Bay Area Jews and allies occupy the Oakland Federal Building demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, 11/13/24

Ancestors, Here: Two Gaza Actions at the Oakland, CA Federal Building

by Leslie Simon

Part 1 ( November 13, 2023)

It started out as a secret, a big secret. A former student messaged me to see if I wanted to be involved in an historic sit in calling for an Israel-Gaza ceasefire. I did. More messages later, I was assigned to a “spoke” and introduced to its members via Signal. A week later, as I was walking from the BART station in Oakland, I saw some old friends, and I do mean “old”– like me–on the way to the planning site. When we reached the doorway, a familiar looking activist shouted out: “The San Francisco contingent has arrived.” I guessed that was me, since my
friends live in Berkeley, but I knew there’d be many more of us because by then the organizers had told us we’d be hundreds strong.

My old friends were assigned to a different room, so I walked alone into a large space filled with a mix of generations. Snacks, waters, and t-shirts for Jews (“Not in My Name/Jews Say Ceasefire Now”) and allies (“Ceasefire Now”) arrayed on tables. Younger folks, mostly in their 20s, in charge. Their capable hands and hearts, apparent on a Zoom the night before, left me honored to be among them.

In the late 1970s, I joined a small Bay Area group called JAAZ (Jewish Alliance against Zionism). I gave money to the New Jewish Agenda (NJA) in the 80s and to Jewish Voice forPeace (JVP) starting in the 90s. But neither NJA nor JVP had the radical politics of JAAZ, where I had felt at home in my Jewishness and my anti-Zionism. That has all changed. JVP now proudly calls itself “the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world.” I have found home again.

It is a home my anarchist atheist Jewish grandparents would have endorsed. And those ancestors, and others, surrounded us that day. Protection. Acknowledgment. Affirmation.

We received detailed instructions for the action, including using Sharpies to write the legal team’s number on our forearms, which made me think of the tattooed numbers on the arm of the mother of one of my friends in grade school. She was the first holocaust survivor I met. Then we gathered in our “spokes,” about a dozen people each.

Our leader asked us to say out loud which ancestor we would be bringing with us to the action today. She started out with Emma Goldman. I later told her about my grandparents and how Emma appeared in my novel, The Divine Comic, about two Jewish sisters, one Zionist and the
other not. I followed the spoke leader’s choice with the ancestor I had decided to bring–my grandmother, Lena Miller.

Next up came the name of the ancestor that the person designated to be my “buddy” that day was bringing. Grace Paley. Hmmm, this is getting interesting, I thought. You see, the writer Grace Paley, who questioned the need for a Jewish state, is one of my favorite writers, up there with Toni Morrison. In fact I had written my English master’s thesis about the two of them and how diaspora people dwelled in language, drawing inspiration from Morrison’s eulogy for James Baldwin where she thanked him for giving her a language she could “dwell in.”

Later, I had a chance to talk to my buddy about my thesis. That’s when they told me they were writing about Black and Jewish artists and writers who were friends, colleagues, comrades. We agreed we had found no evidence that Paley and Morrison had been friends. But hardly enemies, we also agreed.

I explained the Yiddish term beshert. “Meant to be; destiny,” I abbreviated. We were destined to be buddies for this action. And when it was time for my buddy and me to leave the sit-in at the Ronald Dellums Federal Building rotunda because we had chosen to avoid arrest if we could, and the cops had given the dispersal order, I asked for my buddy’s East Bay expert advice on finding my way back to the BART station now that night had fallen and police cars blocked a direct route. They, and a couple of eavesdropping gorgeous and very large drag queens, asked me if I wanted an escort to BART. I was touched by the affectionate support the three of them were offering to this little old Jewish lady. I straightened myself up as best I could and thanked them all for their graciousness but explained that I was “fine.”

To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I was “fine,” but I knew I could figure it out. I’m a Chicago girl, after all. Just as I straightened myself up even more, a young woman passed by to tell me she was headed to the BART station and would be happy to go with me. Another eavesdropping angel.

