Zibby moderated a conversation between Emmy-nominated comedy writer, Bess Kalb, and author of I Am My Mother’s Daughter, Dana Kurtz, as part of the Florida JCC’s Author Series. The recorded panel, released here as a podcast, focuses on how Bess and Dana both processed the grief of losing the most influential female figures in their lives through writing as well as the lessons that have been collectively passed down through generations of Jewish women.


Marcy Levitt: Good afternoon. I’m Marcy Levitt, Director of Literary and Performing Arts at the Alper JCC in Miami. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to the Florida JCC’s Author Series, which is a partnership with six, soon to be seven, Florida JCCs starting in Miami working all the way up to Orlando. I am delighted to announce we will be continuing this popular monthly series with my dedicated and creative colleagues through the next season. The group includes Debbie Hochman from Posnack JCC in Fort Lauderdale; Karen Sepsenwol, the Galbut Family JCC in Miami Beach; Stephanie Orwitz, Adolph & Rose Levis; Avivit Erlichman from the Roth JCC in Orlando; and David Surowitz, the Michael-Ann Russell JCC in North Miami Beach. We encourage you to write your questions in the Q&A feature at the bottom of the screen. After the discussion between Bess and Dara and our moderator, Zibby Owens, we’ll take audience questions. We hope to answer all of them if time allows. Please purchase our author books from our local bookstore partners, Books & Books and The Writer’s Block. Both books are available in paperback. I want to tell you a few words about our authors. Zibby Owens is the CEO of Moms Don’t Have Time To, a media company she founded featuring podcasts, publications, and communities. She hosts the award-winning podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.” She is the author/editor of an anthology, Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. Named New York City’s top book influencer by Vulture and on Oprah’s list of top podcasts two years in a row, Zibby is a frequent contributor to Good Morning America, The Washington Post, Good Day LA, and other media outlets. She has two children’s books forthcoming and another anthology, Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids, debuting in November. We hope to host her.

Bess Kalb is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and the bestselling author of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, a New York Times Editor’s Choice. She wrote for eight years on Jimmy Kimmel Live and has written for the Emmy Awards, the Academy Awards, and the 2020 Democratic National Convention. She is the head writer and executive producer of the WGA-nominated Yearly Departed, an Amazon comedy special, and is currently adapting Nobody Will Tell You This But Me into a feature film with Sight Unseen Pictures. The book was wonderful. I hope my grandkids love me so intensely. Can’t wait to see the movie. After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age forty-two, Dara Kurtz left her twenty-year career as a personal banker and financial planner to focus on writing, speaking, and mentoring. Her popular blog, Crazy Perfect Life, reaches over 180,000 followers. She is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and is a columnist for Forsyth Woman Magazine. In addition to writing I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love, she wrote Crush Cancer: Personal Enlightenment from a Cancer Survivor and Cancer Crush Workbook. Dara is a writer with one goal, to use her life experiences to help people strengthen their relationships and create more happiness and joy in their everyday life. Dara beautifully shares the incredible love and wisdom shared between Jewish mothers and daughters through the letters of her departed mother and grandmother. Thank you.

Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. Thank you, Marcy, for that lovely introduction. Hi to Bess and — is it Dare-ah or Dar-ah? I feel like it’s Dar-ah.

Dara Kurtz: It’s Dar-ah, yeah. Hi.

Zibby: Hi. It’s so nice to be chatting with the two of you. I would love for you to tell the audience a little bit more about your books in case they haven’t read them, which they need to hurry up and go do after this. Give a little more background, if you will, on what the book’s about and maybe why you were chosen here for a JCC event.

Dara: Bess, do you want to go first?

Bess: I was going to cede the floor to you. Sure. For a little background, it’s a tough book to categorize. It’s called a true-as-told-to-me story because it’s neither a memoir nor a novel, which are generally the two things that books are categorized as. This is my grandmother’s life story told in her voice from beyond the grave to me. It’s my grandmother telling me about her life before me, growing up with her mother impoverished in Brooklyn and then her stratospheric American dream story with my grandfather in New York. It’s the story of a very tough relationship with her daughter, my mother, and a very close relationship with me. It’s told in dialogue and voicemails and fights at Bloomingdale’s dressing rooms and all the ways that my grandmother and I really interacted in life. It’s put into this book. There are pictures too, so it’s a quick read. That’s a summary of a complicated book about a complicated woman.

Zibby: How about you, Dara?

