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Don’t Call Me Zayde: Confessions of a Reluctant Grandfather

‘However wonderful, miraculous, glorious and cute Sammy may be, becoming a grandfather is not something, on some egotistical level, I’m entirely comfortable with’

Allan Appel
January 11, 2016

Long before our daughter presented us with beautiful little Sammy, our first grandchild, she was peppering me with what moniker I prefer for this new role in relation to her future child. I confess: I resented the inquiry in no small part because the available titles—”bubbe,” “zayde,” and even the milquetoast “grandpa” (and its generic variations)—didn’t at all fit. What did, I could not say. Eventually, the conversation petered out; where we left it was that Sammy would call me what he would, when words came to the little lad.

If he looks at me with his deep, hazel eyes, and one day soon mutters “Grolpudng,” then Grolpudng I will be.

The little guy is now less than three months old. Smiles of recognition are appearing, but no words yet and for that I’m grateful. In short, I am buying time.

In the meantime I’ve been cruising the Internet for lists of Jewish grandparent names—everywhere. I perused “saba” and “safta” and other Israeli equivalents, and supposedly cool non-traditional nicknames like “G-Man” or “Big Poppy,” but I soon realized that research and finding some title on a list will never provide the answer to my question.

I finally came across an article in which the writer, a woman, engaged the same dilemma I’m having now, and ended up with “grammy.” What I took away from the article was not so much the solution but that the writer, in addressing her question of Hamletesqe irony, was actually—perhaps even unconsciously—acknowledging that this business of naming and self-identification is more serious than you want to let on to yourself, if not existential.

That has led me to a tough admission: Perhaps I don’t like being considered a grandparent at all. I don’t decide if I’m going to be a grandparent; others do; my daughter did, and I am a grandparent and I am getting used to it, I think. What’s the alternative? As own grandmother used to say, in Yiddish, for almost every occasion and dilemma: What are you going to do? Piss in the ocean?

The easy self-attack is that I’m from the 60’s generation and I resent getting old and any marker of this process. However wonderful, miraculous, glorious and cute Sammy may be, becoming a grandfather is not something, on some egotistical level, I’m entirely comfortable with, or maybe even wanted in the first place.

And there’s more to it that’s also not so attractive. If you have personal associations and memories with a loving, affectionate Jewish grandma or grandpa, then perhaps the hoary old Yiddish terms evoke positive emotion. Absent that—I knew only one grandparent and she, named Rose (with the thorns) was the daunting, dismissive author of the ubiquitous gay kakken offin yam, whose major contribution to my life was superlative Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in her sizzling cast iron pan on demand—well, that’s why zayde and bubbe then get tagged in my mind with such stereotypes. Even when I asked Rose once about her husband, Michael, whom she had buried back in Chicago, she dismissed him as a man who spent more time in the synagogue praying when he should have been out more selling those girdles and others women’s lingerie from door to door. Up went Rose’s hand, swatting away yet another hope for zayde. That’s why I go to bed at night beginning to fear I will have have dreams that as a zayde I am a bearded, hunchbacked guy plodding through the streets of cold, unforgiving Chicago, or, worse, the forests of Poland, evading the Cossacks behind that copse of trees, just trying to make a living and looking desperately for the next location to sell some items from my nifty bintel of used clothes.

Does this mean my deep dislike of zayde and bubbe marks me as a self-hating zayde? I don’t think so. I’m the baby, and all that stuff is the bathwater. Throw it out and save me, please, for my pride in my beloved Jews.

I love the way Biblical and rabbinic literature refers to the elders and the various generations, and traditions being passed along—among my favorite phrases—m’dor l’dor—from one generation to another. I love the way when a judge or leader, like Moses, dies, his death is described with phrases such as “he was gathered unto his fathers.” And yet, you scratch your hoary old balding head at the paucity of alternatives. Can’t we,as a people who produced so many venerable members of the Sanhedrin, the Great Assembly, the 70 Guys Who Wrote the Septuagint, do better?

As I go off now to change Sammy’s diaper, I will lean over his changing table and in whispers of reassurance say to him, “Don’t you worry, bubbeleh, don’t you worry your little keppeleh. Our People will figure something out.”

Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard.