Summer Reading

Lately I’ve been re-reading the stories of Grace Paley, and no matter how many times I’ve read them, they’re hard to put down. She’s one of my favorite writers, a woman who weaves stories from what she views around her and captures how the most mundane, brief moments (a walk with a friend, moms watching kids in the park) contain everything we need to know about people and the world. Paley was born in 1922 in the Bronx and began writing as a young mother and community activist in the 1950s. Her stories, which focus on women’s lives and insist on the value of conversation and of attention to local issues, presaged the feminist slogan of the late 1960s that “the personal is political.” I always include her short stories when I teach courses on women’s writing, and she’s usually the class favorite.

But she also deserves acclaim as an important Jewish writer, as my friend Dan recently pointed out in a great article calling Grace Paley one of the most important and original American Jewish writers. He calls attention to the ways that her social conscience, her focus on the process of storytelling, and the multiple and shifting voices in her stories, reflect modern Jewish life.

I would also point out Paley’s importance as an activist – on urban neighborhood issues, peace issues, and human rights. And she also manages to write about activism without being preachy, which is an unusual accomplishment.

Because Paley has written “only” 3 short story collections (The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day – now available in one volume as The Collected Stories) as well as poetry and essays, she’s not as well known as she should be. Some of my top Paley recommendations: “A Midrash on Happiness,” “Wants,” and “A Conversation with My Father.” Definitely check her out for a shot of Jewish and feminist wit and wisdom.

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I highly recommend "After the Apple: Women in the Bible - Timeless Stories of Love, Lust and Longing" by Naomi Harris Rosenblatt. The book is both highly entertaining and informative at the same time.

The book chronicles the lives of fourteen extraordinary women—women who dare—role models for us Jewish women in the 21st Century. They overcame overwhelming odds, circumventing patriarchal authority when the survival of their family, their people and their faith was in jeopardy. At times the only path open to them was sexual seduction. The Bible does not punish them for their boldness- and therein lies its humanity and compassion.

You can out more about Naomi Harris Rosenblatt and her books at http://www.naomiharrisrosenbla...

Paley is one of my favorite writers, too. "Friends" with its "soft-speaking tough souls of anarchy" is one of my favorites, along with "Wants" but the story that has stuck with me since I first read it is "Listening".

At the end of that story, Cassie confronts Faith, asking her why she is left out of Faith's telling of stories, even though she was there. Faith is stunned, and sits with this new knowing. When Faith finally asks Cassie if she can forgive her, Cassie's words, full of love and strength, end the story: "From now on, I'll watch you like a hawk. I do not forgive you."

Cassie's insistence on taking up her rightful space in the world was a powerful example to me when I most needed one -- I was nineteen years old and afraid I wouldn't be able to finish college if I came out to my parents. I was afraid I wouldn't then be able to get a good job, and afraid about the future in ways only a nineteen year old who has just barely grasped she needs to plan for her future can be. The idea that I could make that future happen, and not have to apologize for who I was, changed everything.

For me, the real beauty in Paley's stories is that they have the power to make us less afraid.

I heard Grace Paley speak about 20 years ago. She was the guest of honor at a conference, and had to stand up on a small wooden box so as to be seen over the podium. Part of her talk included the "Midrash on Happiness" (which is found in print, I believe, in an early Tikkun magazine issue, and in a collection of her essays/misc. writings). I was in tears. She writes about little things and ordinary people in ways that make it clear how much they matter.

I have to admit, as well, that except perhaps Esther Broner, she may be the only American Jewish writer whose books or stories I automatically make time to read, or that speak to my own life as an American Jew.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Summer Reading." 27 June 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 25, 2023) <>.

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