Dara: So beautiful, Bess. My mom passed away a few weeks after I had my first daughter. I was twenty-eight at the time. Living in the world without her has really been one of the greatest challenges of my life. She was my person. When I had my daughter, I found myself in this space where I was thrilled to be a new mom and just devasted at having lost my mom. I didn’t know how to navigate through that. Life went on. I was blessed to have another daughter. I always say that grief followed me around like my shadow because it was always there. It could bubble up at just any opportunity. Around the twentieth anniversary of my mom’s death I remembered that I had a Ziploc bag of letters in my house. We can talk about, later, how this all came to be. The letters were written to me when I first went to Camp Blue Star when I was nine years old until I graduated from college. They were mostly written by my mom and my two grandmothers, the three Jewish women who I loved and raised me. Finally, one night, having the courage to open that bag, I was blown away by what happened next. I sat on the couch and cried what Oprah calls the ugly cry, just sobbing, sobbing. I couldn’t stop reading. There were over a hundred letters in the bag. I felt like I was having a conversation with my mom and my grandmothers. I could feel their personalities. I could hear their voices. It really changed everything for me. I felt like there was a book there. I had absolutely no plans on writing this book. At the time, I was working on another project. I literally sat in this room behind me. I had over a hundred letters behind me on the table. They were sorted in different piles. I just sat here and wrote and sobbed and am so grateful for the whole experience, really.

Zibby: Both you really raise the points with your books of how to keep someone’s memory alive and how to keep their voice alive, which is so much more specific than just thinking about them. Their voice, that’s what makes us who we are. It’s something that is so elusive after you’ve passed away. Finding ways to channel that and write it or copy and paste it from a letter or pretend that this is what she would’ve said or how she would’ve thought seems to be one of the most powerful tools that we can use to blunt the impact of grief. Do you find that it’s helping even still? Now you’ve taken the memory of a loved one and it’s not that you’ve just cemented it, you’ve given them to all of us as well. How has that been for you personally?

Dara: For me personally, I really struggled with how to bring my mom into my daughters’ lives. My daughters are now twenty-one and eighteen. At the time when they were young, I was trying to teach them, this is Grandma Terry. That’s the name that I used to introduce them to my mom. I had pictures of my mom around the house. I would talk about her, but I really struggled with, how can my daughters get to know my mom, not just a picture of her, but who she was and what she sounded like and all of the things? For me, writing this book and having the ability to put her personality on the page and give my daughters the ability to sort of hear her voice has been just an amazing gift for my family personally. So many people have told me how much they can hear their loved ones in my relatives’ voices. I love that so much.

Bess: Dara, I feel like we’ve had these parallel experiences at different times in our lives. Hearing you talk about this, it’s like looking into a mirror. That was so beautifully put and exactly the goal that I have. Your daughters are older now. My son is twenty months old. I finished this book during the first trimester of my pregnancy with him. It was exactly the project that you describe. It was trying to get him to know my grandmother who raised me, who stepped in and took care of me when my mom went back to work at her medical residency when I was six weeks old. My grandmother was this guiding force in my life. It was unimaginable to me that my son wouldn’t know her. The book ends with this projection of what she would think about me as a mother. It was really all she talked about. I relate to this experience in a different generational way. It was not my mother; it was my grandmother. I truly can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to not have my mom. I can’t emphasize with that. That is a shattering thing. I can’t wait to get into your book and go on the journey with you.

My grandmother was somebody who nudged me in this indirect, non-motherly way, in a distinctly grandmother way. “When are you going to have a baby? When are you going to have a baby?” Then she wasn’t there when my son was born, was really my nightmare. This book is dedicated to two people. The dedication says, “Thank you, Grandma.” It just says, “And for my son.” It really was a project to bring them together as much as it was for me to connect to her voice, it was this sort of literary introduction of two people who would never meet. Then to have this woman out in the world for so many other people, it’s exactly what you said, Dara, it’s this idea that — the biggest fear is this won’t be relatable. This won’t be interesting to anyone outside my immediate family. Then to have people write on Instagram and to DM me saying, this is my grandma, this is my relationship, I feel less crazy because this love story between grandmother and granddaughter, distinctly Jewish grandmother and Jewish granddaughter, feels like it resonates and feels personal to so many other people and starts feeling universal in a way that makes me feel less alone in my grief. I’m super grateful for that experience to share her with so many people.

Dara: Bess, you said something that really resonates with me. You said that the thought that your son wouldn’t get to know your grandmother and that she talked about that, what it was going to be when you became a mom, I can absolutely relate. My mom would always say to me, “One day when I’m a grandmother… I can’t wait to be a grandmother. We’re going to do all these amazing, fun things, blah, blah, blah.” The same weekend that I found out she had stage four melanoma, which is a form of skin cancer, I found out that I was pregnant, literally the same weekend. The sicker my mom got, the bigger my belly got. It was almost parallel. I think that’s what made it even more devastating, the loss, was just the unrealized dreams, if you will, and all of the fun that she had looked forward to that we were going to have together. Just like what you said, knowing that she wasn’t going to get to be there to see you be a mom, for me, it was just a devastating, really challenge thing for me to — I’ve struggled my whole life with it. If it wasn’t for this bag of letters twenty years after my mom’s death — that’s when I finally was able to give myself permission to make peace with her death. It was a gamechanger for me.

