Bobby Bell loved to repeat an old Yiddish phrase of her mother’s: “If it’s beshert, it’s beshert” (“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”). Yet “beshert” also has another meaning in Yiddish: soulmate, which also perfectly describes Bobby’s relationship with her granddaughter, Bess Kalb.
That relationship is beautifully and wittily recounted in the recently published memoir “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.” But as the book’s subtitle – “A True (as told to me) Story” – suggests, there’s a twist to this particular tale: Although Bobby is narrating the story, it was actually written by Bess after her grandmother died at age 90 in 2017.
And in this telling, Bobby Bell (née Barbara Otis) is a bubbe like no other. To say she dotes on “Bessie” is to say that Donald Trump is partial to the odd basket of fried chicken. This is a story of love at first sight (Bobby and Bessie, that is; not Trump and chicken, although…). It’s also a tale of two people who complemented each other perfectly, another nod to that crazy little thing called beshert.
This is most certainly not one of those bubbe-bubbeleh relationships where grandma is content to watch her young charge play in the local park. “I raised you as my equal, birds of a feather, so I’d have a friend,” she tells Bessie in the book – a friend who is the recipient of much unsolicited advice over the years.
When I say that Bobby Bell is an opinionator, that word is indeed meant to conjure up images of a relentless, Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque T-800 offering pointers on hair products, sartorial choices, relationships and much, much more.
Here are just a few examples: “You want to know the secret to a long marriage? Separate bathrooms.” “Three reasons you should become a teacher: June, July and August.” “Bessie, beware of men who have never heard the word ‘no.’” And “Bessie, you should never wear yellow with your color – you’ll look dead.” The only thing Bobby Bell had that came close to matching her number of opinions was store cards.
3 percent Jewish
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It shouldn’t come as a shock that this memoir is full of great one-liners, given that its author was a prize-winning writer on late night TV show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” What’s perhaps more surprising, to this reader at least, is its poignancy about aging and death, its ability to paint vivid pictures of both shtetl and New York Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the sheer unabashed Jewishness of this saga. It is, to offer up another Yiddish word, a mechaye (joy).
How Jewish is “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me”? Well, any non-Jewish person reading it will automatically acquire “Paul Ryan levels” of Jewishness (3 percent, in case you were wondering). It’s the ultimate Jewish immigrant tale, starting with persecution in Eastern Europe and ending with prosperous lives on the Eastern Seaboard (Palm Beach and Martha’s Vineyard, to be more precise).
But this matrilineal love story between three generations of Jewish women isn’t all sweetness and light lunches at the Plaza. It also goes to some dark places, especially when exploring the relationship between Bobby and her daughter (and Bess’ mom), Robin. If the memoir starts off as “Postcards from a Young Woman” as Bobby recounts her mother’s life in Brooklyn, it almost veers into “Postcards From the Edge” as Bobby and Robin endure the most fractious of relationships in the daughter’s childhood. I’ll say no more but to note that “pink milk” will never sound so benign again.
Kalb, 33, is currently working on the script for “Nobody,” having sold the film rights to the production company behind the excellent Hugh Jackman-Allison Janney drama “Bad Education.” She took a break from bringing her grandmother to life on the big screen, and caring for her infant son, to talk about how a “personal grief exercise” became a bestseller.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity, brevity and to try to make the interviewer slightly less verbose.
‘Are you crazy?’
Congratulations on the book, which, to quote Bobby Bell, “came to life and punched me on the arm.” When did you decide this was a story you had to tell?
“I was very unsure about whether or not this was a book that I should write right up until I sent in the proposal. I actually sent it in with an apology to my literary agent. I said: ‘This is probably just a personal grief exercise, so apologies in advance. I loved my grandmother very much, as you know, and this is my personal tribute to her. Ignore.’ And she emailed me back: ‘Are you crazy? This is a book!’
“Because this is such a personal story and something that I wasn’t sure if anybody outside my immediate family would be able to relate to or appreciate – because it’s a tribute to a woman that we all loved – I was unsure as to whether or not it would resonate. So when I hear someone like you say that this book affected you and you responded to it, that’s doing a lot to allay the concerns of me in 2017, weeping over my laptop and, on a whim because I said I would send in some material, sending it in.”
Was it always your plan to write the memoir in this format, in the first person, in Bobby’s voice?
“Always. I’m a writer of and for characters. In my day job I wrote in the voice of Jimmy Kimmel; I write as other people – it’s sort of my trick to avoid writing as myself.
“There was no other way to tell this story than in my grandmother’s voice. She was the best storyteller I knew, and the way that she told her own stories in many ways reveals more about her than the plot points in the stories themselves.
“I found it was an effective narrative device to get as close to conveying the truth about somebody’s life story as possible – put it in their own words, have them say it.”
How liberating was it writing a memoir where you didn’t necessarily have to be bound by precise details? Where you could take certain liberties while writing in character?
“This book was a tough one to categorize for exactly that reason. Is this a memoir? Is this a novel? And the subtitle of the book, ‘A True (as told to me) Story,’ is a way of winking at that question of truth and veracity and reportage. This is, of course, not the objective truth. This is not my grandmother’s autobiography. Even though this is told in her voice and with her as the narrator, she of course didn’t write it.
“I would say that this is an indirect memoir: It’s my life story, told by her, about our relationship. So, instead of ‘taking liberties,’ I would say I did my best as a granddaughter and as a writer to capture the woman that I loved. And yes, if she were here today, I’m sure she would take it to pieces and point out exactly where I wasn’t right or where I could have done better!”
What was the thinking behind focusing on you, your mom and your grandma?
