The following is an excerpt from Jennifer Lang’s ‘Places We Left Behind’, out September 5, 2023. It has been described as a book “for anyone who has ever loved deeply and been willing to take risks for the sake of love,” by Rachel Barenbaum, author of ‘Atomic Anna‘.
When American-born Jennifer falls in love with French-born Philippe during the First Intifada in Israel, she understands their relationship isn’t perfect. Both 23, both Jewish, they lead very different lives: she’s a secular tourist, he’s an observant immigrant. Despite their opposing outlooks on two fundamental issues—country and religion—they are determined to make it work. For the next 20 years, they root and uproot their growing family, each longing for a singular place to call home.
In ‘Places We Left Behind’, Jennifer puts her marriage under a microscope, examining commitment and compromise, faith and family while moving between prose and poetry, playing with language and form, daring the reader to read between the lines.
[Editor’s note: the strikethrough passages are intentional and are a creative storytelling technique Jennifer uses throughout her book.]
After making love in his mismatched sheets, Philippe and I tally how many times we’ve each been to Israel. I count my trips—1971, 1975, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, now in 1989—needing both hands.
He counts his on one hand: |||. You win, he says, as if we’re competing.
I scan his room—no posters, no mirror, no nightstand—so boyish and beautiful, especially his bed.
Tell me everything, he says, adorning me with butterfly light kisses.
My tendency to share too much too soon makes me hesitate. He already knows that I’m here, in Israel, despite the First Intifada or Palestinian uprising, between a job in France and graduate school in New York, to immerse in Hebrew as well as to spend time with my only sibling and extended family, and that I miss my open-minded, California-born parents in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he has no idea that I made a Jackson Pollock mess of my love life the past two years and promised my mother that I wouldn’t fall in love and stay.
No, wait, I want to know why you’re here, I say, running my fingers through his silky chestnut hair. What made you immigrate?
Israeli chutzpah, Haifa, the Mediterranean, beach, bodysurfing, falafel, spicy food. Plus, my brother plans to make aliya too.
We each have one sibling; mine immigrated to Jerusalem, my temporary home base, immediately after college a few years earlier.
And since aliya comes from the verb la’a lot, which means to go up, I went up in my Jewish observance. Tu comprends?
Do I understand that he changed his lifestyle for a country?
All weekend, I study this man, admiring how his pointy nose dominates an angular face, his olive skin glistens with oily patches, and his feet have white lines underneath his sandal straps.
All weekend, he reaches for me, amorous and solicitous of my attention.
Ever since we met at a Shabbat retreat for Francophones 144 hours earlier, I haven’t stopped thinking about him, convinced my secular mother will tell me it was beshert—Yiddish for destiny—after enrolling me in a pilot French program when I was six.
Philippe fits every box on my imaginary list:
Sexy with a guarded smile ✓
A far cry from the men of late: one Catholic Parisian whom Sib refused to acknowledge, one Russian married man who my parents refused to discuss, one once-upon-a-time college friend who refused to commit.
Burrowed in Philippe’s biceps, I try to block out the conjunctions: if he wasn’t Sabbath observant, and he wasn’t enrapt with his new homeland, but he is.
When I awaken to an empty bed, I follow my nose. Odors of breakfast drift down the hall, toward the galley kitchen. As batter hits butter, hissing sounds sing.
Joyeux anniversaire, he says.
In a fitted t-shirt and floral boxers, Philippe flips crepes single handedly. A sight I’ve never seen before. No man has ever made me crepes; no Frenchman has ever made me crepes; no any-nationality man has ever made me crepes.
Summer heat and sexual desire swarm my every cell. He tells me to sit, serves me impeccably round, thin, buttery crepes. 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. It’s not a perfect fit, and I’m old enough to know better.
Eighteen months after our first kiss, on the second Sunday in September (and a super cool, difficult-to-forget date: 9-9-90), Philippe and I occupy separate parts of Mei Niftowach, a restaurant overlooking Jerusalem’s valleysto the north. While he listens to the rabbi read the ketubah, detailing the rights and responsibilities of the groom toward the bride, I pose for pictures on the outdoor terrace like Lady Di. We haven’t seen each other since Friday in an attempt to uphold part of the customary weeklong separation between a bride and groom. My insides burn with desire.
At nightfall on that halcyon evening, we stand under the fire-orange embroidered chuppah, under the stars, surrounded by 100 guests. Philippe lowers my veil, a safeguard made by Jewish males since Jacob wed a veiled Leah in error. Our bicultural, bilingual rabbi asks us if we promise to love, cherish and protect each other, whether in good fortune or in adversity, and to seek with each other a life hallowed by the faith of Israel. I say yes without thinking about the words.
As I slip a ring on Philippe’s finger, I think about how he blinks his eyes like an impish little boy, how he looks like he does dozens of push-ups every day, how he makes jokes with a straight face. How we are going to spend our lives together.
How are we going to spend our lives together?
Philippe and I celebrate when he receives his first offer in high-tech after a year-long job hunt in my hometown. We extend the lease on our starter house and re-enroll our son in the synagogue preschool. We enjoy Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving meals at my parents’ house. But we don’t talk about it.
It = staying in the Bay Area, where I know shortcuts and backroads,
5,731 miles from France, where he knows shortcuts and backroads, 7,416 miles from Israel, where neither of us knew shortcuts and backroads.
We dress our son in an Elmo costume for Halloween and take a road trip to Los Angeles for a long weekend. We discuss whether or not my marketing job will make sense with two kids. We debate boys and girls names and borrow a crib, bassinet, and baby swing. But we don’t talk about it.
It = staying in the Bay Area, where I speak in slang, acronyms, and idiomatic expressions,
5,731 miles from France, where he speaks in slang, acronyms, and idiomatic expressions, 7,416 miles from Israel, where neither one of us spoke in slang, acronyms, and idiomatic expressions.
As our one-year-in-America agreement slides into two then three then more, elephants take cover under every rug in every room, turning the where-to-live and how-much-Judaism-to-live-by conversations taboo. We break down. Lose our bearings. Come unhinged. Wrestle, with each other, with ourselves.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs israelwriterstudio.com. Her prize-winning essays appear in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Midway Journal, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Journal. A yoga practitioner since 1995 and instructor since 2003. She has two unconventional books forthcoming, Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature (9/5/23) and Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses (10/15/24) both with Vine Leaves Press. You can follow her on Instagram and connect with her on Facebook.