Never have I attended a family function where I did not fall victim to, as the phrase goes, “The Jewish Goodbye.”
I have been both the perpetrator and the victim of this practice, the prelude to a silent car ride home, a vehicle filled with empty voice boxes, mouths that have somehow spoken every word they know in the span of one evening. How could we possibly leave without kissing Aunt Gloria’s hand and hearing her tell the story of how she met her late husband Paul once more? In what world could we close the door behind us without my grandmother boasting on her grandchildren’s behalf for minutes?
My grandfather calls it kibbitzing. My younger sisters call it exhausting. Whatever words you use to describe this fixed moment in familial gathering, there is one thing we all know for certain: In Judaism, “goodbye” never means “goodbye.” At least not for another 20 minutes.
Secular and non-secular Jews alike have been spared little to no fury in the stereotype that they, we, talk too much and have too large of a hand in media. Jewish people, considering our small percentage within the global population, can be found highly concentrated in areas like theater, film and journalism — to bigots, this fuels a “Jews controlling public ideas” narrative. But to me and many others, this Jewish presence has always signified an outstanding creativity and affinity for storytelling that exists within the global Jewish community.
Stories are the lifeblood of Jewish culture and sociality. “The Jewish Goodbye” isn’t some massive, universal scheme plotted by cackling bubbes and zaydes in secret moonlit meetings in order to torture their grandbabies; it’s an outright tradition.
Storytelling as Jewish tradition manifests itself in ways both large and small. Think of Passover, a celebration driven by proud and participatory story, or Yom Kippur, a day when even food and drink are (hypothetically) replaced by the sharing of self-reflective story. Or, perhaps most pertinently, the act of sitting shiva, which is marked by the sharing of stories about the dearly departed.
My grandmother Adrean passed away of Alzheimer’s in February of 2020, right before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in and the world shut down. Thus, her shiva was held in the traditional way. One thing my grandmother was marvelous at, and I write this as a compliment, was talking — when she rang our house phone a chorus of “not it, not it, not it” would erupt so as to not be stuck on the phone for too long. “Fine, I’ll get it, but I am not staying on the phone for an hour,” the sore loser would say. They were always wrong.
Adrean weaved sentences together in a way that urged you to follow her lead, pulling the day’s stories out of you even if you didn’t have any to tell, and returning the favor. I knew I liked to write from a very young age, typing up play scripts on our old dinosaur of a desktop and printing them to be read by my parents and grandparents, who oohed and ahhed at the right moments. As I grew into my style, I was less apt to take suggestions from the adults in my life, at least the ones I was related to, but with Adrean I would always pretend to. Write about your sisters — OK, Grandma. Write about the temple — OK, Grandma. Write about me — OK, Grandma.
Alzheimer’s ate up something in her that could never, ever be replicated. Our long phone calls once consisted of the tomatoes on the back porch and yenta politics and prospective romances and recounts of her youth, a dark, curly-haired baby with a tan and tongue sharpened by Yiddish and maybe God if she believed in Him that day. Her stories evolved into a jumble of incoherent words strung together in some attempt at communication, and what was first a horrifying panic to make us understand her became a somewhat even more terrifying resignation of her consciousness into some far-off place.
I mourned the loss of my grandmother’s stories. She did not get, as I have lovingly repeated, a Jewish goodbye in life. Perhaps, though, a shiva serves as one in death. Her mouth wasn’t there as a conduit, but her memories were, in the shape of her family and friends. I wished for that week that I could live off of stories like food or water or air, because they were bountiful in every room and she was in them, too. I felt a weight after she passed to write the stories she would have wanted me to, and this has meant for me in the past few years not necessarily writing what she would have written, but writing with the boldness that she urged me to have.
Jewish storytelling is Jewish art is Jewish magic. Jewish magic is a scroll wrapped in embroidered fabric. Jewish magic is diaspora and displacement. It is the clay of the Vltava River and the broken Yiddish we have been passed down like gifts. It is in the moaning-cry melodies from a long service that won’t leave your head, the urge to kiss your relatives on the cheek, the tales we know but have no recollection of being told.
I don’t know where to trace Jewish creativity back to. There is some magic in us, for sure, in the persistence of Jewish culture in the face of historical persecution and attempted erasure. The first time I felt like I was magic was when I was, as it goes, forced to leave the function hall at synagogue for Elijah to drink his wine at a Passover seder. My sisters and I were some of the very, very few young people there to usher away as the ghostly act occurred. I could feel, even then, that my community was dwindling. When we entered again, wrinkled mouths laughed in joy at our childish belief in magic. This, though, was magic — the encouragement from an entire community to believe in something, a story, that was mystical beyond religion or godliness.
The magic was in the story, not the worship.
Jewish mysticism has been a hallmark of my writings, from plays to poetry, and will continue to be as long as I am able to draw from it. The well of inspiration feels eternal. To me, there is a story in everything, and my ethnicity and cultural practices helped foster that belief, because in Judaism there is a story in all things — even goodbyes.