their torsos hunched, their bodies shrivelling as they aged and ailed. Eventually, both bubbies were felled by illness; the high court justice by metastasized cancer, my grandmother by a series of strokes from which she never fully recovered. But oh boy, did they ever put up an ennobling fight.
Like RBG, my bubbie — or Sasa as we called her (derived from the Hebrew word for grandmother, Savta) — was a fount of wisdom and force to reckon with. Sasa, a.k.a. Malka, was a pioneer, in so many ways ahead of her time; ahead of the feminist movement, ahead of women’s empowerment, ahead of #metoo. Where Justice Ginsburg fiercely advocated for gender equality and women’s rights in the public eye, Malka inconspicuously put those ideals into practice by the very way she led her private life. When other East European-born Jewish women of her era busied themselves with family and home, Malka was determined to do more, and struck out on her own.
Born in Lithuania in the early 20th century, Malka grew up in the town of Jurbarkas with her rabbi-father and 10 siblings. After studying to be a seamstress at the ORT vocational school in Kovno, she emigrated to Palestine long before its founding as the state of Israel. There, she married a Polish-born Jew, a troubled intellectual and incompatible match. One day, a sister who was believed to have died in the Holocaust, but miraculously survived the horrors of the Nazi labour camps, showed up on her doorstep. A handful of sisters were reunited, then lived close to one another for years, and reared their babies together. But then, Malka’s husband set his sights on Canada and left suddenly. She begrudgingly followed him with two children in tow, feeling remorseful until her death for leaving her sisters behind. Shortly after their arrival in Montreal, her husband abandoned the family and Malka, who then spoke only Yiddish and Hebrew, was left to feed and fend for herself, her daughter and her son.
Never one to wallow in life’s misfortunes, Malka learned a new trade, and promptly opened a radio and phonograph rental and repair business. Even with her halting English (and virtually non-existent French), her storefront, in a suburb of Montreal, was moderately successful. But it was by learning to run and manage that enterprise on her own, as a single mother with no family around to help with child-rearing, that Malka really thrived. It was also how my parents met: a certain handsome young man was told to pick up equipment from her house, and my mother opened the door.
As far as I know, Malka never saw the inside of a lawyer’s office or courtroom. She couldn’t tell a lawsuit from a three-piece suit. But her skills as a seamstress would come in handy for the rest of her life; not only for mending rips and tears, but for guiding and assisting her daughter, as they bought fabric, measured, cut, and pinned. Together, they sewed years’ worth of skirts and dresses for themselves, my two sisters and myself. Pin cushions, needles, patterns, threads, buttons and ribbons were a mainstay in our home, while the perpetual whirring sound of a sewing machine remains a vivid memory still today.
And then there were the challahs, from heaven. While Ruth was famously banished from the kitchen by her children (and Marty), cooking was Malka’s realm of excellence and experimentation. In her kitchen, as well as her daughter’s, she reigned supreme. Had she been alive today, she could have gone mano a mano with the likes of Joan Nathan — and, quite possibly, won. At least when it came to the braided (raisin!) challah breads, the gefilte fish, and the matzo balls; hand-rolled orbs that didn’t look at all appetizing, but once you took a bite, and honed in on the textured onion filling at its core, you were sold. Still today, those matzo balls are the sine qua non of all her granddaughters’ festive meals — and the primary reason for the inevitable accumulation of holiday-induced pounds.
While Ruth donned black (cloaks) daily, in mid-life Malka started wearing all-whites. After closing down her radio business, she transitioned into new work (again, a trailblazer in the 70s, pivoting into a new career) and became a baby-nurse. Immaculately dressed in a pristine and newly-ironed white uniform, she would typically move into a family’s home for months, caring for their newborn around the clock. She took on this task with unfailing responsibility, verve and passion: She bathed, changed diapers, fed and rocked them to sleep, and treated those babies as if they were her own. She’d found her calling. As word spread, her services were highly sought after by pregnant women around the city. Malka soon became a legend — especially among some wealthy families who lived on a hill, and the Orthodox Jewish community, whose wig-wearing women are known to be prodigious baby-makers.
My Malka, like Ruth, was a towering presence. Even though she continued to shrink in height, Malka held firm on an intense fitness regimen, developed over many years of strolling (or more likely, marching) around the city behind a baby carriage. Well into her 80s, she continued to fiercely advocate for her independence, ignoring her daughter’s occasional worrisome pleas to the contrary; insisting on walking many kilometers and through all sorts of wintry weather — to the bank, her hairdresser, the supermarket, our family home. Occasionally, I would wake up to find her ankle-deep in our back garden, weeding or picking off prize cherry tomatoes.
Like Ruth, Malka was more steel magnolia than shrinking violet (despite that bit about their height). She stood up for herself if her ego was pierced, her opinions challenged, or when her feathers got ruffled. Ahhh yes, the ruffles. Just like the ones on RBG’s ornamental neck collars. A memory was surfacing. Booting up my external hard drive, I scanned through folders from my past. Sure enough, there I found a photograph from the late 60s; a studio portrait of MBG, her daughter and 2 granddaughters. In it, she is sporting a black suit with a very long and lacy jabot — a la RBG, looking every inch the judicial magistrate.
(December 31, 2020 marks what would have been MBG’s 107th birthday)