Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature

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Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Vine Leaves Press
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Places We Left Behind is almost a choose your own adventure scenario: While living in a foreign country, you meet someone who qualifies as the man of your dreams, except for two potential caveats: 1) you differ greatly in your levels of religious observance, and 2) both of you want to settle near your families, who live on two different continents. Given the obvious conflicts ahead, do you regretfully desist, or do you throw conventional wisdom to the wind and continue the adventure, come what may?

For Jennifer Lang, the author of the “memoir-in-miniature” Places We Left Behind, the answer was clear. From the moment they met, in 1989 at a Sabbath meet-up for Francophones in Jerusalem, Phillippe checked all the right boxes: “French, Jewish, Smart, Single and Sexy with a guarded smile.” Both were 23.

In a series of short, pithy chapters, Lang depicts the story of their peripatetic union, which traces a trajectory of marriage, children, the demands and transformations of careers, and the complexity of figuring out where to set down roots. This issue emerges a central theme as it becomes clear, among relocations to Paris, California, New York, and Israel, that there is no place on earth in which both can feel equally comfortable and at home.

Lang breaks down traditional boundaries of genre, using the tactics and structures of poetry and playing with form in order to bring out elements of the narrative in inventive ways. For example, in this passage, in which she calls Philippe to tell him of a possible home purchase:

"Mid-winter, I board a red-eye flight to JFK solo. That Sunday, I phone Philippe from White Plains, where friends rave about its diverse Modern Orthodox community and plentiful Jewish school options, to tell him I bid on a century-old Tudor with a half-moon shaped garden, half the cost of northern California.

"Are you sure? He asks.

"I am anything but sure. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never lived east of Illinois or bought a house. I don’t love the sidewalk-less streets or snow-covered roofs but grasp our predicament."

The book is interesting also in the way it explores the delicate dance of give and take that Jennifer and Philippe must perform as they negotiate the most basic elements of their marriage. What is one willing to give up in order to please one’s spouse? What cannot be forfeited? What makes a marriage worthwhile, even in the face of painful and unsatisfying compromise?

But by far their most challenging issue is the disparity in the realm of religion. In a chapter entitled 4:1, Lang recalls a Friday night, around the family Sabbath table.

"Who knows the Parshat HaShavuah? Phillipe asks, seated at the head of the table like French monarchs: Henry IV, King Louis XIV, King Louis XVI.

"Me,me,me, our youngest says, shooting her arm up like an obedient first grader. She rambles about some biblical character while I fantasize about California sun . . . Before long, the four of them engage in a conversation that neither includes nor interests me."

What does interest in Lang is yoga, and in time she moves from the role of student to that of teacher, employing principles of patience, tolerance, and inner calm in order to learn to reconcile the conflicting parts of her life. (And indeed, a second memoir, entitled: Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses, also from Vine Leaves Press, is forthcoming in the fall of 2024.)

It isn’t a simple thing to summarize the complexities and challenges of a marriage in a brief memoir that is both entertaining and edifying, but this slim volume succeeds in suggesting how it might be done.