“I very purposely tried to write a matrilineal love story. I specifically wanted to write a book that just focused on the women. Women who didn’t necessarily achieve anything that changed the course of history – my grandmother was an ordinary woman who didn’t really work throughout her adult life and just had to raise children. And I thought that there was just something epic in that so why not just focus on that? The women that she created.”
The memoir also makes great use of voice mails Bobby left for you over the last decade of her life, and which you have kept to this day.
“Well, this was the way my grandma could best be captured. She is not just herself telling the story. She is the voice mails she left. And the way she talked. You know, if I could have put Bloomingdale’s receipts in the book too, I would have.”
You have Bobby describe your habit of saving voice emails as “both sentimental and morose.” Does the fact you started keeping them, from 2012, suggest that at some subliminal level you were already thinking about writing something about her life?
“I must have. I don’t know if it was to write something about her life, but I think it was to be able to call her back to me and to summon her whenever I needed her. It was her leaving little bits of herself behind – and I knew that when she was gone, I would need that and I would want to be comforted by her. I’m very glad I did, not just for the book but because I have a 9-month-old son and he’ll know the sound of her voice as I can play him her voice mails.”
As a writer, you’re always giving Bobby the best lines – to the extent that on the page you’re almost the ‘straight woman’ in this relationship. Is that really how it was in real life?
“Oh, it was definitely our relationship in real life! She always got the biggest laughs. In our dynamic, I was basically trying to keep up with her. And also, I think there’s nothing more draining than a memoirist who is able to reconstruct conversations and scenarios where they’re saying bon mot after bon mot.”
How much did your experience writing for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” help you here, specifically that discipline of being able to write in a particular character’s voice?
“I think writing for late night and writing for the show was, if anything, the best way to train myself to just write. You write for late night television and there are four shows a week, Monday through Thursday. There’s no ‘I couldn’t figure out anything to write today’; you would be fired – the job is to fill up the page with material, preferably good material.
“I do think that writing not in my own voice as one of many writers for ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ was a good exercise in disappearing into another person’s voice. Certainly, I injected my personality and opinion and way of saying things into the material that I submitted for his show, but the most important voice was the voice of the show, the voice of Jimmy. That was a good, humbling place to start when I decided to start from a character’s point of view.”
The grandmother-granddaughter relationship is something we rarely read about in fiction or see on screen...
“I’m hoping to change that with the film adaptation of the book. I’m excited to bring that kind of relationship to the screen, because I think a lot of people will see themselves in it and come to understand a different type of love than is typically depicted in movies.”
As you were writing the book, were you imagining who might play Bobby in a possible film version?
“When I wrote the book, I didn’t dream that there’d be a movie about it. But once the manuscript was out and I started hearing that various production companies were trying to bid on it and they were seeing this as a movie … there are a lot of actresses who would be great.
“I’m not trying to be political; I really do think there are a lot of actresses who would be great as Bobby who are working today and deserve a leading woman role. Hopefully somebody who can portray both warmth and a sense of loving-kindness, but somebody who is also sharp and acerbic, and tough as nails.”
Spoken language? Jewish
The book hints that Bobby Bell was not exactly a lover of Israel, specifically when she states while narrating her own funeral: “My coffin was perfect. Absolutely perfect! Although I could have done without the Jewish star. What am I? A Zionist?” Yet Kalb says this perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“She was a fan of Israel. My grandmother actually spent a lot of time in Jerusalem. She has cousins to this day who live in Tel Aviv and was very close with them.
“The politics of Israel were really changing throughout her life, and even though she never really declared herself on one side or the other, she was somebody who was more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish. Whatever that means, she created a daughter who decided to go live on a hippie kibbutz in Israel,” Kalb says, her mom later confirming that it was Kibbutz Amiad, just north of the Sea of Galilee.
The story starts with a depiction of shtetl life in Belarus and ends in Palm Beach – and with Robin a trained psychiatrist. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate Jewish immigrant tale?
“I only exist because of Jewish persecution in the Pale of Settlement under Czar Alexander. I am a product of somebody fleeing the pogroms in the shtetls. At the core of the story is a deeply Jewish narrative, and I see myself as a product of brave Jewish women who were able to connect to their faith and to rebel from persecution in ways that really inspire me. My great-grandmother Rose was 12 and fled alone from persecution, and that’s a thing she had to do because of her religion.”
Indeed, there’s an evocative section early on in the book where Kalb recounts her great-grandmother’s flight from Pinsk to the United States in the 1880s – a journey she self-funded by accompanying the kosher milkman on his rounds around the shtetl and peddling rags to the villagers.
Before she sets off for Hamburg in the hope of beginning a new life in America, he advises her: “When you go to the border, find the other Jews. They will show you where to go. They will care for you. Find the other Jews.” And as Bobby herself tells Bess about Rose’s arrival in America, “It’s her story, Bessie, but it belongs to us. When she stepped off the boat [in New York], we all became possible.”
“When I started writing,” Kalb says, “I didn’t realize that this is an explicitly Jewish book and this is a book about the Jewish experience – and certainly about the Jewish immigrant experience. It’s a book where the catalyst of my mother’s life, the idea that she would become a doctor – which is what ended up causing her to meet my father and have me – that happened in Israel. That happened when she sliced her hand open peeling potatoes on a kibbutz.”
In her research for the book, Kalb also uncovered a bizarre entry in the 1930 U.S. census that speaks volumes about the level of understanding of Jewish immigrants at the time: “Bobby's mother Rose and her father Shmuel – Samuel – their language is listed as ‘Jewish.’ They spoke Yiddish yet their language in the United States census was ‘Jewish.’ I have a copy of it printed and hanging in my office so that I write ‘Jewish’!”
“Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as told to me) Story” is published by Alfred A. Knopf, priced $25.95.