Love and Legacy at the Bagel Shop
My Grandmother Doris Helen Lebwohl as a mother, a baker, and a listener
The stones clink in my pockets; the air spreads crisply. It is here, in a graveyard right off of the Jersey turnpike, where my grandmother Doris and I have our annual meeting.
“You must always clean up your mess as you bake,” my mother Nadine told me once over an intensive banana bread baking session. “My mother Doris taught me that.”
Stories echo around me as I walk towards Doris’s grave. Most headstones at the Perrineville Jewish Cemetery are simple and grey, but Doris’s is pink and engraved with images of the sun. There are years of rocks placed in her honor in its rough crevices. The Talmud, a Jewish text providing guidance for daily life, says that stones root soul in place. Like memories, stones do not die, they transform. Yet, this place of mourning feels like the opposite of transformation; it is suspended in a Jewish past where figures like Abraham are more real than I am. I have never seen anyone else here. Like a scene from an old movie, the synagogue has faded hebrew lettering and dust collects on prayer books. Tracing the lines of the engraved sun, I wonder what pieces of Doris are in me.
“It didn’t matter whether you were a doctor or a cashier, she spoke to you the same way,” Adele, one of Doris’s daughters, says, “there wasn’t a person who didn’t love her.”
Doris was an “on her feet” kind of gal. She was born in 1920 in the Bronx, right around the corner from the Grand Concourse, in a small apartment with her 4 siblings. By 1924, two million Jews had emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York; Doris's neighbors were all families seeking safety from pogrom life. As the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Russia herself, Doris was both of America and of the diaspora. “In some ways America wasn’t her country,” Doris’s eldest daughter Benay says, “I don’t think she ever had a close friend who wasn’t Jewish.” Her early life was filled with the sounds of passing trains outside her bedroom window, the yelling of street vendors in Yiddish, and the Friday prayers chanted over challah. The Shabbat rituals changed, however, when at age 10 Doris's father passed away and her mother Rose was left to support the rest of the family on a single salary until her children were able to work.
Doris’s son, Mark, recalls the pain she felt from the constant work: “Mother always had a terrible time with her feet, with all the standing she had to do. She discovered these shoes called ‘space shoes’ that were custom molded with a plaster cast. And she wore through even those.”
‘Space shoes’ aside, working hard was part of Doris’s identity. She left high school in 1938, without graduating, to work at a local pastry shop. Here, she discovered her lifelong love of baking. She woke up early, stayed up late and rarely sat down, but was happily covered in flour and sharing food with customers. It was at this shop where she met her future husband Joe Rubenstein. Joe immigrated with his family from a Jewish shtetl in Poland, and worked with his father and uncles in Brooklyn to learn the bagel trade. Joe became the bakery driver and met Doris while delivering bagels into her steady hands.
A few years into her marriage, Joe announced that he and his father purchased a farm through a
New Deal era initiative that subsidized homesteads for urban Jewish workers. Upon hearing this, Doris cried for a week over the unknown life that was about to unfold. She was really a city girl and being in contact with family was essential to her. But Joe had not consulted with her when he bought it and the deal was done.
It was at this farm in Monroe Township, New Jersey where Doris and Joe would raise their 4 kids; Benay, Mark, Adele, and Nadine. Though the New Deal program was largely unsuccessful in creating productive agriculture businesses, Doris and Joe’s chicken farm grew to be a large operation with over 70,000 chickens. While Joe was the face of the farm, Doris worked just as hard and was the one who wrote the checks, paid employees, and made sure that everything ran smoothly.
“Never complain, just tighten your belt.” Doris was compassionate and taught tolerance, but she also quietly held herself in low esteem. Doris found herself most comfortable with people who worked with their hands and felt uneasy around the intellectual community in the nearby town of Roosevelt; her kind of intelligence lay with people, not theories. She was at her best when hosting others and listening to stories.
Tamar, a lifelong family, describes working at the bakery as a highschooler, “Doris directed the whole thing. Somehow she managed to do everything while laughing and talking with everyone.” Benay used to tease Doris about being the resident psychologist because she would sit in a booth with a cup of coffee, and friends would stop by all day to talk with her. She was adored.
A lightness always appears on the faces of friends and family when they speak of Doris. “I have a snapshot of her at a party,” Tamar says, “she was in the kitchen laughing, always laughing, always busy, always tending to others.” Doris was known for her endless positivity, but when I listen to the gaps in knowledge that her own children have around her feelings, I hear a chasm of grief.
Benay provides words for some of her mother's stoic silence: “I didn’t want to be a woman like she was – a woman who was mistreated by a man... I loved my mother but couldn’t respect the part of her that was controlled by my father’s anger and dominance.” There was the eternal lightness and ever present laugh of Doris, and there was also her practical truth of surviving as a woman in the 1950’s trying to protect her children. “The sun rose and set for her children,” Benay says, “but not for herself.”
In 1966, Doris became sick after eating at a restaurant in New York City. “It’s just the clams,” she said at the time. But this was the beginning of a decade of decline. For a long time doctors were unable to pinpoint a diagnosis, speculating everything from Hepatitis to Lupus. She became a human pin cushion for experimental treatments, many with severe side effects, and even traveled to Mexico for treatments unapproved in the US. It wasn’t until 1975, a year before her death, that Doris was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Tamar describes seeing Doris right before she died with her hands resting on her swollen bursitis belly, “it was clear she was very very sick, but it was almost like a social visit. All of her energy went towards me. She still acted like the mother, taking care of me, so that I wouldn’t be uncomfortable or worried.”
Though I never met Doris, she was embedded into the fabric of my childhood. A picture of her moon-like face and soft gaze resting alongside the spice shelf. A diamond engagement ring hanging from my mother's bed frame. A constant rotation of baked goods and a good word always handy. 15 years after Doris died from ovarian cancer, Mary Claire-King became the first scientist to find a genetic mutation that created a risk for early onset breast and ovarian cancer. It wasn’t until several years later that scientists discovered that 1 out of every 40 Jewish women of Eastern Europe descent tested positive for this mutation.
“Before we found out about the mutation,” Benay says, “I really thought it was the pain of her marriage and her life manifesting in her body.”
44 years after her death, these quiet meetings at the cemetery with my grandmother create space to reflect on her presence in my life. In a way, she is still at the bagel shop counter providing a listening ear to advice seekers. In this case, the seeker is her granddaughter and the issue is legacy.
In hebrew, a grave is called a beit olam, or a permanent home. It is thought that pieces of a departed soul can remain eternally in this home. Doris was the family connector and was very aware of keeping the family in communication with each other for the next generation. Though she was born in the United States, she straddled cultural differences between her Jewish responsibilities and her American circumstance.
After Doris's death, her children discovered poems written on a simple notepad carefully placed underneath her mattress. It was from one of these stashed away poems that they chose the quote on her headstone, “I wish you all my children, many light, happy suns.”
I remove the stones from my pockets and they roll softly like misshapen marbles on the edges of Doris’s resting place. Thank you, I tell her, I am here because of you.