Judith Levy met her husband, Herb Levy, more than four decades ago at the Concord Resort Hotel and Golf Club, in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., which at the time was a famous Borscht Belt destination. A singer with a gig at the hotel, she was passing the time by writing letters in the lobby. Herb came over and asked her to write him one. “I’m lonely. Would you write me a letter?” he said.
“I fell for him right then and there,” Levy said. “He used the perfect pick-up line for me. I was attracted to his vulnerability.”
Levy, 79, and her husband have been together ever since. They raised three daughters, and now they have five grandchildren. Telling them how their grandparents met comes easily for Levy; she’s a natural storyteller with a quick wit and an engaging sense of humor.
Blessed with the gift of gab, Levy was surprised to discover, while attending a memoir-writing course at Florida Atlantic University some 30 years ago, that not all grandmothers have family tales tripping off their tongues.
“When I came into the class, the room was loaded with grandparents who wanted to put their memories down for their grandchildren. Many of them thought they’d become a voice on the phone or a present in the mail, and they really didn’t like that,” she recalled. “But I could see that they were having trouble doing it, because they weren’t writers — they were carers and sharers, but they weren’t writers.” That realization led to a best-selling book, “Grandmother Remembers: A Written Heirloom for My Grandchild.” It has been translated into five languages (including Hebrew) and has sold more than 3 million copies. A 30th anniversary edition was published this year, several months ahead of National Grandparents Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day. (Not everyone knows about the holiday, let alone celebrates it, but it is clearly an important calendar event for Levy.) “Grandmother Remembers” has spawned a series of related books written by Levy, including “Grandfather Remembers,” “Grandmother Remembers Holidays,” “Our Chosen Child” (to be completed by parents of adopted children) and “My Baby and Me” (a single parent’s journal), among others.
“Grandmother Remembers” is essentially “a baby book backwards,” as Levy puts it. An illustrated album, it has spaces for photographs, but its pages are mainly filled with writing prompts to help a grandmother put down her memories on paper for posterity.
“I remembered when I was a kid back in school, if the teacher wanted you to write and you couldn’t do it, she would start you. She would say, ‘The thing I liked most about my summer vacation was…’ and then everyone could write.
“So I thought, if I didn’t ask grandmother any questions, but I just put her foot on the path to telling her own story, that she could easily do it. If I said, ‘When Grandfather proposed to me, he said…’ or, ‘On my wedding day I wore….’ She knows what she wore, and she’ll put it down with a picture next to it and it will become an heirloom in the family, to be cherished by this grandchild and future generations.”
Levy, who moved to Boca Raton, Fla., from New York with her husband in 1979, has, of course, filled out a copy of “Grandmother Remembers” for each of her grandchildren. The books, no doubt, are bursting with vividly remembered details and anecdotes from their grandmother’s colorful life.
Levy grew up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, the eighth of 10 children born to a poor Orthodox cantor and his wife. “We were five boys and five girls. The boys went to yeshiva, but we girls were sent to public school,” she said.
While her sisters took commercial courses in high school, Levy, a bit of a rebel, insisted on pursuing academic studies, including Latin. Of course, her sisters, with their office skills, easily found summer jobs. “I needed a job, but I didn’t have skills. No one was looking for a Latin translator,” she said, laughing.
She ended up finding a job in a plastics factory, “where it was 110 degrees in the shade.” Unbeknown to her at the time, her singing to herself by her machine to fight off boredom would be her ticket to a life she had never imagined.
“Later that year, I was invited to a Christmas party by the factory’s owners, and I wasn’t about to say no. I traveled all the way to 72nd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was a total mystery to me,” she recalled.
Having remembered how she sang in the factory, her hosts invited her to sing a tune with the band. She got up and sang, and the bandleader offered her a job right on the spot.
“I remember thinking to myself all the way home on the train that my father was not going to let me take the job. He thought that going onstage to sing was the same as doing burlesque,” Levy said.
As she had expected, her father did tell her in no uncertain terms to forget about singing, but he relented after she cried for three days straight. “He warned me to never show them anything but my voice,” she said. He also insisted that she complete her high school education.
Levy was a professional singer from 1951 to 1969, appearing with the Peter Duchin Orchestra and other bands. She still sings today, though it’s usually something she does as part of talks she gives for organizations, Jewish and otherwise.
She has many amusing memories from her days in the music business. Aside from letter writing, Levy used to play Scrabble to while away the time between shows. “One time a guy saw me with my game set and asked me if I wanted to play dirty Scrabble! I said, ‘No!” she recalled. “I was rather sheltered because of my Orthodox background.”
Might this be a recollection she put down in writing for her grandchildren? “I don’t tell these stories to my grandkids,” she said. “They don’t need to know about my boyfriends before I met their grandfather!” (The state of Florida named Levy and her husband Grandparents of the Year in 2007.)
As much as her books are predicated on the importance of writing down memories, Levy admits that actions are ultimately more important than words. She advises grandparents to make memories with their grandchildren by doing things with them.
Levy’s grandmother taught her how to make chicken soup when she was 7 years old. “She was a Hasidic woman who wore a sheytl, and she didn’t use a recipe. I stood next to her, and she directed me to put things in to the pot. She’d say, ‘ Sheet arayn ’ — put it in, in Yiddish,” Levy remembered. “Every time I make chicken soup, she is there with me.”
Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer covering Israel and the Jewish world for the Forward and other publications.