Famous Roots: An Interview With My Babbi and Zayde

My maternal grandmother fought to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I would grow up years later. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter.

The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage.

My handsome grandfather had a bachelor pad on Henry Street before he was a Zayde. They met when he taught my Babbi art and their hearts filled over many hours developing photographs in dim darkrooms. Images of her from that time are coy and striking, he bold and laughing. Their eyes gleam for adventure, conquest, love, glory, knowledge.

To this day my grandparents teach me about loving fully, they have always fully believed in my writing, encouraged me to pursue it no matter what the odds. In a career filled with rejection, this fighting spirit buoyed me. Their beautiful old home in Long Island with a swimming pool and lush garden is my refreshing escape from the downtown New York hustle I still live in. Their wisdom, tenacity and verve inspire me every day and so I decided to sit down with them before the publication of my memoir 
Fame Shark
 and talk about their first meeting, performance as love, competition, what art means to them and the perils as well as pleasures of celebrity.

Royal: What was your sense of yourselves in the city when you were growing up?

Babbi: I was a very happy child because my family was a happy family. Every Shabbos we would go to shul together, everyone. Then out to a beer garden and we would have drinks and chickpeas. The children used to play with each other and laugh and we were all dressed up as beautiful dolls.