In honor of Women’s History Month (recognized annually during the month of March), we are spotlighting Jewish women from the past and present! Grace Paley was the 2018–2019 SHJ Humanistic Jewish Role Model.
This article was published in the Summer 2019 Issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Mark Swartz, author of three novels, including Summertime Jews. He and his family live in Takoma Park, MD, where they belong to Machar, the Washington D.C. Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
I. The Pantheon
A few names are guaranteed to be included in any chronicle of Jewish American Literature’s Greatest Generation. Saul Bellow (1915–2005) and Philip Roth (1933–2018) can duke it out at the top of the list. J. D. Salinger (1919–2010), Norman Mailer (b. Nachem Malech Mailer; 1923–2007), and Arthur Miller (1915–2005), not as readily identified as Jewish, will turn up, too. And while Woody Allen (1935– ) in spite of his personal failings, largely belongs to the entertainment world, his writings qualify as literary enough for his name to be inscribed, too, if only for the influence he has had.
Not to overgeneralize, but all of these figures are “bad Jews.” Although Bellow believed in God, he was unobservant and wrote, in his travelogue To Jerusalem and Back, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep” (Goldman 2008). In a documentary on atheism, Miller reported, “I tried to be a religious person for about two years, when I was 13, 14. And then it simply vanished. I lay down one evening to go to sleep, and I woke up, and it wasn’t there anymore” (Miller 2012). Roth told an interviewer, “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place” (Braver 2019).
II. Paley’s Religion
Grace Paley (1922–2007) most definitely deserves to be included in this pantheon, but she is far less well known, probably on account of her relatively scant output and her dedication to short stories rather than novels, as well as her gender. As a writer, I find more inspiration and appeal in Paley’s work than in any of her Greatest Generation peers. Moreover, I find her Jewishness more aligned with Secular Humanistic Judaism, though she doesn’t seem to have encountered the movement. While she rejected theism—or, probably, never believed at all—she drew steady nourishment from Jewish tradition.
Paley was chosen as the SHJ 2018–2019 Humanistic Jewish Role Model because: Her values were expressed in action. She did not look to a higher power to solve the issues and problems of the day. Her behavior reflected her secular belief system. She was Jewish through and through and when she moved to Vermont, away from New York City where you could express your connection to being Jewish in the streets, she sought out Jewish community where she could find it, rather than abandoning her identity. (Society for Humanistic Judaism 2019)
In a 1987 interview, Paley recalled, “My family was atheist, all of them, except my grandmother. And my father and my mother really believed in their Socialist ideals. The Enlightenment crawled across Europe, and when it reached them, they were home at last” (G. Paley 1987). Atheism crops up in her stories from time to time, as in the story “Living,” when a woman tries to console a friend’s son at the his mother’s funeral. “Ellen must be so proud of you,” she says. His response: “She’s not anything of anything” (G. Paley 2017, 73).
Paley’s “religion,” so to speak, was rooted in socialism and social justice. As Alexandra Schwartz writes in a 2017 New Yorker profile, “Politics ran in Paley’s blood. Her childhood was ‘rather typical Jewish socialist’ in that she believed Judaism and socialism to be one and the same” (Schwartz 2017).
Nora Paley, the writer’s daughter, has written, “The phrase ‘The Personal is political,’ which came out of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, described to me the culture of my family and community in the very pre-affluent Greenwich Village. I assumed it originated in Jewish scripture (we were atheists)” (N. Paley 2017, 362). The author’s daughter told me in an e-mail, “Although not an observant Jew in the strict sense, she read and told us Old Testament stories often. We never had any doubt about our Jewishness. I was always proud to be in a line of moral, generous, ethical thinkers, which is how I saw Jewishness as a kid.”
Paley devoted far more time and energy to activism than the better-known writers of her generation. (She also almost certainly spent more time being a parent.) In 1961, she led her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing and worked extensively with the War Resister’s League, which counseled young draft resisters—“among other less legal activities,” as Nora told me. Paley also founded the Greenwich Village Peace Center with several neighbors. In 1966, she was jailed for civil disobedience. Her activism continued through her cofounding, in the 1980s, of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and protests against the Iraq War in 2007, the year she died (G. Paley 2017, 365–68).
III. Paley’s Writing
We don’t, however, remember Paley just for her impressive record of protests and marches. Her writing is what counts. For me, it’s her short stories (for others, her poetry and essays matter most), despite or because there just aren’t that many of them. She published only three slim collections, widely spaced apart: The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985).
