Sometimes I wish I didn't make my living--wait, scratch that, I don't make a living. Being a wife and mother, I earn my pin money--by grading freshman composition essays. It makes me alert to sentence errors in everything I read, and there doesn't seem to be an off switch. Thus it is that when I read a graceful, eloquent book like Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God, I am not only unable to overlook sentences like the following, I am compelled to make note of them so I can publish them to the world. These are things that should have been caught by an editor, and it's entirely possible they've been, or will be, corrected in future printings, but in the meantime, running across sentences like these in the middle of otherwise flawless prose is like having the transmission drop out of the car at 70 m.p.h.:
He asks me if I think we should try again, "try to build an us," he says, and I say that yes, I think we should try, and we smile, he in Arkansas and I in New York, and we hang up, and I stretch and drink a glass of water and then take a shower that is long. (20)
...I was occasionally seen running around the city in a sleeveless dress, filmy blue Indian cotton, no sleeves. (99)
One of my favorite genres is spiritual memoir, and it is a genre that seems to be picking up in popularity in recent years. I think after Kathleen Norris made a big splash with Dakota, folks started jumping on the bandwagon, but perhaps I think that only because Dakota was my own point of entry. Girl Meets God, about a young woman who converts to Orthodox Judaism and then converts again to Christianity, is one of the better books of this type I've read. She writes honestly about the reasons--superficial and profound--she first converted to Judaism and then--again for reasons both superficial and profound--left that faith for Christianity. Perhaps most moving is the section of the book where she talks about what she lost when she gave up Judaism, most importantly other people who had become like family to her.
Many of her friends, she says, wonder when she'll convert to Buddhism. They wonder why they should take her Christianity seriously when the Orthodox Judaism she threw herself into in college didn't last. Winner is honest about finding herself sometimes feeling estranged from her faith:
Sometimes, lately, I feel a sort of sinking staleness, and it feels familiar, and it scares me. I felt it the other day sitting in class. All of a sudden I felt, This isn't working. I don't believe this Christian thing anymore, this is just some crazy fix I've been on, and now I've reached my toleration level, and it's not working.
I thought about how Lamaze teachers tell you to breathe through your pain. I breathed. The feelings passed. But they'll come back. They are familiar. They are what I felt when I started to stop Judaism. (269)
Winner uses a marriage metaphor for her relationship to Judaism, and she blames herself at least partly for the divorce. At one point, she says that she might, for instance, have eventually left Orthodox Judaism because its views about women were too restrictive, or because of pervasive prejudice about converts, but she didn't stick around long enough to be able to blame the religion itself for the failure of her relationship with it. Although she is happy to find herself a Christian, she takes some responsibility for giving up on Judaism, for marrying too quickly and not honoring her commitment, for not working at being a Jew as she ought to have. She hopes to do better with Christianity, and I will be curious to see, if she keeps writing about her faith, where she ends up in a few years. It's not that I doubt her faith, just that she is still very young and on a journey which hasn't ended yet.
Although I am also happy in my chosen religion, I found myself wondering how she could stand to give up Jewish holidays and rituals. She writes eloquently (as she did earlier, in an essay that appeared in Best Christian Writing 2000, about her nostalgia for Sukkot, the harvest festival during which Jews build booths in their yards, with loose rooves of leaves and branches through which the sky can be seen, and eat meals, entertain, and even sleep in them. I wanted to say to her, "Hey, I love Sukkot, too!" I've been studying up on Judaism ever since a friend married a Jewish woman a few years ago (best wedding I've ever been to), and last year I even ate a meal in their sukkah. Although, as a Quaker, I eschew ritual, I am drawn to the ritual life of Jews, especially the way Jewish ritual takes place in and sanctifies the home and family. Even with Jesus by her side, Winner misses that aspect of Judaism, too.
Although I found much I identified with in this book, I can't unite with Winner on questions of the afterlife or "salvation," and she knocked me breathless when, after nearly 175 pages of talking with respect and affection about Jews and Judaism she suddenly came out with this:
The Passover seder gives thanks to God for delivering us from bondage, but it is also shot through with longing, with messianic expectation. It is a service that ends, finally, with the recognition that redemption is not yet complete.... I think about my family and the Farmers and Randi and everyone else saying those words, celebrating this holiday of liberation, and I want them to realize that Jesus celebrated this same memorial of our redemption from Egypt, and then he died to liberate them eternally. (174)
I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, that a person who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian should, as part of missing her Jewish friends and family, want them to find Jesus, too, so that they can all be in heaven together someday, but it did surprise me. This passage came at the end of a long nostalgic celebration of Passover, and when she said she was missing people, I expected her to wish, just a little, that she could still be with them--not that they would all come be with her.
I am not a Christian, but Christian faith memoirs often ring true to me when they tackle honestly the ways in which faith is partial and difficult, or fraught with struggle, as well as the ways in which it is joyful and complete. Kathleen Norris remains a favorite, but Winner's book is worth re-reading sometime in the future, and she's a writer I'd like to keep an eye on.Posted by Su Penn at June 21, 2003 04:17 PM | TrackBack