Grace Paley, 12/15/2003
My parents rise up from the grave, demanding to know: How has it come to
this? How did a great and persecuted people become the persecutors?
Jews are afraid these days. I'm Jewish, so I'm afraid too. I'm afraid for my
mother and father in their Russian Jewish youth 90 years ago, their high
spirits and dangerous bravery. I'm afraid for my grandmother because she
will have to find a wagon to bring her murdered son home. I am afraid for
him. He falls down. He's been shot. It's pogrom time. My grandmother find
him among other dead boys. With all her strength, she lifts him, tips him
into the wagon. He's 17. His name is Rusya. A photograph about 2 by 3 feet
stands on the windowsill of my front room. When I walk into the room I see
his intelligent Russian Jewish face and I am afraid for him. It will not be
able to save him. I am afraid for my grandmother's sadness. It will never
end. It is almost 100 years old.
I am afraid for my grandchildren. Two of them are the
great-great-great-grandchildren of imported African immigrants (slaves). My
grandchildren are called African American. I am afraid for those two little
children. I am afraid of America.
Ten or 12 years before World War II, my aunt, my mother's sister, visited
us. She came from a place called Palestine, where she has lived as long a
my parents have lived in this America. She came floating over the sea in a
big ship. It was called the Grace Line. She gave me a wonderful button to
pin on my dress. It said Grace. Then, at the supper table, she told my
parents that she was ashamed of them. They had become members of the
terrible American bourgeoisie. She herself had kept her socialist idealism
alive, active in a place that would eventually be called Israel. My father
ignored her rudeness politely but thought it over. He said: What about the
Arabs? You think they'll sit still? They'll eat you alive. My aunt said: You
ignorant fool, we will live with them together. You'll see. My mother said:
Maybe she's right. You don't know everything.
Then the years passed, as they do for nations as well as people, not alway
at the same rate.
I am afraid for the Jews of Israel. A great people may not have had to
become a small nation, despite promises made 2,500 years ago. Even He, it
presumed Author, did not imagine that His Book, made in Yavneh, so full of
myth history prophecy law poetry, would carry us without the baggage of real
estate (which must be defended) into the 21st century. A Book, a Testament
of such beauty that you didn't have to believe in God in order to praise Him
on the high holidays. With this Book, we have lived in the United States,
France, Brazil, South Africa, Algeria. China! We spoke the languages of
those countries; our voices live in their literature. Sometimes we speak
with a Yiddish accent, or Ladino. This seems to be useful to those other
languages, though they would deny it. They are so busy being nations.
I was talking to my Indian friend from India the other day. She said her
family had become obnoxious conservatives. What had America done to them? I
talked to an Italian friend who said it was all impossible. With one set of
anarchist grandparents and one set socialists, all the old uncles had voted
Republican. My Irish friend thought his generation was sensibly progressive,
but something had happened to his elders when they settled in a bad mood in
This did not happen to the Jewish people for a long time. Their experience
of enraged anti-Semitism kept their politics clear for some years. Also they
had to state frequently, at home and in shul, "for we were strangers in
Egypt." I thought a lot about that phrase when I was a kid. It meant, I
thought, that we had to be nice to the two or three Christians who had
inexplicably chosen to live in our noisy Jewish neighborhood.
Now at one time, the Jews wanted a king. They'd had a couple of perfectly
good prophets, but they said they really wanted a king. The prophet Samuel,
with biblical experience and wisdom, pointed out that a king would require
all sorts of taxes, olive orchards, concubines, etc. - a terrible expense.
No, they said, they wanted to be like all the other nations and have a
king - also, they'd probably need, like all the other nations, an army,
airplanes, nuclear weapons, borders, checkpoints, and maybe a big wall and a
lot more land.
My father said, I told you they'd run into trouble. It's true my parent
died years ago, but they still speak to me whenever I'm willing to listen.
My father continued. Anyway, what is this business of settlements? Probably
mostly from Brooklyn? What do you mean they're tearing up trees and knocking
down people's houses? Then the Arabs (he always says Arabs), for revenge
they go after the Jews, killing themselves along with our people? Young boy
and girls? They just give away their lives? I bet you one thing, there'
some big shot 50, 60 years old handling the whole business. Fifty-year-old
people don't want to die. By the time they're 60, even less. Then our people
take revenge? Then back and forth? You heard the expression, Vengeance i
mine, saith the Lord? They can't wait? My God, I'm glad I'm six feet under.
And the Jews of America say all this is OK? They don't yell, Stop? I think
they lost their Jewish minds. Us. Poor people hounded all over the Earth for
a couple thousand years, and now they want to be the hounds?
I want to correct him, No, no, Pa, there are people on both sides who want
to live like humans. You would recognize them. He said, sadly, I know, of
course. Usually they're better, the people. But always in the end I have
noticed how it grows, the state and its terrible power.
My mother who died 30 years before my talking father is shy. She wants to
take my hand. Of course she can't. She's thinking about her sister and the
grandchildren. All the children. She says, Only have pity.
Enough, my father says. And they are gone.
Grace Paley is a poet and fiction writer. This essay appears in the book
"Wrestling with Zion."