Moses, Jennifer Anne. “Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou”, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007. $26.95.
Seeking the Divine
My review copy of “Bagels and Grits” just arrived this afternoon as I was waiting for the delivery of furniture for my new place. I sat down with it and before I realized it I had read the entire book and I had the best time. Jennifer Moses is not new to the world of publishing. Articles she writes appear regularly in newspapers and magazines and she is a writer by profession. She is also a mother and volunteers at an AIDS hospice in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and also teaches Hebrew at her synagogue.
If you did not know she was a writer, you could probably tell from her prose which abounds with grace and style combined with a noble wit. Her pages exude charm and you just want to find a way to get to her abode for a Shabbat dinner just so you can sit and chat with her.
Moses writes about having moved from a liberal and affluent neighborhood of Washington, D.C. to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the land of gospel, crawfish and Christianity where everyone seems to be a friend of Jesus. After her move, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and attempt at communion with G-d. In doing so, she finds the differences in culture in this country and she shares them with us.
Moses was raised as an observant Jew in the northeastern United States and G-d is no more than something far away. Upon arriving in the South and the Bible belt, she went through a period of crisis regarding faith while serving as a volunteer at an AIDS hospice. As she writes, Moses takes her back to her past and then to the present and her conflicts that she experiences in the South. The portraits that she gives of her childhood and of her parents is vivid and the picture of the G-d of her mother is just like an oil painting, executed in beautiful detail. That G-d was one who, in her mother’s words, was one “of good works and of giving to the Democratic party”. Her father carried the mantle of Judaism and it is with her father that Moses seeks a relationship with G-d. Even though she was raised as an observant Jew, more or less, her skewed vision of G-d later drove her to seek a communion with her maker.
It is her trip South that is the catalyst for her quest. The people she meets in Baton Rouge seem to be constantly in communion with G-d but in the author’s opinion some of the encounters the people have with the deity are absurd and ridiculous, causing her to recoil in anger. They, of course, add bits of local color to their visions of the divine and this riles her up.
Yet it is these people that take Moses into their world and they take the reader as well. Moses feels both anger and jealousy when she sees and hears about the southerners beliefs and she yearns to “be filled with a faith so buoyant” that it would sweep her past herself, past memory and sorrow and into an eternal embrace with G-d. She finds it increasingly difficult to understand why others have a relationship with G-d and she does not.
Moses acts on this issue and begins to learn Hebrew as the first step. She slowly experiences divine touches as she struggles with skepticism but her faith increases and when she is diagnosed with breast cancer, she understands that her recovery will be a great deal easier because she has taken herself on a spiritual journey. Before she received the diagnosis, se began to see signs of G-d in ways that she can understand and her world begins to change.
Surely by now you are wondering why she went to Baton Rouge in the first place. Her husband tired of his job as a lawyer and took a position as a professor of law at Louisiana State University. The family, herself and her husband and three children, moved there and it was then that her ideas about the Jewish religion began to deepen. It was the evangelical Christians who really made her realize that she needed to find strength in her G-d and this is what the book is all about.
Moses tells a beautiful story of her own life as well as of the life of her family and brings the stories into a larger arena concerning the challenges that modern Judaism faces. Her desire to make sense of and live up to her historical heritage is an exquisite tale of self-discovery and renewal of faith.