When I was in fourth grade, I came home from school one afternoon to find my babushka’s hot cheese blintzes waiting for me on the kitchen table, but my babushka was nowhere in sight. . Instead, my grandmother, Hannah, had gone to see our neighbor Avi, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces, who offered to train her in Krav Maga, a self-defense system that combines boxing, wrestling and martial arts. arts.
It only made sense that a 4-foot-10 grandmother would want to learn how to defend herself in 1980s New York. But my babushka didn’t just intend to keep criminals away from the dastardly streets of Queens. She also intended to sell it to her personal enemies, or vragithe worst of which was his son-in-law, my father, Vlad.
He wasn’t good enough for his only child, my mother Leah, a doctor with integrity. He was a boxer-turned-cab driver with a dirty mouth, a wandering eye, a fondness for vodka, and a way of freewheeling with money. His fatal flaw, however, was that he was Russian.
Although he was a Jew born during the Siege of Leningradin which he lost his brother to the Nazis at the front and other starving relatives at home, when my Ukrainian babushka looked at him, she saw Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev together, which made him simmer from rage.
Babushkas have endured war, famine, and genocide, so they have zero tolerance for fools. They’ll send you to your grave with a Yiddish curse as easily as they will strangle you with their bare hands. And, of course, they will fight to the death for their homeland, as the babushkas are currently doing in Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine.
A babushka named Elena would have off hook a suspicious drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. Galyna, one in three seventy-two-year-old babushkas spearhead a Molotov cocktail-making operation from his building in Kyiv. Some babushkas use their iPhone to call the premises Russian units while others wield AK-47 assault rifles to struggle Russian soldiers.
The challenge is rooted in the Ukrainian spirit. It was built through a long story of oppression, and the Jews of Ukraine, in particular, have faced some of the cruellest anti-Semitism of the 20th century. When the Nazis occupied the Soviet Union in 1941, the Holocaust in Ukraine was the first phase of the genocide in which an estimated 1.5 million Jews were shot at close range in a “Holocaust by bullets.”
Even after World War II, through the Khrushchev years and beyond, systemic anti-Semitism persisted. Jews could not practice their religion, faced discrimination in the workplace, and had limited economic opportunities (although socialism was also to blame). As a result, many Jews, including my immediate and extended family, leak in the United States in the 70s and 80s.
In our Forest Hills apartment building filled with hard-core immigrants, the bosses were the babushkas who paraded the streets with grocery bags filled with pierogies, kielbasas, caviar and other delicacies – and chased the vragi from Woodhaven Boulevard to Grand Central Parkway.
After my babushka took a few lessons with Avi, she enlisted the babushkas of my cousins, Esther and Bella. My cousins and I peeked into Avi’s apartment several times a week to see our babushkas shielding, punching and kicking. Soon they were strutting around Key Food with a Krav Maga swagger.
Because Krav Maga teaches people to constantly anticipate attacks and think strategically in an instant, it made my already suspicious babushka even more paranoid and combative, especially when it came to my father.
Its mere existence was suspect. What was even worse than his life and breath was his exaggerated generosity. The common refrain among my father’s friends was “Vlad pays.” Vlad pays for the restaurant. Vlad pays for banya, or Russian bath. Vlad pays for off-track bets. In other words, my father allowed leeches in the tri-state area and beyond to suck blood from our bank account.
“He’s not just taking food out of his family’s mouths. It is orchestrate mass starvation of the Ukrainian people! proclaimed my babushka. To her, my father was a rude, vodka-loving Stalin. The more he swore and partied, the more she criticized him. The more she criticized him, the more he swore and partied.
Opinions on the Cold War brewing in our apartment were mixed. Some friends and relatives thought my babushka should have kicked my dad’s ass by now, while others thought he was a saint for letting my grandparents live with us, and that was a situation where the elder abuse would be justified.
Then there was an escalation. My dad started dressing smarter, going out at night, and having secret conversations on the phone. We also received calls that hung up. My babushka heard from his spies Esther and Bella that he wasshtupping one hush– fucking a slut – who lived near Rego Park, and it had been going on for a while. Not wanting to be accomplices in the murder, they did not divulge his name to my babushka.
The hang up calls soon had a baby crying in the background which meant my dad had spawned a ubludok—a bastard. Because he “was leading a pogrom on his own family,” my babushka prepared for battle.
One afternoon, my babushka and I were buying brisket at Key Food. Next to us, a simple young woman with a stroller was waiting in line. When her baby started crying and she took him in her arms to comfort him, my babushka focused on his face. She gave me a knowing look.
“I don’t think he looks much like her,” I whispered as she laughed at me. Then she turned to the young woman and asked, “Whose baby is this?” Because it looks like an ubludok! The woman gasped, shielding her baby from an impending attack.
“You can’t hurt a baby, it’s a war crime!” I exclaimed, grabbing the beef brisket and pulling out my Key Food babushka.
In our apartment, she waited for my father to come home from work while my pulse quickened at the thought of my little babushka fighting my boxer father. When he walked through the door, she threw herself on him. He hugged her tightly, but she squatted quickly, slipping out of his grasp.
Turning towards him, she broke his nose with her palm. He screamed, about to hit her, but stopped. He had never hit a woman – especially a babushka – and she knew it. So, she entered with a horizontal nudge as he unsuccessfully tried to block her.
Avenging war, famine, genocide and adultery, she kneed him in the groin, knocking him out. My grandfather Isaac, my dedushka, counted for 10 seconds as my dad lay there outside for the count, while my mom knelt beside him with smelling salts. Then my dedushka raised my babushka’s fist in victory.
The hung up calls stopped and my dad started spending more time at home. About a year later, my brother was born. Having a son made my father a family man. Although he eventually started partying again, my babushka’s watchful eye and iron fist subdued him.
A few days ago I sat at my kitchen table eating the cheese blintz I made with my babushka recipe and thinking about the badass babushkas currently defending Ukraine with iPhones, Molotovs and AK-47s in Russia’s brutal war. Sometimes I fear they are no match for the military might and savagery of Russia.
But remembering my father passed out on the ground, my triumphant babushka standing over him, I realize that the power of love for one’s family and country, and the strength pure will.
As defense expert John Arquilla recently said, “Grandmothers with iPhones can trump satellites.” Putin should know not to mess with babushkas.