It was Hollywood’s glamor time, and Liza Mendel was Hollywood’s glamor woman. Tall, poised, with a radiating smile, people stopped and stared when she walked into a room. Some mustered the courage to talk with her, which could be done in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, or Yiddish. “Bubbe, which is Yiddish for grandmother, only spoke Yiddish, and I wanted to spend time with her. So I learned,” she would say when people asked how she knew the language.
Liza loved telling Bubbe stories. Her favorite was from the time Bubbe nearly killed a man. It was the early 1900s, and Bubbe refused to leave Russia during waves of pogroms when Jewish people were being attacked. In her fifties then and widowed, she carried a pistol for protection. And once, when a man attacked her, she pulled out the gun and started shooting, hitting him twice. Even the anti-Semitic police officers laughed at him. “You’re lucky she wasn’t ten years younger,” they said. They gave Bubbe her gun back at the police station and let her go. She simply nodded back.
Bubbe was finally convinced to leave Russia and move in with her daughter and son-in-law, Liza’s parents, shortly after turning sixty. Bubbe loved her daughter but hated their home. Liza’s parents were Bolshevik exiles in Paris, and Communist literature littered the house. The books and scraps of paper with political thoughts were everywhere. “Enough writing, get a job!” Bubbe would yell at her son-in-law. “You have a child to support.”
The Mendel household could have easily passed for a pub. Glasses of beer competed with the books for space while cigarette smoke clouds filled all the rooms. And day and night, men and women from different walks of life argued over politics. “Azohen vey,” Bubbe would mutter while watching the discussions. Often, she took Liza out of the home for walks around the city, introducing her to the arts, which Bubbe loved. For Liza, it was the films that captured her heart. And in a home of constant commotion, performing gave her a way to stand out. “I’m going to be an actress,” she told everyone.
Her first official performance came at seventeen as an extra in a film directed by a house guest of her parents. More roles as an extra followed, then some speaking ones and a leading lady role within the year. The papers declared Liza Mendel a star after the film premiere.
After more leading roles with much fanfare, Liza moved to Los Angeles for a starring role in a U.S. film. Bubbe came with her. Liza adjusted to a new life with much hard work and focus, diligently figuring out her new world. And as in Europe, her leading lady roles brought fame. But with celebrity came gossip, focused primarily on love and family. The world expected marriage for Liza. And twice she obliged, marrying an actor, then a businessman. Neither loved her, treating her as a trophy for the mantle won. Bubbe labeled both “schmucks” well before the marriages.
Divorce two took place shortly after Liza turned twenty-seven in 1934. A friend threw Liza the night she became single. To the gathering came a woman new to town. Her name was Ella, and Ella was originally from the South but grew up in Boston. Tall, elegant, she stood proud and spoke confidently, yet she was also shy and introverted. Ella came to Los Angeles for sunshine and school, studying for her Ph.D. to become a biologist.
That night, Ella and Liza spoke for hours. They shared stories of life through the sunset and dawn, parting ways only when work called. They agreed to meet for dinner that night, which went just like the night prior.
For months they secretly met. No one could know. Finally, Liza went to Bubbe.
“Bubbe, I’m in love with Ella.”
“I know,” Bubbe replied.
“The way you look at each other. How you talk to each other. I’ve never seen you like that with anyone.”
“You’re not disappointed?”
“After the first two schmucks, I’m relieved. She’s a good woman. But are you ready for what’s to come?”
“I don’t know. I want to be. But we can’t be public. My career will end. We could even go to jail. I don’t know what to do.”
“What matters are not your accomplishments, but how you live. Honor yourself by choosing what matters, and you’ll figure out how.”
That night as Ella and Liza drank tea and sat on the couch, Liza said, “I don’t know how or where we can be together. But I know what matters most to me is being with you. Let’s figure out how.”
Note: “Love, Life and Bubbe Wisdom” is a work of historical fiction. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.