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Friday, 02 November 2007

Memoir: Grandma Called Me “Mutton”

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian. Today is Mort's 83rd birthday, so you might want to stop by his blog to leave him a greeting.

My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived as a boy, traveled halfway around the world from the province of Minsk in what is now Belarus to the U.S. in 1903, settling first in East Harlem and then the Bronx. Until her death nearly 60 years later, she never ventured outside the two boroughs except for periodic trips to Brooklyn to visit the cemetery in which her husband and a young daughter are buried.

The exact year of her birth was unknown to her family. There was always an odd reluctance for the older members of my family to disclose their age to the younger generation. I do not know whether this was a matter of superstition or a form of family etiquette. Even if Grandma had been willing to reveal her birthdate, however, the fact would have been obscured by a recording phenomenon that has always tended to jumble chronology.

To my grandmother, family events were invariably linked to history. They occurred, for example, on "the second night of Passover the year in which Czar Alexander II was assassinated" or on "Yom Kippur eve the year in which the [Russian] war with Turkey began." Such disclosures required difficult translations from both the Russian Gregorian and the Hebrew lunar calendars, but these invariably failed to produce satisfactory historical fact.

Grandma was a short, sturdily built woman with fair features and only a smattering of gray in her brown hair. A stranger might have imagined that the hair was dyed. Grandma, of course, was not even aware that there were establishments known as beauty parlors. Her wide face, high cheekbones, blue eyes, upturned nose, and the babushka that frequently covered her head gave her a distinctly Slavic cast.

It was obvious that sometime in the past there had been an unwelcome Slavic genetic incursion into Grandma's bloodlines. The raping of Jewish girls by Cossack soldiers garrisoned near the ghetto villages of western Russia was not uncommon.

But when I once foolishly raised the possibility that one of her female ancestors had suffered such a dreadful fate, Grandma reacted angrily and slapped my face. She was devoutly religious and took her Jewishness very seriously. The thought that anything but the pure blood lines of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob flowed through her veins was unthinkable.

I shared a bedroom with Grandma until I was about 12. She tolerated the pictures of my athletic heroes on the wall. In return, I obediently recited my morning and evening prayers with her every day. Grandma never learned to speak English. I stopped speaking to her in Yiddish only after it became apparent that she at least understood English.

My mother worked during much of my childhood. So Grandma was frequently entrusted with my care. When I was not in school, I was invariably outside playing stickball, touch football and the other street games that New York kids played during the Depression years. Our kitchen window faced the street on which we played, enabling Grandma to monitor my activities, calling out to me when she saw that vehicular traffic was too heavy or announcing that it was time to eat.

I was named after her beloved father, Moshe Aharon Tsivin. In bestowing English names on me at birth, my parents transformed Moshe Aharon into Morton Arthur. Grandma took no notice of my English name and called me "Moishareleh," combining my two Hebrew names and using the more affectionate diminutive form. And that's what she would bellow out the window when she wanted my attention. I was always embarrassed to hear her Yiddish-accented voice calling me, particularly when my friends would mimic her.

I tried to discourage her from using my Jewish name. But she was reluctant to use the few words of English that she knew. Finally, however, she decided to please me by using my English name to communicate. Unhappily, the best she could do handling the name Morton was to come up with "Mutton."

To my friends, "Mutton" was even more hilarious than "Moishareleh," and the taunting became more troubling. In desperation I urged Grandma to return to her former usage. The Jewish name was now more tolerable than "Mutton."

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


lol Great story!!!! Someone long ago told me, "Be careful what you want -- you might get it!" and they were right. This is just another example of how true that statement is. Still, I'm sure, looking back, you would love to hear her around calling you "Mutton" again.

How embarrasing for the young boy, but how wonderful for you now to have these memories.

Hi Mort,


My husband's Mother came from Germany and never lost her German accent.
Every Easter, she used to bring cakes to my children. They were in the shape of an Easter egg and had the child's name written in icing in a very fancy script surrounded by icing roses and lilies.

