An Interview with Jennifer Lang
- By Diana Friedman
- January 9, 2024
The memoirist talks marriage, playing with form, and the joy of hanging her final mezuzah.
Jennifer Lang’s Places We Left Behind: A Memoir-in-Miniature arrived in my mailbox days after Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. I grappled with how to filter out the macro-story of war and the senseless deaths of so many to engage with the micro-story told in the book: Lang is a secular Jew rooted in the U.S. who struggles to make sense of her marriage and find a home with her observant husband, Philippe, a French Jew, who wants to live in Israel.
In fact, the memoir was a delight — an intimate, poetic, and deeply personal story whose playfulness of form serves as a salve to the conflict in Lang’s marriage and the larger world. In evocative prose, Lang labors to reconcile her deep love for Philippe as, over 20 peripatetic years, they move among Israel, France, California, and New York. Throughout the book, words shapeshift across the page. One chapter consists of Lang’s name at the bottom of a seesaw, bearing what she refers to as the “phantom” weight of Philippe’s strict religious observance, a weight she labors to shed. Another, “Surrender,” has almost no text except that one word printed in large, boldface type to reflect Lang’s feelings about yielding to the family’s decision to return to Israel.
The author spoke with me from Tel Aviv in late November.
You were on your book tour in the U.S. when Hamas attacked Israel. What kind of pivot did that require?
I went [on tour] to talk about the book’s main themes — marriage and compromise and voice and identity. On October 9th, I instead read very different passages: hearing my first air-raid siren, putting on a gas mask, running for shelter in the first Gulf War. It wasn’t great, because I was in a lot of different events with Jews and non-Jews and I never really knew in the room who was and who wasn’t Jewish. Most of my events weren’t Jewish, per se. I was in libraries, bookstores, all over. I turned it into this solidarity event where I just passed the mic. I asked people to introduce themselves, say if they had a connection to Israel, if they knew anything about Israel, if they had family in Israel. And I did it like that because I needed it more than anything.
There are so many things — such as language and country — that were a constant negotiation in your marriage, including religious observance, which speaks to the complexity of yours and Philippe’s different approaches to Judaism.
The complexity was because I didn’t grow up with a belief in God. I grew up in a godless home. I grew up in a pork- and shellfish-eating home. I grew up culturally Jewish but not religiously. I grew up firmly identifying as a Jew, and I didn’t need to change that. My whole social life came from it. My youth friends, my camp friends, my temple friends, my best friends were from all of these different things.
When you first meet Philippe, you foreground the conjunctions to show your concern about falling in love with someone far more observant than you: “if he wasn’t Sabbath observant, and he wasn’t enrapt with his new homeland, but he is.”
I didn’t want to marry an observant Jew. I already knew by the time I met him what that meant from my brother and from a very dear friend of mine. I had no interest in it.
One strategy that seemed successful — both in the marriage and as a literary device to show the relationship moving forward — was counseling. When you were living in Israel, your therapist was American, but then when you were living in the States, your therapist was Israeli-born.
There was no way [in Israel] I was going to do it in Hebrew. I’d never been to therapy, and it was probably one of [my friends] saying to me, you should see someone American so they can understand where you’re from. In California, the Israeli that we found — that was completely intentional so that I could get my husband on board. I wanted someone who could understand us [both].
Can you talk about where you got the idea to play with form?
After Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s column “You May Want to Marry My Husband” went viral in 2017, I fell down a rabbit hole looking at everything she put into the world because she was an extraordinarily creative, think-outside-the box writer and artist. [In her] Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, she included tables, flowcharts, emails, and other graphics; the form blew me away. A year later, I heard Nora Krug, a German non-Jew married to a Jewish American man of German descent, in conversation about her illustrated memoir called Belonging. On every page, you feel like you’re holding a book that no one else has. Then, in graduate school, one of my mentors, Barbara Hurd, tried to impress upon me the importance of playing on the page. I had no idea what she meant; it took me nine more years to figure it out. But during the submission process for my book, I noticed a word in the guidelines: “experimental.” So, I went back into the text and started to chisel and make it more artful and nimble, which works for me. I teach yoga, so of course it’s going to be nimble.
The lighthearted form makes the intractability of the marriage conflict so much easier to absorb. We feel the intensity of the conflict, but the playfulness is like a release valve.
[With form] I’m mirroring the content. When we were walking through Jerusalem to the wall, I [zigzagged the prose across the page] because we were literally zigzagging through the Old City. Someone else saw the spacing [of the prose] as cracks in the bricks of the wall.
After 20 years of moving and feeling uprooted, you moved back to Israel in 2011. Do you feel more settled this time around?
We moved to Tel Aviv in 2019 from Raanana and downsized from a big house to a small apartment. It took us three years to find an apartment to buy, so we moved again last November. It was just my husband and me when we hung [the mezuzah]. I got teary-eyed. At the housewarming party, we had 50 people packed in our living room and kitchen. It felt like after all these years, we found the place where we can finally age in place. I think we hung our last mezuzah.
[Photo by Sabrina Speaker.]
Diana Friedman’s fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in multiple publications, including Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, Huffington Post, New Letters, and Whole Earth Review, among others. She is co-editor of Ole Blue Claw, a fiction anthology of short stories set in and written by residents of Maryland. Diana also facilitates/leads writing retreats at Zigbone Farm Retreat Center, just outside of Washington, DC, and at Pyrenean Creative Writing Retreats in northern Spain.