Zibby: As you guys have been talking, I’ve been realizing that I also have these bags — actually, it’s in a Tupperware-type giant box in my closet. I lost my grandmother recently. She was ninety-seven. We were super close. She’s who I would call. My parents went out all the time. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I’d call her in Palm Beach. “Gadgi, I can’t sleep.” She’d be like, “It’s okay.” Actually, what she said was, “So? You’ll be tired.” Okay, fine. Anyway, but I have all these camp letters from her. I’m like, oh, maybe I’ll blend your books. I just have to put my letters from my grandmother together, and there we go.

Bess: I fully endorse. I think that we’ve sort of hit on not just a book strategy, but a grief strategy. Just as a personal project, whether or not it becomes a book, it’s something I really recommend, not from a clinical perspective.

Zibby: I wasn’t really going to make a book.

Bess: Maybe people who are joining us today — there is something about reconstructing conversations and diving back into those memories and being reacquainted with the voice of somebody who’s gone that is so healing and also a great way to honor that person. They’re not lost in that moment. You are back in that conversation. Also, that’s great advice she gave. “You’ll be tired” is exactly what my therapist says when I’m like, “I worry about my insomnia.” She’s like, “What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be tired.”

Zibby: I think about that all the time. I often get up in the middle of the night. My brain starts going of all these things I have to do. I’m like, ugh, I’m wasting so much time, I should just get up and do all these things. I just hear her saying, “What’s the worst that happens?” I’m like, you’re right. Nothing. Nothing bad is going to happen. I’m just going to have a bad day. Okay.

Bess: Thank god for grandmas.

Dara: One of things I loved so much about reading the letters was that my mom wrote a lot of those letters when she was raising her kids, when she was raising me and my brother. I was nine years old when she first started writing me these letters. I got to know her from my adult perspective when I went back and I read those letters. Just to be able to get to know my mom better, to get to know things about her that I never knew from my adult perspective, that, for me, was such a gift. I would never have thought. If you had said to me, Dara, you have these letters — I’ve had them for twenty years. It’s not like they just randomly appeared. They’ve been in my possession. I just didn’t pay any attention to them. I didn’t think that there was any value there. I’d forgotten about them. If you had said all of the amazing things that I would’ve gotten from reading, if I had known about that, I would’ve opened that bag up a long time ago. Just to be able to get to know someone that you’ve loved so much, and you didn’t know things about them, and they passed away, for me, what a gift.

Zibby: This is why I worry about — we all have kids. I have four kids. You have two. I don’t sit down and write long letters longhand, ever, to my kids. I don’t think there would be a single one. Not just with grandparents, every time I lose somebody I love, the first thing I do is take an inventory of what I have. Do I have cards they sent me? What’s left? I make a pile or something. Then I’m like, maybe I should be writing more letters to my kids. What are they going to do, copy and paste from my Instagram account?

Bess: Truly, I feel that. I’m like, there are some loving tweets that I’ve sent about my son.

Zibby: Exactly. This is how you get to know me. Look at what I posted last week.

Bess: I know. My cousin, who is like a sister to me, gave me this baby book when my son was born. She was like, “I’m so glad that I had this from my mom. Write down everything.” I was like, “Yes, I will write it. I will write it all down.” It literally is like, “Trouble feeding today.” I sort of let him down in that respect. I love the camp letter format. I still have the camp letters that my parents sent me. I feel like that’s when I’ll shine, when I really miss him when he’s a teenager and away for the first time, which is inconceivable. He’s on a walk right now, and I’m hyperventilating. This is all to say I will write him. I will write him camp letters so that he writes a book like you did, Dara.

Dara: My daughters are older, twenty-one and eighteen. They did go to sleepaway camp, but they didn’t really embrace sleepaway camp like I did. They didn’t go until much later. That’s a whole nother thing. They didn’t have letters, really, because by the time they went to sleepaway camp, they had their phone, or they would get a printout, like an email or a fax or something. After this whole experience, my older daughter, Zoe, is in college, and I started writing her letters. I was just like, I want to write her a letter once a week. I would write her a letter. She would get it. I think she was really liking it. We were doing a Zoom event together during the pandemic. She was in her dorm at school. We were Zooming in for an event. Someone asked her, “Do you have any letters from your mom?” She said, “I do.” She pulled down this box right there. This was totally not planned. I didn’t know it. She said, “I have all the letters that my mom’s written to me since I’ve been at college.” It meant so much to me because I really realized even though I’m not getting letters back from her, it’s not about what you get. It’s what you give. I’m not doing it to get. I’m doing it because I want her to have these from me. It felt like a full-circle moment. It also touched my heart because I knew that she really was so happy to have them. Anyone listening, definitely write letters to your kids. I think there’s three different kinds of letters. I talk a lot about that in my book, how to write the letters. At the end of the day, just write from your heart. Write from your heart to the people that you love. I don’t think you can ever go wrong.

Bess: I will say, first of all, I will take that advice. That is something that I will now make a project of for my son’s life.

Dara: I never filled out one page of the baby book.