Many of her best stories explicitly address Jewish cultural and historical issues. “The Loudest Voice” concerns a Jewish girl assigned a role in her school’s Christmas pageant. Her parents debate whether it’s appropriate to participate: “You’re in America!” The father declares. “Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. In Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas…. Some joke, ha!” (G. Paley 2017, 31)
“Zagrowsky Tells” invokes the Abraham and Isaac story (also reinterpreted by Allen and Roth, among others): “You remember one son he sent out of the house altogether, the other he was ready to chop up if he only heard a noise in his head saying, Go! Chop!” (G. Paley 2017, 181) In “The Used-Boy Raisers,” Paley’s recurring character and alter ego, Faith Darwin (a hard-to-miss secular surname) states, “Jews have one hope only—to remain a remnant in the basement of world affairs— no, I mean something else—a splinter in the toe of civilization, a victim to aggravate the conscience” (G. Paley 2017, 57).
My favorite of Paley’s short stories is barely a story at all—it’s almost an essay, but a few sparse details of New York streets suggest a vast, complex narrative. It begins… No. To summarize or quote from “Midrash on Happiness” is to do it (and us) a disservice. It must be read all at once. Or even better, heard read aloud. (Eve Ensler reads it at https://soundcloud.com/penamerican/ eve-ensler-reads-midrash-on.) Paley doesn’t just use the word midrash but irresistibly deploys and reinvents midrashic narrative strategies, turning a text over and over in the mind so the reader not just follows but rides her train of thought.
On a personal note, the fiction I write also frequently deals with how texts are interpreted and misinterpreted, which is one of the things that makes this bad Jew a Jewish writer, even when the subject matter has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism.
IV. Secular Saint?
In the words of one Paley fan, George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, among other works: Paley is, for me, a kind of secular saint. What is a saint? Someone particularly attentive to things as they are and extraordinarily accepting of them. Paley honors every person and thing she creates by presenting them at their best, or at least their liveliest—which may be the same thing. (Saunders 2017, xix)
This sentiment sounds good, but the more I read Paley, the more I think about her, the less I find her to be “extraordinarily accepting.” She literally and literarily protested through her entire life. That’s what makes her such great company.
In the course of researching Paley for this essay and for a talk I gave at my congregation, I came across this assessment of Bellow, from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein:
Bellow wrote in order to take on reality. He loved reality the way Edmund Hillary loved Mt. Everest, or the biblical Jacob loved his nighttime wrestling opponent, or Ahab loved the whale. It’s extraordinary how many times Bellow calls out to his mighty antagonist by name: Reality. He uses the word more times than Kant and Hegel put together (Goldstein 2019).
Similarly, “World” appears 106 times in The Grace Paley Reader; it’s the reverberant final word of “Midrash on Happiness.” Paley’s “World” stands for, I believe, everything that goes on beyond our immediate comings and goings. It may recede but never for long. The clearest example may be found in “The Story Hearer,” about a sexist, anti-Semitic butcher. “I am trying to curb my cultivated individualism,” it begins, “which seemed for years so sweet.” The narrator then swerves, noting, “though the subject—which is how to save the world— and quickly—is immense” (G. Paley 1959, 133).
Grace Paley’s body of work is like that: small, but immense.
1. Braver, Rita. 2010. A Rare Look at Author Philip Roth. October 3. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=9Vz7oUhqTQk&feature=youtu.be.
2. Goldman, Anne. 2008. “In Praise of Saul Bellow.” Michigan Quarterly Review XLVII(1). http://hdl. handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0047.101.
3. Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger. 2007. “‘Novels 1956– 1964’ by Saul Bellow.” Review of Novels 1956–1964: Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, by Saul Bellow. Los Angeles Times. February 25. http:// rebeccagoldstein.com/articles/Novels_1956-1964_ by_Saul_Bellow_Review.htm.
4. Miller, Jonathan. 2012. The Atheism Tapes with Jonathan Miller: III. Arthur Miller: 1 of 2. February 14. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=TMd7L43PKjc&feature=youtu.be.
5. Paley, Grace. 1959. The Little Disturbances of Man. Garden City: Doubleday.
6. — —. 1987. “Looking at Disparities: An Interview with Grace Paley.” Interview by Martha Satz. Southwest Review 72(4): 478-489.
7. — —. 2017. The Grace Paley Reader, edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
8. Paley, Nora. 2017. “Afterword” in The Grace Paley Reader.
9. Saunders, George. 2017. “Introduction” in The Grace Paley Reader.
10. Schwartz, Alexandra. 2017. “The Art and Activism of Grace Paley.” The New Yorker. May 1. https://www. newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/08/the-art-and- activism-of-grace-paley.
11. Society for Humanistic Judaism. 2019. “HJ Role Models.” Accessed May 15. http://www.shj.org/ humanistic-jewish-life/hj-role-models/.
12. Swartz, Mark. Instant Karma. San Francisco: City Lights, 2002.