Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou [NOOK Book]

Overview

When Jennifer Anne Moses moved from a comfortable life in East Coast Jewish society to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she volunteered at an AIDS hospice and rediscovered a profound commitment to her Jewish faith.
Outstanding Book, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
Best Books for Regional Special Interests, selected by the Public Library Association
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Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou

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Overview

When Jennifer Anne Moses moved from a comfortable life in East Coast Jewish society to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she volunteered at an AIDS hospice and rediscovered a profound commitment to her Jewish faith.
Outstanding Book, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
Best Books for Regional Special Interests, selected by the Public Library Association
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In an absorbing memoir, Moses (Food and Whine) describes her disorienting move from Washington, D.C., to Baton Rouge, a city home to a paltry 220 or so Jewish families. Moses, who had a strong Jewish identity but little connection to religious practice, found herself grappling with her new city's intense Christianity: just about everyone was on intimate terms with Jesus. Moses's move to Baton Rouge, coupled with her mother's deteriorating health, prompted her to study Hebrew and celebrate her bat mitzvah, which she had not done as a girl. Yet this book is not just a spiritual autobiography. It is also an account of a daughter struggling toward the end of her mother's life-chemotherapy and cancer haunt every page. Moses's prose is lyrical and fresh: her daughter, for instance, is "so content within her skin that it's as if she'd been born with the soul of a shaman," and Moses's childhood, in which tennis games, ski trips and her parents' cocktail parties all somehow culminated in Shabbat dinner, was "like living in a John Cheever novel edited by Isaac Bashevis Singer." Moses has a vivid sense of humor and never takes herself too seriously. After finishing this book, readers may wish they could sit down over a bagel and grits and visit with her. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher

"Beautifully weaving both her personal crises and her family history into a larger discussion of the challenges facing contemporary Judaism, Moses . . . creates a moving portrait of a thoroughly modern woman struggling to make sense of, and to live up to, the faith of her forebears."—Lorraine Glennon, Ladies Home Journal

"Moses has created a moving spiritual memoir, one in which the writing shimmers with emotion but is honest, powerful, and carefully crafted. Readers seeking a dip into the pool of lively, probing autobiography will find this slim volume a satisfying adventure."—Jewish Book World

"Moses's prose is lyrical and fresh. . . . After finishing this book, readers may wish they could sit down over a bagel and grits and visit with her."—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299224431
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 176
  • File size: 318 KB

Meet the Author

Jennifer Anne Moses is a writer now living in Montclair, New Jersey. Her essays, reporting, reviews, and travel and opinion pieces have appeared frequently in the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Salon. She is the author of Visiting Hours, Food and Whine, Just Give Me One Piece of Gum, and Songs You Can Sing to Your Dog.
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Read an Excerpt

Bagels and Grits

A Jew on the Bayou
By Jennifer Anne Moses

University of Wisconsin Press

Copyright © 2007 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22440-0


Chapter One

With God in Baton Rouge

I'm driving my minivan down Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, past the Snack Shack, the Ford dealership, the U-Lock-It, and the Super Chicken, listening to Lorraine, who is sitting in the seat next to me, talking. It's a hot, sticky October day-the overcast sky like a blanket, keeping the heat in. Louisiana weather is like no other I've ever experienced-so hot and so oppressive for so many months that it feels personal, like the entire planet is soon to catch fire and you'd better get off it before it's too late-and for the millionth time since moving here a few years ago from Washington, D.C., I yearn for cooler pastures, for the smell of falling autumn leaves, for crisp apples and cold nights and sweater weather. But I'm here, in Baton Rouge, with Lorraine, and Lorraine likes to talk. Correction: Lorraine loves to talk-and to smoke, sing, eat, anything that will keep her mouth moving. She is forty-four, so dark that her skin shines like polished mahogany, and growing fat from all the potato chips and pork rinds that she eats when she's not talking.

"Honey, let me tell you," she is saying. "How Iget here? Don't rightly know. Didn't mean to get here, but here I am. Lord Jesus. Jesus loves me, you know? Loves you, too. He do, even if you don't know it, but he do."

I nod.

"How many children you got?" she says, changing the subject.

"Three," I answer.

"How old are they?"