Bess: Okay, good.

Zibby: Me neither. I didn’t even say, “Rough day.” The spines are not even cracked on these baby books. I have five of them. It’s so embarrassing.

Bess: That’s so sad seeing the “My first steps.” I’m like, oh, okay. My grandmother didn’t write letters. There’s only one email that’s in the book. It was her first email. It’s perfect. She gave a bad review of the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Crafts and then a great review of the book Brooklyn that she had just read. It was just out. It just perfectly captures her. She did leave voicemails. That was her artform. It is a digital artifact that is impossible to share and to translate. There’s a picture in the book, and I can show you on this Zoom event, of how I — this is my Tupperware in the closet. This is how I saved my grandma’s voicemails. It’s why that if I get four calls in a day, somebody’s going to get the obnoxious, “The mailbox belonging to Bess Kalb is full.” This, to this day, is on my phone. You can see “Grandma, Palm Beach” and then the various places where she lived, “Grandma, Vineyard; Grandma, Scarsdale.” This is my entire phone. I am not a hoarder. I am somebody who, when my son grows out of his shoes, I’m like, great, there’s a box in the garage. I can’t get rid of these. I can’t delete them. They’re my Tupperware.

I also didn’t listen to them when I was writing the voicemails for this book. Those were all extrapolations. They were from memory. They were riffs on what a voicemail would be. I’ve talked about this with Zibby. That moment of going back, the moment you had twenty years later of reading your mom’s letters, happened when my son was about five weeks old. I was recording the audiobook for Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, which was very emotional. My editor was like, “It would be great to include one of the voicemails. That’s a smart thing to have in the audiobook.” I was like, “Totally. Makes perfect sense. Great.” She was like, “Hey, it’s been two weeks. You haven’t –” I was like, “Yep, sorry. Baby. Hands full. I can’t.” She was like, “What’s going on? Can you send the voicemails?” I was like, “I can’t listen to them. It’s too painful.” I sent my husband to the kitchen with our son and drew the blackout curtains in my son’s room and sat down in the recliner chair. It was a very dramatic moment. I was like, I’m going to listen to them. My husband runs into the room five minutes later because he hears me wailing. He has the baby. He’s like, “What happened?” I was hysterically laughing with tears going down my face because they were so funny. They were so her. I can’t write comedy this good. One of the voicemails that she left was, “Hi, Bess. Grandma. Your mother says you have laryngitis. Call me back.” You could have a hundred comedy writers; they would not come up with something like that. This is to say I’m glad I went through that box. I’m sad that I can’t share them. Also, having them in that little voicemail box is my special trove of treasures that I’ll never get rid of.

Dara: Amazing.

Zibby: Not to make massive generalizations, but to your earlier point about particularly Jewish grandmothers or Jewish mothers, there is something similar. There is this common thread of recognition. Even just sitting here chatting with the two of you, there’s stuff you don’t need to even explain. It’s just understood. No matter how different our individual relationships were, there’s that common thing. I’m sure every culture has something similar. I feel like the unsanctioned intrusiveness of opinion proffering, if you will, might be something specific here. What do you guys think about that? What do you think makes our Jewish matriarchs so special?

Dara: My grandmothers were so real. They would say whatever they felt like they wanted to say, as did my mom, with our relationship. I’m like that with my daughters. We have real, honest relationships. We’ll say all the things. Also, no one can push my buttons like my daughters, and vice versa. I could push their buttons more than probably anyone. At the end of the day, there’s just such deep love. It’s so real. If I think about my grandmother, so many letters that she — one of my grandmothers, Grandma Margaret. I have Grandma Margaret and Grandma Millie. Grandma Margaret came from Germany. Her whole family, sadly, my grandparents lost their family in the Holocaust. That was a whole nother layer of the importance that her grandchildren — we were her family. We were what she had. Almost every letter she wrote, she would say all the things. Then it was, “Are you going to the bathroom? If you’re not going to the bathroom, make sure you talk to the counselor.” Can you imagine a fourteen-year-old girl going up to her counselor and saying, “Excuse me…”? It was just her level of what she worried about with her grandchildren. It’s priceless, just like what you said, Bess.

Bess: That nudging, that overinvolvement, that bodily involvement where it’s more her body than yours at a certain point. “Are you wearing an undershirt?” was something that was just like breathing for my grandma. She would just say that. I had a little drawer in my house that was undershirts that I only opened when she was there. My friend Jeff, who is a brilliant writer and grew up evangelical Christian in Northern California and never met a Jewish person before he moved to Los Angeles, read an early draft of the book and was like, “She was so mean to you.” I was like, “Oh, Jeff, you don’t know what it’s like to have a Jewish grandmother. That’s love.” The phrase “Nobody will tell you this but me” is not something that she said before dispensing wisdom. She said that before she was like, “You’d be gorgeous if you went a little blonder.” That was exactly how she operated. It was giving advice that was at once a criticism but also said with full authority and in your best interest. That’s love. It’s a very Jewish thing. To a non-Jew, it can need some explanation. We’re amongst people right now who know exactly what we’re talking about. Even the phrase “I am my mother’s daughter,” that is a Jewish phrase. That’s something that I just feel like I immediately know. I know who’s saying that. I know why.

