One of the great tragedies of my life is that I never had a bubbe.
To be clear, I have a wonderful Jewish mother who taught me how to be an independent and uncompromising young Jew, how to say my first Hebrew words, and how to paint Sephardi haros until it is perfectly smooth and sweet. I also had two supportive non-Jewish grandmothers who were as excited to celebrate Hanukkah and Passover with me as I was to celebrate Christmas and Passover with them.
And while I wouldn’t trade my Baba and Oma—the Greek-Macedonian and German names I called my grandmother and grandmother, respectively—for the world, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have had a bubbe or savta. What Jewish wisdom would she have imparted? What Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino words could she have slipped into our daily conversations? What fashion advice, like that of the coastal Jewish grandmother, would she have given?
Now, thanks to TikTok Bubbie, I don’t have to wonder anymore.
TikTok Bubbie, who describes herself as an “old lady … with a lot of opinions,” is the online moniker of 75-year-old Jewish actor and real-life Jewish grandmother SJ Mendelson. I first came across her TikTok page a few months ago when a video of her was fed into my For You feed. “I’m a Jew, bitches. From a long line of Jews,” TikTok Bubbie said directly to the camera in a white hoodie and bright red glasses. “That’s right… don’t forget it!”
To me, she was like a mix of Yetta from “The Nanny” and Iris Apfel – outspoken like Yetta but sharp like a spike, fashionable like Iris but not taking herself so seriously and very, very Jewish. I was thrilled.
Obviously I’m not the only one. Since starting her account two years ago, TikTok Bubbie has amassed an impressive 576,000 followers and over 10 million likes for videos ranging from old photos and stories about her life to trying out the latest TikTok filter. Regardless of the content, however, Bubbie’s general ethos is always the same: greeting his audience with a chant of “Mornin’ bitches!” exudes loving warmth and usually expresses support for single mothers, the LGBTQ+ community, and Jewish causes. (All identities that are either part of her own or have touched her life.)
Remarkably, the response to her videos usually reflects her caring attitude. Unlike the trolling and outright bigotry that is prominent in most comment sections, TikTok Bubbie’s comment section is mostly viewers reciprocating the love she sends out, asking genuine questions, and expressing gratitude for the comfort her Jewish grandma persona provides . As SJ tells me, that’s exactly why she’s on the app. “I want viewers on TikTok to come to me for advice on anything,” she explains.
Beyond her TikTok Bubbie persona, SJ’s life is pretty remarkable in its own right. She was born and raised mostly in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, to what she describes as a “conservative” family. From an early age, SJ knew she wanted to pursue an artistic career and even attended Manhattan High School of Art and Design and Pratt Institute. Still, her mother eventually persuaded her to become an art teacher on Long Island. (Around this time, she also married and ultimately divorced her first husband, whom she calls “a conservative Republican bitch.”)
Meanwhile, at night SJ started a singing career, performing in Manhattan clubs and cabarets and becoming entrenched in the queer club scene such as at the Le Jardin discotheque. (Despite not being queer himself, SJ has been surrounded by queer people his whole life, including his beloved late father, known as Cowboy Jack.) After five years, SJ gave up teaching to pursue singing full-time and moved out to California in the process. While in California, she continued to perform until she became pregnant—got sober as a result—and had a child with her second husband. She ended up getting divorced again and raising her son as a single mother. In addition to the struggles of single parenthood, it also meant SJ was forced to put her career on hold.
But life wouldn’t stop TikTok Bubbie.
In 2013, at the age of 65, SJ decided to return to show business and over the past 10 years has had an amazing career. Before joining TikTok, SJ appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and starred in Jewish Live TV’s matchmaking show “Bubbies Know Best” According to SJ, the combination of being a “Bubbie” on TV and a grandmother in real life . made calling herself TikTok Bubbie a “natural” choice. Recently she started a podcast aptly called “Mornin Bitches” and she even has her own product line. And if you were wondering about Bubbie’s love life, don’t worry, there’s a happy ending there too. SJ has been married to “the love of [her] life” the last 20 years.
Ultimately, TikTok Bubbie is the perfect encapsulation of what a true Jewish matriarch looks like. SJ is not pushy, hypercritical or overbearing as the stereotype of Jewish mothers and grandmothers would have us believe. She is just herself, in all her supportive, scandalous and proudly Jewish glory. Pardon the cliché, but when I grow up I want to be just like her.
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