My eldest, Sam, is twelve, I tell her, and my twins, Rose and Jonathan, are eight. There's a lot more that I could tell her about them-such as the fact that Sam is so physically beautiful that I fear for him; or that Jonathan, at birth, looked like a baby bird, all beaky and bony, with downy fur; or that Rose is so content within her skin that it's as if she'd been born with the soul of a shaman-but I don't. It would be like delivering a discourse on quantum physics to a dying man. So I keep quiet, waiting for the story that I know is coming-the one about how Lorraine landed in prison. She's told it before, but because her mind doesn't work quite right, she doesn't remember.

"Ain't that nice, now," she says in her smoker's contralto. "Two boys and a girl. Praise Jesus. Bet they favor you. My own children, I got two boys and three girls, all grown. First there's Larry, he make me a grandmother first. His father was something else. Lord, I loved that man. Would have done anything for him, sure enough. I give him three fine children. Three fine ones, and what he do? I was working up at the printing press then. Had me a good job. Steady. I was going to school, too. LSU. Working full shift every day of the week, don't you know it, child, and going to school, too. Come home. What do I see? That man in bed with my favorite auntie. My favorite damn auntie. Mamma's youngest sister, don't you know. Caught them in my own damn bed. Didn't think nothing about it. Just ran into the kitchen, grabbed me the gun in the cabinet, and shot that motherfucker right in the head. Missed and shot him again. 'Cause I wanted to kill that mother dead."

She looks out the window, begins to hum along with the radio. "Shot him good," she says. "Spent a week in the hospital. But you know, he still living."

"Do you mind if I turn the radio down?"

"Still out there catting around. But me, I get sent down to St. Gabriel," she says, referring to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. "Five years in St. Gabriel. Got out for good behavior. But five years, five years plenty long, and I ain't lying."

I turn the radio down.

"But you know, it when I get out that the trouble started. While I locked up I good as gold, but when I get out, oh, Lord, that's when things start going bad for real. Stayed with my mamma, and got a job, sure enough. Working at the dry-cleaning plant. But every day I come home, and I do a little stuff. Every damn day. Relieve my pain. One day, though, everything change: I come home, and set everything out, all easy like. I got my cocaine right here on the table, right in front of me, like I always do. I got my beer right next to it, nice and cold, straight from the refrigerator. And my pack of cigarettes. That's when I heard it."

An SUV filled with frat boys tailgates us for a couple of blocks, and then, with a roar, passes on the left going about seventy miles an hour, rock music blaring out the open windows, purple and yellow LSU flags fluttering in the wind.

"That's when you heard what, Lorraine?"

"I reach for the cocaine, but that's when Jesus call me. Heard him as clearly as I hear you. And Jesus said, 'Lorraine, my love, put that down.' So I reached for the beer, and Jesus said, 'Lo, my love, put that down.' He took the taste for it right out of my mouth. So then I reached for the cigarette, but he didn't say anything. Which is how I know I still have his permission to smoke."

This part of the story is new to me.

"I'm truly blessed," Lorraine says, turning up the music once again, running her tongue over her lips.

"Yes indeed," she adds.

Lorraine has AIDS. Her brother, who was a cross-dresser and a prostitute until his own death from AIDS just a few weeks ago, had lost his vision, then his ability to control his bladder, and finally his sense of his own individuality, while Lorraine, frantic, had clucked over him, rolling her eyeballs around in her head, moaning and crying. But Lorraine doesn't seem aware that she, too, could succumb to the more dismal ravages of AIDS-though it's hard to tell what exactly Lorraine does or does not understand, because her brain is slowly being eaten away by disease, cytomegalovirus ventriculoencephalitis, to be precise. She forgets things, like whether or not she still needs to go to the bathroom, and what your name is.

"You just got to believe," she says.

Which is a good one, given that, though I admire what appears to be Lorraine's deep-seated faith, and even envy it, I myself am not entirely sure that there is a God at all.

"Just got to call on Jesus," she adds.