We had a great conversation on our way to BART. She had just happened upon the sit-in, which I now knew was the “biggest Jewish action in solidarity with Palestinians in the history of the Bay Area”–600 strong) and was pleased to wander into it. It turned out she was a composer,
whose day job was working for the opera. I explained how my working class immigrant grandmother, Lena Miller, was an opera fan in the days when poor folks could afford the opera. My new friend nodded her head.

After she deposited me safely at the BART station, she said she had actually decided to take the bus and bid me goodbye.

Ancestors, here. Ceasefire Now!

Part 2 (January 26, 2024)

“How Jewish is that!” called out someone. Unscrolling a holy text. What Jews do each Saturday morning. The organizers for another event near the Ron Dellums Federal Building in Oakland were unscrolling sections of white paper on which were printed, collectively, the names of 6700 of the over 25,000 Palestinians (mostly women and children) who have been killed by Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attack.

A row of us stood on one side attired in green; on the other side, a row dressed in black. Each of us held onto the “scroll,” keeping it aloft. We knew that down the street a cadre in red would form the triangle. So, from above, drones could capture a human simulation of the Palestinian flag, some of us alive; many of us, represented in the printed word, dead.

Unscrolling the text.

Ahmed. Shaima. Maryam. Youssef. Omar. Muhammed. Rose.

My mother Rose, daughter of Lena Miller. Present. Another ancestor.

I had worn my rose socks that day, and when I returned home, in the small pile of U.S. mail sat an envelope addressed to my mother Rose from UNICEF. She died 25 years ago, but somehow her name stayed with the organization–devoted to the well being of children throughout the world–she regularly donated to, when she was alive. Once every year or so, she receives mail from UNICEF at my house, where we transferred her address after she died. A glitch I never corrected.

My mother’s giving began in the 30s when she and friends sent money to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; one among them lost his life fighting the fascists in Spain. After hearing Ron Dellums speak in Chicago years later, she wrote him a check for what she could afford, and her friends teased her that it wasn’t worth the time it would take for his organization to process it. “I don’t care,” she persisted, “I really liked what he had to say.”

The next day, I was to go to a Bat Mitzvah. I attended plenty of those coming of age Jewish ceremonies when I was 13, but returning to my family’s basic secularism, I hadn’t been to one in a while. The middle name of the Bat Mitzvah girl was Rose.

Have you figured out that I like synchronicities? Those meaningful coincidences, upon whose altar I worship.

Two Jewish scholars have weighed in on that notion. Well, not exactly Jewish scholars, but two scholars who happened to be Jewish: Stephen Jay Gould and Albert Einstein. Gould, an anti-racist evolutionary biologist, says, “Bah! It’s all random.” But Einstein, skeptical of a Jewish
national state, famously pronounced: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” People, of course, have quibbled about his relationship to Zionism and what he meant by “God.”

That Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath, which had begun on early Friday evening, just after we rallied at the Federal Building to hear the attorneys who had argued their case accusing Biden, Blinken, and Austin of genocide, God was everywhere. Everywhere in the morning service where the Bat Mitzvah girl/woman presented a brilliant analysis of Miriam as a prophetess.

And where the Torah scrolls were, as they always are on Saturday morning, unrolled.

Something new happened for me at that service. At one point the woman rabbi told us all we were to go off on our own, to find a place anywhere in the building, to make a personal prayer. How anarchist is that?

So here I am, praying, the granddaughter of anarchist atheist Jews whose mother Rose persuaded my father to let my brother and me attend religious school, so we could have an identity she craved. My father, raised by Orthodox Jews, had rejected organized religion. I always say in this story I have told countless times that both my parents won that argument. We went to religious school and got that more formal feeling of being Jewish, and then we both rejected organized religion.

My prayer to God came easily that Sabbath morning.

May the peoples of Palestine–Jewish, Muslim, Christian–lead the way to a world where in every land all faiths are honored and no faith is privileged.


Leslie Simon is the author of Jazz/ is for white girls, too (Poetry for the People), i rise/ you riz/ we born (Artaud’s Elbow), High Desire (Wingbow Press), and Collisions and Transformations (Coffee House Press). She co-authored (with Jan Johnson Drantell) A Music I No Longer Heard: The Early Death of a Parent (Simon and Schuster). She has published essays on film, literature, and politics and teaches at City College of San Francisco.

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