Voices from the field

Stamped With Her Voice: Preserving the Teachings of My Bubby

By Brett Kopin

A child's stream-of-consciousness was something my Bubby always valued. Her philosophy was that when a child asks a question, any question, it should be answered honestly and seriously – not only because it matters for the child’s development, but because it matters to the child.

Time and memory do not work in tandem. In fact, I find at the close of any period of time, I retain only a few memories, and over time those memories tend to wear unless I’ve written them down or have some kind of memento. My Bubby, Marvell Ginsburg, passed away last year, when I was 23 years old. Over those 23 years we spent almost every Shabbat dinner together, had many sleepovers, and many important discussions. Those moments are precious, but now, one year after her death, most blend together into a short, couple-second film reel in my memory bank. Luckily for me, Bubby was a writer, so decades of her voice are preserved in the archives of her life’s work.

What I will not forget are the last few discussions we had. When the family would come to visit her in the nursing home, Bubby always looked somewhat overwhelmed. Everyone would speak loudly and slowly, and even then she struggled to understand the yes-no questions she was asked.

But I would frequently come alone, and the ritual was always the same: I pulled up a chair next to her bed, she would slowly lift up her hand, I would hold it, and we’d stay that way for the hour or so in which we spoke. During those conversations it was as if the curtains over her cognition would lift, and the wisdom she uttered in those moments still play in my mind on repeat, like a poem I have to memorize. Here was this woman, my Bubby, my teacher, who had accomplished so much in her life as an early childhood educator and mentor, giving me, her grandson, final pearls of wisdom.

We discussed many things: “What is a Jew?” “What do I look for in a wife?” “How can I become successful?” In the middle of one of those conversations she turned aside and said, “I’ve loved so much being your mother.” To which I said, “You’re my Bubby, remember? You’re not my mother.” To which she slowly shook her head and replied, “A mother is a mother is a mother.” And she was right.

What I remember most about her was her ability to listen to me and discuss anything I was interested in at any age. At the end of her life my mom discovered among her things a book of quotes, memories and observations she wrote down about her grandchildren. Under my name she wrote things like:

“Why doesn’t God answer me when I talk to Him? If I put my hand in a rainbow how will it feel? Does God feel sad about the people who died who He made? How many buffalo are in the world?”

And then right before kindergarten:

“I’m scared about kindergarten. I don’t want to go to kindergarten. What will I do in kindergarten? Do we just sit around tables and write all day?”

During her career, Bubby wrote and published a curriculum guide called Teaching Holidays to Young Jewish Children. It was widely read and distributed to Jewish day school programs all over the world. The insights in it are timeless, the activities clever, and each essay on child development is perceptive and poignant.

I found a copy of the guide in one of Bubby’s closets a few years ago and had her sign it for me. Until recently, it sat on my shelf unread. What use did I have for it? But when I began working at the iCenter I was offered the opportunity to focus on an independent project, and I pitched the idea to reissue her guide. We are currently editing it for this generation of Jewish educators.

For me, the joy in reading this work is in hearing each sentence stamped with her voice, and gaining a deeper understanding of who she was as a professional. Over the next couple months it will be my honor to bring her work back to the field, and we'll start by linking to her Mother's Day chapter.

Happy Mother’s Day, Bubby.