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Bagels and Grits:
A Jew on the Bayou
By Jennifer Anne Moses
University of Wisconsin Press
184 pages; $26.95
Ever wonder what happens when an East Coast, academic, liberal Jewish mom of three packs up her upper middle-class suburban life and moves her family down to the American South's Bible Belt? Probably not. But Jennifer Anne Moses has decided to tell readers anyway in Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou, an often surprisingly witty and touching memoir.
Moses, who has had articles and essays published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, embarks on an honest reflection of a period when dramatic life changes forced her to evaluate what was most important.
Leaving her comfortable Washington intellectual circle to move to Baton Rouge so that her husband could take a professorship at Louisiana State University, Moses broaches themes of culture, religion, aging and self-idolization with wry humor and an admittedly prized erudition.
The author begins her story musing over her decision to begin volunteer work at an HIV/AIDS residential treatment facility in Baton Rouge, a choice that was made in part out of respect for the Jewish tradition of visiting the sick, she explains.
Moses's work with the patients, however, leaves her feeling an unanticipated jealousy of them. Though impoverished, uneducated and near death, the people she meets have an enviably close relationship with Jesus that Moses admits she has never felt to the God of her forefathers.
She marvels that, "At St. Anthony's, not only did He exist, but also, at times, He came down to earth to say howdy or give a thumbs-up. He was so present, so everyday, that you almost expected to bump into Him at the grocery store."
The search for a similar connection of her own prompts Moses to ponder her childhood associations with religion. Moses was reared in a household in which her liberal, socialite mother left the children's religious upbringing to their stern, Orthodox father.
In describing the way her family juxtaposed secular values with religious tradition, she writes that it "was like living in a John Cheever novel edited by Isaac Bashevis Singer."
As the book progresses, Moses portrays a crop of relatives chock-full of flaws. She also depicts the importance of the near-mythical tales that are passed from generation to generation, especially as we grow up and realize the importance of home and family, having moved away from them.
Even as Bagels and Grits is filled with recollections of Jewish holidays spent with religious family members in Baltimore, it quickly becomes apparent that while Moses has incorporated traditional and modern Jewish values into her adult life, she missed out on a substantial Jewish education and is largely unobservant.
She finds herself, therefore, at 42, studying for her bat mitzva in a Baton Rouge synagogue and learning Hebrew from a man whose dogs have a greater familiarity with the holy tongue than she does.
With Moses's focus on the past and analysis of the present, the reader may occasionally become suspicious that he or she has somehow stumbled upon what Moses acknowledges is a psychological exercise.
She notes the commonly made observation that professional psychological analysis has replaced religion for many people, providing answers for those who find traditional notions of God and raisons d'etre unsatisfactory.
Moses admits that she has a second profession as a psychological patient, a "clutcher of Kleenex," and some may find her tone whiny or self-indulgent. The "why me?/why not me?" style, however, does not necessarily detract from Moses's story as it makes her more relatable, more normal, if less likable.
One element curiously missing from Moses's tale is the narrative development of her immediate family. Her husband plays a minor role compared to her father and mother, initially mentioned as Moses's reason for finding herself in Baton Rouge, but little referenced thereafter.
Furthermore, while it is clear she adores her children - a pre-teen son and a younger set of twins - their reactions to both the move down South and their mother's spiritual search are neglected. The only description Moses provides of their response is of a sort of cautious, bemused acceptance from all four of the people with whom she spends the majority of her time. This deficiency adds to the occasionally self-indulgent tone. Perhaps she will address it in her next book.
Bagels and Grits is an engaging rumination on the unending search for identity and the unexpected places that this search leads us. The writing is thoughtful and entertaining and readers will feel that they are chatting with a new friend - probably not too different from themselves - over coffee.
Memoir, as a genre, often leaves the reader wondering what he or she has taken away from the few hours spent reliving someone else's life. In Moses's case, the result is an affirmation that through life's ups and downs and the changes in people, places and theologies, we are simultaneously stuck with and blessed with ourselves, our unique thoughts and personalities and our own distinctive humor.