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Preserving Our Core: Two Timely Reads

(Image courtesy of author)

When two friends, from different circles, each passionately connected to the land of Israel, publish compact, emotionally driven books within four months, it may be a meaningful coincidence. Both pieces of nonfiction literature are therapeutic in their own way but meant for different stages of life. Jennifer Lang’s, Places We Left Behind, a memoir for adults, and Pamela R. Weissman’s Your World, a children’s picture book, both delve into how to process complex issues and find your inner compass when confronting life’s knottier realities.

Jennifer, an accomplished author who runs Israel Writers Studio, guides writing classes, serves as an assistant editor at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, and is also a talented yoga instructor. Jennifer wears smart, classy outfits accented with patterned scarves and cozy sweaters. When in a conversation she asks amazing questions and gives you her utmost attention, just like Pam. Jennifer, currently a resident of Tel Aviv, is a nuanced author and an academic at heart.

Pam, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, teaches Zumba for fun and exercise at the JCC three times a week. Sometimes I think Pam ought to have been a standup comic. She’s a real-life Mrs. Maisel who wears polka dot raincoats, vintage sweaters, and sophisticated hats to shul, often bubbling over with energy and at other times offering the most heartfelt and solid advice. She banters in Hebrew with her husband, and sometimes they reminisce about running an orphanage in Eretz Yisrael as a newly married couple. Although a difficult decision, they reluctantly settled in the United States to begin their careers and potentially start their own family.

My two accomplished friends have their differences; however, both have the uncanny ability to bring people together, create connections, and analyze themselves in this tangled up world we live in. In writing, they tackle seemingly unsolvable issues linked to Judaism, personal growth, and the hard questions we must face. And it seems fortuitous that both wrote small, incredibly powerful first books; each one placed on the top tier of my coffee table.

Jennifer writes of her quandary when attracted to a Frenchman named Philippe whom she met in Israel on a trip designed as a bridge between finishing a job in France and starting graduate school in New York. The two lovebirds quickly realized that although each had been raised in a Jewish home in their respective countries, they practiced vastly different levels of Jewish observance. Jennifer felt compelled to question whether they should continue as a couple. While Philippe had recently taken the prideful leap of making aliyah, Jennifer harbored no intentions to live in Israel, a place infused for her with angst, vulnerability, and political instability.

In poetic chapters with punchy titles such as “Seesaw,” “Stuck?” and “Pang,” Jennifer defines her attraction and admiration toward Philippe, who later becomes her husband. Once wed, they flounder in a baffling search to feel equally grounded, and respected. In the chapter “Y vs. Why?” Jennifer recalls a poignant scene: “When the kids dig for roly-polies in the backyard, I forward fold and weep. We might still be on American soil, but it’s as foreign as Mars with vinyl-sided houses, sidewalk-less streets and no-parking overnight rules.” Her life is complicated and robust. She trains to become a yoga teacher, writes essays, attends therapy sessions with Philippe, coordinates her three children’s lives, and moves multiple times with her family, searching for where they can each flourish individually and grow stronger as a couple. She recognizes that compromise is key but realizes this can be much more onerous to assert.

She grapples with how living in locations such as Haifa, White Plains, Paris, and Oakland impact her inner identity. In the 53rd chapter, which isn’t a typo, towards the end of the book, she cleverly inserts a picture of an imbalanced scale that shows their married years in America outweighing the number of years they have spent together in Israel. This graphic precedes the ultimately succinct chapter: one profound sentence under the gripping title, “Surrender.” Jennifer’s sparse words and unusual tactics convey the multilayered issues of trust, fairness in a marriage, and personal needs versus wants. There are no easy solutions.

In a unique stylistic choice, Jennifer applies strikethrough formatting to words she tosses around in her mind yet refrains from saying out loud. She seems to whisper to readers that the “long, miserable, depressing year it took him to find his first job in high-tech was enough for me.” This act of holding back shows Jennifer’s conscious attempts to preserve her fragile marriage by avoiding words, such as “but here is home” that might inflate the tension. These moments feel quite relatable, as each of us naturally selects and deselects words in conversations to protect ourselves and our relationships.

Jennifer’s intense memoir of 147 sparse pages has become even more relevant since the shocking tragedy of October 7 that impacted her first book tour by landing smack in the center of it. She reached for many tissues while debating whether to pack it all in and return home to Tel Aviv. Yet she was able to persevere and promote Places We Left Behind with a pivot in her conversations. She cleverly plucked more relevant quotes from her mini memoir: orating those dealing with gas masks, bomb shelters, and personal safety issues that made her feel tense about living in Israel during the First Intifada. Jennifer’s sharp ability to expose marital issues with honesty and relatability creates a provocative read that, while flying by, leaves you pondering your own choices and lifestyle at every twist and turn.

Interestingly, Pam’s picture book, Your World, geared towards older children, similarly deals with tough topics that can affect one’s sense of self and inner compass. Written in poignant prose, Your World functions as a life preserver tossed to a younger person who may need comfort when grappling with shocking, unimaginable events. Had it been written just a few months later, it may have also included the October 7th massacre in its short list of hard to process events that pop up each year on our calendars. Appropriately, Pam selects Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, and Holocaust Remembrance Day as defining moments where we celebrate courage and strength amid devastating loss of life wrought by callousness and evil. A former public school social worker, Pam enables children to recognize that when we try to comprehend such sadness, we should turn to people we have previously connected with in happier times. Just as they were with us for fun and frolic, when we “played a whole bunch,” they will remain close during times of confusion, loss, and tragedy.

The beauty in Your World lies in its spare text that conveys huge ideas. Words like “Go you!” bounce off the page with fervor. Pam cheerfully interacts with the reader with the same intensity she uses when welcoming people into her home. She builds a sense of intimacy with the young reader when she states, “We will hold hands and take a look together.”

Illustrator Alli Fisher paints textured pastel splashes that represent the good times and darker grayish tones to symbolize the bad ones. Alli draws objects with delicate, sketchy lines to give readers the appropriate space to imagine themselves in the narrative.

Pam, with her enthusiastic slant towards positivity, provides wishes for an easier future for today’s children. Maybe they will experience more compassion, humility, and understanding that seem to have vanished during earlier critical moments in history and certainly the present. Pam also questions the why and how of human behavior, just as Jennifer does. But she suggests readers will need more support from their loved ones to process daunting occurrences that threaten one’s balance and hopefulness.

Both books resonate. Jennifer and Pam’s precise word choices are purposeful and memorable. The authors allow us to fit our personal stories and dreams into the larger world. Each book flows with movement and grace, as if we are being guided in one of Jennifer or Pam’s classes that they lead with passion and personality. Just as we might spread our arms, gather our thoughts, or ponder difficult life decisions, both books encourage us to preserve our core as we encounter unexpected complexities in both ordinary and extraordinary times.

About the Author
Renee Kaplan-Nadel is an elementary school educator in her 25th year of teaching. She espouses positive productivity and creativity in the classroom. Morah Rachel has primarily taught and mentored in Jewish Day Schools in New York, California, Maryland and is currently back in upstate New York. Writing is one of her passions. She is a puzzle enthusiast and an avid reader. Renee can often be found running around her local lakes or enjoying a beautiful trail run in her neighborhood.
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