Right of Return

Right of Return

Right of Return 1719 1080 Jennifer Lang

Boba leans in close, cocks her head, and in her heavily-accented English whispers, Don’t you ever do vat she is dooving.

Only 15, I understand my grandmother’s words. My cousin is doing the unthinkable — marrying a goy.

That’s her right, I say. Who cares if he’s Jewish as long as they’re in love?

Oy vey zmir, she huffs her Yiddish doomsday woe is me.

As I watch my older cousin and her hunky husband exchange vows with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest, I stew with teenage rage at my old-country, old-fashioned, Romanian-born Boba.

As Northern California Jews, we pick and choose our Judaism like taking a multiple-choice test.
1. Skip school to sit in services all day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (yes)
2. Eat bread and floury food during the week-long Passover (no)
3. Read from the Torah for bat mitzvah and attend Hebrew school (yes)
4. Participate in temple youth group and Jewish summer camp (yes)
5. Keep kosher and observe the Sabbath (no)
6. Decorate the fireplace mantel with greenery in December (yes)
7. Buy a Christmas tree (never)

But if Judaism involves choice, Israel does not. Ever since the country was established and two of her siblings immigrated, Boba’s become an indomitable Zionist, judging any Jew who doesn’t send money or visit. In 1971, we took a three-generation trip to meet my great aunt and uncle, causing me to miss the last month of kindergarten. In 1975, we toured with dozens of American families, planting trees in the Jewish National Fund forest and slipping notes into the cracks of the Western Wall. This summer, I’ll wake up at 4:00 a.m. to pick peanuts on Kibbutz Nir Oz and hike to the ancient fortress Masada to watch the sunrise with my confirmation class.

Outside the window of HS Lordships in the Berkeley marina, the San Francisco Bay bobs as the sun and fog and Golden Gate Bridge battle for attention.

As much as I want to switch seats, I’m too much of a dutiful granddaughter and stay put.

Over my dead body, Boba mutters loud enough for me. Loud enough for me to never forget. Loud enough for me to wonder whether my parents—and one day I—would select yes or no to marry the person you love regardless of race or religion.

***

Staci and I meet during freshman orientation in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, where we divulge background information like detectives. I’m a Reform Jew who eats cheeseburgers and shellfish, while she’s a Modern Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher and dines at the campus Hillel. Unlike with youth group and camp friends across the country, Staci and I cannot play Jewish geography, dropping names to see who knows who, since we orbit in different universes.

One weekend between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, she invites me to her house in neighboring Skokie. On Friday afternoon, I copy her like Simon Says: shower, don dress, put away schoolwork. At dinner, her family blesses the wine, washes hands, blesses the challah, and recites the birkat hamazon after eating, familiar rituals because of my Camp Swig years. The next morning, we awaken to a downpour.

What are you doing with that? she asks, crossing her eyes in a silly face.

I lift the umbrella. This?

She nods. You can’t. It’s Shabbos. No carrying, especially not to shul.

I drop the forbidden object. Force a smile. Follow her out the door.

What’s wrong with the umbrella? I ask.

We’re not allowed to carry anything. You know. Because of the eruv.

Dumbfounded, I don’t know. In high school, I took a class on world religions and, this semester, I’m enrolled in Introduction to Old Testament. But nothing she says registers.

While we trail behind her brother and sister, I listen to Staci list other Sabbath prohibitions like no igniting (engine or fire), no tearing (toilet paper), no writing (homework), each in the name of refraining from work-related activities.

Basically there are 39 of them, called melachot.1

And these restrictions are still relevant? I ask, weighing the foreignness. Growing up, I imbibed Yiddish-isms, passed down from my grandparents, but my Hebrew is limited to שמי ג’ניפר (my name is Jennifer) and and אני רוצה גלידה (I want ice cream).

Sure. It’s how I was raised, what my parents and teachers taught me.

As we dodge puddles, I think about what I was taught. How Staci’s world revolves around rules and beliefs whereas mine is based on my parents’ maxims like what’s the worst that can happen? or you’ll never know unless you try. How, despite our shared religion, Staci looks at life through a Jewish lens while I look through an assimilated American one.

In her synagogue, men and women sit separately, and women neither hold nor read the Torah. I feel second-class, convinced my presence doesn’t count. But that Shabbat experience, my friendship with Staci makes me question my inherited religion and how it was transmitted. For the first time, I question how Jewish I do—and don’t—want to be.

***

Phil and I rendezvous in Paris as soon as my junior year abroad ends. After ten months of sending weekly sea blue aerogrammes to each other, I’m ambivalent: 50 percent anxious, 50 percent excited. The first stop on our six-week summer Eurail trip through Western Europe is the walled town of Beaune, where hail pounds the windows of our one-star hotel. Trapped, we confront awkward gaps, thorny silences.

