A Place of Exo­dus: Home, Mem­o­ry, and Texas

  • Review
By – October 5, 2020

No, a Jew­ish Tex­an is not an oxy­moron. Grow­ing up in Mey­er­land, the his­toric Jew­ish sec­tion of Hous­ton, David Biespiel had a thor­ough Jew­ish upbring­ing, includ­ing Hebrew school, Shab­bos ser­vices, a Jew­ish fra­ter­ni­ty, fundrais­ing for Israel, and much more. Not only was he the kid who could do Tal­mud-heavy Q‑and-As with the rab­bi; he also thought he might become a rab­bi him­self someday.

It all came to a crash­ing stop when he entered that ques­tion-every­thing phase and picked a fight about faith with his rab­bi. Why did Judaism require him to believe in God, to fol­low end­less sets of rules? If God were so great, why did He need this kind of ser­vic­ing? His moth­er was out­raged at such apos­ta­sy, but the more she railed, the more obsti­nate he became. His girl­friend sug­gest­ed the go-along-and-get-along/don’t‑worry-be-happy route, but he wasn’t con­vinced. He even tried being cyn­i­cal and hang­ing out with the (non-Jew­ish) ston­ers. Any of these options would have allowed him to at least call a truce with his Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Instead, he retired from Judaism.”

As Biespiel’s sub­se­quent life reveals, it’s not always a bad thing to walk away from expec­ta­tions. Biespiel left his fam­i­ly, his friends, his rab­bi, and his Texas behind, wan­der­ing dif­fer­ent parts of Amer­i­ca with dif­fer­ent peo­ple before he made his home in Port­land, Ore­gon and found his call­ing as a poet. Over the decades, he has writ­ten many books of poet­ry as well as books about read­ing and writ­ing poetry.

A Place of Exo­dus is a mem­oir, how­ev­er — a rumi­na­tion on the mean­ing of home, mem­o­ry, and the moments that make us who we are. In order to write it, Biespiel jour­neyed back to Mey­er­land, since, as he writes, child­hood is our true home,” our orig­i­nal proof of cit­i­zen­ship.” He vis­it­ed his old shul, the streets he used to walk, his for­mer girlfriend’s house, and of course, his own family’s home­stead. These places become sto­ries — they’re the time his father had a stroke, they’re the end­less argu­ments about the Akedah in Hebrew school, they’re the pool par­ties of the Esquires,” Beispiel’s Jew­ish junior-high fra­ter­ni­ty. And then there’s the end­less blue sky, the far-off hori­zon, the tired clouds, the moist garbage by the curb­side. Some­how it all brings him back to a Passover seder, when he felt like all four sons in one: the wise, the rebel­lious, the sim­ple and the one who can’t ask. To which his moth­er answered, bet­ter than being the fifth son” — the one who is absent. And this, in a sense, is what he now is. From being every kind of Jew­ish son, he became the one who left, the one who walked away. Still, when he’s accused of being a sec­u­lar­ist,” Biespiel sim­ply answers, to God, I’m the loy­al opposition.”

For every Jew who grew up in Amer­i­ca won­der­ing why it was so much work being Jew­ish, whether it was all nec­es­sary, and whether or not you can real­ly go home again … well, Biespiel doesn’t have all the answers, but he cer­tain­ly shares your ques­tions. Give him a read!

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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