Dara: I feel like we can talk about Jewish guilt here a little bit too when we’re talking about all of this. All of these things that we’ve heard from our mother and our grandmothers and they heard from their mothers and their grandmothers, we can’t deny the fact that sometimes it was laced with a little bit of guilt. It’s a real thing, and passed on from one generation to the next. The way we hear things — it was processed. Maybe we would talk to our people and they talked to their people, laced with a little bit of guilt. I’ve even found myself really trying to be so careful now when I talk to my daughters about things. I’m trying to be intentional about maybe not passing on that Jewish guilt. We get so many beautiful things from our family members, but I don’t want to pass on — yes, the brown hair and the brown eyes, but the Jewish guilt, maybe that can stop here a little bit.

Zibby: I’m trying to pass on my fake highlights.

Dara: Which are beautiful. They look fabulous.

Zibby: Thank you. My hair is just as dark as both of yours, FYI. I’ve gone grey. I have to cover the grey with the blond.

Bess: I’m double vaccinated. My first trip was a family-related one. My second one will be the hair salon to get these highlights back in.

Zibby: I think you’re right, though. With my grandmother, there was no withholding of what she thought about my body and my weight. Anytime she saw me and every letter, it’s like, “I noticed on Passover you’ve been putting on weight again.” I’m like, ugh, no, I just always look like this. This is maybe what I look like. I actually was so interested because, she just passed away at ninety-seven, never for a minute did she stop worrying about her body. I did this study-ish maybe seven years ago when she was in her nineties and still going to Curves. Every time we would go out, she would be like, “Ahh, dessert. I don’t know. Should I have this dessert? I guess, okay, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to have this chocolate cake.” I’m like, “You’re ninety years old. Have the cake. What are we waiting for here?” We would walk down the street and she would always say, “Am I fatter than her, or is she fatter than me?” Every time.

Dara: It’s insane.

Zibby: It’s insane. I did this quick study to see if it was just my grandmother or everybody. I did this printout. I was a psych major in college. I photocopied a survey. I had both my grandmothers in their nursing homes in Florida put it in everyone’s mailbox in the thing to fill out and then hand it back to me. She was very popular that day. It was something crazy like seventy percent of women were still weighing themselves all the time. If you had an eating disorder when you were younger, forget about it. You just never got over it. Most people said they still felt guilty eating dessert. I was like, I cannot do that. I cannot live my whole life until I die worrying about chocolate cake.

Bess: I think I need to schedule at my sixtieth birthday, god willing, I will just be like, from now on, no more obsessing. It’s only one-pieces, which by the way it is now. The weight thing, that was something that actually came out in the second draft of this book when I was like, okay, let’s put the grittier parts of our relationship in. That is something that Jeff picked up on in the early draft, in the compassion read from a nice person who has my side. He was like, “This nagging you about, Bessie, you’ve had enough bread or that’s a lot of dressing on your salad, there’s a lot of that.” I was like, “Yes, it was constant.” I’m also short. I’m 5’4″. I’m 5’3″, but I’m on my driver’s license I’m 5’4″, and so a pound or two will show up. This is something that I’m saying because it’s something that my grandmother said. “You’re short. You have a small frame like me, so a pound or two on the wrong side, and it all goes to your hips.” Her project of that worked. I have that. I have to be so careful around my son as he grows up. I can’t imagine with daughters. I’m even catching myself now in front of him because he’s starting to mimic everything that I do. In terms of what Dara’s saying about what not to pass down, I think the Jewish guilt around food is something that I hope my kids don’t have at all the same relationship that I had to food and to guilt around it. Fortunately, I have a very chunky boy. He’s not two yet, so he’s allowed to be. At the moment, the second that he starts wondering what’s wrong with him, I’ll tell him how very right it is with him.

Dara: I love that. We can’t discount the role that food plays in our culture. Some of my favorite childhood memories are sitting around Friday night dinners at my Grandma Millie’s house where she literally made the same meal every Friday night. We would get together, my whole extended family. We would sit at the table for hours. We would just talk about everything. Then we would watch Dallas. That was back in the day when Dallas was on. It was such a beautiful family coming together at the table with amazing food. Recipes, that’s something that I think is a really beautiful way to carry the past into the future. Even now, my daughters will say, “Mom, will you make Grandma Millie’s chicken?” I love the fact that they’re saying that because basically, my grandmother would love that. I have her casserole dish. One of the things that I really wanted to have were the baking dishes that she used. That’s what I use when I make dinner and I make this chicken for my kids. To me, that’s just such a beautiful connection of my grandmother and my daughters’ great-grandmothers. We’re all still, woman to woman, one generation to the next, l’dor va’dor, passing it down. I think it’s so beautiful. Food is such an important way and means to do that.

