Yiddish mythology: an ode to divine femininity

Britt Caldwell
13 min readAug 10, 2021

I come from a long lineage of loud and determined women.

The eternalized myths in my family primarily center around the women who marched to the beat of their own drum; their statuses as icons further solidified with each dinner table soliloquy. Making brownies with Nanas and seeking long-distance advice from Aunts reminisce of tales of petite — but never frail — women with personalities far outweighing their stature. Tales of women — spoken intermittently through an uproarious laughter distinct to our kind — who speak their minds particularly when no one wants to hear it. Tales of women — in between mouthfuls of corned beef hash and hot sauce — who gatekeep prized family recipes from neighborhood yentas. Tales of women — scorned one too many times by cheating husbands, anti-Semitic institutions, and soul-squeezing societal expectations — who hold grudges on their death-beds without remorse. Tales of women — not too proud to be even slightly interested in how they’re perceived — who aren’t afraid to tell you how they see it, regardless of whether or not you can handle it. Tales of women so strong in spirit that the biggest compliment of all is when you know they know you can handle it. Women so magical that their phantom presence makes itself known in the straightened postures and proud smirks wafting through the room long after the dirty dishes are put away.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to overlap with all of the infamous heroines that I’m related to, but my ascertaining of their existence is no less imprinted in my memory thanks to rich family folklore and an accumulation of oddball keepsakes.

Providence, RI circa 1950

Depending on who you ask, my grandmother on my father’s side, Jackie, was either an eccentric, outspoken maverick or a loud, fractious bitch. The only profession I can recall people attaching to her name is Peace Activist. She was a regular fixture at the local Black Panther chapter in Providence along with her children in the 1950s, and she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. It has been alleged that Angela Davis once stayed with her, but 97% of the Walkers are deceased and therefore unable to corroborate.

Jackie gave the term “unconventional” a run for its money. She was a staunch atheist who celebrated Christmas, and the only thing she did religiously was chain-smoke. She was a bra-burning feminist who strictly wore mumus. Whenever I got The Speech About The Importance Of Money growing up, I was reminded that Jackie was revered for her frugality and distaste of labels.

“She drank generic beer, Brittany. You don’t need new jeans.” My Dad would say as he winked at me, as if that meant anything to a sixteen-year-old.

“That doesn’t even exist anymore, Dad!”

“And how would you know?”

Remember learning how to play the recorder in fourth grade and thinking, “does this actually qualify as an instrument?” It does, and I became the reluctant heir of several thanks to Jackie’s homophonic aptitude and fondness for antique clarinets , as well as her offspring’s tendency towards hoarding.

Although there are many qualities of Jackie’s to quizzically admire, she was a complicated woman.

She was never one to hold back from speaking her mind and rarely said anything “nice.” My Dad seemed to be well aware of the fact that she had an abortion after his older sister was born, and that his parents had only wanted one child — he was an accident. Jackie was notorious for preparing a tuna fish sandwich on his birthday instead of cake. Although she raised her granddaughter, to a certain extent, when her own daughter passed away, the details of the death were fuzzy. She was very unwelcoming to my Mom when my parents were engaged, which became the lynchpin in the rift with her son. Ultimately she attended his wedding last minute, arriving in a wheelchair and ending the night on the dance floor. Jackie eventually died of emphysema, not long after she proudly exclaimed, “he looks just like me!” the first time she met me as an infant.

My Dad’s only sister, and my namesake, Pamela, was his best friend. None of us alive today got the chance to meet her because her life was cut tragically short.

What I know to be 90% true about Pamela is that she

  • was a few years older than my father.
  • wore incredibly hip cat-eye glasses and black turtlenecks, and had short hair that flipped outward.
  • had a daughter at a young age while in a very unstable relationship.
  • died from toxic fumes while sleeping in a VW Bug with her boyfriend when she was 28 years old.

What I know to be 60% true about Pamela is that she

  • was homeless for a period of time.
  • experienced a “nervous breakdown” at some point in her life in which no one will confidently say when or how or why.
  • likely committed suicide.

What I know to be 100% true about Pamela is that the mere mention of her name would get my father so choked up that his words would fail him. She introduced my father to music in a way that completely transformed his raison d’etre. He spent the rest of his life glued to every guitar that crossed his path, teaching himself the piano, collecting records, performing on stages, writing his own music, and regaling us of all the live shows she took him to (and THE ONE she was too cool to take her kid brother to: Woodstock). Her ephemeral presence on this Earth was so significant to my father that every meal, every family gathering, every camping trip — in fact, without hyperbole, every single memory I have with my Dad is influenced by his love for music, and thus watermarked with Pamela’s fairy dust.

Tantamount is the power we women hold, unyielding in its truth.

Buffalo, NY circa 1960

My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Marian, is lovingly remembered as The Great Nana, and great she was. Marian was a whip-smart, fiercely loyal Scorpio and Detroit native most well-known for her chocolate icebox cake and inability to be discreet. My Mom was extremely close to her Nana having grown up just a few miles away in upstate New York. Shortly after gushing to Marian about her new boyfriend for the first time, my Dad received a package containing formal neckwear adorned with buffaloes and a note simply stating “I hope this ties you to Buffalo.” We knew he was a keeper when he showed up to propose wearing her tie.

