“Where are you?”
“In what I say.”
“What is your truth?”
“What lacerates me.”
“And your salvation?”
“Forgetting what I said.”
There are three shelves on a bookcase that I’ve avoided for almost eight years, books that I’d stacked and shoved into suitcases upon leaving Jerusalem, having given away clothing, CDs, shoes, two lovely stone and silver-plated Shabbat candle holders, any kitsch, gift and collectible from friends and my ex-girlfriend, all in a very brusque and final manner, as if each were their actual fingers so easily disentangled from my own.
For those overstuffed suitcases, those marked-up, highlighted and margins-filled-with-notes pages, I paid extra baggage fees with the last of what little money I had left, rather than chance a loss in overseas transit, the wrong boat in the wrong sea to another poet less lonely, less broken. These books had come to form a map of how I’d ended up in Jerusalem, disillusioned with Zionism and love. My destination was NYC, where I’d attended undergrad at NYU, yet I ached to return to the Gulf coast, to the U.S.-Mexican border in which my mother’s family has spread out along. This was not a possibility; for my Mexican mother, the (seemingly) enlightened daughter, with a graduate degree to boot, does not cling to the ancestral small-town root; she goes places and goes comfortably, makes the kind of money that would allow her to eat meat every day, the kind of money that leads to “down payment” and “personal study.”
My deciding to live in Jerusalem had been both difficult and a sense of pride for my mother. So was her relationship to Judaism: born Catholic, she’d converted to the faith before my brother and I were born. She didn’t do this out of love for my father; it was her decision, a point she had to make very clear to her teachers while attending basic Hebrew language and religious conversion classes. Still, we never found a welcoming community at the synagogues we attended, and while her family embraced my father, most of his family did not approve of their marriage. These memories resonate from those books now exiled to the bottom of a particular bookcase, one kept as far from my daily comings and goings, as far as one can in a New York City apartment.
These books have traveled some distances. Since leaving Jerusalem, these books have seen at least seven different New York City apartments, three serious relationships, U-Hauls and a small truck from a Russian moving company, bulging from an overstuffed duffle bag shouldered by my husband, who left Brooklyn because I could not leave Sunnyside nor the neighborhoods along the 7 Train, the Chinese-Korean-Turkish-Eastern-European-Mexican-Central-American neighborhoods in which I took refuge post-Jerusalem-heartbreak.
I came back to New York, but it was not a returning. It was not another kind of aliyah. I had failed in Jerusalem. I did not finish my graduate doctoral program, and sometimes met with my advisor who warned me that I was in danger of losing my grant money. I stopped looking into the already-grim job market. I lost the woman I loved. I published little, although I wrote almost every day. I let go of friendships, both in Israel and elsewhere.
For those years in Jerusalem, my world was only those books, most of which I’d brought with me, the others bought off the shelf or special-ordered at bookstores in Tel Aviv. Altogether, they mark the varying periods of a meandering Jewish life both physically—the U.S.-Mexican border, NYC, Jerusalem and then NYC again—and through literature. I remember reading Mahmoud Darwish’s political poems while studying Torah in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah in a mostly male Hebrew school which was slightly curious, slightly hostile, to a female presence, one with a mother whose name they couldn’t pronounce. (Esperanza, which means “hope.”) Most of their fathers were doctors, lawyers, executives; mine worked as a photo manager of Wal-Mart. When times were really bad, he also worked as a hotel night auditor, subsisting on a few hours of sleep when he came home before going to his regular job. He did this for a few years, without complaint, rarely forgetting to kiss my mother when he came home, heavy-footed and rubbing his eyes, always with a book in his hand.
My father’s relatives were religious and he grew up observant, but left his family and community for adventure. He served in the army, learned to fix any car and still to this day knows the Torah by heart. A lover of both religious and secular Jewish literature, he handed down to me quite a few of those chosen books: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories from My Father’s Court and Gimpel the Fool, Anzia Yeziersk’s The Breadgivers, Amos Oz’s Panther in the Basement, Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous, and the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Ra’hel Bluwstein, Hayim Bialik, and Edmond Jabès, especially Edmond Jabès, his seminal works like The Book of Questions, The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book, The Journey, El (The Last Book).
I learned to read because my father has a lot of pain. His mother was his father’s third wife; my grandfather was in his early sixties when my father was born, and died when my father was not yet ten. My grandmother went to work, and left him alone for long periods of time that my father passed by reading. He grew up reading in solitude, a solitude he learned to share with my mother by reading to her and then to his children. My mother saw reading as a path to social mobility; when I started school, she had me read to her or my father almost every night.
