San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘Grace Paley: Collected Shorts’

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, directed by Lilly Rivlin, USA, 2010, video, documentary, 74 minutes

By Gail Feinstein Forman

Gail Feinstein Forman

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Jewish Film Festival is offering a moving tribute to Grace Paley, activist and writer, in the film, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts. The filmmakers have succeeded in showcasing this remarkable women’s liberal activism and literary talents in a well-paced, upbeat and informative documentary.

Grace Paley was born Grace Goodside in the Bronx, New York, in 1922.  Though she grew up during the difficult economic times of the Depression, she describes her childhood as being enlivened by regular visits by colorful, argumentative relatives and living in animated neighborhood filled with the tastes and sounds of immigrant life—memories that became key source material for her writing in later years.

She describes her parents as “atheist, socialist Jews,” and they had a strong influence on her thinking and resulting political activism.

She witnessed the daily diatribes around the kitchen table of her parents bemoaning the state of the Soviet Union, and her aunts arguing about communism, anarchism, and Zionism. They argued in Yiddish, Russian and English, never coming to any agreement. And the next day would be another round of the same arguments. Paley grew up thinking that argument was a natural form of expression.

In addition to the continuing dramas enacted at the kitchen table, Paley was deeply affected by neighbors’ lives and strivings for a sense of place .

Though she started out as a writer of poetry, in her 30’s she began to write the stories of the people who surrounded her growing up.  Themes were  immigrant life and the lives of women.

With vivid attention to vernacular dialogue, in particular the rhythm and idioms of the three languages she heard at home, she wrote with humor and pathos, described as evoking “America and its multitude of voices.”

Paley remarked that in her stories, she was “not writing a history of famous people,” but rather she was “interested in the history of everyday life.”

Her subjects talked openly about their problems, abuse, sexuality—topics that were taboo for the 1950’s. Her groundbreaking stories opened the way for other writers to explore similar subjects in a more comprehensive way.

Many of her stories appear in the collections The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later that Same Day.

Political activism was an important aspect of Paley’s open and public expression and she considered herself an activist  “link in the chain” of liberal causes. A member of the War Resisters League, she actively protested against the Vietnam War and was a member of a peace mission to Hanoi.

She was visible for decades on lower Sixth Avenue, near her Greenwich Village home, distributing leaflets and petitions for one liberal cause or another.

There’s a steadiness about Paley that comes through in the film—almost a Zen quality to her words and actions, whether reading her poetry or stories or getting arrested on the White House lawn for protesting the Pentagon and the “war machine “ in the 1960’s.

She’s thoroughly present and grounded whenever we meet her which  allows her enormous sense of humanity to shine through.

In addition to glimpses of Paley in different guises-a teacher, a writer and family matron- many of the film clips contain moving pieces of American history, and serve as a mini time capsule of the social issues of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In one excerpt, Paley read aloud from her short story, “Traveling,” about a time in 1943 she left New York by bus to visit her husband in Florida who was training to be sent overseas to fight in WWll.

During that time, in the 1940’s, interstate buses were legally segregated in the South, with blacks in the back and whites in the front.

Paley recounts an event where she was  sitting on the bus in a seat in the white section and offers her seat to black woman carrying a baby.

The black woman does not take Paley’s offer because of fear of possible reprisals by whites on the bus. But Paley offers another solution—Paley offers to give the woman a temporary rest from holding the infant, and offers to hold him on her lap. The black woman reluctantly relented, gave her baby to Paley to hold on her lap. A white man next to Paley remarked that he would never touch “ that thing,” the words he used to describe the black baby.

The story then takes a surprising twist segueing into recent times when Paley is lovingly holding her own grandson, a black child adopted by her daughter. It is a story arc that marches over time from despair to a renaissance of love, demonstrating the potential for evolving social norms of life in America.

Paley taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College and was also vice president of the PEN American Center, an international organization for writers.

She married cameraman Jess Paley in 1942 but they divorced and in 1972 she married architect/writer Robert Nichols. She had a son and daughter and one grandchild. Her last residence was Thetford. Vermont.

Paley, who died in 2007, has left a legacy of story collections that speak “without compromise for the little disturbances of men and women, and endows them with the stature of a moral vision. “

And this, too, is how Grace Paley lived her life, taking seriously the responsibility of Tikun Olam, to repair the world.

Grace Paley: Selected Shorts will be screened at noon, Wednesday,  Feb. 16 at the Lawrence Family JCC as part of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.

 Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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