Can we talk about what’s next? he asks. It’s all I thought about while you were here and I was there. Here as in me in Europe, there as in him in Manhattan for Reform rabbinic school.

I stare at his face. Before France, I found his oversized glasses, shaggy hair, and black eyes sexy chic. Now they seem Good Jewish American Boy: safe and boring.

So after you graduate you’ll move to New York while I finish school and then I’ll get a pulpit somewhere and we’ll live together, he says. Right?

Gulp. Where somewhere?

Outside, the geometric-patterned colorful-tiled rooftops make me dizzy.

Ideally California. He’s from southern, I’m from northern; we met during his senior year at U.C. Berkeley, my parents’ alma mater, when he was my youth group advisor during my senior year of high school.

But I have no idea now where I want to live then. Now as in post-Paris, where I mastered the metro, memorized the bus routes, and befriended Francophones from around the world.

This past year, as his schooling became intensely insular, more Staci-like, mine stretched my world view to think more globally, a heady freedom from familial patterns and expectations replacing religion.

He reaches for my hand, weaving his slender guitar-playing, camp-counselor fingers through mine. This is the man my mother and father, Boba and Zeida, camp and college friends assume I will marry, but I’m numb.

My program in Paris might have ended, but my desire to broaden my sheltered Jewish American existence, to learn more languages, to live differently, to challenge the way I was raised has just begun.

I hear Phil say sure, so let’s just keep it open, already knowing that for me it’s closed.

***

Christophe and I flirt at a party in the suburbs of Paris. His James Dean swagger, gelled hair, and brown leather bomber jacket make me swoon. Who cares if he’s Catholic?

For our first date, we rendezvous at the Pompidou center near my 9th -arrondissement studio and share open-faced sandwiches and cheap table wine at Dame Tartine. For our second, we stroll along the Seine, stopping to peruse les bouquinistes’ forest green stalls full of used books and black-and-white postcards. A month later, when he invites me to Sunday dinner at his parents’ apartment in Vincennes, I feel like an Olympic gold medal winner.

After the mandatory two bises on each cheek, Monsieur and Madame motion for us to sit in the living room. Christophe and I sink into the sofa, while his parents take the two maroon striped armchairs. Leaves float outside the high-ceiling windows. Naked trees nod. I tighten my polyester paisley scarf around my neck.

Alors, Mademoiselle, what you do here? his father asks, insisting on English.

I tell them about my recent graduation from college and new job as a bilingual assistant for a Jewish organization on the Champs-Élysées. They aren’t as impressed as my parents.

And where your family is from?

My dad’s from San Francisco and my mom Los Angeles, I say slowly, trying not to reveal my Eastern European roots. Two years earlier, my French host family brazenly supported Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front party, rendering me tight-lipped and tense.

The conversation turns to siblings. I tell them about my brother.

And where he lives?

Israel. I don’t want to tell them that he’s learning Modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew, Talmud, Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy, and Jewish Law in a yeshiva. That he answers questions with Baruch Hashem or thank god often followed by I have to ask my rabbi.

Je vois, Monsieur says.

But I wonder what he sees. What I look like to them. If they can envision their son and me together. Despite my left-leaning, liberal upbringing, I’m certain my parents cannot.

But alone and anonymous and financially independent in the City of Lights, I don’t want anyone or anything to dictate where I can or cannot go, what I can or cannot do, who I can or cannot be or date, who I should or should not love. One weekend, I ski in the Alps with German friends; another, I go fishing in a remote village in Brittany with French ones. On Christmas Eve, I try mussels and on New Year’s Eve, oysters2. On Rosh Hashanah, I taste couscous and tongue with my Tunisian colleagues; on Yom Kippur, I break the fast with my Moroccan colleagues’ sweet confiture de coings.

A month after Sunday supper in Vincennes, my brother visits. I inform him that I’m seeing someone. He informs me that he has no intention of acknowledging him since he’s not Jewish. I raise my voice. He furrows his brow. On the lopsided floor of my studio, we face each other like fencers en garde.

You’ll never be able to marry a Cohen3 if you sleep with a goy! he says, his tone calm and authoritative, judgmental and rabbinic.

I couldn’t care less if I marry a Cohen or any Jew for that matter! I scream as though seven years haven’t passed since my cousin’s wedding.

A mean December draft whistles. A two-second shiver shoots through me. Our shouting match stops. A draw.

My brother spends his final day in Paris solo. While I draft communiques in English for the head of the European Jewish Congress, he probably gazes at Monet’s Water Lilies and bows his body during the requisite daily prayer in nearby shuls, each of us so furious at the other that we don’t even say goodbye.

***

Philippe, a new immigrant in Israel, and I meet through a mutual friend five weeks after I arrive for a prolonged stopover between work in Paris and graduate school in America: here to learn Hebrew, here to reconcile with my only sibling. In between worlds, I grapple with where to settle.

