Saying Goodbye to the Grandmother I Argued With

At times we sounded like Netanyahu and Obama, except that Netanyahu doesn’t interrupt his lectures to inquire if Obama has had enough to eat.

Reuters

My grandmother, Adele Pienaar, who died last Friday, was a connoisseur of lost worlds. She called herself “Spanish”—her maiden name, Albeldas, matches a town in northeastern Spain—although the Iberian Peninsula has been largely barren of Jews for 500 years. Her social circle was primarily composed of Jews from the Isle of Rhodes, the place to which her Spanish ancestors migrated, although most Jewish life in Rhodes perished in the Holocaust. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, whose ancient Jewish community collapsed when she was a child. She spent her teenage years in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), in the southeastern Congo, a place few realize Jews ever lived at all.

As a young woman, she traveled to Cape Town, South Africa on holiday, where she met and married my grandfather, despite the fact that he spoke English, Afrikaans and a little Yiddish, while she spoke French, Ladino, Arabic and a little Swahili. (I once heard the story—probably apocryphal—that when she told her parents that her fiancé’s family was from Russia, one relative exclaimed: “That’s crazy. Who’s ever heard of a Jew from Russia?”) But even in Cape Town, which given my grandmother’s experience seemed like a haven, politics brought its share of terror. And by her final decades, some predicted that its Jewish community was headed for extinction too.

Yet my grandmother was neither morbid, nor even particularly nostalgic. When asked about her past, she’d often reply, “Who knows?” and then ask a question she considered more pertinent, like, “Why aren’t you eating your fish?” She didn’t talk much about the communities she had buried, but they spoke through her actions. She cooked vast quantities of bourekas, especially for Shabbat dinners, during which her grandchildren ran wild through the house. She went every week to Cape Town’s tiny Sephardi shul. She argued with her brothers in French. She kept a small book that listed the Jewish families from Rhodes, and the places to which history had dispersed them. On beautiful 75-degree days in Cape Town, she sometimes complained about the chill, which puzzled me until I remembered that she had spent much of her youth on the equator.

In my teenage years, when the anti-apartheid movement became a global force, we began to argue politics. My suggestion that Jews had a particular obligation to combat apartheid annoyed her. She probably felt that my claim that Jews had a special responsibility to black South Africans, or any other group of gentile underdogs, stemmed from my inability to imagine being the underdog myself. For her, it didn’t take much imagination. The lessons she drew from her experience of vulnerability and dislocation were straightforward: Jews should be on the lookout for trouble and should take care of each other since no one else would. She approached peoplehood the same way she approached family: like she was part of a gang.

Those instincts formed the basis of her Zionism, which was more tribal than ideological. She didn’t see Israel as a place to forge an ambitious new social order; she saw it as a place Jews could exhale. If her nightmare for South Africa was that its transition to black rule would resemble Congo’s, her nightmare for Israel was that Arab nationalism would imperil its Jews in the way Arab nationalism had imperiled Alexandria’s. If I questioned these fears, she’d ask me how much time I’d spent living in an Arab country. Our dialogue of the deaf bore a faint resemblance to the dialogue between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, except that Netanyahu doesn’t interrupt his lectures to inquire if Obama has had enough to eat.

In retrospect, I feel blessed to have had a grandmother whose experiences were so different from my own, and who saw the world in such different ways. Among countless other things, she taught me the danger of drawing any simple connection between a person’s political views and their moral character. On South African politics, my grandmother was the most conservative member of our extended family. Yet she showed more personal kindness to black South Africans than any white South African I have ever known—among other things, paying the school fees of the orphaned daughter of a woman who once worked for her around the house. I often reflected on that as a student in Cambridge, New Haven and Oxford, where I met people with impeccably progressive views who had far more empathy for humanity in the abstract than for the actually existing human beings they happened to know.

I was not with my grandmother the night she died. I was not even with my own family, but at a conference half a continent away. Feeling unmoored, I called the local Chabad rabbi to talk about what happens when souls and bodies part ways. With typical Chabad generosity, he invited me to his house for Shabbat dinner, where I was seated beside an older man who told me about the hardships of his life and about why Israel deserved not only the West Bank but Jordan too. We argued, and ate, and watched children run through the house as the night grew late. And for a time, my grief lifted. My grandmother—who mourned so many lost worlds—is now gone herself. But if I look in the right places, I can see the things that endure.