On a Palo Alto street corner filled with a group of buoyant activists, protesting conditions at immigration detention camps on the U.S. border, a half-dozen older women wearing bright colors, aprons, scarves and flower-topped hats stood out in the crowd.
“The hats, the aprons, singing the songs … it is a bit silly, but it is like guerrilla theater,” said 81-year-old Ann Davidson.
The Palo Alto resident is among a number of Jewish women who participate in an international effort known as Raging Grannies: women who refuse to sit at home and want to stand up — and stand out — for what they believe in. They travel around Northern California to support causes ranging from environmental justice to anti-war efforts.
“We have an obligation,” said 71-year-old Berkeley resident Benay Dara-Abrams. “We have a responsibility.”
The organization is not a Jewish one, but the Jewish members of the Grannies say their Jewish identity underlies their sense of justice. “I am very aware of my [people’s] history,” Davidson said. “And I think that what I do today is fueled by my history.”
The Raging Grannies movement was founded in Canada in 1987 to protest nuclear-capable U.S. Navy vessels in the waters off British Columbia. Today the Grannies are a loosely affiliated, purposefully decentralized network of “gaggles” bound together by progressive values coupled with serious activism presented in a purposefully disarming way. Their modus operandi is to leverage the spectacle of a bunch of “grannies” holding signs and singing songs with made-up satirical lyrics in order to draw attention to important issues. There are gaggles across the United States and Canada, with a few in places like Australia and Israel.
“I have no problem with being silly in public,” said Geri Copitch, 58, a Raging Grannie from the Redding group who has turned out to support women’s health and Democratic politics. “And I definitely have no problem with political activism.”
For Copitch, who said she is active in her synagogue, being a Raging Grannie is about taking positive steps to make the world a better place. Judaism is “a doing religion,” she said. “It’s not just that you should go to services.”
The protest in Palo Alto last month was organized by the Jewish social justice groups T’ruah and Bend the Arc as part of the August “Month of Momentum: 30 Days of Actions to Close the Camps.”
“It fits,” said Dara-Abrams, who sees her activism as a kind of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. “It fits my own upbringing and progressive thinking, and the real feeling of response, to be active, to speak out, to be engaged.”
Raging Grannies take protesting seriously, but add a lighthearted twist. They are known for changing the lyrics to popular songs, handing out song sheets and showing people the power of getting silly to communicate their message.
“When they heard about [our protest], they said that they wanted to come and they would bring their song sheets,” said Nechama Tamler, a Bend the Arc board member in Palo Alto.
The most visible part of their presence is what they wear — costumes that both mock and subvert the mild grandmother image that many older women are saddled with.
“Young people don’t think we can relate to current issues, so we sort of embrace that idea,” said Diane Dobbins, 70, of Redding.
Most of the Raging Grannies who spoke with J. are, in fact, mothers and grandmothers, and are motivated by their concern about future generations.
“What world are we going to give to our children and our grandchildren?” Dara-Abrams asked.
They come from all walks of life: Dobbins was a public health nurse in maternal and child health, and Roberta Morris, 68, of Menlo Park, is a Harvard Law grad and former lecturer at Stanford University. Many came of age in the 1960s and have a history of demonstrating for what they believe in.
“I’ve been an activist I think my whole life,” Dobbins said.
These Jewish Grannies are driven more by a social imperative than a religious one. Davidson calls herself a secular Jewish humanist. But all agreed there is a congruency between their Jewish identities and their progressive actions.
Morris, who only recently got involved with the Grannies, said protesting against harsh immigration treatment would be a natural for any Jew who has ever been to a Passover seder.
“Every year you celebrate, welcome the stranger,” she said. “We were strangers.”
For Dobbins, it was a family roots trip to Poland, Hungary and Romania that helped her connect her Jewish past to her activism today. “It really brought it home,” she said.
“You can’t remain home and be silent. You have to have a say.”