It’s August and finally a time to write a non-political column.
The biggest question I get these days as I’ve traveled the country on my book tour is about my grandmother, whom I portrayed in the book. Fannie Weinstein has, it seems, become somewhat of a celebrity since I get asked more questions about her than about Elton John, Patti LaBelle and President Obama combined. In fact, the only other person detailed in the book who gets more attention is Walter Cronkite. I’m sure Grandmom would be smiling and as surprised as I am.
While I personally always knew the influence she had on me, it certainly amazed me that others would find her as fascinating, delightful and loving as I knew her to be. She had a heart bigger than could be contained.
And when I write about her engaging me in civil-rights work when I was 13, she didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. Let me share with you one of my favorite Fannie Weinstein stories from family lore.
When my mother was a young teenager, she had to drop out of high school to help my grandmother in their grocery store, which at the time was in a low-income, African-American neighborhood. While I won’t go into detail about all the ways Grandmom worked in the community, let me just say that the neighborhood adored her as much as we did.
One day, the wholesaler came to the store to deliver the weekly goods. Grandmom, in her own way of creating cultural exchange, had set out to explain Jewish dietary favorites to her friends in the neighborhood. To do so, she told the grocery wholesaler that she needed as much liver as he could provide, since she intended to make fried liver and onions and give little containers out. What possessed her to think that people would like fried liver I never understood, but that was Grandmom.
The wholesaler delivered a 13-pound liver. My grandmother had never seen a liver that big and took such pride in it that she didn’t want to cut it, so for days she just told people to come in and look at her liver. One day, while she was in the back of the store, two men came in and set off with Grandmom’s 13-pound liver. She saw what was happening and ran after them. The image of my little grandmother with her apron blowing in the wind yelling, “Get back here with my liver!” has fascinated me for years.
Neighbors witnessing this were startled and fell in line with Fannie, and soon they overtook the two thieves. The neighbors wanted to get the police, but Grandmom wouldn’t hear of it. As the neighbors held the men, Grandmom explained how a store operates and what would happen if she couldn’t pay her suppliers. Then she simply asked, “Do you understand and promise not to do this again to anyone?” They sheepishly said yes and started to hand her the liver. She then added, “That liver now has a story. Take it home and tell that story to others.”
Grandmom realized obviously that they must have stolen it because they needed it, but she also wanted to teach them from that experience, not punish them. That storied liver didn’t just teach those boys something, it also taught me.