The kids loved getting these cakes. All except my youngest boy. Grandmom could say everyone's name perfectly except Jerry. The best she could do when telling the baker what name she wanted was "CHERRY".

So, each Easter all the other kids cherished their cake and ate their name LAST, but Jerry could not wait to remove Cherry and have that embarrassment over for another year.

Yes, we laughed about it then, but Kay is right. We would give anything to have Grandmom back calling him Cherry again.

Happy Birthday Mort! Your story really made me laugh - and remember. My mother's English name was Mary and she was born in St. Louis. But her parents came from approximately the same area. She always told me her Jewish name was Mirela. It wasn't till many years later when I saw a copy of her ketuba (Jewish wedding contract) that I saw her name was Mirel. She actually thought it was Mirela.
She was named after her maternal grandmother who used to sell things to the Russian soldiers and was often asked by distraught parents to go and get their daughters back if the soldiers had taken them.
She was called Mirel with the _________brains. It was some Yiddish expression with a big number, but I don't remember what it was. Something like a thousand, I think. Do you know it?

Mort, your story is beautifully told. Your feelings of love, embarrassment, devotion, mercy comes through so well. Thank you for sharing it with us on your birthday. You must have such a wealth of memories.

Happy birthday Mort. Thanks too for your story about coming home at the end of WWII.

Happy Birthday, Mort. You have beat me by six months when I will become 83. I'm sure we could share many memories of the Depression years, but mine would have been located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Even though your grandmother embarrassed you when you were a child, I know you must have loved her fiercely. Just think -- she gave you a wonderful story to regale your audience with in later years. I can almost hear her yelling "Mutton" with a Yiddish accent.

Happy Birthday Mort!!

I could relate to so much of your story, it gave me such a warm feeling reading it and brought back some very special memories.

My mother did not know her exact date of her birth. When I would ask her when she was born, her answer was - in the winter. I made her birthday December 25.

My Jewish name is Mattal - the deminutive is Mattela. How I wish there was someone left in my family to call me that again.

Thanks for sharing a beautiful story.

My mother did not the exact


This story ties in with your thoughts today.

Fast forward to the year 2030. A young pregnant Jewish wife is walking down the street and meets a friend.

"Hello, I see you are having a baby,
Congratulations. Is it a boy or a girl?"

"It's a boy."

"Have you thought of his name yet?"

"Yes, we are thinking of calling him Schlomo after his grandfather, Steve."

That's a great story, Mort, and Happy Birthday! I agree with Kay, you have to be careful what yuou ask for!

Happy Birthdat YOM HU LEH DIT - SA MAY ACH TO YOU MORT - now you can have a second Bar mitzvah!!! That was a great story and reminded me of the time that I went with My Mother and Aunt to a sale in Filenes Basement in Boston. It was during a school day and she allowed me to take the day off. It was so crowded there that I got lost and began to call out "Mommy Mommy" - to which the reply was heard by a million other women - WHAT!!! When I did finally find My Mother she told me if it ever happens again call me, Rose. Calling my Mother by her first name...oh my what an honor. My husband got the honor of calling her Ma - only after the Rabbi said Mazel Tov!!! Prior to that and for 6 years she was Mrs. Silver.

I enjoyed your story on why your grandmother called you Mutton. I would hate to tell you what some of my young cousins called me when they were children. I will say it begins with A, and has three letters. A**. Eventually they were able to say Alice.

Mort, this is such a harsh yet wonderful story. I'm sorry for your pain however, it made me laugh because you could share the memory and seem stronger for them.
It also made me want to know you. What a wonderful thing we share here..the ability to make each other wonder. To remember we survived the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly. However we survived and live on. With all of the memories..and here we are to share and hopefully grow wiser..

Thank you so much for this...
Dorothy from grammology
remember to call your grandma

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