And that's another thing: I'm Jewish and, hence, do not make a practice of calling on Jesus, ever. Jesus, for me, is nothing but a burden, a poor sap of a Jewish boy appearing out of the tragic, bloody history of Roman Palestine, a mystic who was used, abused, and finally tortured to death, so that later followers of his could claim his divinity and start killing other people on account of it. Not that I'm inclined to discuss my religious identity with Lorraine, not to mention the peculiar responsibility of being among the dwindling remnant of what was, before the Second World War, a large and vibrant people, with its own culture, language, and philosophy-the great Ashkenazi civilization that first took root in the Rhineland more than a thousand years ago, conversing and writing in the three Jewish languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, as well as dozens of European tongues, eventually giving the world the Ba'al Shem Tov (the "Master of the Good Name") on the one hand, and Woody Allen on the other. Nor, I think, would it be a good idea to clue her in. Lorraine's knowing that I'm a Jew would just complicate things, and I don't want to get into a big theological discussion with her about why I haven't accepted Jesus as my personal savior or deliver a capsule history of Christian anti-Semitism, starting with the popes' injunctions to segregate Jews in ghettos, moving up through the Inquisition, and ending with the Holocaust, smack in the heart of Christian Europe, with a postscript concerning the assorted cranks and Bible-thumpers right here in Baton Rouge who aren't exactly what you'd call friendly toward my people, unless you consider converting us en masse in order to bring about the End of Days as predicted in the book of Revelations a friendly gesture. But what does Lorraine or, for that matter, anyone I know, have to do with all of that? Lorraine simply loves Jesus, and she wants me to, too.

Which is no real surprise: you can't live in Baton Rouge without bumping up against Jesus just about every time you walk out of the house, not only on your doorstep in the form of local missionaries but also on your neighbors' lips, on the towering crosses that dot the highways, on bus stop benches that proclaim JESUS IS THE ANSWER, on the airwaves, in the letters-to-the-editor column of the local newspaper, and especially in the hundreds of churches that seem to define-even more than petrochemical plants and shotgun houses and Spanish moss-draped live oak trees-this particular corner of the world.

Ephesus Apostolic; Hosanna First Assembly; Antioch Full Gospel Baptist; Remnant of God; Church of God in Christ; Destiny International; Highway to Glory Worship Center; I've Had Enough Outreach Ministries; House of Judah; Holy Trinity; Holy Saints; Holy Mary Mother of God; St. Alban's; St. Luke's; St. James; True Believers Christian Congregation; Abundant Everlasting Life Fellowship. The Sunshine Pages has eleven full pages of listings, three columns each. There are more churches than there are schools, more churches than there are restaurants, and certainly more churches than there are synagogues.

"Take your pain to Jesus, honey," Lorraine says, as much to herself as to me. And then, looking straight at me, she says, "You a good Christian, child. You really is."

Lorraine lives, along with eleven other HIV-positive adults, at St. Anthony's, a residential treatment facility where I began doing volunteer work one morning a week shortly after my twins started kindergarten. I signed on for this job chiefly because I wanted to give something back to a community that, for no discernible reason, had put me and my family on easy street, and also because Jewish tradition, along with rules about honoring one's parents, burying the dead, and rejoicing with bride and bridegroom, instructs us to visit the sick. The Talmud goes so far as to say that he who doesn't perform this commandment is like one who sheds blood, the Gemara relating the words of Rabbi Aha bar Hanina, that anyone who visits the sick takes away one sixtieth of his or her pain. Not that I was steeped in rabbinic lore: I just thought that it was time already for me to do something other than sit in my kitchen, reading the newspaper and eating my own liver out over global warming. Plus my twins-thank God-were finally in school full-time, in Big Kid school where they ate hot lunches on little chairs in the cafeteria and came home smelling like chalk dust and canned green beans, meaning that I would have my days back again, that I could take a nap and go to the bathroom without being followed. In short, for the first time since Sam was born in 1989, when I was thirty, I had enough time to myself.

I had another reason for choosing this particular kind of work: my mother, more than a thousand miles away in the same house in Virginia where I grew up, had been struggling with ovarian cancer for years, and from such a distance there was next to nothing I could do to comfort her. Nor did I have any way of understanding what was happening to her, the why of it, the sheer pomposity of a disease that had had the chutzpah to turn my athletic, overbearing, energetic, and enormously warm mother into an invalid and along the way upend a family myth that, roughly, dictated that the superiority of the family genes would shield and protect its members from affliction. The idea was that, in my family, we didn't get sick: sickness was for other people-for ordinary people, the kind of sorry-assed raggle-draggle folks you see lugging whining kids around the shopping mall or fighting with their spouses at a family-style restaurant. My mother's cancer was an affront to that; a giant in-your-face so what? But if I couldn't help Mom, or understand why she had to suffer, I could at least look into the face of death itself, or into the faces of the dying, and in this way perhaps prepare myself for things to come. Plus, if I were being completely honest, I also wanted to see if I could take it. I wanted to know if I, the ultimate weenie, the girl who cried whenever Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat up into the air at the beginning of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, had the stuff.

