Interesting Times: Accidental Zionist

Your Jewishness, though always part of you, was nothing more than an incidental characteristic.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
My grandmother is dying. We all are, I suppose. But I am trying to adjust to the idea that this may be it - though, knowing grandma, it may not be. Jeanne Singer, God willing, will be 98 years old in July. Until well into her 80s, she seemed to have arrested the aging process somewhere around 65. Even now, when she was recently hospitalized, her doctors marvelled that she was not on any medication and had no chronic ailments. A few years ago, though, dementia began to set in. Her sharp mind began to betray her. At first it was "just" the loss of short-term memory, but that little wiring glitch began to be debilitating. Being able to remember what came before the War doesn't help when you can't remember what you said a minute ago. Deep inside, Grandma is still there. She can only say a word or two, but by answering "no" when you expect "yes," she seems to be following part of her motto: that the two inexcusable things for a person to be are to be mean and to be boring. But, if I may switch to addressing Grandma directly, I don't want to remember you like this. I've just watched again a profile of your life that videographer Paula Weiman-Kelman produced in 1995, when you were "only" 87. You were still completely yourself then, and spoke about how "most of my life was surprises" and that you weren't "a planner." Though I am not sure you would want us to draw this lesson, looking at your life makes one think that planning, not to mention following convention, is overrated. Back when women didn't do such things while raising children, you were a writer. In the 1930s you published your first short story, "The Tower," in a journal where, further down on the cover, a story by J.D. Salinger appeared. Another story, "The Not Unusual Love Life of Jessica Stone," in Good Housekeeping, led in 1943 to the publication of This Festive Season - a novel that was among the first to center on quiet anti-Semitism in American academia. You spoke of the fact that, through much of your life, your Jewishness, though always part of you, was nothing more than an incidental characteristic, "like my curly hair." LIKE YOUR feminism, your Jewishness was unconscious and accidental, but no less powerful for that. Perhaps it is not such an accident that your book was set at a Pessah Seder modelled around your in-laws who, though far from being fully traditional Jews, were the most observant Jews you knew. During World War II, your writing led to a job with the Office of War Information, helping to fight the propaganda side of the conflict in the Far East. Then in 1945, when my father was only 13, your husband died, leaving you to support and raise your two children alone. You became the only woman on the professional staff of the US mission to the just-born United Nations, and were press aide to the US ambassador to the UN, Eleanor Roosevelt. Listening to your stories about the UN back then, about working with perhaps the most beloved ambassador in American history, helped give me perspective when, many years later, I started out in a very different foreign policy era as a Congressional staffer. But to us grandchildren, those were just stories, about a time we could only imagine. Our real memories of you start in yet another phase of your life - as an artist and accidental Zionist. You said that taking up art was the closest thing to a conscious life decision. When you retired, you studied painting, and art became your joy. Now your paintings surround you at home, perhaps helping you remember your former self. They are part of your belief in surprises; as you were fond of quoting a fellow artist, "if I knew how it would come out, I wouldn't bother to paint it." IN YOUR book, you wrote, "So it was not yet over after all. The pleasure was wonderfully renewed as it often is in a Beethoven symphony, when a great crescendo seems to announce the end of the music, but the end does not come." I wonder sometimes, as you still eat with gusto, and still exhibit your contrariness, whether there will be an encore. "The orchestra returns to an earlier theme," you continued, "in another key, and then sets off again, with renewed vitality and superior energy, on the wonderful excursion, the breathless, exquisite climb to the postponed finale." That's how you lived. Who else would pick up and leave a comfortable, rent-controlled apartment and life in New York City to move to Israel at the age of 82, on the first day of the Gulf War? You then had a whole life here, in an apartment above the room where your grandson, my brother Alex, lived when he was in the army until he was killed in battle in 1987. This week, Nenita Alcayde, the saintly Filipina who has taken care of you with such love since you began to leave us, reported that you were saying two things at night: "Help me," and "Alex." Now, when I pray for you, I pray that you will not suffer, and that you will get your wish.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11