‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley

Chosen by Alanna Schubach
 
Shirley Abramowitz is a girl who knows how to project. Her booming voice grates on her mother, the grocer, the whole block of her New York City neighborhood, but at school, it’s treasured by Mr. Hilton, who is overseeing the Christmas play. Shirley is conscripted to narrate the production, despite knowing very little about the holiday. That she and her mostly Jewish classmates are performing the story of Christ’s birth stirs up a range of opinions among their parents—debate and argument being central, after all, to Jewish-American culture. Shirley’s mother laments that their family “came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants” only for their children to “learn a lot of lies.” But her father sees Christmas as their holiday now, too: “What belongs to history,” he says, “belongs to all men.” 
 
Like all great Christmas stories, ‘The Loudest Voice’ is full of warmth and good humor. Take, for instance, its hilariously defamiliarized rendering of the nativity: 

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd’s stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Mart Groff took his place, wearing his father’s prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered round Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued.” 

There’s poignancy, too, in how Shirley recounts this particular Christmas from a great distance, as an adult looking back, full of gratitude for her family’s attempts to understand their new world. 
 
In my opinion, the best way to experience the story is to listen to Paley read it herself—ideally on Christmas morning. 
 
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, FSG, 2007. * Alanna Schubach’s novel, The Nobodies, is out now. You can read her other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.

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