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Putting Bubbe in the Spotlight

The pandemic made a lot of younger Jews realize how much their grandparents meant to them. Now they’re sharing their inspiration through art, fashion, and media projects.

Flora Tsapovsky
April 27, 2021
Original photo Instagram/@cupcakeproject
Original photo Instagram/@cupcakeproject
Original photo Instagram/@cupcakeproject
Original photo Instagram/@cupcakeproject

During the course of the pandemic, marketing director Jordan Star lost two grandparents—one to COVID-19, and another one to cancer. Losing them, he said, “was a harsh reminder of the very real threat facing the people I love during COVID, and my inability to protect them from it, or even go through it with them.” In December, Los Angeles-based Star, who’s currently awaiting the end of the pandemic in Mahwah, New Jersey, decided to channel his grief into a creative tribute: Bubuleh, a new clothing line that includes embroidered and printed sweatshirts, T-shirts, and, most recently, face masks. But Bubuleh is rooted in a more uplifting realm than loss and grief; the backbone of the business is the inspiration Star has drawn from his grandparents and their generation.

Every piece of clothing in the limited-edition collection is directly tied to Star’s ancestors: The font on his latest release, the Shayna Punim mask, is his grandma’s handwriting. The Daisy Tee features a vintage photo of his grandma on the front, with another family photo on the sleeve and collar. The Kiss sweatshirt showcases a recently found photo of his other set of grandparents. “I wanted people who interact with the brand to feel that same warmth that I do,” Star said.

The path to Bubuleh had sent Star on a journey into the past, looking at family photos, diving into his grandparents’ closets, flipping through old magazines, thinking of the Yiddish words he grew up with. The brand’s slogan, “Made with love and just a little anxiety,” is an ode to the Jewish psyche—at least as it’s portrayed in pop culture.

Star isn’t alone. With the pandemic disproportionately affecting the elderly, many young Jews have found themselves grieving their grandparents. And as a result of that grieving, projects celebrating Jewish elders—and grandmas in particular—have been popping all over the country this past year.

Yiddish sayings, giftable objects, and art prints that incorporate bubbe, zayde, savta, and saba (grandma and grandpa in Yiddish and Hebrew) have generally blossomed in 2020 on marketplaces like Etsy, as many people in the country were looking to deliver tangible joy to grandparents they couldn’t actually see. These products, like Star’s line, utilize Yiddish and appeal to nostalgic sentiments. Soon, a particularly rebellious version of bubbe will appear in Home, Sweet Home, an upcoming exhibition by artist Caryn Cast at the Departure Studios on Long Island. Cast isn’t Jewish herself, but included the character of bubbe since she likes “painting all kinds of spicy characters.”

The particular brand of “spicy,” uninhibited, anxious, and funny Jewish grandma—or grandpa—has been a pop-culture phenomenon for a while, from the zingers-spitting grandmother of Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, to the sea of Bernie Sanders’ memes, to the immortal RBG, to the fashion icon and documentary star Iris Apfel. Projects that focus on preservation and commemoration of Jewish grandparents’ memories, stories and recipes have also been around for years. The pandemic has brought us a new take; realizing just how fragile the older generation is, independent, young (and young-ish) Jewish creators are now actively putting nonfamous but fame-worthy Jewish grandparents in the spotlight.

This is very much the case with Call Your Grandmother, a new podcast created by Meryl Poster, the founder of the production company Superb Entertainment. The podcast debuted in January 2021, introducing two co-hosts: 90-year-old Rita Kaye and 81-year-old Ellin Grodsky. Each episode features an additional Jewish grandmother alongside her grandson or granddaughter, for candid and funny conversations on anything from dressing for a date to Frank Sinatra. The idea for the podcast was born when Poster was out with her own mother and a friend; the friend told Poster that she must “do something” with her mother’s star quality. Poster started thinking about the success of Golden Girls, and soon a casting call for opinionated, sassy Jewish grandmas was out. Kaye and Grodsky are close friends, and their chemistry is palpable.

“If 2020 proved anything, it’s that EVERYONE needs a Jewish grandmother,” reads the podcast’s description, and Poster believes in the enduring necessity of Jewish grandmother figures in our lives wholeheartedly. “Kids today spent more time with their grandparents since the two parents are working—the grandpa is needed, it’s not a luxury,” said Poster, who lives in New York City. While she started working on the podcast in late 2019, the timing couldn’t be better. In 2020, grandparents—and their unique gifts—were on everyone’s mind. “During the pandemic kids had to help their grandparents with technical things and thought about them more,” Poster said.

The podcast, she says, works magic in two different ways: giving the younger audience a funny, comforting respite from the pandemic, and infusing the lives of the elderly participants—and listeners—with meaning and purpose. “Call Your Grandmother is giving them a whole new lead on life—they’re busy, they’ve met people, they got to think, listened, they’re motivated. Rita and Ellin felt like it saved their lives.”

In addition to clothing, art, and audio, social media has been fertile ground for creative and playful projects incorporating Jewish grandparents. St. Louis culinary influencer and digital marketer Stefani Pollack normally dazzles her 972,000 followers with lavish babka and cookie videos on her Instagram account and on TikTok. More recently, Pollack realized the viral potential of her Florida-based grandmother, Lorraine Silverman, while visiting her, social distancing style, during the pandemic, and watching her over weekly Zoom get-togethers—a tradition Pollack’s family introduced when the lockdowns started.

In December, Pollack started Yiddish With Grandma, a series of short videos, in which silver-haired Silverman muses about life and introduces Yiddish expressions like zindik nisht and oy gevalt. After the first video aired, Pollack received overwhelmingly positive feedback. “The pandemic in general emphasizes who the people are who are important—you’re seeing only the people you care about the most, and when you see them it’s extra-special,” she said.

Call Your Grandmother has a glowing 4.9 rating (out of 5) on Apple Podcasts and enthusiastic reviews. “This is just what I need to lift my spirits on days when things are just too serious,” said a recent one. Pollack’s videos with Lorraine attract thousands of views. “My grandma is a strong woman and she tells it like it is, and it’s very relatable to people from my generation who have lost their grandparents,” she said. “Besides, people love the cool language!”

These tributes to Jewish grandparents clearly resonate, with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. “I’ve received messages from people who have never heard of Yiddish, and don’t know much about Jewish culture, expressing their excitement to learn through Bubuleh,” said Star. “Others have reached out with their own stories about their relationships with their grandparents and connection to their history.”

This collection of projects also fits into a larger, not particularly Jewish trend: the reevaluation of seniors as valid members of society, upon the realization that losing and endangering them is an unimaginable burden. Folded into the tributes is the demand that seniors should be cherished and taken seriously. On Pollack’s Instagram, Silverman recently delivered a poignant rant about being called “cute” way too often, in a way that diminishes her presence. “Younger generations don’t always respect the fact that old people are still vibrant and contribute to society,” said Pollack.

Star agrees. “We often ignore or infantilize older people, calling them cute, thinking their clothes are adorable,” he said. “Maybe that’s sometimes true—but they’re so much more. They’re strong and resilient. I just don’t think we give them enough credit.”

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.