Places We Left Behind
by Jennifer Lang
Vine Leaves Press, 2023
Reviewed by Julie Zuckerman
The first definition of “uproot” in most dictionaries mentions pulling: “to remove as if by pulling up” (Merriam-Webster) or “to pull a plant including its roots out of the ground” (Cambridge Dictionary), the implication that the pulling is imposed, often violently. But when a person uproots herself or her family voluntarily, unrelated to natural disaster or war, we assume she is happy with her choice, particularly when we know she shares a deep and abiding love with her partner. Despite this, the act of uprooting oneself time and again – eight times over the course of two and a half decades, for example – can be traumatic and agonizing.
Why do this to oneself? What are the necessary ingredients to engender a sense of rootedness to a particular place? And can we make peace with painful choices? These are the central questions of Jennifer Lang’s memoir-in-miniature, Places We Left Behind (Vine Leaves Press, September 2023). How is it, she ponders at the beginning of her tale, that a person who has lived the first 18 years of her life in the same room, in the same home, and in the same city can – a few years later – find herself peripatetic?
There is a diagram early in the book, reminiscent of Chutes and Ladders, in which Lang charts her moves: US -> Paris -> US -> Paris -> Israel -> Paris -> US (CA) -> US(NY) -> Israel -> US (NY) ->Israel. Through 62 vignettes we are party to the strains and stresses of her life, beginning with the inciting incident: on a visit to Israel, she meets Philippe, who “checks all her boxes.” The problem is that Philippe is an Orthodox Jewish Frenchman, whose dream it has always been to live in Israel, and Jennifer is a secular American Jew, who pines for familiar soil, where she understands the language and can be close to family.
Reader, she married him. Despite her own turmoil, Lang has created a playful structure for her memoir – some vignettes told in straight prose, others in poetry, others in calculations and numbers. The format of micro and flash CNF coupled with the hybrid approach has two effects. First, the brevity of each section leaves the reader with a sense of transience, just as Lang herself must have felt at each stop in her journey. Second, mixing genres and experimenting with her prose heightens the sense of movement, of restlessness, of doubt. How can Lang square her deep love for Philippe with the conflicts inherent in their marriage?
From the outset, the couple is fully aware of their differences, but within weeks they find themselves “falling for, falling fast, falling deeply.” Despite her homesickness, they move in together, even though she is “old enough to know better.”
I watch his string-bean-long legs cavort in the confined space, hearing my brain croon words like stay, forever, keep him while striving to ignore the others about distance, religion, and political climate.
Their engagement is a fraught time in Israel – Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. The world is waiting to see what will happen with George W. Bush’s “line in the sand” and whether Israel will be dragged into the war. Over the course of the Gulf War, Iraq sent 43 Scud missiles to Israel, many hitting the greater Tel Aviv and Haifa regions. As newlyweds, Lang and her husband, along with all Israelis, carried their gas masks everywhere, each siren unnerving.
Making me curse myself, question my decisions…On the surface, we’re untouched. But inside, in my kishkes, everything throbs.
The war ends, but Lang’s fears remain. Seeking the help of an American therapist, she is diagnosed with culture shock, and told to bring her husband to therapy.
How can we raise kids if we’re so different? If he doesn’t accept me as I am?
Actually, he says, she doesn’t accept me as I am.
They talk through multiple child-related scenarios until Lang has worked out her apprehensions. And when their first child does come, in September 1993, it is a time of hope. She nurses her newborn son while watching age-old enemies PLO leader Yassir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shake hands on the lawn of the White House, such a groundbreaking moment that Lang believes there will be no need for an army once her baby reaches 18, the age of mandatory army conscription.
Soon after, though, they leave Israel, but with an agreement in place: they’ll spend one year in Paris for Philippe to get his MBA, one year in the Bay Area for Jennifer’s work and to be close to her parents, after which they’ll return to Israel. Secretly, she hopes to extend their two years. Paris goes as planned, but then one year in the Bay Area turns into six.
As Lang finds comfort and meaning in yoga – Root down through your feet and reach up, her teacher instructs – Philippe clings to his Judaism, clearly unhappy that they have not returned to Israel. Eventually, they uproot for White Plains for Philippe’s work, now as a family of five. She sobs at the thought of leaving her parents. No matter where we reside, one of us will always rue the loss of the place we left behind.
For another decade, Philippe and Jennifer struggle, in and out of therapy. She agrees to a year of living differently – a sabbatical in Israel – and then they are back in New York, each mired in their own disappointments.
Ultimately it is their son, the same one who was born at the most hopeful time in Israeli history, who helps lead them out of the quagmire. His decision to enlist in the Israeli army instead of going to college forces them to “go around every room and life every rug and drag out every elephant.” It’s agonizing for Lang, knowing that her husband feels dead in America, and that he’s only there because of her.
“I can give you the flashlight,” their therapist tells them, “But I can’t walk you out of the tunnel…You’re going to have to figure that out together.” They agree on one thing: they are adamant about staying together. And after nearly 20 years of marriage, they have matured to a point where they can make concessions and requests. The flashlight, she understands, has been in her hands all along.
The layout of the words in several of the vignettes aids the reader to feel what Lang is feeling. For example, in “Between Seams,” a prose poem zigzags across the page, just as she and Philippe are zigzagging through the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City early on in their relationship as they are getting to know each other. In “Distort,” when Saddam sends his first SCUD missiles attempting to bait Israel into war, the layout of her tale reads like a news column, appropriate for the first war that was fought live on CNN. The final lines of “Witness” – which takes place on September 11, 2001, nine weeks after they’ve relocated to nearby Westchester, topple like the Twin Towers.
Throughout, the seesaw of Lang’s emotions become ours as well, a clever and satisfying glimpse into the intimate territory of marriage and the search for home.