A Soviet Jewish Grandmother’s Guide to Self-Care

Try a DIY hair mask that includes egg yolk, caster oil and rye flour! You're welcome.

I spend a lot of time lying in my bed or sprawled out on the couch, mindlessly scrolling on the internet. At this point, I don’t have a lot of free time — amidst school, work and general existential dread — but the time I do have to myself mostly gets eaten up online. And that’s fun for a little, and almost feels like I’m getting anyway with something taboo. When I told my sister I felt like I was running out of things to do during my last semester of college, she said, “That’s perfect, it’s rot o’clock, baby.” The amount of posts I see online echoing this sentiment, from people dealing with the same life stressors as I am, validates this desire to do nothing.

But the truth is, rotting is not actually relaxing; my eyes hurt from straining to see a screen, I’m consuming nothing but garbage, and by the end of it all, I’m not actually happy or fulfilled. Recently, I’ve been wanting to find some other ways to unwind and take care of myself, and the first person I thought of when looking to get advice was my grandmother.

From the time I was born to when I moved out for college at 18, my grandmother has lived with me, which is customary, as per classic Soviet multi-generational family homes. Despite her helping out with every aspect of taking care of the home and family — from cooking and cleaning to resolving arguments between my mother and I — she’s always had this air of bliss about her. She’s always been able to see the good in everything (such as calling thunderstorms “Mother Nature crying tears of joy”) and everyone (like when a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by the house to preach at our very Jewish family and she just invited them in for tea and an allegedly very pleasant conversation), and it’s inspired me to try to do the same.

I knew if anyone could advise me how to relax in a way that wouldn’t kill any more brain cells, it would be my grandmother. So I called her up and asked for an alternative. She came up with an exclusive list about how to take care of yourself, whether you want to ease your stress or to combat general malaise.

1. Consume everything, all the time — but not on your phone.

From reading constantly to watching movies to learning to draw, my grandmother always has something to do that engages all sides of her brain. Whether she’s reading an old chemistry book of mine from high school, drawing something inspired by a book on Leonardo Da Vinci that was lying around the house, or even just playing Sudoku, she’s always stimulating her mind. That consumption, rather than only including her phone, uses these tangible forms and objects.

2. Use the internet — but wisely.

Surprisingly, my grandmother adores the internet, especially YouTube (or “the YouTube,” as she calls it). She loves watching videos about how to clean better, how to execute new recipes and more. She’s amazed and grateful that she can learn anything she wants just by typing on her home computer. As someone who’s grown up with the internet my entire life, this is something I do take for granted. That being said, it’s not about how much you’re online – it’s about what you choose to use that online time for.

3. Take care of your appearance — in the most ritualistic way possible.

That night, my grandmother’s sister, Sveta, was driving up with her husband from Princeton to stay over at our house. Whenever she visits, she and my grandmother like to freshen up together, especially their hair — both dyed red like every Russian grandmother’s, of course. Specifically, they make a DIY concoction and put it in their hair as a Soviet-style hair mask to make it grow better. My mom says it’s, in her words, “baloney.” However, even if you don’t plan to incorporate this exact hair mask, that general routine and bonding can still be incorporated in modern beauty and care rituals. Below is the exact recipe for any interested (or morbidly curious) readers:

Put one egg yolk and one tablespoon of honey in a bowl. Put the ingredients in a bigger bowl of boiling water. Mix everything with one tablespoon of caster oil. Add Vitamin E or Vitamin B (or just, you know, yeast). Mix everything once it cools down. For thickness, add rye flour. Coat the mixture in your hair roots, then put a plastic hair cover or a hat. Hold it in your hair for three to four hours, then wash it out with shampoo.

You’re welcome.

4. Stay balanced, both physically and mentally.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has gone on a daily walk outside, no matter the weather, for 40 minutes. I could have a snow day off and see my grandmother, tiny and bundled up, trudging through inches of snow. More importantly though, she keeps her soul healthy. As much as I love kvetching, talking shit about annoying relatives or rude classmates or coworkers with my mom and sister, my grandmother never takes part in that tradition. Not only does she never talk behind people’s backs, but she’ll even leave the room whenever my mom and I start to gossip.

5. Learn something new everyday, all the time.

As our call came to an end, my grandmother wanted to tell me a secret.

“You’re the first person I’m telling this to,” my grandmother said, before whispering: “I’m learning chess.”

She was watching tutorials on YouTube (sorry – “the YouTube”), and little by little, was teaching herself how to play chess now that she had the time. My grandma is the kind of person that teaches herself something every week; last week it was Hebrew, this week it’s chess.

“It’s a pleasure to see how people think, to hear your brain working,” she told me. When I asked why she hadn’t asked my grandfather, who had been playing since he was a child, to teach her, she told me that she wanted to learn all on her own first.

“If you ever want to learn how to do something new,” she said, “just tell yourself, ‘it’s easy, and I can do everything.’ It won’t be perfect, but it will be easy.” This rattled the perfectionist in me, but at the same time, it was just that simple to sink in.

Throughout our conversation, my grandma emphasized to me that this most recent time in her life was the first time she was actually relaxing. After a lifetime of taking care of others — from her siblings as the eldest daughter, to her own children and my grandfather’s mother, to her grandchildren — now that my sister and I have moved out, she finally has time to breathe. Yet she’s not sitting around, doing nothing, rotting. Rather, she’s thriving in old age, playing catch-up and doing everything that she always wanted to try, but never had the time for before.

I was born in an era where I’m not expected to shoulder an entire family’s responsibilities, where I have the privilege to be selfish and take care of my whole self. So while I have the time and the youth now, I’m going to start following my grandmother’s advice — and if you want to, you can too.

Ava Sharahy

Ava Sharahy (they/she) is a college senior and one of the 2023-2024 Hey Alma College Writing Fellows. In their free time, they like starting embroidery projects (but never finishing them), and having a love-hate relationship with their home state of New Jersey.

Read More