My grandmother Eve (z”l) passed away last week. A shtetl Jew from Lithuania, she fled with her family to the wide veld of South Africa. Maybe she always was who she was, or maybe she was young enough for the spirit of Africa to infuse her soul. Either way, she was a lioness: you fooled with her, you got a swipe of her paw.
She told me once the story of a man who made this mistake once. She was in a restaurant where she knew the owner. The food was taking too long and my grandmother wasn’t having it. She approached the owner, who was engaged in conversation with diners at another table. Victorian to a T, she would have been polite, but (very) firm.
“Melvyn,” I imagine her saying, her English perfect, almost regal, “we’ve been waiting nearly an hour and we still haven’t gotten the food.”
One of the diners speaking with the restaurateur didn’t like this headstrong Jewish woman interrupting him. He made this sentiment known with a comment about the “bloody Jews.”
My grandmother didn’t miss a mis a beat. She didn’t hesitate, she didn’t think.
“Excuse me,” she said. (Every verbal smackdown of hers began with the words, “Excuse me.”) “While you were still swinging in the trees, we were princes of Israel.” She stormed off.
I don’t know who or what, ethnically, the man on the receiving end was. I always imagined him to be an Afrikaner, but it makes no difference. Five minutes later, the man approached her table and apologized to her.
Yes, she could have beseeched the man to better understand us Jews, and our struggle, and our concerns. Yes she could have tried to spark a dialogue. But no, that was not my grandmother. She’d experienced her share of pogroms in the old country; she wouldn’t countenance it in the new one.
As Jews around the world face rising anti-Semitism, perhaps some of us can take heart in the courage of an old woman standing up to a bully. On International Women’s Day, perhaps even more so. The next time we find ourselves bullied or abused we have to ask: is the risk greater to me—to us all—if I sit here and take it, or if stand up and defy it. Simple question. Profound answer.
For my grandmother it was never a question, most likely because she realized it was not a choice. As we find ourselves faced by this dilemma we can look to thousands of Jews just like her whose memories are more, even, than a blessing but an inspiration and a source of wisdom.