Ear­li­er this week, Jes­si­ca Lamb-Shapiro wrote about writ­ing a book on self-help. The book, Promise Land: My Jour­ney through Amer­i­ca’s Self-Help Cul­ture, is now avail­able. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Reli­gion kept com­ing up in my research into self-help. Some reli­gious texts were used as self-help (there is even a self-help edi­tion of the Bible). Books like The Pow­er of Pos­i­tive Think­ing (1954) com­bined self-help and reli­gion to pop­u­lar effect; so did for­got­ten titles like Pray Your Weight Away (1929). A con­fer­ence I went to led by the author of the Chick­en Soup for the Soul books had the feel­ing of a tent revival. I often saw self-help referred to as America’s reli­gion, ” and at times I won­dered if self-help, for some, had tak­en the place of religion.

My own ties to reli­gion were weak. My grand­par­ents had been reli­gious Jews, but my father was an athe­ist. He even asked the Rab­bi (also his broth­er-in-law to be) who per­formed his and my mother’s wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny not to men­tion the word G‑d. As a result, my con­tact with Judaism was large­ly cul­tur­al: hol­i­days spent with my grand­moth­er, foods l loved like mat­zo brie and brisket. 

If some­one had asked me if I was Jew­ish, I would have said yes,” but we had lost con­tact with most of our tra­di­tions, rit­u­als, and his­to­ry. My father wrote self-help books and was a child psy­chol­o­gist, and I think he believed we could fig­ure out every­thing we need­ed for our­selves. He was wrong.

After my moth­er took her own life, my father was so angry and upset that he stopped talk­ing about her. I was only two years old, and wasn’t allowed to go to the funer­al. I was nev­er tak­en to vis­it her grave, or taught how to grieve for her. By the time I was twen­ty-six, I felt com­plete­ly lost. That sum­mer, the week of the anniver­sary of my mother’s death, I broke down completely. 

My pater­nal grand­moth­er was the oppo­site of pushy, the kind of per­son who just want­ed every­one to be hap­py, but for once, she inter­vened. Her con­fes­sion: Every year, on the anniver­sary of my mother’s death, she told me, she burned a yahrzeit can­dle. My grand­moth­er nev­er told my father or me that she observed this rit­u­al because she didn’t want to upset any­one. Yet, counter-intu­itive­ly, once I was giv­en a way to grieve, I stopped feel­ing upset. From that year on, I have always lit a yahrzeit can­dle for my moth­er on July 27th. The rit­u­al com­forts me, and gives me a way to remem­ber her. I light one for my grand­moth­er too now, both to remem­ber her and to remem­ber the time she returned to me a tra­di­tion I didn’t even know I’d lost.

Jes­si­ca Lamb-Shapiro has writ­ten for the New York Times Mag­a­zine, Time, and The Believ­er. She has been a fel­low at the Mac­Dow­ell Colony and the New York Foun­da­tion for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Colum­bia Coun­ty, NY. Read more about her here.

Relat­ed Content

Jes­si­ca Lamb-Shapiro has pub­lished fic­tion and non-fic­tion in The Believ­er, McSweeney’s, Open City, and Index mag­a­zine, among oth­ers. She has been a fel­low at the Mac­Dow­ell Colony and the New York Foun­da­tion for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Colum­bia Coun­ty, NY.