Growing up in Mission, Texas in the early 1970s, I was confused. Born into a Jewish family, I wound up attending a Southern Baptist church from a very young age after my parents divorced. By the time I hit my teens, I agonized over whether I was a Christian or a Jew, or could I be both? No other Jews lived in my very conservative town on the Rio Grande; the nearest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, was five miles away in McAllen. My mother was estranged from the temple, where my parents had been married.
I had no outlets for my questions. I didn’t feel I could talk to teachers or other adults who would understand. I felt I couldn’t talk to my mother. In desperation, I turned to the libraries in Mission and, especially, McAllen. In them, I found books that introduced me to Judaism. As I wrote in my journal on September 7, 1974:
Jew. Christian. Me. Life. The raw stuff of a diary, of a life. My life. I have temporarily concluded that to be a Jew, one must be a Jew. It’s not a Jew-when-it-suits-me proposition. I am out of place at the First Baptist Church of Mission. Something doesn’t fit, I have forced myself to see the facts. Like Dad said, I can’t run away from what I am. . . . This morning I spent some time in the Jewish section of the McAllen Public Library, reading. Despite statements to the contrary, there are differences of gigantic proportion between my two faiths.
The library’s religion section stocked books that answered questions straight up, a tonic to the earnest evangelicals giving me their opinions of what Judaism was about. I read This is My God, by Herman Wouk, a favorite author since I had earlier read his World War II epics The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War. Basic Judaism by Rabbi Milton Steinberg was a perfect introduction.
I also turned to fiction, such as The Chosen, In the Beginning and The Promise by Chaim Potok. Jewish literature mingled with other classics. From October 27, 1974:
Friday I went to the public library and got a very challenging book, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It might be hard reading but someday it will pay off. Serious reading it is. The Chosen and The Promise were easy, aw-shucks diversions. Plus, I need something heavy to keep the cranium a-sparkling.
The explorations continued throughout high school. On March 3, 1976:
I turned in my philosophy books for two volumes on Judaism. One was The Jewish Catalog, a counter-culture volume like the Whole Earth Catalog, dealing with Orthodoxy for fun – living on the commune, knitting kippahs, making candles, not exactly my brand. I also got David de Sola Pool’s Why I am a Jew, an introduction. I wanted another, by a rabbi, called Letters to Jewish College Students, but I could not find it.
I varied my spiritual quest with lighter fiction, such as Harry Kemelman’s Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, which I called “a 1966 unique mystery yarn” on March 13, 1976.
The Mission and McAllen libraries played an essential role in giving me confidence to accept my Jewish identity. Wauk, Potok, Kemelman and Steinberg shared their love of Judaism with me. My library card was the key that unlocked the door to the kingdom, or, shall we say, the temple.
Today I still have some introductory books on Judaism, good for a refresher course. Other treasured books joined them over the decades, such as my copy of The Family Moskat, personally autographed for me by Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer when I attended a lecture of his at New York University in 1982. I also have an autographed copy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God, which I found for $1 at a library book sale. An 1862 siddur by a German rabbi is my oldest Jewish book, while a volume of poems by murdered Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, published in Kiev in 1938, may be the most ominous.
McAllen’s library, the site of so much inspiration for me, won national notice in 2012 when it moved into a closed 123,000-square foot Walmart location, becoming the largest single-floor library in the country.
Fast forward 40 years. In 2012 I published my first book, A Kosher Dating Odyssey: One Former Texas Baptist’s Quest for a Naughty and Nice Jewish Girl. It’s about growing up in small-town Texas, my long Jewish journey, and my online dating adventures (pursued as an adult, not as a teen!). The book is available on the local authors table at the McAllen Public Library. That’s my way of giving back. I hope other folks find my book and learn they’re not alone with their questions on Judaism.
Note: A live version of this post, performed at a library open-mic event, can be found here.