The Women Before Me: Stories from my Past
Today we welcome our first post from Miriasha Borsykowsky, one of our Rising Voices Fellows. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from one of our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
I don’t think about it a lot, but I am descended from a line of strong, resourceful women. I’ve heard their stories all through growing up, and although I have endless respect for them, I have always had trouble relating.
I was born in 1996, lived in Vermont my whole life, speak only English at home, and have never had to worry about having enough to eat. My great- (and great-great) grandmothers lived in Binghamton, New York, spoke Yiddish, and had to really work to survive. I’m blessed to have two parents who are still living together, while the women I am descended from dealt with tragic losses of a father or a husband. While the struggles they went through are very different from what I struggle with, I still turn to their stories sometimes for guidance.
I’m named after my great-grandmother on my mom’s side. Her English name was Marion, but her Yiddish name was Mariashe. Change a few letters, and here I am, Miriasha. Despite our shared name, our lives have been very different.
At eight and a half years old, Marion was functionally running her neighborhood grocery store in Binghamton, going door to door and selling matzoh. She stepped up to this task because her father had passed away, leaving the family of five kids with no income. She was the “breadwinner” of the family at age eight. In an essay she wrote in 1976, she says that her family was the “talk of the town.” Her resilience was noteworthy—even revolutionary. Marion’s story has inspired me to be revolutionary in my own life, and to embrace situations that might seem uncomfortable or scary at first sight.
Marion’s mother-in law was Bubbe Boshe (Bessie). Bessie’s husband died when she was eight and a half months pregnant, leaving her with five children. She owned the building she lived in, and was the first of my family to create a neighborhood store. Bessie later helped Marion’s mother and fellow widow, Bubbe Blumie, set up a store of her own. After the store closed down for the night, Bessie would help solve neighborhood conflicts. My grandfather describes her as a judge, and what he has said about her always reminds me of King Solomon and the baby dispute.
Bessie’s building was inhabited by many different immigrant groups, and since they were not comfortable going to the court system, they went to her instead. One case she heard was of an Irishman stabbing an Italian. She was able to navigate the tensions between the Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants and found a solution that kept everyone out of jail. Bessie asked the attacker to pay the injured for damages and everyone involved moved on with their lives.
The complexity of trying to mediate between two marginalized groups is one that I have also encountered. I recently worked with a local organization called Outright Vermont to train teachers and other staff at my school to be allies to the LGBTQ+ community. An ELL (English Language Learning) teacher asked us how they could be inclusive of LGBTQ+ students while making sure that students holding homophobic views did not feel alienated.
My initial gut response was that they should feel alienated for holding such beliefs, but the truth is that many of these students are coming from a much different place than I am. A lot of the ELL students at my school used to be refugees, and some come from countries where to be gay was a death sentence. They haven’t been exposed to positive messages around LGBTQ+ identities, and if homophobia is condemned, they will be stuck between listening to their teacher and listening to their family and culture. They are also subject to racism and xenophobia, two axes of oppression I have not had to deal with personally.
I wasn’t able to give an answer to this teacher, but her question got me thinking about intersectionality and how advocacy is rarely as simple as it seems. Almost a century after Bessie held court, I hope to channel her wisdom as I continue to strive for change. Just like Bessie and King Solomon, I refuse to let the baby be chopped in half.
Even as I learn from these women, I know that they lived in a very different world than I do. They stepped into positions of power and responsibility because the men who had held them were no longer there to do so. I am grateful to them for showing me the way, but I know that I can’t wait for necessity to thrust power unto me. I must go out and fight for it myself, with the wisdom and perseverance that I get from the women before me.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.