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.