Friday, February 3, 2012


I didn't grow up in a shtetl in the old country, but my grandmother Ida did and I guess she never truly left the Pale of Settlement. Her apartment, which she shared with another old woman, presumably someone else's aged grandmother, was on the second floor of a row house in the west side of Philadelphia, a poor neighborhood then, a desperate one today. She kept it dark, dark as the shtetl, or at least it seemed that way to me, who was used to the Kodacolor of the suburbs. That there was nothing in Ida's apartment that was newer than 25 years old added to the shtetl-ness of her rooms. Everything was old, threadbare--black and white, almost.

My grandmother did have a small, old RCA Victor television. The set itself was large though the picture tube was probably about six inches high and nine across. TV being new-fangled she had a hard time fathoming the notion of reruns. When it came to game shows, Ida wondered, why didn't people watch the original broadcast from earlier on. That way they would know all the answers.

My grandmother drank sweet Russian tea in a tall glass that was placed a brass cup holder. It was sweeter than any candy bar--sugared to the point where the tea was almost, it seemed, viscous. A single glass would last her at least a couple hours, usually about the length of one of our visits.

My grandmother spoke little English, speaking predominately Yiddish to my parents and saying little to me other than "Would Georgie like a cookie?" Like most children I would say "yes" enthusiastically and she would hand me two Ritz crackers on an old china plate, her version of cookies.

Then we would sit in the mid-day twilight, eat slowly the crackers and listen to rapid-fire Yiddish until it was time again for us to drive the 90 miles back from the shtetl to America.

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