This Day in Jewish History

1922: Grace Paley, N.Y. Jewish Writer and Activist Is Born

Grace Paley used her mastery of and passion for the English language on behalf of many of the progressive causes of the 20th century.

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On December 11, 1922, Grace Paley was born in the Bronx, New York. When she died in 2007, she was known as a writer whose poetry and short fiction vividly and earthily captured the tone and experiences of several generations of politically liberal working-class American Jews and their children.

Paley was born to Isaac and Manya Goodside, who emigrated in 1905 from Ukraine to New York, where they anglicized their name from Gudseit. Both parents were socialists who had earlier been exiled by the government of Czar Nicholas II – Isaac (who in America became a doctor) to Siberia, and Manya to Germany.

Grace was the youngest of three siblings, and grew up comfortably in a verbal blend of Yiddish, Russian and English. Her father’s mother and two of his sisters lived with the family. She attended college – both at Hunter College and the New School, where she studied poetry with W.H. Auden -- but never earned a formal degree. Instead, by the age of 19 she was married and living in army camps, while her husband, the cinematographer Jess Paley, served with American forces  in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The couple had two children and later divorced.

Paley started out writing poetry, only delving into fiction in her 30s. She never published a novel. When asked about this in an interview with the Paris Review, she made no apologies, saying,“Art is too long, and life is too short.” Her overall career output was relatively slim too: three books containing fewer than 50 stories and several volumes of poetry. (Her agent and friends described searching her home for stories that could be published in collections.) She never supported herself by writing, and spent most of her adult life raising her children (she and Jess separated long before their official divorce, and she was left with the children) and being politically active in numerous causes, including the movement against the Vietnam War, as a feminist and against nuclear proliferation. She was a regular fixture in her Greenwich Village neighborhood handing out leaflets on the street, and also participated in more provocative protests – some of which landed her in jail. In 1969, she joined a delegation of peace activists who traveled to Hanoi, North Vietnam, where they received three American prisoners of war released by the Viet Cong. Paley described herself as a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.”

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Paley also spent much of her life as a teacher at the college level for many years and with the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York, which she helped establish in 1967. The organization, which still exists, brings professional writers into schools in the New York area to lead writing workshops. At a 1996 symposium on writing education, she explained the concept behind TWC as being that children, “by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another -- could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves.” That, she added, “always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”

One character who reappears through many of her stories is Faith Darwin, a writer who has had disappointing experiences with men and close relationships with her parents and her children. Through Faith, her fictional alter ego, Paley expressed her remove from religious Judaism, and her belief that the Jews belong in the Diaspora, where they can remain “a splinter in the toe of civilizations,” rather than in Israel (she was writing this in the late 1950s), where, “once they’re huddled in one little corner of the desert, they’re like anyone else.” Paley was also a founder, in 1987, of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

When her short stories were anthologized in 1994 in “Collected Stories,” the book was nominated for both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and Paley served at different times as the official state author of New York and poet laureate of Vermont, where she spent much of her later years.