Growing up in New York, casting about for a way to become a Jewish woman I could be proud of, I was inspired again and again by Grace Paley. As an aspiring writer, I savored her remarkable stories – gems that captured and reflected the light, the humor, the heart, spirit and language of mid-20th century Jewish New York, a world that was fading even in my youth. I was deeply grateful to this writer I did not know for preserving in such vivid form that world I loved.
But even more, even more than I admired the stories, which was a lot, I admired Grace Paley's activism and her moral courage. She was and is the embodiment of the Eishet Chayil, the Biblical phrase that describes a Jewish woman of valor.
This was Grace:
A small woman unafraid to sit down on New York's Fifth Avenue to block military parades during the Vietnam War.
A mother who cared for other people's sons, counseling and comforting draft resisters as they struggled to make the most difficult of decisions.
A taxpayer who fought against war by refusing to pay for it.
A feminist who helped lead the Women's Pentagon Action to offer the world a vision of a woman-centered peaceful alternative to the ever-escalating weapons race. In that spirit, she climbed fences in Washington, at the Seneca Peace Encampment, and at so many other centers of military power; a little woman with an effervescent sense of humor facing off against guns and cruise missiles long after climbing fences was no longer easy or comfortable. A fellow protester recalls that by the end of Grace's fence jumping career she had to be pushed up and over by those coming behind her.
A caring Jewish-American who joined with the Women in Black to protest the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In recent years, I got to know Grace in person around Dartmouth College where I teach, but the first time I met Grace personally was in the mid-1980s. She was lying face down on the grass doing civil disobedience at a demonstration in Washington, D.C. against U.S. intervention in Central America. As she prepared to be arrested to protest U.S. support of death squads in El Salvador and the Contra war in Nicaragua, she cheerfully accepted the offer of a sweater from a friend who worried she'd be cold in prison. She got up, gave her friend a cheerful hug, lay back down and waved goodbye.
When Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of the country's largest gay and lesbian synagogue spoke at Dartmouth College, she was asked who her rabbi was. She said, "That's easy. Grace Paley." Grace was (and in spirit, still is) also my rabbi and for so many others as well. Rabbi in the best and truest sense of the word: teacher, inspiration, moral guide.
I'd like to share just a few examples of the wit and wisdom of Rabbi Grace. When her former student, photographer Susan Meiselas, came to Dartmouth, Susan was on the edge of despair. She had come to show her lovely film about Nicaragua. It was after the Sandinistas were out of power. Susan had worked hard in the struggle to create a more equitable Nicaragua and that night at dinner she let herself verbalize her weariness and her doubts. She asked Grace, "Don't you ever get down? How do you keep struggling for change when even the things we do achieve get undone?" And Grace said, "I don't do it to win. I do it because it's a good way to spend your life." (I have to acknowledge here that Grace did not remember saying that. But I've never forgotten it.)
A couple of years ago, Grace came to speak to my U.S. women's history class. After she told the students about her decades of peace activism, from her work as a young woman for the Oxford Peace Pledge in the 1930s, to her anti-nuclear activism in the 1950s, to her visit to North Vietnam in 1969, she was talking about some of the young people she'd worked with during the 1960s and 70s who had gone underground and turned to armed struggle, taking up bombs and guns.
"Don't you understand their frustration?" one student asked Grace, "Didn't you ever feel like you wanted to turn to armed struggle."
"Sure I understand their frustration," Grace answered, "but violence is just laziness. Making change takes a long time. You have to be patient. You have to do the work it takes to make change."
Over the long years of her activism, Grace took every opportunity to make the case for peaceful change. A few years back, some of us traveled to Montpelier for Grace's investiture as poet laureate of the state of Vermont. As we sat there in the gold-domed Capitol rotunda, Grace began by reading gorgeous poems about the stark beauty of Vermont. It was all very nice. And then, without skipping a beat, Grace was reading anti-war poetry so fierce in its righteous indignation, so crystal clear in its moral outrage that the great hall was simultaneously silent and electric. As Governor Jim Douglas shifted uncomfortably behind her, this powerful, small poet riveted us all. Whatever he was thinking, the governor knew he could not say anything. This was Grace's moment to speak to and for the people of Vermont and she had seized it.
But that grand moment was in some ways less characteristic of the consistency of Grace's peace work than decades of more humble work. In 1995, Grace was one of the organizers of a remarkable conference of women writers at Dartmouth that explored the relationship between activism and writing. We had a wonderful array of activist women writers with us that weekend - Dorothy Allison, Toni Cade, Leslie Marmon Silko and Grace, among others. One afternoon, a number of the writers were arguing that movement work was important but that they felt they could do more for causes they believed in by writing than by stuffing envelopes.
The argument dragged on and then a quiet voice spoke up. It was Grace. She said:
"Writing is good but you also have to stuff envelopes."
For all the envelopes she stuffed, for all of the times she spoke truth to power, for all of the times she laid her body on the line to protest war and injustice, for all of the less famous writers she reached out to and mentored, for the myriad ways she made our little town of Thetford, Vermont a better, more humane community, for all the times she played with and comforted children on the Thetford elementary school playground, and always for the stories, the poems, and the essays, I can think of no one who more richly embodied the spirit of strong, funny, valorous Jewish womanhood. She has left behind so many of us who have been strengthened, inspired, sustained by her model – a lifetime of struggle for greater social justice and equality while never forgetting the importance of menschlichkeit - the fullness of being human, of telling a good joke, of giving a hug, of ruffling the hair of a child. I will miss her so much but I am ever grateful for all the ways that she lives on.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Grace Paley, 1922 - 2007." (Viewed on June 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/weremember/paley-grace>.