While our family didn’t have much money, we had each other. This is not to say it was a harmonious household because it was not. I often clashed with my mother, and my father often—okay, always— took her side, more upset with me for having upset her. Yet outside our household in which my mother lit the candles every Shabbat before we feasted on shellfish that her father, a fisherman and foreman of a shrimp farm in the Rio Grande Valley, had caught earlier that day, the world often frightened me. It seemed—to my father’s family— that we were one big contradiction; my father had me study “like a boy” and yet my brother and I could wear whatever we wanted, listen to any kind of music, eat the steaming bowls of menudo that my Uncle Balani made during Christmas, which we also celebrated in the houses of our Mexican cousins. Were we Jews or weren’t we? Were we observant? It was actually in this world of contradictions that my faith thrived; at every challenge and question, I only had to look to the books that slowly accumulated to understand the truths of doubting, questioning poets and writers. That is to say, I was a child of The Book, the one Jabès believed would never be written, a pious child who believed uncertainty itself would lead to some exponential faith.
Years later, I’d clutch a payphone in Heathrow on my layover to New York, unable to call my parents, to tell my mother I was coming back, that I had failed, that I was so poor I hadn’t eaten meat in some time, that I had no plans for down payments drafted in a personal study. That I had no plans at all.
That I had nothing to my name, but those books.
* * *
The beginning of my road
I can no longer see,
I cannot see you,
Or the self I was.
–“My Childhood Cities,” David Vogel
As Rosh Hashanah approaches this year, I consider the reasons why I no longer belong to a synagogue. I still write about Jerusalem, my disillusionment with Zionism, my quixotic desire for a pan-Levantine society in which there blossoms a renaissance of art and science among all peoples. But I always return to this question: What is a Jew without practice, without community?
Part of my hesitation to join a new synagogue is a recent encounter my husband and I had with a Reform synagogue. My husband is Chinese. While his family is Buddhist, he is curious about Judaism. After brief introductions, the membership coordinator quizzed us on our backgrounds, and then asked my husband if he really wanted to convert because doing it for love was not a good enough reason. Before we could respond, she added as things stood now, my husband would be forbidden to participate in certain rituals such as called up to the bima to read from the Torah (aliyot). Nor would he be allowed to bless the candles or read any of the traditional blessing should we have a child and the child have a bat or bar mitzvah. None of this would not have bothered me as much if the coordinator hadn’t offered these stipulations so readily; that is to say, these exclusions came before any other information about the congregation. It brought up too many memories of the discrimination I’d faced as a child of a mixed marriage. We thanked her for her time, and walked out.
In the past, my father would tell me to try another synagogue, that Jews need faith when in the diaspora, that otherwise a Jew is only a Jew when reminded by intolerance. But my father too no longer belongs to a synagogue; he no longer wears his talit daily nor his kippah. This is painful for me to write: one year my parents could not afford the membership dues of their temple, and on Rosh Hashanah, they were turned away at the door. They were turned away, even after attending services at the temple for nearly two decades. Now every Rosh Hashanah brings a sense of dread into his voice as he and my mother prepare a service at home.
When I tell my father about this recent encounter, he doesn’t say anything for a good while. I keep looking at my phone to see if we are still connected. I hear my mother asking him in the background: what happened?
My father clears his throat, and tells me to forget about it, that we don’t need to rush into anything. Then he changes the subject, and talks about work, the weather, our family, perhaps taking my mother on a weekend trip to Galveston.
I wonder if my father still prays, or reads to my mother, or misses his family and the strongly-knit community of his formative years. I wonder what books— what lives— he too has left behind.
* * *
The book is the place where a writer offers his voice up to silence.
–“From Day to the Shadow of Day,”
We pray on Rosh Hashanah for our names to be inscribed in the Book of Life. In the poems of Edmond Jabès, words are wounds inflicted upon the page. The rabbis in his poems, according to Richard Stamelman, offer commentary “designed to…reveal signs of the never-to-be-written Book in the words that are hidden behind the words. For these rabbis, who are Kabbalistic in spirit if not temperament, the change of a single letter can bring about a radical transformation in the universe.”
I was thirteen when my father introduced me to The Book of Questions; as we read and interpreted lines and passages together, I found myself within the text, but uncertain if I was completely of it. I understood the hopefulness and limitations of claiming space through words; I also understood personal and cultural identity as tied to the loss of that space. I was also perplexed by the ideas of being native to somewhere, so long ago; of belonging to a single people, which I did not; of coming home, one true home. Recognizing home as instantly as looking in a mirror.
And perhaps because of these ideas, I became a poet. I was born into an evasive, withholding text, but I was also on the outside of it, looking in, carrying what silence accompanies a meandering life.
For me, being a Jew and a poet is one and the same: neither ever stands still.
