Chavi Feldman

A Century of Living

Me and my Bubbie (courtesy)

The average life expectancy hovers around 73 years — this is an average between men and women and taking into account different countries. While modern medicine and health care have lengthened people’s lives, it’s still rare to live a full century.

My grandmother, my Bubbie Woolf, is 100 years old today.

Born in Gateshead in the UK, on May 10, 1924, she was one of two girls born to a religious family, right in between WWI and WWII. After marrying my grandfather, with two small boys in tow, my dad being just 3 years old, they immigrated to Canada. A few of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters had already made a life in Toronto which eventually put half the family in Canada and half in the UK.

I’m the oldest grandchild on both sides, and I have many many memories of spending time with my grandmother. Being somewhat obsessed with Lady Diana as a teenager, I was super interested in the Royal family and we shared that interest. She was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth – being both the same age and both young girls growing up in Britain. Because of King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, Elizabeth suddenly found herself next in line to the throne, which she took while still a young bride, and my grandmother was in awe of the graceful way she rose to the challenge.

Later on, whenever there was a royal wedding, I would sleep over and my Bubbie would wake me up in the middle of the night so we could watch the festivities on the small TV in her bedroom in real time. She would serve me tea in delicate china teacups and we would watch all the regalia, commenting on the fashion and the pomp and ceremony. In fact, when William married Kate Middleton, my Bubbie and Zaida were here for Pesach that year. The wedding was Erev Pesach and I tried to do all the preparations I could in advance so I could come over and watch the wedding with my Bubbie.

We in the family joke that my Bubbie always secretly thought she was next in line to the throne. It was in the way she dressed, the way she held herself, emulating the grace and elegance and style of Queen Elizabeth. Always with a smart purse dangling from her wrist, a gorgeous classy suit, elegant makeup, perfect manicure – all this just to take the garbage to the curb. When the TV hit Downton Abbey first aired, I watched the incomparable Maggie Smith as The Dowager, and said, “THAT’S my Bubbie!” And anyone who has met her laughs and agrees. She’s got that same sharp wit, and she tells it like it is. She says what’s on her mind and never apologizes for it.

Despite emigrating to Canada in the early 1950s, she maintained a strong posh British accent and I grew up knowing British lingo like aubergine, courgette, nappies, boot, jumper, chesterfield, serviette, etc. When my parents went away, I would often stay there, and I remember her teaching me the proper way to iron (while we watched The Young and The Restless on tv), and how to set the table properly – “Just in case the Queen is coming over.” Truth.

The charger plate, the fish knife, the bread plate, the wine glass — everything was placed just so. She taught me the proper way to use a fork and a knife, and how to eat soup — dipping the spoon in and scooping up the liquid AWAY from you and not towards. Who knew?

As I got older, I started to think about the unbelievable things she witnessed in history. While most people consult history books for descriptions of different eras, she was alive for a lot of it. She witnessed Elizabeth’s coronation and her funeral after a staggering 70 year reign in the throne — most people can’t say that.

She lived through the rise of Nazi Germany, the era of the Holocaust, but was relatively safe living in Gateshead, UK. But the war affected every Jew worldwide. She told me a story that I love telling — it’s a Holocaust story and a tale about a strong woman living way ahead of her time.

She told me that she remembered her mother bringing in a radio into the house. It was those ancient clunkers that are built into a wood credenza – essentially a cumbersome piece of furniture that sat in a sitting room, and the family would gather around it to listen to music, or the news. My great grandfather was not a big fan of the box. He believed that this would be the downfall of humanity – like “music leads to mixed dancing.” But she insisted, being a lover of all kinds of music and most especially because of the news coming out of Europe. She wanted to be informed.

As Hitler advanced, some of the Jews of Europe saw the writing on the wall. The Gateshead Jewish community, along with many other Jewish communities in Britain began taking in Jewish children – refugees – who were sent alone without their parents to escape a fast-changing Europe. Many of their parents had elderly parents themselves that they could not abandon, or businesses they were trying to liquidate, hoping to follow their children several months later. Most did not make it, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of orphans.

My great-grandparents took in two young sisters from a smaller town near Vienna. They didn’t speak English and they were very much alone and constantly worried for their parents. The war was advancing quickly, and my great-grandmother made an announcement one night at dinner time. She said she wanted to leave the radio on during the Sabbath. My great-grandfather said no way. Not happening. She argued, she pushed, she persuaded and she insisted and, like the strong woman she was, she was not going to lose this battle. And so she won, and the radio stayed on in this religious household in Gateshead.

And on one of these Shabbat mornings, she heard the news that Hitler was advancing towards this town where the sisters’ parents lived. She took her purse, left the house and walked towards the telegram office and sent a telegram to the parents of these two young girls to warn them. Yes, on Shabbat, with her wig, her Shabbat dress on, and her purse. She sent that telegram as an emergency, because of Pikuach Nefesh, and because of that, the parents of these girls were able to escape just hours before their town was captured by Hitler. The parents were eventually reunited with their daughters.

My Bubbie was always proud of that story, proud of her stubborn and strong mother and the lasting impact her actions had on this young family. In this case, saving a life was saving countless future generations of this family.

An entire world the Talmud says.

Fast forward to just several months ago, and my aunt was sitting at a charity dinner and started talking to the woman next to her.  Turned out to be the daughter of one of the girls that stayed with my great-grandparents during the war.  What a crazy small world!

Shortly after the war, my Bubbie was witness to the modern day miracle of Israel becoming an independent State. As Yom Haatzmaut is literally days away, I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch that moment in history happen in real life. The joy, the relief, the celebrations, the life-changing moment for the Jewish people.

And now, the way history often repeats itself, she is unfortunately witnessing yet ANOTHER rise of blatant Jew hatred and anti-Semitism that has taken the world by storm. Not even 100 years later and the events of 1930s are back to haunt us with a vengeance.

The Birthday Wish I want to wish for my grandmother, for my Bubbie, is that she lives long enough to see this terrible time pass, that she lives to see the Jewish people stand unafraid in all corners of the world, able to wear their kippot and their Star of David without fear of repercussions. That she could witness Jewish students being welcomed at ANY educational institution in the world with open arms. That the concept of free speech doesn’t protect those who spew hate speech. That the rest of the world quickly comes to the realization that they are standing on the wrong side of history.

It’s a tall order, I know, but I’m an optimist and a believer. I have faith in the concept of good winning over evil and I trust in Hashem. And wouldn’t it be miraculous and amazing to see the entire world shout out loud that they stand with us, with our women, with our soldiers, with our people, with our country?

What a moment that would be.

Happy Birthday Bubbie!

About the Author
Chavi Feldman has a degree in graphic design and advertising and works primarily as a music teacher. She has lived in Israel for more than two decades.
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