Zibby: Was the meal you always had roast chicken and roast potatoes and green beans, by the way?

Dara: Always chicken. Was there anything else?

Zibby: That’s our meal.

Dara: Chicken, salad, green beans, potato casserole, and then chocolate and vanilla cake that was purchased from Thalhimers department store back in the day.

Bess: Delicious. My grandma is her brisket. For me, it’s brisket. I accidentally married a non-Jew and had a child with him. The Christmas dinner that we have is my grandma’s brisket as the merging of the two cultures. It’s such a special thing. When I make it, I think about her. I also think about that brisket and that relationship to food and the idea of abundance and monitoring a granddaughter’s weight as an expression of love and also an equal and opposite reaction to the scarcity that came the generation before. This is also a common thread in many immigrant stories. My grandmother’s mother escaped the pogroms in Belarus in the 1880s and came to this country and couldn’t afford anything. My grandma grew up eating meat that had — because she had a cousin in the meatpacking district, they ate the gristle and offal and what fell off the truck, basically. That she was able to monitor her prized cows’ weight to make her marriageable and to make her physically successful in the world was an expression of luxury for her. The idea that there would be too much food carried a lot of historical, intergenerational importance. Nevertheless, a teenager hearing it is like, okay, maybe rolls are bad, bread is bad, unfortunately. As an adult who’s past the teenage relationship to food, I definitely see where she’s coming from for that. When I make her brisket, I only think about how proud she was to be able to put on her table in Westchester where she lived, the food that her mother would’ve never been able to afford to make. I’m proud to serve that and be like, Christmas , to my little blond, blue-eyed son.

Zibby: It’s a double-edged sword, though, too because you had to eat whatever they made, but you couldn’t gain weight from it. If my grandmother made her chocolate roll or my other grandmother had this amazing spongey poundcake with this thick, amazing frosting — anyway, I’ll stop. Clearly, I need to go make some cake or something. She would want you to eat at least a slice, and my mother too, by the way. If she makes something, I’m eating it, but then watch out. To your earlier point, Bess, when you said age sixty, you’re just going to stop obsessing, you’re actually not.

Bess: I know.

Zibby: It’s just you a day after you were at the end of fifty-nine. The only way to stop obsessing is to work on it at some point, I’ve realized. Not that I have, but that’s what I hear. Otherwise, it just doesn’t go away. I feel like as a kid, I was like, when you get old, nobody cares what you look like. I’m sure old people don’t have sex. All these things I thought about old people are not true.

Bess: A hundred percent. It never ends. For us Jewish women, we are who we are until the end. We are our mothers’ daughters and our grandmothers’ granddaughters.

Dara: Thank god.

Zibby: Do either of you have new, exciting writing projects going on? What are you working on now that these wonderful books — Bess, your book is in paperback. I see it everywhere now and everything, which is so exciting. What’s coming next for both of you guys?

Dara: I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I have been working on a fiction book through the pandemic. I’m having a lot of fun with that. I feel like I’m writing and doing so many podcast interviews right now and doing fun events like this. My youngest daughter is a senior. This is close to the end of her senior year. She’s going to be going to school in the fall. I’ve always been really intentional about trying to be super present. I believe there’s different seasons, if you will. This is my season to embrace any little bit of morsel of time that’s she willing to give to me. I feel like the fiction, while I’m having so much fun working on it, it’s okay if it’s not done right now because that season will come. Right now, I just want to be so present with my daughter.

Bess: I’m tearing up thinking about him going to college. He won’t. I’ll home-college him. He’s going to preschool in September. He’s going to a JCC. He’s going to a Jewish preschool because that’s what we do. I feel the same way. We walk by it on the way to the coffee shop in our neighborhood. I’m like, “That’s your school next year.” He’s so excited. He sees the other kids. I’m like, “But you don’t have to go. Mama will be right around the corner.” He’s going away. I’m savoring it too. I am also writing a fiction book. I should have, as a prop here, I have those old camp letters that we were talking about because they are a primary source for this book. They’re on one of the piles here. I’m like, I’m not a hoarder. It’s notebooks and papers here. I actually, oddly, have camp pictures of myself because this is the age that I’m trying to channel into this next book, which is also my first fiction book. It is told from the perspective of a very opinionated, very young woman.

It is a true crime book about something that did happen in my town growing up told from the perspective of a child. I’m working on that. I, as Marcy mentioned, am adapting Nobody Will Tell You This But Me into a film, which is very exciting, and in the hands of a lot of people who I trust, a team of women, which is very exciting. That was something that was important to me about going into the film space. To have a female director was really important. To have an older woman as the protagonist of the movie, an older Jewish woman who is not played for comic effect or caricature and was portrayed with tenderness and multifaceted sensitivity I think is something that really could only be done by a woman. I’m super lucky to have an extremely talented director who’s doing that. That’s the whiteboard over here. Then a couple of TV projects. One of them is about, it’s about two Jewish women from a very, very, very long time ago, but it is about modern problems today. I’m so excited about that. I can’t wait to legally be able to say more about it. I’m very excited.