Marian is The End All Be All in my mother’s book, and books are sacred insignia to the Seidenbergs. Marian had a little black pocketbook where she judiciously listed the details of everyone of importance to her. If you made the book, you were In. Marian was also famous for swiftly — and savagely — crossing out names in chubby black ink if her trust was violated whatsoever. What is the worst offense, you ask? Having the audacity to hurt — to even think about hurting — any of her daughters, granddaughters, great granddaughters, and so on. And once a name was crossed out, that was the end of it. There were no more tears and absolutely no reliving mistakes. Out.

The Great Nana’s superpowers were absolutely plain as day to me as a child. Sure, I heard all the stories of how she’d rip the covers off my Aunts and Uncles in the middle of New York winter to wake them up for school. Or how she’d shriek, “that’s enough!” when she was done with their excuses. Or how she’d dole out shockingly tough love advice and follow it with prescriptions like “you get 48 hours to feel sorry for yourself, and then it’s over.” But I witnessed her not-so-discreet powers of transformation from a front-row seat. I will never forget how I felt racing to open my birthday cards, which always included one stick of gum and a lottery ticket. My impressionable child-brain refuses to let Adult Me believe anything other than that each lottery ticket was a winner (even if the largest windfall was $7). I will never forget how I felt wondering why my Mom’s birthday cards always came with lingerie and advice to always wear lipstick. I will never forget how I felt watching my Mom’s infectious cackle escalate whenever she called, diffusing the stagnant afternoon energy in the house. How I felt when my Dad would wrap his arms around all five feet of her and lift her high up off the ground well into her nineties. How I felt when I’d go to her apartment and drink ginger ale and stuff my face with exotically wrapped candies until my tummy ached. How I felt watching my Mom come home from Europe to the news that her beloved idol had passed and realizing she missed the funeral because no one wanted to disturb her. How I feel seeing my Mom’s eyes gloss over when she remembers her Nana not wanting to live after her best friend and husband of 69 years passed. How I feel witnessing Marian’s beyond-the-grave reign when my Mom’s tears magically turn to laughter as she accepts The Great Nana’s advice again and again from her sister in Colorado.

Buffalo, NY circa 1970

My Nana, my Mom’s mom, is the most naturally and effortlessly beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Nana Betty was in the newspaper almost more often than her semi-famous husband, the first kidney transplant surgeon (and identical twin!) in western NY. She was a highly sought after board member for women’s organizations and Jewish non-profits as well as a burgeoning socialite. NB’s truly subtle power is only detectable if you’re carefully tuning in. On the outside, she may appear nervous to the beguiled eye, but inside she’s as steady as they make ‘em. She is our rock. When the rest of us are falling apart at the seams, NB is “just fine, honey, don’t you worry about me.” If you discard the jet-black Chanel sunglasses and crack the hard candy shell, stripped to the essentials is a woman who needs no shoulder to cry on, no man to hold her hand, no GPS telling her where to go, no instructions on how to play bridge, no recipe to make habit-forming brownies, and absolutely no advice on how to live her life. The answer to everything these days is flat-out No. At 94, she’s done. With no children to worry about and no husband to care for, Nana Betty is finally doing whateverthefuck she wants. This kind of magic only comes from having to have your shit together for ninety plus years for the sake of everyone around you. Period. (Oh and please, please don’t tell her I put her age on the internet 🙏🏻.)

Los Altos, CA circa 1990

My mother is the strongest woman I know.

Ok, so I may be prone to hyperbole, but I sweartogod I’m not f-ing kidding with this one.

She’s the strongest woman I know mainly because of harrowingly painful experiences she’s come out the other side of. But because this Queen is still with us and has the ability to turn my ass to stone in one-millisecond-of-a-meeting of my meandering glance to her Medusa glare, (footnote: this works just as powerfully through iOS and USPS), I will stick to my motif of Yiddish Mythology. A favorite fable amongst the Anthone women is the time she beat up a boy three grades higher than her in elementary school after he pushed her younger sister off the jungle gym and broke her arm. I wonder where she got her feminist bravado from back then.