I am always moving elsewhere; it is a form of exile.
* * *
Roads die like people:
quietly or suddenly breaking.
Stay with me. I want to be you.
In this burning country
words have to be shade.
–“Love Song” Yehuda Amichai
The last time I truly celebrated Rosh Hashanah, attending services at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which is to say an Orthodox synagogue, because almost all the synagogues in Israel are Orthodox, it was 2003. I was upstairs in the women’s gallery, praying silently, behind an ornate screen, watching the fist-knocking-forehead men below. Their voices filled the synagogue as they snuck glances up at us, those of us so far from the ark, the Torah, the rabbi, the service itself. I remember the constant slip of my girlfriend’s shawl around my shoulders, how it filled me with a loneliness that was all my own. It did not have to be shared. I wanted to be apart from everyone, and I was.
I closed my eyes, turned to the sunlight of the New Year breaking through the window. I could see the faint etchings of the beginning I wanted for myself, a future with the woman I loved back in our apartment, my Christian Arab girlfriend who earlier had sleepily walked me to the door. I thought of how she’d turned her head to one side, aligning her head with the rising sun, blocking the very little light that seeped past the window. I thought of how she’d taken my hands with the longest pause imaginable. Her parents had begun the search for a suitable marriage match for her, and she’d accept long before I would that we had no future, but at that moment, alone in that synagogue, through tightly shut eyes, I saw only a sky, clear and blank, with the beginnings of colors. As if she and I could start over the whole world over again, together. As if we had a purpose that would transform the Green Line, decades of war, political unrest, the unwritten, uncanonical texts of our silences, its secrets a new form of prayer.
At that moment, I would have left all my books behind for her, to speak with her this new world in which we could fumble and falter without consequence, without confirming prejudices or inciting hate. But neither of our words could be the other’s shade. She would marry, and I would briefly leave the burning city, seemingly on a research trip, and return to see her, only to discover we’d never belonged to each other.
* * *
A door— a book.
You pass. You read.
You pass. It endures.
–“The Book of the Absent,”
The books I once banished are now back on my desk, surrounding my desk on cabinets, toppling over at the sides. I feel slightly claustrophobic now when once I felt comforted by their presence. I break them up into stacks. I rearrange them. In writing this, I can’t leave them again. My biggest fear is not losing belief; it is the possible indifference that might follow. Turning my back without realizing I’ve turned my back, and unable to return. To come home.
My copy of The Book of Questions has significant water damage from a trip I’d taken with my ex-girlfriend in 2004, during Rosh Hashanah. Things were tense between us as we pretended that her impending marriage was light years away and not in the few months it actually was. I was still optimistic about our future, about Zionism, unable to see the contradiction of being in love with an Arab Israeli woman who always wore a silver cross around her neck.
We chose Ashqelon, a small city also on the Mediterranean coast, and swapped apartments with a friend of mine who had a large studio with a deck and view of the water. He had family in Jerusalem, and was happy to lend us his (much nicer) place to us for the New Year.
The water was cold that September, but we spent ample time at the beach. I didn’t bring Jabès with me; the water damage happened from dropping it in the bathtub. We only had a shower in our Jerusalem apartment and wanted to take advantage of the tub. I’d thought it would be romantic to read to her while we bathed, but my girlfriend felt like books were an intrusion on our time together. That I read enough in Jerusalem, that she didn’t like any of the books I had. She’d swiped at it playfully, knocking it out of my hand, and it landed in the water, in that narrow space our bodies didn’t take up.
We tried to make each other happy. For three days, we slept late and took afternoon swims. We had early dinners at a nearby fish restaurant, shivering in our wet hair and damp clothes, sand still caught between our toes. We spent the nights on the deck, curled up on one plastic chaise lounge, wrapped in a blanket. I wanted to talk about what was next for us, but she just wanted to close her eyes and listen to the sea. She was always the one to fall asleep first.
Our last night in Ashqelon, the sea was an unnatural blue, the exact color of those last days. I think it was around this time the doubt began, took hold of my lips and my throat and my hands, as I realized I was going to lose her and then my own place in the world. A buzzing started inside my head as I tried to read quietly, covertly, as she slept next to me. But one arm went numb holding her, and then my entire body. I felt as if a crowd was slowly pressing me into a fence. My sight blurred at the edges, forcing me to close my eyes and drop the book thickened and wrinkled. She shifted in her sleep, stretching her back again my chest, resting a leg on mine. Soon I too drifted off, uncomfortable but unable to move from that spot, as if we were one body lost at sea, choosing to be swallowed up in its distance.
This is the first essay of a 3-part series on the Jewish High Holy Days and Literature.