Zibby: Who are you going to cast as your grandmother? Have you thought about it?

Bess: That’s the question. I’m so low on the — I’m the writer. I don’t even know if I’m on the email when it happens. I’m just in this office being like, here’s some dialogue. They’re like, we’ll do what we want with this. My grandma would say Meryl or nothing. With that conversation, there are so many amazing actresses of a certain age who would just nail this role and could fully — I feel like every time somebody says a name, I’m like, yes, definitely. I’m such a fan of Broadway actresses, and actresses who can embody that grit and softness at the same time. There are just so many, especially Jewish actresses. I’m excited as a fan of movies. My grandma is a fan of movies. One thing she always said in this book was, “My mother was always at the movies.” I feel like my great-grandmother is excited to sit in a movie theater alone and feel the air conditioning and watch this. It’ll just feel like a very full-circle moment if and when it finally happens, in a world where going to movie theaters is possible again.

Zibby: I love that. Maybe we can open it up to some questions. Somebody is saying here that it’s a beautiful presentation, which is lovely. They said, “You’re honoring the love and keeping your loved ones alive in such a wonderful, touching way. I’m in my sixties and don’t feel any different than I did when I was in my twenties and thirties. I hope you will all think about the fact that age truly is just a number. My love to you all, Sydney,” That’s very sweet. Here is, this is more a — no, it’s a question. Marsha says, “I have recently found a similar box of over two hundred letters from my mother, brother, and my deceased sister. Am overwhelmed by the enormous amount of letters and how to cull it into some sense even just to preserve them. My children knew them all, but our grandchildren have trouble knowing my past to even be interested in the others. What was the organizational process like?”

Dara: My organizational process was taking all the letters and putting them on the table behind me. That was the organizational process. I really went through. I realized there were basically three different kinds of letters after I went through all of them. I realized there was the just because letter, which is a letter that’s written just because. Then there’s the special occasion letter, which is a letter written to mark a special occasion like a bat mitzvah or a wedding. Then there was a legacy letter. That is a letter that’s written to be given upon your death. My mom did write a legacy letter to me and to my brother and to my dad that my dad gave us the morning of her funeral. I ended up putting them in different piles of those categories. For me, it made sense. Then I went back and did it by year. I just have them still in the same bag but with a pretty ribbon tied around them. They’re my greatest possession. I have a lot of really nice things, but at the end of the day, none of this stuff really matters. It’s the words that I have from the people that I’ve loved and lost that really mean more to me than anything else. I would say just whatever feels right to you in terms of a sense of organization, you can’t do it wrong. There are no rules. I definitely feel like your family would — the older they get, the more they’ll appreciate the connection that they have from people that came before them. We are just a moment in time. I’m just a moment in time in my family’s lineage. One day, there will be people that come after me. I hope that they’ll maybe remember me a little bit. Being intentional about passing on things from my mom and my grandmothers is a way to carry it all forward. We’re all linked together, one generation, one woman to the next.

Zibby: That was beautiful. Now I feel like I have to do a better job at this.

Bess: This is such a great conversation.

Dara: Zibby, no guilt.

Zibby: No guilt. There’s always guilt. What do you mean?

Bess: I know. I think the way that you did it is so inspiring and is something that your daughters will, just in having you as an example, will definitely pass on. There’s no other way to absorb that kind of act of love than knowing that this is how we honor the women who came before us. You’re very lucky to have them to bear witness to you. The way that my grandmother made me feel like I knew her mother and her brothers who died well before I was born, to address Marsha’s question, and just the way it worked in my family, she talked about them constantly like they were alive. They were characters for me. I know my great-grandmother, when she was having a bad day, she would say, “If you’re having a bad day, buy yourself an ice cream soda and a new hat.” After my grandma died, I went to a department store in New York and I bought a very fancy sunhat as just this wild act of optimism. What would I do? I carried it home in a hat box, which just was a way of keeping her mother alive after she died. I made sure, in Massachusetts where she was buried, I had cream soda and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I made ice cream sodas at her funeral. I was doing that because her mom felt real to me even though I never — the stories of her older brothers, their high jinks and their antics, these were things that felt like had happened to people I knew, but I didn’t. It wasn’t a formal process of sitting down, with me, and delineating their histories or even really reading anything. The lesson that I learned and a way to keep my grandmother alive for my son is to constantly reference her and just be like, “Bobby would make you wear a hat. Bobby would make you bring a sweater.” One day, he’ll say it back to me. Then I’ll know that she’s gotten exactly what she would’ve wanted.

Zibby: We have another question. “What do you each hope to emulate as a mom and future grandmother, god willing, from your grandmothers? Do you parent with them in mind?”

