Hanukkah at Grandma Bessie’s

One of my earliest family memories:

The kids line up in single file , youngest first , eldest at the end. Oldest “ancestor”, Grandma Bessie, gives first gifts from her chair in her living room. Sitting proudly, like a general inspecting her troops , the family matriarch does her annual family census and gets to see the expansion of her tribe and the growth of its members , both in numbers and in height and maturity . Grandma Bessie qvells regally.

An immigrant from Lublin, Poland, Bessie Cederbaum came to America at an early age for religious and economic freedom. She worked hard with her husband, Sam Posner, to develop businesses, first a fruit stand, then a butcher shop, then a trucking company, while at the same time raising a family and doing charity to those who had less.

Together Sam and Bessie raised 7 amazing children, 4 girls and 3 boys, while also losing 3 children to the 1918 Spanish Flu.

Bessie was now living on Beach 68th Street in Rockaway Beach, Sam, a Brooklyn Dodger fan and Opera lover, had passed away in 1956. It was the early 1960’s and Rockaway Beach was still a summer resort for many. Today is cold but Sunny. A December day when the summer beach crowds are just a memory.

We lived in Bayswater, near Far Rockaway. Beach 68th Street was in Arverne, half way up the Peninsula towards Belle Harbor and Brooklyn. Most of the family still lived nearby, either in Rockaway or The Five Towns (Nassau County)

The apartment is small but immaculate with a view of the ocean , not far from where she and Sam used to rent summer beach bungalows every summer. Even if Sam had to pawn Bessie’s engagement ring every year to borrow the downpayment for the bungalow, it allowed the kids to get out of Brooklyn and play in the healthy ocean air , away from the concrete jungle of Borough Park . They got to mix and mingle with other Jewish working class kids and families living the American Dream, before, during and after the Great Depression.

As I patiently stand in line, Cousin Karen (my older cousin, by 2 years, and taller) stand behind me. My brother Billy and a few younger cousins stand in front of us.

After Grandma Bessie, the next donor is her eldest child in attendance, usually Nussie or Esther, or if an older child is there by representation ( you can appoint proxies both to give and to collect), that Donor went next.

All descendants are treated equally . That is the family rule .
There was always an order and tradition and lots of food and a little L’Chaim (Grandma Bessie liked a drink of schnapps now and then).

Other family rules include: you give what you can afford , even if it’s a card or a chotcke . Gelt is the great equalizer and small bills add up to desired major dream gifts . You can trade gifts afterwards ( free market capitalism).

Artsy gifts from artist relatives are always treasured (Edith’s and Audrey’s always stood out). Sometimes Aunt Edit would line up behind the last child on her knees and pretend to be gift eligible (she was the Baby Sister after all). Grandma Bessie would laugh each time.

After you turn 21 you may not receive as many gifts (except from your immediate family), unless you are in Medical School , lest you become a public charge. Once you reach a certain age and get a job (and maybe become married), you Come of Age and can become a new Donor, usually at the back of the Donor line.
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After the last Donor, the youngest, gives to the last line of Donees (oldest to youngest), the cousins, Bessie’s great grandchildren, get to play, and compare gifts and growth spurts (back to back).

The Sisters (Esther, Alice, Florence and Edith) and Grandma then pack “care packages” of food (and gifts) for those who could not attend in person. The love packed into the packages was palpable.

Everyone says endless goodbyes and thank yous. We are reminded by Grandma Bessie (by her personal example) to always give charity to those less fortunate and not to be a “stranger”. You can call her on her new touchtone phone, which I think Uncle Nussie arranged (he was very tech savvy).

People mingle as long as possible to expand the moment, even when the candles are gone, not wanting to leave this beautiful festival of love and light.

And now, as a final blessing: May you be reunited in the world to come with your ancestors, who were socialist garment workers, free thinking artists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, salespeople and pioneer truckers.

(Please forgive my writing, I am just starting to write down memories, now that I am an “Ancestor”, as Cousin Jack now calls us).

Happy Hanukkah !!!

     With love and light, 

-Cousin Danny 12/14/20

PS- Please add your own comments, memories and corrections to this thread.

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