Reading Mindfully for the Holiday: Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice”

Reading Mindfully for the Holiday: Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice”

Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to think about your perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. During this holiday week, grab a friend or family member to read, share and discuss together!

Widely known for her short fiction, award-winning author Grace Paley was also an essayist, novelist, poet and activist. Born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrant parents in 1922, her prose is heavily influenced by “the language of her childhood, a heady blend of Yiddish, Russian and English.” In 1978, Paley told The New York Times that she considered her work “a history of everyday life.”

Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice” was published in 1959 and follows Shirley Abramowitz, a young Jewish girl who is asked to be the narrator in her school’s Christmas pageant.

As you read Paley’s “The Loudest Voice,” consider these questions:

  • Does assimilation require the loss of one’s native cultural identity?
  • Who “owns” a tradition? Can traditions like Christmas be shared?
  • What are the best ways to make newcomers (in school, in a community, in the workplace) feel welcome and included?

The Loudest Voice

By Grace Paley

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.

There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. “Mrs. Abramowitz,” he says, “people should not be afraid of their children.”

“Ah, Mr. Bialik,” my mother replies, “if you say to her or her father ‘Ssh,’ they say, ‘In the grave it will be quiet.’”

“From Coney Island to the cemetery,” says my papa. “It’s the same subway, it’s the same fare.”

I am right next to the pickle barrel. My pinky is making tiny whirlpools in the brine. I stop a moment to announce: “Campbell’s Tomato Soup.  Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup.   Campbell’s S-c-otch Broth. . .”

“Be quiet,” the grocer says, “the labels are coming off.”

“Please, Shirley, be a little quiet,” my mother begs me.

In that place the whole street groans: Be quiet! Be quiet! but steals from the happy chorus of my inside self not a tittle or a jot.

Listen to Grace Paley read “The Loudest Voice” and read along here.

Image: Raphael Kirchner, Christmas Pictures, [Public Domain] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.