Online quilting bee patches bubbes stories into cyberspace

Wise and witty, tough as old boots or brazenly tactless: The Jewish bubbe is a worldwide institution. Whether she serves up matzah balls with the consistency of bullets or dispenses cuddles and cautionary advice, chances are that she finds her way into her grandchildren's hearts and memories.

But what would she think of the World Wide Web? A load of mishugas, or something to kvell over?

Marking the beginning of Jewish Web/Net Week, nine women came together Sunday in San Francisco to commemorate their grandmothers by posting stories about them on the Internet.

The event, dubbed a "Digital Story Bee" by its creator Abbe Don, was one of several digital storytelling events taking place as part of Jewish Web/Net Week. As in a traditional quilting bee, the women sat in a circle sharing anecdotes with each other before transferring their stories and photographs onto Web pages.

The ghosts of bubbes past and the spirits of bubbes present were called up during the three-hour workshop. Many of the women laughed as they recollected the no-nonsense comments and advice of their grandmothers.

"Everything was her business," recalled Dayna West of her Odessa-born bubbe. "One time, my mom was visiting and we went out for dinner, and when we got back there was a message from bubbe asking where we were because it was dark outside and nice people were home already."

"One thing that's similar between my grandmother and me is that she lacked tact," confided doctoral candidate Alice Rose. "I'm working on it; she never worked on it. She would just go up to anybody and say anything."

Rose showed photographs of the spry white-haired woman who loved to travel. In one photograph, Rose's grandmother fiddles with the headdress of an African man in tribal costume.

"She would have absolutely no problem doing something like that," Rose said.

But not all of the grandmothers were feisty, boisterous characters. Recalling a grandmother who died some 40 years ago, Cheeta Llanes showed a video of the woman she described as "physically and emotionally soft, like a marshmallow.

"Under her chin and upper arms were puffballs," Llanes said. "As she grew older, they wiggled and jiggled in classic grandmotherly fashion."

As she herself grew older, reassessing her grandmother brought her closer to the woman she always saw as "a negative role model," Llanes said.

"Now, when I look at this video, what I see is a person with a lot of sadness."

Though tailored mainly for Jewish women, the event revealed that bubbes can also be found in other cultures. Indian illustrator Radhi Parekh shared stories about her independent 83-year-old grandmother, a social worker who fits the bubbe mold. And Phyllis Shedroff recalled a strong Protestant grandmother who immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia.

When it came time to transfer the stories to Web pages, Don gave a brief tutorial on the technology. A user-friendly program allowed the women to place two computer-scanned photographs and type a story into a pre-formatted template. Each woman left the event with a URL, or Web address, for her story.

The stories will be indexed on Don's site "Bubbe's Back Porch" at

For Don, the event marked the beginning of a crusade to get family histories onto the World Wide Web. A pioneer in interactive storytelling, she plans to hold many other Digital Story Bees both nationally and internationally.

"In my experience, it's incredibly empowering to tell your story," she said. "This is not just about pictures. It's about telling stories that help define people's identities."

Women at the inaugural bee enjoyed commemorating grandmothers who, in Llanes' words, might otherwise "fade into oblivion, like an old photo that hasn't been preserved."

And although some bubbes might conclude that the Web is more tsuris than it's worth, others would surely enjoy the way their stories have been transformed and stored.

"My grandmother was one of the first in her neighborhood to have a car, so she was interested in technology, in her own way," Rose said.

"Now she's preserved in cyberspace."