Bubbeh is Yiddish for grandmother. The premise of Bubbeh by Sabina Berman is to tell the intricate details of the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. Bubbeh was translated into English long after the original novella was written which has allowed for many more audiences to become captivated by the intense feelings between the narrator and the grandmother. Throughout the course of the novella, the narrator tells of her grandmother who taught her about the meaning of life. The novella unfolds through the narrator’s description of three generations of women in her family as she describes many memories from her childhood.
These memories tell of what it was like to grow up as a Jew in Mexico City in the 1960s. Little girls often receive dolls as gifts. These dolls often take on lives of their own as young girls weave intricate stories involving their dolls. The narrator in Bubbeh receives a doll from Mrs. Aizberg and the doll can be paralleled to the narrator’s challenging childhood (Berman, 15). The young narrator, Sabita, struggles to understand her relationship with her parents, grandparents and herself. The novella tells how Sabita came to understand herself and create her own identity through the relationship she had with her grandmother, or her Bubbeh.
The doll becomes a symbol for Sabita (Berman 15 – 18). Sabita is struggling to find her own identity as she works through relationships with her family members. Her grandmother seems larger than life and even though they have their difficulties, Sabita looks up her grandmother and attempts to embody her strengths into her own personality. In addition, Sabita had her Jewish affiliation to contend with as well. At the time of the story, Jewish people didn’t go about advertising their religious beliefs. Sabita also had to struggle with this part of her identity and the fact that it was societally unacceptable to let people know she was a Jew.
Dolls are often symbolic of family members. Little girls act out what they believe it means to take care of a child. Sabita’s doll represents the theme of the entire novella because it takes on characteristics of herself. She values the doll as a link to her family and beings to internalize the lessons her grandmother has taught her through her love of the doll. In this way the doll becomes Sabita and she is able to act out her inner turmoil about her family and religion through playing with the doll.
The ability to represent a doll as oneself, as Sabita did, makes the doll become more real. In this way, Sabita was able to create an identity for herself that she could live through her creation of her doll. Mrs. Aizberg probably realized the power that a girl has over her doll and wanted Sabita to learn valuable life lessons by giving her doll desirable characteristics and creating the kind of identity she herself wished that she had. The doll begins to allow Sabita to transform herself into the kind of person who didn’t struggle with so many challenges growing up.
Sabita knew that her childhood struggles were real and by allowing her doll to come alive she was able to navigate her way through these struggles in order to emerge from childhood with knowledge about the world. Mrs. Aizberg was instrumental in this process. While she didn’t explicitly sit down and explain to Sabita how a doll could help her through life, she did know that little girls make their dolls real through imaginary play. In this way the doll has a certain power over the girl. Mrs. Aizberg knew that Sabita would talk to her doll (Berman, 15 – 18).
She knew that a girl and her doll could hold long conversations. In this way, young girls are able to express their feelings about growing up to a “person” who is not judgmental. Sabita struggled in her relationships with her parents and grandparents and her doll gave her an outlet for working through her struggles and finding ways to move past them in order to find happiness. Mrs. Aizberg is extraordinarily wise when she presents Sabita with her doll. From her own girlhood, she knows the important friendship that a doll can give to a young girl. Sabita’s grandmother was always larger than life to Sabita.
Despite the challenges in their relationship, Sabita realizes the strength and character of her grandmother. As she grows up, she is able to realize the importance her grandmother played in her life. Sabita was able to form a relationship with her doll that transcended any relationship she had with her real life family members. She was able to find a “friend” who would always be there for her and would be a safe place to go when times were tough. Sabita’s grandmother knew the importance of having such an outlet but she also knew that family members were not going to be that outlet for Sabita.
Therefore, the doll becomes a representation of the type of relationship that Sabita’s grandmother wished she was able to give her. Bubbeh teaches Sabita about Jewish rituals and Yiddish customs from her grandmother. Sabita’s grandmother teaches her how to seek her own spirit and to appreciate the beauty of the world around her. Bubbeh teaches Sabita how to listen to the secret voices within her. The doll gives her a way to do this. The doll becomes her confidant as she navigates her way through her atypical family and her inner turmoil. Dolls often symbolize the way girls wish to be.
Sabita wanted to fit in among her family members and she wanted to find a way to blend her Jewish heritage with the world around her. Finding her voice was possible through her friendship with a doll that became her way of listening to the secret voices within her and sharing her feelings with someone else. Through the doll, the joys and heartbreaks of growing up are described in such a way that shows the true courageousness of Bubbeh and her efforts to pass the love of life onto her granddaughter. Berman, Sabina. Bubbeh. Trans. Andrea G. Labinger. New York: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998.