Reviewed by Cristina Deptula
Places We Left Behind
by Jennifer Lang
Vine Leaves Press
September 2023, Paperback, 156 pages, ISBN-13: 978-3988320186
Jennifer Lang’s mixed-genre memoir Places We Left Behind dramatizes both the tension and the richness that can arise in a marriage when each spouse feels drawn to different locations and ways of life. While theirs is a highly personal dilemma (or imbroglio, as she calls it) informed by their particular backgrounds, it has emotional resonance for wider audiences.
Both Lang and her husband Philippe are Jewish, yet he practices more strictly and wants to live in Israel. She prefers the San Francisco Bay Area life where she grew up, close to family and yoga studios, while he would like their children not to be the only ones keeping Sabbath and visibly following Jewish customs.
Yoga becomes a metaphor for Lang’s quest for balance as she and Philippe bounce around between Israel, Paris, New York, and California. Drawn to yoga, she gets certified as a teacher and cultivates this practice and community as a method of rooting herself.
Other tools she draws on include poetry, and this short memoir is interspersed with concrete poems, where text spaces itself on the page, reflecting her thoughts, fears, hopes, and speculations. A few striking examples of these poems, such as “Witness,” address how world affairs, such as the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, become personal concerns when you live in the vicinity. That poem also points out how living in the United States does not automatically protect you from the kind of violence the news associates with the Middle East. However, while in Israel, headlines that often simply drone on in the background elsewhere, such as Saddam Hussein’s aggressive moves or the Camp David Accords, capture her full attention. The political climate is also not the only potential source of danger: she reflects on how she’s more comfortable allowing her children to walk or bike to school outside of the Bay Area.
Lang plays with text in other ways, inserting some thoughts into parentheses to reflect her inner dialogue while she’s experiencing her outward, linear life story. Other words are crossed out, illustrating thoughts she has but doesn’t want to fully consider. Footnotes also explain intricacies of Jewish cultural customs or history not every reader will understand, and this allows readers to review them at the end of a page rather than interrupting the emotional flow of a scene with explanation.
Many chapters seem to end on emotional cliffhangers, with Lang posing a worry or question about her relationship or future, even before marrying Philippe. The next chapter would then begin with a statement or description illustrating what she decided: a wedding ceremony, a pregnancy. This propels readers through the book, conveying that life sometimes just moves forward whether we are ready for change or not.
Chapters, and the entire book, are relatively short, suggesting that issues which, like the text, may seem small at first glance, loom larger in the couple’s lives. Their three children complicate the issues even more when they get old enough to have opinions of their own about where to live. Near the end, she graphically reduces the family’s dilemma to two sets of coordinates, representing a city in the center of Israel and her parents’ home in Piedmont, CA.
As the couple’s married life marches forward, and work, culture, and eventually the oldest son’s enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces propel them to different locations, they realize that no matter where they live, there will always be somewhere at least one of them “left behind.” The compromise Lang crafts at the very end, to which Philippe agrees, gives her space and freedom to define her Jewish practice on her own terms while living in his preferred location. In this way, she can stay grounded in her own life while following him and their son, regardless of location.
In keeping with the title, the memoir’s final pages illustrate, not the new beginning ahead for them once again in Israel, but the end of the past chapter of family life, leaving behind their home in her country of birth. Just before that, she talks about finding the positives in change, referencing metaphors of seasons rather than of abrupt cutting of ties.
The basic plot of Places We Left Behind can be read and understood quickly, which Lang acknowledges with her handy timeline at the beginning. However, more thoughtful readings and re-readings allow for an appreciation of the full depth and grace of her journey and what it conveys about the meaning of Jewish practice and human relationships in general.
About the reviewer: Cristina Deptula is editor of Synchronized Chaos International Magazine and has been previously published in Talking Writing, Scarlet Leaf, and the Heavy Feather Review. She us the founder of the literary publicity agency Authors, Large and Small.