My Nana never knew me. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was only four.
But I have early memories of her; on my first sleepover at her house, I demanded to be taken home in the middle of the night, missing my mom. Or a day at her backyard swimming pool when she didn’t know where we were. In the last decade of her life, she didn’t recognize anyone but my grandfather. I remember that she barely spoke.
But I know this: I am who I am because of my Nana. She helped form a central part of my identity.
She made me Jewish.
I pondered my faith after the tragedy at a Pittsburgh synagogue last month when a gunman killed 11 people. At first, I didn’t want to let myself be devastated or afraid. But then I saw a headline about Rose Mallinger, one of the victims. She was 97. Her family referred to her as Bubbe. Grandmother.
My grandmother, Estelle Lee Citrenbaum, died three days shy of her 85th birthday.
Through her, I came to understand Judaism. So did my whole family. My grandfather, who didn’t even keep kosher growing up, followed her lead. My mother and her siblings went to Hebrew school until they were in college. At every holiday, they were summoned home to sit in the second row at Ohev Shalom synagogue in suburban Philadelphia. Even when my mother moved to New York, she drove back home on every holiday.
When Nana died last year, the foundation shook. On the second day of Passover, our family ate pizza and pasta at an Italian restaurant.
Nana would have never allowed this. We looked at each other, silently wondering: Were we still Jewish?
I set out to find an answer. I had never really talked to my family about our loss. It felt too big, too dangerous to touch. But I forced myself to jump into that void.
What I discovered was this: maybe we weren’t as religious as we once were. But maybe it didn’t matter. What Nana gave to us was much bigger than that, and it was very much on my mind as Hanukkah began Sunday.
After Nana’a diagnosis in 2002, our family molded to her needs. My cousins and I grew up making her comfortable. We sat with her for hours, singing her favorite songs. No matter what she forgot, she never stopped humming “shave and a haircut, two bits!”
When I was 10 and found her wandering down the driveway, I knew to keep calm and guide her home with a gentle hand.
My cousin Austin, the second oldest of her grandchildren, remembered a childhood that was loud and boisterous. We were a family that was never afraid to be noisy in a restaurant. But at Nana’s house, we were quiet – the sound of loud chatter bothered her, especially as time wore on.
The respect we held for her reminded us of a culture that cherishes its elders. We belonged, after all, to a community that lost so many of its elders in the Holocaust. We hold tight to those we have left, even as they fade away.
Nana’s faith was very much a part of the gifts she gave her family.
It was her illness that spurred my mom and uncle Dan to their greatest act of mitzvah. Watching their mother deteriorate, they felt helpless.
They organized a “Polar Bear Plunge” at the Schukyill River in Philadelphia to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Scuba divers volunteered to float in the freezing water, supervising each volunteer as they dove in. Donations flooded in; everything from food, to the venue, to EMT services. In 2007, my family raised $30,000. In 2008, it was $35,000.
And through both events, Nana walked around, guided gently by her husband.
“She was so happy,” my mom remembered. “It was like she knew it was for all for her.”
My grandfather hired nurses and spent every spare minute by her side. Nana was never without her family, without love. She died peacefully in her bedroom.
I wanted to know where my family’s resilience came from. How were we able to face this illness, to face this grief?
After speaking with psychologists, I realized just how difficult my grandmother’s illness had to have been for my family. Family members, one therapist told me, can spend so much time caring for someone else that, in turn, they lose a part of themselves.
How had my grandfather managed, all that time? For years, my mother and her siblings had begged him to let her go to a care facility. The answer was always no. For Pop, there was never going to be another way.
My cousin Austin thought this resilience came from being Jewish.
As children, we had learned our history. We knew the darkness that we came from. We thought we were ready to face a cruel world. But I was shaken on the University of Florida campus when I came across a man wearing a swastika armband. I had seen the Nazi symbol in photographs and textbooks, but never in person.
Then, last year, Richard Spencer came to speak on campus. His supporters had chanted “Jews will not replace us,” at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. I gave myself a moment to be angry, but I was able to move on.
But the Pittsburgh shootings shattered everything. I wondered how far away the past really was. I couldn’t shake the image of Junah Samet, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who narrowly avoided a bullet that day.
I couldn’t talk to my grandmother about what had happened. I couldn’t ask her if we would ever be safe. But I sought solace in the faith Nana had passed to us, her first gift.
With Judaism comes mitzvoth, respect for your elders and a culture that reminds us always to return to family. With Judaism comes resilience. The strength to look upon a past of oppression, sometimes face it in the present and be able to soldier on.
That is what Nana taught us, and that is what we must do now.