Dara: For me, there’s no way that I can parent my daughters without hearing my mom whispering in my ear. To me, I think so many times, what would my mom think about the life that I’ve created for myself? What would she think about my daughters? What would blah, blah, blah? That question has always been there following me through my daughters’ lives. At the end of the day, my mom and I were so close. Like I said earlier, she was my person. There’s nothing that’s more important to me than the relationship that I have with my daughters. Now that they’re twenty-one and eighteen, we’re in a different space where we can be a little bit more friends now that, in some ways — especially with my twenty-one-year-old, she’s not living here anymore. I’m not nagging her. I’m not telling her what she can’t do. That’s a different season. I hope that my daughters, and I think they do, know how important they are to me and how our relationship is so important. When they were younger, I also recognized that they didn’t need me to be their best friend. They needed me to be their mom. They needed me to parent them. I was okay with not being their favorite person during a lot of seasons. I just think there’s no way that I don’t parent with hearing my mom whisper in my ear. I love that. Bess, you probably feel that way with your grandmother. You probably feel like she’s whispering.

Bess: A hundred percent, yeah.

Dara: To me, that’s such a beautiful connection. We are their daughters. They are our daughters. He is your son. It’s a gift.

Bess: It is. There’s a line in the book that I wrote that my grandmother said, which is “the fruit of the vine.” I am the only daughter of an only daughter of an only daughter. That’s the thread that my grandma and I had. Everybody had boys first. That lineage is something that I think about a lot. I think about my own little grape, my own little fruit, my son, and how I’m passing that entire vine of matrilineal love to him. In concrete terms, it’s this ferocious, drop-everything loyalty to our children. It’s the kind of thing that makes decision-making non-decisions. It’s just, he comes first to the expense of everything, to all these projects that I’m talking about. The real answer in my office, the reason I can’t find anything here is, it’s Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site. I’ll show you. This is his office. It’s not very heavy, but this is his office next to my office. Especially, nothing has brought that into focus more than living in quarantine in a pandemic with a kid. I cannot imagine, Zibby, four kids; having an eighteen-year-old, Dara, her last year of high school to be in this.

I feel like the presence of motherhood has never been more immediate and all-consuming. Zibby, your book and the anthology that I read this year and the Moms Don’t Have Time To — that should be in writing on my Zoom background. Moms don’t have time to because of the very first word in that sentence. Moms don’t have time to because mom. I feel like my grandmother is entirely the force behind that. The story that began this book of her dropping everything and taking care of me because my mom went back to work, it’s my first lesson from her and my most enduring lesson from her, which is, you drop everything for your child. Hopefully, my son will not resent that I’m trying to do things that are for me. I’m trying to show him that I work and show him that I do things like this. He’s met so many people through the Jewish Book Council. He’s made appearances in some of these. He’s not right now. He gets that I work and that’s part of it, but he will always come first. I thank my grandma for that lesson. Hopefully, he will too.

Dara: Bess, I feel like we were both raised knowing that they were going to be there for us no matter what. For me, to learn how to be in the world without having my mom and my two grandmothers, that was one of the hardest things for me because the people that I knew were going to be there for me, drop everything, I really felt that. It was hard to not have that in my life anymore. Does that make sense?

Bess: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: When someone passes away, it’s the memory of them, but it’s also their love for you. Where does that love go? Anytime I would call my grandmother, she would say, “You know, I love you more than anyone in the world. I hope you know that. I hope you know how much I love you.” Of course, I would say, “I love you too.” I imagine this Care Bear with beams of light coming at you. Then all of a sudden, no more Care Bear. Where do you make up that love from, if you do? It’s almost like you’re mourning that as well. Just to add one thing from my grandmother that I try to emulate, she had this great sense of humor with me and with everybody. Sometimes I just remind myself not to take this whole thing too seriously. One of the last times I called her before she started losing her memory, I was like, “Gadgi, what’s up? Anything new?” She was like, “Well, I’m pregnant.” I was like, “Gadgi, come on.” We don’t have to take life so seriously. I think that’s one of the messages.

Dara: I love that.

Marcy: We want to thank our fabulous authors for sharing your stories of the special relationships with your moms and grandmothers. My takeaway was, write from your heart to your loved ones. We want to thank you, our audience, for taking the time to join us today. Our next Florida monthly series event is on Thursday, June 17th at one PM featuring Kristin Harmel, author of The Book of Lost Names, who returns with a new novel being released in July, The Forest of Vanishing Stars, a coming-of-age World War II story about a young woman who uses her knowledge of the wilderness to help Jewish refugees escapes the Nazis. She will be in conversation with Alison Hammer, author of Little Pieces of Me. On behalf of the JCCs, wishing you and yours good health. Thank you again for such a special, special program today. I’m glad you all could be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you for having us.

Bess: Thank you, everybody. Thank you so much.

Dara Kurtz and Bess Kalb


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Dara Kurtz and Bess Kalb


Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

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