She was everything I didn’t want to be when I was older—frail, poor, and alone. She lived at an assisted living complex, in a micro-apartment smaller than my bedroom. Open up her door and in that instant you’d see the whole of her living space: to the left was a sink, fridge, and counter with a stovetop and microwave, barely a kitchenette. Jutting out from the wall was a tiny table that fit the five of us uncomfortably. The yellowish linoleum floors matched the pale walls, colors that were stark and sterile but desperately trying to be warm and welcoming—the kind of hue you’d find in a hospital or baby nursery or, I suppose, an Old People’s Home. Her twin bed was only partially blocked by a short room divider propped up next to the burgundy loveseat that three of us would squeeze onto when we came to visit her each Tuesday afternoon. She always put out tiny plates with pretzels and store-bought cookies for us, along with a bar of dark chocolate to share. “You’re my Chocolate Girl,” she affectionately told my friend Carly after she ate more than half the chocolate bar during one visit. One time she ordered us a pizza from the place down the street, something she’d talked about doing for weeks beforehand. I looked forward to these snacks not because they were particularly delicious or because I was hungry when I came, but because I knew that offering them to us meant a great deal to her.

Illustration by Alice Maiden

was torn when faced with ranking my options for the weekly “social responsibility” volunteer time on my gap year program in Jerusalem. Our program directors put together a slideshow of the various possibilities: spend time with toddlers afflicted with heart conditions awaiting surgery, work at a local soup kitchen, or—Bluma. She was not an organization or an operation, but a person. A nice old Jewish lady seeking company for one afternoon a week. Something about geriatric people had always disheartened me—maybe the wrinkles, the dependency, the generational gap—so I don’t know why, but I ranked Bluma as my first choice. An email later that day with the subject line “social responsibility—Bluma” informed me and three of my friends that we’d be going to visit Bluma for the first time that coming Tuesday. We made a WhatsApp group to coordinate how we’d get to her place, and called ourselves the Bluma Babes.

The first meeting required introductions: name, hometown, which colleges we’d be attending the following fall. Despite her age (88!), her memory was nearly impeccable—by the second time we visited she knew where we were from and where we’d be going, sometimes even affectionately referring to us by our various affiliations. “Chicago girl, did I tell you about this family I used to know in Highland Park?” “Princeton, it’s going to be cold in New Jersey for a West Coast girl like you!”

She told us her own story, too. Originally from New York, she moved to Israel when she was a young newlywed and started a family in Jerusalem. She had three kids—all grown up now, with families of their own—and several grandchildren. Her husband had died a few years back, and she’d been living in this complex (which she hated) ever since. Though her children and grandchildren lived nearby, she didn’t see them more than once or twice a week—they were busy, had lives of their own. So Bluma filled her time taking trips to museums every so often, attending Yiddish society meetings, and doing research on random stories and information that she could relay when we came each Tuesday afternoon.

And so the pattern went: we, the Bluma Babes, would head to Bluma’s place each week around 2 p.m., when we’d perch on the couch or in one of her chairs and nibble on flat pretzels and bland cookies while she spoke to us about her family or her Yiddish meeting or some other occurrence she’d been waiting to tell us all about. The best thing about Bluma was that there was never a lull or an awkward silence—she always had something to say.

After an hour or so of sitting and chatting on the couch, she’d ask if we’d like to play a game—Scrabble or Rummikub, and sometimes this game called Probe, which was essentially a glorified version of hangman. We obviously obliged, eager to adjust our focus onto something different, to give Bluma a break and let something else carry the conversation. We’d play a few rounds of each game. She did not go easy on us, nor did we on her. Bluma had quite the sharp mind, which she liked to show off during these weekly rounds of Rummy and Scrabble and Probe.

Sometimes instead of just chatting, Bluma would teach us Yiddish songs that she grew up singing. She handed us printed photocopies of transliterated lyrics to old ditties, a few of which we recognized but most of which we’d never heard before. First, Bluma would read us the words to make sure we got the pronunciation correct, offering translations as she went along. We stumbled over the guttural “kh” sounds and the seemingly missing vowels of the Hebrew-German combination, but after a few run-throughs we were ready for her to teach us the tunes. She sang it to us line by line, and we’d repeat. No music, just our voices, singing songs that were foreign to us but familiar and comfortable to Bluma. 

There was one song whose words and tune I recognized as soon as Bluma started singing it—Oyfn Pripetchik, it was called. As we were singing, I recalled learning it in kindergarten at my Jewish day school and performing it with my classmates during our Hanukkah celebration. It was a classic Yiddish folk song about a rabbi teaching children the Hebrew alphabet. The tune was slow and melancholy, the lyrics heartfelt, hopeful, and extremely Zionistic.

Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl

un in shtub is heys.

Un der rebbe lernt kleyne kinderlekh

dem alef-beyz

A fire burns on the hearth

and it is warm in the little house.

And the rabbi is teaching little children the alphabet.

Lernt, kinderlekh, hot nit moyre

yeder onheyb iz shver.

Gliklekh iz der yid vos lernt toyre,

vos darfn mir nokh mer?

Learn, children, don’t be afraid

every beginning is hard.

Lucky is the Jew who studies Torah.

Az ir vet, kinderlekh, dem goles shlepn,

oygemutshet zayn,

zolt ir fun di oysyes koyech shepn –

kukt in zey arayn!

When, children, carry on the exile,

in torture,

you will gain strength from these letters.

look inside them!

I watched as Bluma’s eyes closed and she hummed the tune while we sang words of the language that meant so much to her and so little to so many others, even those of a shared heritage. She grew up speaking Yiddish with her family; it was her childhood and adolescence. It was a constant in the changing world she grew up in, one of the Holocaust and World War II and moving to Israel to escape the anti-Semitism she faced almost anywhere else. One of the stanzas in particular stood out to me:

Az ir vet, kinderlekh, elter vern, 

vet ir aleyn farshteyn,

vifil in di oysyes lign trern

un vifil geveyn.

When, children, you will grow older

you will understand,

how many tears lie in these letters

and how much crying.

And I realized how much this rang true, for Bluma. These Yiddish songs, and even more so teaching us these songs in a dying language, was part of her purpose. They were relics of her past, of her heritage, that she was passing on to us with the hope that we would carry them on. Sometimes she was subtle about it, sometimes less so. She told us about her support for the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts, complained to us that our program did not teach us Yiddish but did teach Arabic. While I couldn’t feel the same intense connection to the language, I could tell that hearing these words flowing from the mouths of Jewish youth meant the world to her.

The last time I saw Bluma was at the photo exhibition my program put on at the end of our time in Jerusalem. She was so excited to finally meet all of our peers, and they were equally excited to meet the famous Bluma we’d told them so much about. Before we left, she gave us some parting words:

“Az ir vet, kinderlekh, elter vern,

vet ir aleyn farshteyn,

vifil in di oysyes lign trern

un vifil geveyn.”

Late last year, one of the program administrators sent a message to alumni of my gap year program informing us that Bluma, who had visitors from the program visiting her weekly for the past 5 years, had died at age 90. Her health had been declining in the months leading up to her death. I was sad and even kind of surprised to hear the news: Bluma was old, yes, but she was strong and resilient and stubborn enough that I couldn’t fathom her succumbing to her age.   

She was frail, poor, and alone. But she was also smart and critical, and genuinely cared about the things and people that were close to her. She lived a modest life, but one of passion and purpose—one in which she made the decision as a young newlywed to move to Israel and start a family there, one in which she spoke three languages fluently, including the dying language of Yiddish. So maybe she wasn’t everything I didn’t want to be, and quite a few things I did.