‘The Loudest Voice’ is the only story I know of about being Jewish at Christmas time. Shirley Abramowitz, growing up in a secular Jewish family in the 1930s, is called upon to narrate her school’s nativity play because her “voice is the loudest”. It’s hard to describe what a revelation the story was for me when I first read it. Like Shirley, I grew up in a secular Jewish immigrant family in New York. My parents were ambivalent about Christmas, religious identity, the mythology of America… almost everything; they sometimes approved of celebrating Christmas and sometimes didn’t.
Every time I thought I found a book or TV show about people who didn’t celebrate Christmas (The House Without a Christmas Tree, a Hallmark Special), it turned out to be about people who stopped celebrating because of a trauma instead of because of cultural reasons, and the trauma was always addressed and the Christmas tree erected and decorated before the show was over. But Christmas in ‘The Loudest Voice’ isn’t magical or redemptive – it appears simply as one kind of cultural practice in a multicultural society. “The teachers became happier and happier. Their heads were ringing like the bells of childhood,” Shirley observes, as the children decorate the school for a holiday many of them don’t celebrate. I recently found a recording of the story that Paley made for Vermont Public Radio in 1998. Hearing it so many years after I first read it, I was struck by how deftly and perfectly Paley conjures up a working class New York neighbourhood where it is a good thing to have the loudest voice: “There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.”
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Virago Modern Classics. You can hear Grace Paley read it for Vermont Public Radio here
Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction including This Way to Departures, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The Guardian said Departures “exposes the cracks in the facade of the American dream.” Linda’s stories have appeared in Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. She divides her time between London and Berlin. You can read Linda’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.