I grew up in a large, white, starkly modern house surrounded by woods and streams in McLean, Virginia, the second of four children of assimilated, athletic, well-educated, and wealthy German Jews who traced their families back over the generations to the town of Gross-Rapperhausen, in the state of Hesse, on my father's side, and sixteenth-century Bavaria, on my mother's. In addition to me, my two sisters, one brother, parents, and our housekeeper, a regal and kind black woman named Mae Carter, our household included, at any given time, two or three dogs, any number of guinea pigs, assorted hamsters, a canary named Tweety Bird, turtles, stray frogs, and various au pairs. Annette, from Ireland; Flora, from Scotland; Alfreida, from Trinidad: we went through them like a teenage boy goes through socks. There was also, for a time at least, a horse, Massy (short for Massasoit, the Indian chieftain), whom I rode to glory one July day in 1968 at the Cobbler Mountain Horse and Pony Show, in Delaplane, Virginia. I still have the silver cup I won that afternoon, and occasionally I find myself gazing at it, in complete wonder, as if it were an artifact brought back from another time and place entirely.

The idea to do AIDS work-rather than, say, volunteer in an old-age home or a hospital-came to me after my husband, Stuart, and I saw an excellent production of Angels in America at Louisiana State University. After the show, I noticed a pile of pamphlets about AIDS on a table in the lobby, picked one up, and took it home. Some months later, after enduring a morning-long "orientation session" consisting of watching out-of-date videos about condom use, I went to St. Anthony's Home for the first time. Chuck Johnson, the house manager, gave me a tour of the place-laundry room, kitchen, lounge, therapeutic bath-and told me to take it slow, that if I didn't I'd burn out. Then he said, "Why don't you go and introduce yourself to the residents?" I did as I was told, but as I went from room to room, I felt that I'd turned into a cheerleader, or perhaps an airline hostess. Hi! I'm Jennifer! And I'm going to be volunteering here! Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. Only please don't ask me to handle your bodily fluids, because I don't want to die! I was positively dripping with bullshit. I was also terrified. But my terror didn't really have anything to do with my irrational fear of AIDS, because in order to contract HIV you have to work hard at it, for example by becoming a prostitute. Intravenous drug use will do it too, as will unprotected sex with any of a variety of HIV-positive partners. Though I'd been a hypochondriac all my life, even I didn't lose sleep over the thought that one day, if I spent enough time among the sick at St. Anthony's, I too might contract HIV. What I lost sleep over was cancer. But I really was scared. Scared that at any moment one of the residents would sniff out my mealy-mouthed, do-gooding pretensions, see right through my perky exterior to my barbed and cramped heart, and expose me. Scared of my incompetence, my lack of center. What was I doing there? I was a struggling writer, a nice Jewish girl with a history of depression from a wealthy East Coast family, the wife of a university professor, a person who obsessed about the contents of the New York Times Book Review and spent her summers on a crystal-clear lake in Maine. That first day at St. Anthony's I felt like I was standing on the edge of the abyss, a hair's breadth away from chaos. Everyone looked like an inmate of Auschwitz, only, unlike most Jews, most of the residents of St. Anthony's were black. Chuck told me that volunteers put in an average of six months. That gave me until February, when I'd be able to quit with some semblance of self-respect intact.

That being said, my job at St. Anthony's chiefly involves running errands and reading the New Testament aloud, which at times, given the anti-Jewish passages, is discomfiting. Also, hanging out with the residents-most of whom are destitute, barely educated, and addicted-and taking them to doctors' and dentists' appointments. That's why I'm out now, driving around Baton Rouge on a typically disgustingly hot and humid day. Lorraine had wanted to get cigarettes. Then she wanted to get a six-pack of Coke. Then she wanted to go back to the discount cigarette store and get a lighter.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Bagels and Grits by Jennifer Anne Moses Copyright © 2007 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 With God in Baton Rouge2 The Dancing Widow3 Dr. God4 Hebrew on the Bayou5 Holy Ghost6 The Memory Books7 Glimpses8 Afterward9 Kaddish10 Coming of Age in Baton Rouge11 Where They Landed12 God’s Arms Are Very Long13 SignsPostscript: After the Storm
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