As an adult, my Mom has become highly skilled in the art of Mind Your Own Business, Or Kindly Fuck Off. As a teacher for much of her life in courses that range the gamut from ESL to collegiate literature (and even jump off the page to the trendiest of physical fitness phenomena— she taught Madonna aerobics in the 80s ), she’s never lost sleep over the probability of a negative public opinion. Her sister loves to recall the time I came running in the house after school crying about middle school girls being mean. My strongest takeaway from that memory is my mother snarling as she retorted, “so what?!?! Who the hell are they?” My Aunt and I erupted into laughter, which I think I’ve mentioned by now, tends to catch like wildfire in our family. It’s just what the doctor ordered, it always arrives at inappropriate moments, and it doubles as an ab workout ™️. Sure, you might walk away confused as to how to properly process your feelings. But once you’re in the throes of a classic knee-slapping, hyena-howling sesh that crescendos into soprano-pitched wheezes fighting for air time as you keel over to one side with your face squinched in response to the side-splitting pain…

Remote, circa today

My same-aged cousin is a force to be reckoned with in the most joyful, zen way that’s purely her own. She survived being slingshotted through a car windshield as an adolescent, which unfortunately happens to be the bedrock of her traumas. She’s the kind of funny that makes you wonder if your brain is slow because fast-paced hilarity is just second nature to her. She has It : undeniable stage presence and an incredibly magnetic personality that keeps you wanting more. It’s physically painful for me to be apart from her. Her brand of cackle is the most unique of all of us, and outside of employing it to ensure the virality of her own jokes (the way her eyes light up, mouth drops ajar, and head tilts left to see if you’re on the same page as her is the cutest damn thing), she keeps it on tap to remind us that nothing in life is worth giving up your shot at pure, unadulterated bliss.

I am no less complicated than my predecessors. I’m still figuring out who I am these days (I guess that’s obvious by now, too), but the closer I get to what feels authentic, the more I feel the ancestral tug of familiarity.

  • I have a stubborn humanitarian streak that refuses to let my Capricorn ego dominate capitalism the way it was born to. I also love mumus, like Jackie.
  • I get goosebumps when music speaks to my soul and I feel the sensation of being wrapped up in a warm blanket whenever I hear the sound of guitar strings being plucked. My kid brother is my heart and soul, and I, too, have entertained the afterlife, like Pammy.
  • I have been known to hold a grudge and I most certainly never turn down a piece of chocolate, like Marian.
  • Chanel sunnies block the glare from your haters and conceal your puffy eyes while keeping you looking chic AF. Hold our martinis please, Nana Betty and I got this (after our twelve o’clock hair appointment). 💁🏼‍♀️
  • For so long I thought my Mom and I were from different planets because of my sensitivity. But now I know empathy + vulnerability = my patented superpower, and because of my Mom, I am learning how to fill up and harness that reservoir to stand in my truth.
  • Like my other half, Jules, I refuse to believe that laughter and entertainment are only reserved for certain spaces. Call me crazy. (I dare you.)

There is one thing I do know with absolute certainty:

Tantamount is the power we women hold, unyielding in its truth.

Denial doesn’t extricate its profundity.

The outcome of the Webflow investigation is a message to women in tech that we still aren’t taken seriously by our employers. In TwentyFuckingTwentyOne. And my response to that is: if you won’t take us seriously, then we will find people who do.

It’s not even remotely shocking that Webflow excused their own behavior, replaced my team with white men, and the VPM in question moved on seamlessly to the next up-and-coming SV darling because the actors in this dramedy are insignificant. There’s a much more toxic system at play upheld by the Pinterests and Webflows of the valley who pass on their tried-and-true playbooks and precipitous valuations to the doughy-eyed aspiring startups that come after them.

But whether it’s Christine Blasey Ford, Britney Spears, or the 60 women victimized by Bill Cosby — our truth can’t be denied with a conviction.

Our abusers will not be exonerated on technicalities.

How else are we supposed to be agents of change? When we’ve tried it their way a hundred times before? And why should we stay silent? Who demands our silence? Who is uncomfortable when we share the reality of our experiences? What are they scared of losing?

As white women, change has to start with us. (I learned that in corporate anti-racism workshops.) The workforce today — not just women — is demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. As more skilled technologists enter the workforce, as student debt rises, as equity packages get thinner, as perks lose their once-shiny distractions, as interpersonal communication and human compassion falls lower on the list of priorities — this is the #metoo wake up call that the tech industry so desperately needs. We can’t go back to pre-pandemic times when it comes to working conditions or racial injustice. People are quitting their jobs at alarmingly high rates in a fragile economy in what NPR calls “The Great Resignation.” Employers that foster toxic work environments and remain inauthentic in their bold DEI promises should start making friends with the inevitable spotlight swinging their way.

We may feel powerless in the shadows of goliath corporate entities that enact the laws, threaten their legal sovereignty, and recast themselves as heroes, but we have power that doesn’t need legitimizing and that no one can deny. A power they can’t even comprehend. Power so enchanting that centuries of ancestral moroseness can’t quell it’s throbbing pulse. And more concretely, we have resources, connections, community, the internet, VOICES, THE TRUTH, AND EACH OTHER. And we have future generations demanding that we leave the world we brought them into better than we found it.

We have a responsibility not to wait until we are 94 to start living our lives for us.


For Jackie, Pamela, Marian, Betty, Julia, and all the Price/Walker/Seidenberg/Anthone matriarchs.

But most of all, for my Mom.



Britt Caldwell

Elevator of small talk to medium talk. Winner of costume contests. Capricorn ☀️ Leo 🌅. Tech marketer @webflow @atlassian @github. Sillier on the ⏰🐥 apps.