Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou
By Jennifer Anne Moses
University of Wisconsin Press, 176 pages, $26.95
With candor, poignancy and a hint of neurosis, writer Jennifer Anne Moses recounts the past 12 years of her life in Louisiana in her new memoir, “Bagels and Grits.” The product of a privileged Washington, D.C., upbringing — complete with ski vacations, private schools and a second house in Maine — Moses, a self-proclaimed East Coast liberal, gives readers a window into how a move to the heart of the South changed her life.
In 1995, Moses’s husband, Stuart, decides to leave his law practice to take a position teaching law in Baton Rouge, La., where he, his wife and their three young children move. It is a lovely city, but it hardly lacks for challenges, marked as it is by failing public schools, a high occurrence of murder, a “rate of AIDS transmission the second-highest in the country” and, perhaps most shocking to Moses, its public displays of affection for Jesus. “You can’t live in Baton Rouge without bumping up against Jesus just about every time you walk out of the house,” she writes. “Not only on your doorstep in the form of local missionaries but also on your neighbors’ lips, on the towering crosses that dot the highways, on bus stop benches that proclaim JESUS IS THE ANSWER.…” This blatant religious fervor is new to Moses, and not entirely welcome.
Moses juxtaposes stories of her past experiences — those in D.C., as well as her post-college life in New York — with those of her new acquaintances at a rehabilitative home for AIDS patients where she volunteers regularly. There, Moses’s search for her own religious heritage is intensified by the well-intentioned women she encounters, women who are certain that Jesus is there with them all the time and that he will appear for Moses, too, when she’s ready. These kind patients and caregivers have less materially, but they are filled with faith — something that Moses envies. “I, too, wanted to be a bright red flame, dancing” she writes. “I, too, wanted to be filled with a faith so buoyant that it could carry me beyond myself, beyond sorrow, beyond memory even, and right smack into the embrace of eternity.”
Eventually, Moses does turn to God, with the help of both a rabbi and her own efforts at prayer. She learns Hebrew from a white-bearded man named Charles, whose dogs only respond to Hebrew and French, and follows through with her adult bat mitzvah at age 42. And though often poignant and profound, she is also witty and charming, as when she describes Sabbath dinner in her childhood home as “living in a John Cheever novel edited by Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
Then, of course, Hurricane Katrina hits in 2005. The bulk of Moses’s story occurs before the natural disaster, but there is a simple, one-page postscript about the South’s great recent tragedy. Once again, Moses finds herself surrounded by ardent believers, those whom she is helping as a volunteer at a shelter after the storm. And she ends the book with a personal prayer, asking God to give her and her now-fellow Southerners a little of what she has been seeking all along: guidance.
Caroline Lagnado is a writer living in New York.