Our attraction is instant; I melt at his guarded smile, he revels in my zealous laugh. Our common interests are unexpected; we cannot sleep with a ticking clock and our favorite color is avocado green. Two months into our red-hot relationship, I move from my temporary address in Jerusalem to his student apartment in Haifa. A month later, on an airless Friday afternoon, Philippe retreats into in our bedroom, heavy and pensive. When I ask what’s on his mind, he says he misses his parents. Me too. We kiss and cuddle.

Do you think you could do Shabbat more like me? he finally asks.

No matter when the Sabbath starts, it’s the focal point of the day. We spend the morning food shopping at the shuk and the afternoon cooking meals, mopping floors, and scrubbing toilets.

I hesitate. Thanks to Staci and my brother—a baal tsuvah or convert to Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, who tears toilet paper and switches off the refrigerator light before the 25-hour4 holy day begins—I’m familiar with many of the 39 restrictions, every one of which leaves me indifferent.

A traditional, typical French Jew, Philippe practices Judaism like his father and grandfathers. Every weekday morning since his bar mitzvah, he wraps the set of small black leather boxes with scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah on different parts of his upper body, and every Shabbat, he walks to synagogue. He keeps kosher, waiting three hours after eating meat before eating dairy, but never declines French pastries. Unlike my brother, Philippe has nothing to prove; when asked how he was raised, he says “Just Jewish.”

For me, the monolithic god, the Torah, and the Ten Commandments are meaningless abstractions. But if I don’t believe in these basic concepts, why would I stop ______ (action verb: baking chocolate chip cookies, writing in my journal, watching a movie, or driving to a friend’s house) every seven days?

After telling him how much I admire the way my French Jewish friends practiced—dinner with family on Friday, museums and movies with friends on Saturday—he asks me what glues it together.

I shrug. My faith is good deeds, culture, and Israel solidarity. Is his god-based credo more binding than my god-free one? Does that make his line of reasoning more valid than mine?

Neither one of us utter a word. If we cannot agree, does it mean we’re finished before we even start? Am I willing to walk away from this man?

Fine, I surrender. I’ll try to respect your rules, but I refuse to be like my brother when it comes to food. My brother’s repudiation to eat on my parents’ non-kosher plates triggered the never-ending Friedman Family Feud.

The irony stings. My first serious relationship with a man in the rabbinate seemed too Jewish, yet he drives to the beach and eats anything, anywhere, anytime.

Being with Philippe means being in Israel. Being in Israel means life on a constant learning curve. Although this is my seventh time here, it’s my first witnessing the societal divide between the observant and the secular. My first experiencing the revolving door of holidays. In the past eight weeks, we’ve celebrated Purim, Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day; next week is Lag Ba’Omer followed by Shavuot 17 days later.

Upon immigrating in his early twenties, Philippe opted for the whole package, observing everything from a fast on Tisha Ba’av5 to Shabbat, when he abstains from many mundane fill-in-the-blank verbs, preferring instead to read, play games, and make love.

If this were on my childhood multiple-choice test, how would I respond to spend the rest of my life with someone who puts religion before relationship: yes? no?

***

For the next two decades, Philippe and I move from Israel to Paris to California to New York, for school, for work, for family. We raise three children with an unspoken conditional clause—if I get country, then he gets religion—each of us in search of a place where we feel whole and happy.

During our decade and a half in America, where his version of Judaism translates into Modern Orthodoxy, I wear a mask, assume a role, pose in front of my family. But really, they live one way, while I live another. They dress up and walk to shul on Saturday mornings; I sneak in computer time or call long-distant friends. They sleep outside in the sukkah; I stay in my warm bed. They eat kosher meat; I gorge on kung pao shrimp. They fast on the holiest holiday Yom Kippur; I gobble a handful of almonds or peanut butter Lara bar when no one’s looking. Our 4:1 family dynamic fills me with resentment.

In couples’ counseling to discuss uprooting teenagers and returning to Israel, my husband’s Holy Land, we sit in an acute triangle.

I’m sorry I ever asked her to keep Shabbat, to do things that made her so uncomfortable, he says.

A loud sigh seeps from my mouth.

How long have I been waiting for these words?

How long have I been blaming him for asking me to change?

How long have I been discounting my part in our marital history?

Because if he’s culpable, then so am I. At 23, I had no idea how to protect my sense of self. I was too afraid to speak up or say no in such a new relationship. That sassy 15-year-old who talked back to Boba was lost. That emboldened 21-year-old who yelled at her brother was buried. Throughout my thirties and into my early forties, I still hadn’t dared to assert my voice.

I yank a tissue from the box.

