Grace Paley’s little sketch is about ordinary people who belong to her own Jewish religion. Its central theme is how even in the United States, the land of religious freedom, teachers in a New York school can be insensitive to their Jewish pupils by choosing many of them to be characters in a Christmas play based on the biblical story of Jesus. Shirley plays Jesus because she has the strongest voice. She narrates the play, but as she describes what the characters pantomime, it is hilariously funny. Jesus has twelve “friends” instead of disciples, there are some women whom no one likes, and Arab “sheiks” instead of Roman soldiers crucify him.
When Shirley’s mother worries that being in the play and celebrating Christmas will cause Shirley to lose her faith, her husband compares Christianity to shaving with a secondhand razor. He tells his wife that Shirley will not be fooled. She will use the play to improve herself and, at the same time, she will learn some history because Christianity is part of history. In Jewish thought, all history has meaning and significance because it works toward fulfilling the purpose of God.
A distinctive voice makes Shirley different from the Christian children in her school. Her religion makes her different, too. She feels sorry for the city’s Christmas tree on the corner, because it is a stranger in Egypt: as out of place in a Jewish neighborhood as the Jews were out of place in Egypt long ago. Shirley may feel that she and her friends are strangers in New York. Many of the Jewish children have trouble with the English language, and even Shirley must speak the words carefully while she is narrating the play.
Her loud voice comes out of the exuberance of her spirit. She is a winner and will go far. The title is symbolic of the piece’s theme. Those who use negative experiences as positive opportunities will always be loud voices in the land.
At the end, Shirley has picked up a Christian practice of kneeling in prayer, but she still calls out the Jewish Shema, “Hear, O Israel.”