Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books.  Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. The books with the best address, upright on one of the sets of shelves handmade by my father, or my uncle, have been with me the longest. Some of the oldest have been through eight moves or more, from my adolescent home to the house where I live with my husband today.
     I bought the mass market paperback copy of Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine on a trip to Washington, D.C. the summer between my junior and senior year of high school.  The Making of a Woman Surgeon dates at least back to my middle school years.  I have three anthologies of Shakespeare: a red one from my undergraduate classes, a Riverside edition from my grad school days, and a charming, if comparatively petite, volume a student gave me in the last couple of years.  I reread books and feel compelled to keep so many because I don’t know if it will be possible to find some of them when the mood to read them again strikes. Even the advent of e-books hasn’t made it possible to have every book available at any time; it is only recently, for instance, that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books have become digitized.  Beyond Auntie Mame and The Joyous Season, none of Patrick Dennis’ books are available in e-book editions. So I keep them. And many, many others.
     Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale.
     Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes. 
     First up, Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou by Jennifer Anne Moses.
     I think I’m going to have to read the inner flaps more carefully, because this book trapped me.  When I found it at a library book sale, I thought I was picking up a lighthearted book about the clash of cultures when an Eastern Jew moves to Baton Rouge, but instead the book turns out to be a spiritual memoir about another kind of journey: the one where a woman finds her best spiritual practice by practicing spirituality.
     There are brief interludes in the book when Moses squints at the culture she finds in Baton Rouge, especially how talk of Jesus permeates it. Moses writes, “…you can’t live in Baton Rouge without bumping up against Jesus about every time you walk out of the house, not only on the doorstep in the form of local missionaries, but also on your neighbors’ lips, on the towering JESUS IS THE ANSWER, on the airwaves…” Of course, Moses also notes that at the time her family moved to Baton Rouge, there were only about 1,000 Jews in a city of 280,000.  So the Jesus thing was going to be unavoidable.
The true topic of the book, however, is Moses’ effort to practice the mitzvah of bikkur cholim: visiting the sick.  At the beginning of the book, she tells how she decided to visit the residents at St. Anthony’s, a hospice for people with AIDS, and spent her time running errands for and with the residents, talking to them, reading to them (sometimes the New Testament, a pastime she describes modestly as ‘uncomfortable’), and falling in love with the souls she encountered.
Moses seems open to religious experience in a variety of ways, from the emotional response she feels to the gospel music at the funerals she attends in Baton Rouge, to the studies she undertakes in preparation for a mid-life bat mitzvah.
While there are touches of humor throughout, the book is serious about documenting Moses’ disaffected relationship with her father and how that led her to study Judaism more deeply, her relationship with her dying mother, and the almost mystical connections and rifts she experienced in her religious quest.
While I am glad I read the book, I don’t think I need to keep it.  The notable passages I copied into my commonplace book, the rest of the book I can let go.  Moses has written other books, including two children’s books, and information about them can be found at The website also features some of her paintings, which have a clear Chagall influence and complement the stories she tells in Bagels and Grits.

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