My grandmother Bernice Veroff lives at an elder care residence in Hartford, Connecticut, where she spends her days kvetching about the food, leaving lipstick stains on all the lemonade glasses, scowling at the aides, and hoarding her winnings from games like Scrabble, Mahjong and Bridge, which she plays against the other Jewish ladies. In her private room, she has a bumper sticker taped to the wall: “Proud Democrat,” it says. The sticker is pasted between newspaper clippings about Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization that she was active in for many years, along with magazine profiles of Hillary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
My grandmother resembles Ginsburg, both in size, wit, and in the way her spine and knuckles have curved, slowly, with age.
On a recent visit to this home, when I asked Bernice who was the first woman in our family to vote, I watched the question worm its way through a thick fog of memory loss, her sharp eyes screwed up with the worry of non-understanding. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “I don’t remember.”
In a way, it is okay that Bernice does not remember. Her whole life, her world was the Jewish immigrant community of Hartford. In addition to being a mother and a schoolteacher, for years, she was the president of the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. She organized countless phone drives, antique sales, and other fundraising campaigns to help build the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, which is known for its research into MS and diabetes, as well as for being one of the first hospitals in the Holy Land to treat Palestinian patients as readily as patients from Israel. She was also active in Hadassah’s program for the professional development of young Jewish women. Bernice visiting the Grand Canyon with Rachel and her little brother
As president of the Women’s Division, Bernice visited Israel seven times, where she collected many lamps and paintings in shades of desert sand, topaz and olive green. Today, these artworks fill her room at the elder home with their distinct, dry character—harsh and humorous at once, somehow. This sensibility also fills my earliest childhood memories. But Bernice’s Zionism was not just about making pilgrimages to Israel. It also extended to the concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for philanthropy. She visited Buenos Aires and Prague on missions for the United Jewish Appeal, and her efforts were written about in the Hartford Jewish Ledger more than once.
“Those were exciting times,” she nodded, finally, in response to my gentle line of questioning. It was the only insight she could muster, today, in 2019. In recent years, her weight has dropped to less than 100 pounds. She is 96 years old.
Even still, Bernice kicked her foot in the air and cackled when I told her that I would write about her. The idea made her smile.