Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy


Babushka - by Yelena Shuster

Worried that I'll never find a husband, my babushka (grandmother) enrolled me in her very own culinary academy. After careful consideration of which apron looked best on me, I tinkered for half an hour trying to turn the stove on. I had recently learned how to boil water (we bought an electric tea kettle), and felt ready to skip a few levels. I would recreate the centuries-old Ukrainian dish, galuptzi (stuffed cabbage), under the wise tutelage of my Ukrainian "baba", who nervously glanced at the fire extinguisher before we began.

Slightly uneasy that so many years of tradition now lay at my clumsy inexperienced fingers, I held my knife carefully. Watching my grandmother's aged hands slice the onions and carrots so much faster than mine could, I realized this was virgin territory. This wasn't like organizing a karaoke party or self-defense class at school. I had placed myself in a situation where I had to rely on my wits, my babushka, and perhaps a firefighter's help.

She takes out the ground meat and we mix it with the boiled rice. It is as if we have traveled to the past on the back of her vegetable grater. I am again the helpless little girl before her; she guides my hands with certainty in the dark pot containing what feels like freshly ground brains.

Twelve years earlier, we both emigrated from Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, a land where only fools and heroes wore the Star-of-David openly, she at age 52, I at five. Along with open arms, America greeted me with the new, anglicized name, Yelena. I had to practice twisting my mouth to pronounce how I would introduce myself "Ye-ley-na".

"Lienna", my babushka says, calling me by my original, intimate, Russian name, "come take cabbage out of pot." Her thick, Ukrainian accent coats her English words.

I notice her still-lustrous hair, wrinkled skin, calloused hands, and recognize myself in her determined smile. She calls me "Americanka" whenever she detects a slight American accent in my pronunciation of our native tongue. She understands that the U.S. is now my home, with most of my memories now rooted in these buildings.

The twisting of my mouth becomes more natural every time I tell someone to call me "Yelena". "Yelena" is who I've become, an American teenager who has grown up to love the English language. We immigrated here so that I would be able to obtain the American dream, so that success would be something I could accomplish with nothing stopping me, including my religion which made me feel like a second-class citizen in Ukraine. My babushka's American dream is for me to make her proud, for her granddaughter to succeed in a life which had once been so cruel. My American dream remains the same: I want to succeed in this land, my second home, not as an immigrant but as an American.

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