Grandma’s Secret Work

Grandma Ruth worked. But we weren’t allowed to speak about it. When I was little, I never really thought why. As I grew older, I thought that maybe she was uncomfortable with others knowing she worked or thinking she needed to work. After she died, I learned more.

I learned that Grandma’s work as a typist gave her access over the years to confidential adoption records. She worked at Louise Wise Services, a social service organization founded “in 1916 as the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee by philanthropist and adoption advocate Louise Waterman Wise. The agency’s original purpose was to find homes for Jewish orphans. Its mission changed over the years, as it increased its services to family counseling, foster care and residential services for teenage mothers and their babies.”[i]

After my grandmother died, I learned more about Louise Wise and the agency she founded. Louise Wise, an activist in her own right, was the wife of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a vocal rabbi, Zionist and social activist – and a key figure, by the by, in bringing awareness of Nazi atrocities to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to take action. Louise Wise founded the agency that bore her name because “she learned that Jewish children left to the care of the state were routinely placed in asylums, since no agency existed to care for them. She therefore established the Child Adoption Agency of the Free Synagogue”[ii] — the Free Synagogue being the synagogue her husband, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise had founded in Manhattan. “The agency was a massive undertaking, which involved searching for literally thousands of Jewish orphans, gaining custody of them, and then placing them in Jewish homes all across the country.”[iii]

As I learned about Louise Wise services, I realized that we couldn’t speak of Grandma’s work because she knew the secrets of others. Grandma didn’t want others to know or ask about these secrets. And I learned something else, too.

Sorting through papers from the elegant Bronx apartment my grandparents lived in for 70 years, I found thank-you letters from the director of Louise Wise services. “What?!” I wondered when I found them. It turns out that my grandmother received a paycheck for her work. She in turn donated paychecks back to the agency. Grandma never spoke of this – in fact, she would be appalled that I was revealing it publicly. Keep in mind that my grandparents, Ruth and Morris, were never well off and Grandma’s paycheck was probably tiny. But, clearly it was important for Grandma Ruth to give tzedakah – a charitable gift — though she wouldn’t have known that word.

Although I didn’t know about these acts growing up, I did know that service and generosity marked my grandmother’s life. In the community she was a proud Red Cross volunteer and served at the Educational Alliance settlement house. On the family front, it was about nourishment. For years and years she cooked carried food downtown on the subway for her younger brother, homebound with Parkinson’s; mind you, he didn’t need the food, but this was what she believed was right. And on every visit to our house, Grandma snuck a lot of roast beef and lamb chops into our freezer — before my father, her son, could catch her and yell that we did not need it — as one of the ways she showed her love and her certainty that no butcher in New Jersey could match the meat she got from Joe the butcher. On holidays, Grandma’s offering was her homemade blintzes and gefilte fish, wrapped in layers of dishtowels and waxed paper and carried on the Erie Lackawanna commuter train from the Bronx to New Jersey.

Yet, Grandma was misunderstood by us in her lifetime. We were often frustrated by her gifts — assuring her we didn’t need them. And we certainly looked critically at her at synagogue where she rarely opened a prayerbook. It seemed as if the stuff of Jewish life didn’t matter to Grandma. But it did.

Unfortunately, I learned this right around the time Grandma died. Studying women’s spirituality and ritual in rabbinical school[iv], I learned about the myriad expressions of Jewish women’s spirituality, how women have expressed their connection to Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish teachings, different for so much of our history from the traditional prayer and study of men. With that knowledge I reframed Grandma Ruth’s actions and came to value her deeds differently. Grandma donating her earnings back to Louise Wise services, feeding her brother, folding the napkins for a beautiful holiday table – these were her spiritual expressions even if she did not describe them as such.

Now I have countless questions I wish I could now ask her. I can’t, but I can think of Grandma’s generosity each time I show my children how to fold her linen napkins elegantly for our Rosh Hashanah table, write a check for tzedakah, or make blintzes using using the recipe written in her sloping longhand. And I can speak about it.




[iv] With gratitude to Dr. Ellen M. Umansky and Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman.