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Chicken Soup - For My Grandmother - spoken word

by Jess Klein



In March 2017, the Jewish cemetery where my grandparents are buried was vandalized, part of a spate of anti-Semitic attacks across the US.

The day I found out was International Women’s Day. On instinct, I began writing about my grandmother’s life - she immigrated to the US in 1911 at age 4 to escape Pogroms - massacres of Jewish people in Russia. She used great creativity to survive the Depression. She lost a daughter. In her 70’s she helped my mom by caring for me after school. She was, as I knew her, the quiet matriarch, the lynchpin of our family. She expressed her love through cooking - chicken soup, stuffed cabbage, chicken salad.

As I wrote, I felt called to address the vandals directly. What did they hope to gain? What fear, darkness, absence of love ruled their lives that this violent act was their best attempt to feel powerful?

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. It is a day to come clean to God for past sins.

In an ideal world, perhaps the vandals (and a lot of other people confusing cowardice with power) would use this day to atone for the pain they have caused. I also chose this day to release this video because I personally want to atone for not having spent more time with my grandmother at the end of her life. She gave me so much; yet in some ways I was too young then to truly appreciate it.



Chicken Soup

Last night
You went where few would dare
You ripped at the earth, sprayed symbols of terror
But there were things you didn't know
And now I've come to speak
To show you
What lay beneath the dirt

My grandmother made chicken soup
Stuffed cabbage
Chicken salad
The smell of onions rose from her kitchen
A lifetime of onions chopped by one woman

At the age of 4 she'd sailed an ocean
Clinging to her mother and her younger sister
Bundled up tight at night they'd whisper
Stories and folk tales in Yiddish and Russian
Dreaming of meals their grandmother made them
Steadying themselves against the rocking motion
Praying for shelter where they'd never been

Through the turnstiles of Ellis Island
Their names were shortened
Ferried to Manhattan
A train they boarded
North to Albany and west across the state
To reunite with her father
And settle near others who could relate
She learned a new language
The way children do
She learned the old recipes her mother knew
My grandmother made chicken soup

At 14
She quit school for work
She was the oldest; they needed her support
So she worked as a one-woman travelers' aid
In the same place where she'd once arrived on a train
She worked her way up to manager from secretary
It was a working folks' life but one meant to share
And in 1928 she met the man she would marry

He wasn't a talker
Except to tell jokes
He liked smart hats and button down coats
He joined the coast guard
He liked working on boats
He had reddish hair
And a pipe to smoke

After the big crash he drove a taxi
He took any work he could
They tried not to worry that the world seemed so nasty
They held on to each other
And knocked on wood
To her relief he was too old to fight in the war
So he sold life insurance
Collecting door to door
In between all the jobs
And a world so unsure
My aunt and my mother
Two daughters she bore

My grandmother made chicken soup
She raised two girls
To go off to college
To learn new things
To gain more knowledge
She wore brighter colors
And costume jewelry
Eventually her daughters had my cousins
And me

My grandmother made chicken soup
She gathered us together
For seders, lit candles
Sometimes there was anger
I couldn't understand though
I was too young
To see past her wrinkled hands
And the smile she'd greet me with after school
When I'd ask once again for my favorite foods

At 76
She saw her eldest die
I wonder now, do Grandmothers cry?
She must have cried
As the breath left her daughter's fragile lungs
But somehow grandma still seemed strong
I wish I could tell you
More what she felt
But she seemed to zip her lip
And tighten her belt
Through the kind of loss
You can never recoup
My grandmother made chicken soup

With matzo balls
Just a little bit of chewiness
The right amount of salt
Sometimes kreplach and soft orange carrots
She carried that recipe in her brain
But never spoke about where it was from
She wouldn't speak to any Russians
It seemed like she hated them

But she'd be by the bus when my school day was through
Sometimes on weekends I'd go there too
Saturday nights we'd stay up late
Eating cookies off a TV tray
For Gilligan's Island, Fantasy Island
While Grandpa sat in his favorite recliner

She let me try on her dresses and jewelry
She'd put on colored lipstick
Saying, "I wouldn't want to frighten anybody"
When every fourth Saturday
She'd take me shopping
We'd ride the bus to Midtown
And if it was raining
She'd make me wear a rain bonnet
I hated the way it pushed my hair down

When I was 14
She could see
My body was changing
She said to me
Have you started your monthly?"
A holdout phrase, a grandmother's phrase
Something from older, more restricted days
She asked about boys, she asked about college
She beat me at Gin Rummy
She had grandmothers' knowledge

When Grandpa died at 91
What could she do
But try to keep on?
She played bridge with the gals
In the Jewish home
When I'd visit her then
She seemed more alone
In those years she was fading away
I wish I had known what she was trying to say
I wish that I'd had more to give
I guess I was too young
To understand what it meant to have lived

And when she died
At 94
We told stories
Of her stubbornness
I said at the service
I was proud to be
One of a long line of stubborn women in my family
I touched the sallow skin
On her forehead
It was smooth and cold
I took her hand to hold
Hands that had made chicken soup
Stuffed cabbage
Chicken salad
But although we gathered
She wasn't there then

So my friend
When you went
To her grave last night
To act big and brave
With your old ghosts to fight
When you tarnished the stone my mother chose
The inscription with the carving of a rose
When you spoke to her
The way those old Russians did
Insulted my grandmother
Betty Cohen Schieff

I'd like to ask
What you hoped to gain
And if you know we all share the stain
Of blood and dirt and chicken soup
We're all travelers here my friend
Even you

But you went in the dark so you wouldn't have to see
Those of us who loved her, my family and me
And I suppose
It was mutual
Because I didn't want to look at you
I didn't want to look at you
But now I know
I have to

You've wounded me, you've tainted my pride
But your hate won't win
And here is why

I am already loved
I am already raised
I have already soaked up my grandmother's gaze
And that's true of so many
Who ate their grandmother's soup
And soul food and curry and rice and beans too
Now tell me who was your grandmother?
Could you tell she loved you?

I'm sorry my friend
But the fear cannot win
Even if 6 million more have to die
Me and my family or all of mankind
You will never un-cook
What has fed us inside
You can shoot it down with your guns and lies
Spray it with paint, build your walls, try to hide
But it will still try to reach you
It will still try to teach you
We are so much more than we ever imagine
And when we are tested, we can choose a better action

She sailed the ocean at the age of 4
She worked with her hands
And rarely rested
She worked til her family tasted the truth
And if you come to my table
In daylight
I will gladly cook it for you
Its good when you're cold
Or think your chances are through
The recipe in my brain that I cannot undo
My grandmother made chicken soup

Copyright 2018, Jess Klein


released September 19, 2018
Written and performed by Jess Klein


all rights reserved



Jess Klein Hillsborough, North Carolina

Rochester, NY native Jess Klein is known for staking out brave lyrical and musical territory with such albums as Wishes Well Disguised (1998), Draw Them Near (2000), Strawberry Lover (2005), City Garden (2006), Bound to Love (2009), Behind A Veil (2012) and Learning Faith (2014) which Folk Radio UK calls “unquestionably the finest album of [her] impressive career.” ... more


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