If we move, I say, redirecting the conversation to Israel, then I no longer intend to abide by your religious ways or hide mine. I’ll respect your decision not to drive or cook or use electricity on Shabbat, but I don’t have to do it that way, too.

Philippe nods.

The kids are old enough to know we believe different things.

For years, Philippe begged me to present a united religious front. But unlike our local school district, we weren’t unified.

He nods again.

In 1990, when I immigrated to Israel in order to marry him, I exercised my right of return6. Now, in my late forties, I must exercise a different right of return and perhaps the root of the issue: to reclaim my essential self, my core.

I wipe my eyes.

Merci, I say as icicles of bitterness melt. As a long-held breath escapes my mouth. Merci.

 


1Field Work: sowing, plowing, reaping, gathering and binding, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; Making Material Curtains: shearing wool, cleaning, combing, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, making loops, weaving threads, separating the threads, tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing, tearing; Making Leather Curtains: trapping, slaughtering, skinning, tanning hide, smoothing, ruling lines, cutting; Making the Beams of the Mishkan: writing, erasing; The Putting up and Taking down of the Mishkan: building, demolishing; The Mishkan’s Final Touches: extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking the final hammer blow, carrying

2Top 10 non-kosher foods include shellfish (kosher fish must have scales and fins); pork (it doesn’t ruminate and chew its cud); rabbit/hare (although it chews its cud, it doesn’t have hoofs with clefts); jello (contains gelatin, a protein in animal connective tissues that comes from a non-kosher source such as pig); catfish, shark, sturgeon (have fins but no scales); snails (molluscs, which consist of shellfish); eggs with blood (signifies an embryo or an unborn chick being hatched); cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli (cannot be washed properly and are not cleaned thoroughly because of the bushes); blackberries, raspberries (can’t be thoroughly washed and dirt cannot be cleaned); insects

3referred to a tribe of priests in Judaism believed to be of direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron (until that conversation, I had no idea there were Jewish priests)

4In Judaism, we begin observing a calendar date before sunset and it lasts until after the stars appear the following night. Also, there is a mitzvah to “add from the profane to the holy,” to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays for at least a bit longer than the prescribed time, to show how precious they are

5Commemorating the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred on the same Hebrew calendar date about 655 years apart

6Under a 1950 Israeli law, whereby any Jew around the world can gain Israeli citizenship

 

Header photograph by Larena Nellies-Ortiz.

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14 Comments
  • Caren Osten Gerszberg 05/07/2022 at 1:21 pm

    Such beautiful writing! Raw and insightful, and says so much about your journey through life and love. Bravo my friend!

  • Suzy Locke Cohen 04/18/2022 at 3:07 am

    Jennifer,

    The true you is now fully expressed and lived.

  • Jennifer,

    A great description of struggles/balancing identity, relationships and religious observance. What a creative and well-written piece. Life can be a constant roller coaster–never dull!

  • Danielle Seltzer 04/16/2022 at 1:43 pm

    Always love reading you writings. The observations are so true and things I often think about but never verbalize.

    Love learning things about you I didn’t know through your stories.

  • Judy Balter Seri Levi 04/16/2022 at 5:57 am

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written piece on your unique journey to find a balance between Judaism, love, and family in modern times!! Such an enjoyable thought-provoking read.

  • Jennifer, your skill at giving us the essence and perspective of your challenge over all those years in one short story is impressive. Your story is moving and familiar.

  • Cynthia Shane Smith 04/13/2022 at 10:22 pm

    Excellent story, and beautifully written. As a Northern California Reform Jew with ties to Camp Swig and CAFTY, I relate to so much of this. With orthodox, reform and conservative relatives, as well as time spent in Israel (where I met my non-Jewish husband – go figure) it was eye opening to hear about your struggles between reform and the orthodox life. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Beautifully written, compelling and emotional. The reader is guided by the authors life long struggle with her Jewish identity, religious Jewish life and her heart.

  • Magin LaSov Gregg 04/13/2022 at 8:41 am

    Stunningly beautiful and self-aware essay! What a gift to read this morning, and to marvel with this wise, generous narrator as she reclaims her voice..

  • Ellen Schwartz 04/13/2022 at 8:20 am

    Beautifully written! I felt like I was living your life and dealing with your struggles along with you.

  • Ximena Escobar 04/12/2022 at 11:48 pm

    Beautiful heartfelt memoir piece about identity personal development and our pursuit of authenticity. Thank you

  • Jennifer, a great read, makes the reader feel, in each vignette, that they are actually living and breathing your story as you tell it. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece!

  • Marianne Friedman 04/12/2022 at 1:13 pm

    So well thought out and written. What I particularly noted is yours and Philippe’s love and never even thinking of separating.

  • Beautiful. And as always I am so grateful for your writing on the modern Jewish conundrum. Thank you!

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