On 'Hava Nagila'

The power of music can last a lifetime

I don't think music was a major part of most of her life, but in her later years, it revealed its power to connect her to those she loved, and, in turn, us to her.

And, throughout, music still weaved its way into meaningful moments.

Not that life was always a song for my grandmother Bertha (on my mother's side). I can't even begin to imagine (or have the right ever to complain about anything) when I think about the challenges she faced. In 1939, at age 25, she moved from Russia with her parents and two sisters (my aunts Dena and Ray) across the Atlantic to the U.S., leaving behind all familiar surroundings, buoyed by the hope that life in America would be more prosperous.

In 1942, just weeks after marrying my grandfather Irving (their love began in an English night school class) in Boston, he was deployed for Army duty in locations ranging from the Philippines to the Galapagos Islands. Incredibly, they were separated for more than three years. At their wedding, however, my Aunt Ray, then 16, provided musical entertainment (and surely hilarity) by donning a hat packed high with fruit and belting out the kooky "Yes! We Have No Bananas." One of the era's popular show tunes, it was a big hit in the early '20s.

While apart, my grandparents communicated by letters, all while knowing that each would be read by government officials before reaching their destinations, screened for any possible signs of confidential intelligence. She once visited him during a stay in Virginia, which is saying something, since my grandmother hated making even small trips. "What do you need to travel for?" she'd scoff. "Trees look the same everywhere."

When you've packed your belongings onto a ship and crossed shores to an uncertain future, you probably look at travel a little differently.

It's no wonder why, then, when my mother, brother and I would visit her at the two nursing homes in which she lived beginning in 2001, "God Bless America" was clearly a favorite song of hers. I can play the piano only by ear, but when I clumsily worked out its melody on the piano in the sitting room in her first nursing home, I noticed early on the joy it would bring her. Even without any words in my (attempt at) playing the song, I always felt like we shared an unspoken conversation about the appreciation she had for the country that, for more than five decades, had fulfilled its promise for a richer future for her and her family.

"With willpower, you can do anything," she'd say, a motto she lived for almost a century.


To consider only my grandmother's arrival in the U.S. and her later years would be to miss so many of the memories in between that we hold so dear. Sure, she hated travel, but her love for family won out, as she and my grandfather would make the 14-mile trek from Brookline to Braintree, Mass., like clockwork each Sunday when I was growing up. The itinerary usually had her upstairs with my mother, and my grandfather, brother and me in the cellar, puttering around together.

(I could write a separate story about my grandfather, detailing the trips we all took in his 1965 Ford Fairlane; the paper bag he'd put on his head as a makeshift safety helmet when painting our house, or building a charmingly lopsided table that remains in the basement today; or, most of all, simply the way he exemplified being a husband, father and grandfather, always there when we needed him.)

If I'm talking about my grandmother, I have to mention food. Our Passover celebrations were feasts of her creation, with her orange-glazed chicken the main course. But, like then, I just want to skip to dessert, as her (Kosher for Passover) sponge cake was a treat always worth waiting an entire year for. While staying in my grandparents' Brookline apartment for Seders, my brother and I would wake up before everyone else the next morning, sneak into the kitchen and gorge on pieces for breakfast. After waiting a year, we weren't going to wait any longer.

(My grandmother on my father's side, Etta, likewise was a master chef, with her mandel bread topped with sweet icing a family legend. See? It's not my fault. The ever-tightening waistband on my pants is simply the byproduct of having grown up addicted to good food.)

Of course, family would've made those gatherings special even if our plates were empty. There were Haggadah readings, relatives we got to see only for those special nights and, quite often, my Uncle George's unique analyses of life's or language's quirks. ("You shouldn't say traffic is bad if you're caught in it," he'd reason. "If the traffic is that strong, well then, it's good." Similarly, "I hope your cold is worse" is the proper way to wish someone to get well soon.)

Still, my favorite memories of those holidays are the songs that my brother and I heard after we put on our footie pajamas and were tucked into the twin beds in the bedroom down the hall at the back of the apartment. As we settled in (stuffed), we'd hear spirited conversation, laughter and singing still filling the dining room.

Joyful choruses of "Dayenu," "Adir Hu" and "Chad Gadya" would play on deep into the night, providing a sense of comfort that no gentle lullaby ever could.


It became tougher for my grandmother to converse with us in more recent visits to the nursing home. Her mind remained sharp into her mid-90s, and she'd still get excited when "Gary-boy" visited. She even gave her blessing for my making an unthinkable four-hour journey between Boston and New York. "You gotta make a buck," she'd say with a smile.

(And, even if she hadn't baked it, she especially loved strawberry cheesecake that my mother spoon fed to her during visits. "You're a nice lady," my grandmother would say as a thank you.)

Her communication in her later years, however, segued more to nonverbal means, her cognitive abilities diminished. Not always, though. Just this summer, my Aunt Evy was visiting the nursing home when my grandmother asked her, "Are you single?" When Evy responded, "Yes," my grandmother shook her head and said, surveying her male neighbors, "You won't find anyone here …"

Music, though, communicated for her. My mother would bring her tapes of Yiddish songs or CDs of Jewish folk songs that my brother had mixed. A singing Rabbi doll also often headlined those coveted concerts. It was clear that my grandmother was reliving some of her best memories by hearing songs of her youth.

What a gift music is that it can continue to provide such enjoyment at an age when you likely need it most.

The conversations of our last visits consisted mainly of my grandmother taking our hands and singing a line or two from the Hebrew song "Hava Nagila." She'd shake our hands along to the beat and smile. Sad as it may have been in some ways, if it made her happy, it made us happy.

My grandmother, the matriarch and heart of our family, left us a month ago. She was 99. (Of all her traits, I think I definitely inherited her feistiness and stubbornness. "I'm not afraid of anybody!" she'd shout when riled up, to the amusement of her nursing home aides.)

A few days later, when my mother spoke to one of the nursing home's staff members, it turns out that my grandmother's affinity for music had a greater reach than my family might've realized.

A visit to a nursing home tends to be a personal experience. You sit with your loved one and see others doing the same and respect each other's time and silently empathize with the obstacles that advanced age presents. But, you don't think that others are paying much attention to the details of your visit.

Nope. Days after my grandmother's passing, staff and residents assembled to mark that month's birthdays. They decided to include a tribute to my grandmother. In unison, they sang "Hava Nagila." The performance is especially impressive when considering that most in attendance aren't Jewish, but of descents ranging from Armenian to Haitian. That they would learn and sing a song in another language, just for her, spoke to the reach of her personality and music's power to enable a commonality that the written word can't match.

"Hava Nagila" translates to "let us rejoice" in English.

How fitting that, thankfully, when other forms of communication couldn't, that song let our Nana do just that.