It’s impossible to write objectively about two people with whom you lived as a child and whom you loved as grandparents. They were Zayde Alter and Babe Fanya. Perhaps I was too close to them to know all that they stood for, and by the time I was old enough to appreciate their contributions to Winnipeg, they had retired from most of their activities.
They were forces of nature. People visited them to consult. At gatherings, when they spoke there was quiet. Their Yiddish was impeccable and quite beautiful to listen to. They rejected the traditional orthodox beliefs of their parents in favour of a vision of Jewish identity based on Jewish history and culture (especially the language and great literature of Yiddish), and deeply rooted in a cooperative socialist life. Their devotion to Yiddish, to the Peretz Folk School, to Jewish activities, and to progressive causes in general, was extreme; they not only chaired the committees — they swept the floors.
Although they had broken many traditional role stereotypes in so many ways, Fanya was still the earth mother, holding the fund-raising teas, baking the fund-raising pastries, chairing the original Peretz Muter Farein (Mother’s Organization) for years, networking. When I was growing up, she also held a weekly Reading Circle in which she read (usually a serialized novel) from the New York Yiddish daily newspapers to a group of women.
In her early years, before both terrible arthritis and (according to my mother) the spectre of the Holocaust took away her optimism, she was much more active. She advocated for and established the first daytime Kindergarten in North America. She acted in plays. She danced at parties that Alter didn’t want to attend. She hosted great Yiddish poets, playwrights, novelists, and philosophers, at our house. There was never a moment when she wasn’t an equal participant; she was a feminist, and she raised (along with my father) an independent brilliant daughter (Mindel Cherniack Sheps) who went on to academic acclaim.
Alter was a co-founder of many organizations that promoted radical progressive causes and Yiddish literature and culture. He was so independent that not only would he help form controversial organizations like the Anti-Fascist League, which was condemned by the mainstream Jewish community, he would often leave those same organizations if he felt they had strayed from their purpose.
He was always serious, with almost no sense of humour, and had little patience for people or things that took time away from his many causes. He was also a very courageous man; once at a Fascist rally, in the middle of a speech by the main speaker, Alter got up from the audience and started to argue with the speaker. He never hesitated to speak his mind. Although highly principled, he was kind and gentle, helping others in so many ways, both personally and socially.
He was also a real intellectual, very well-read in Russian, Yiddish, and English. He wrote extensively for Yiddish newspapers both in Winnipeg and internationally, reviewing books, making political commentaries. My father once asked him who the bearded men were in a photograph he had framed. Those men were Dickens, Shakespeare, and another English novelist. Zayde Alter answered, “They are my teachers.”