by Elizabeth Spencer
What happens when two people fall in love, get married, have children, but can’t agree on where to live? In Places We Left Behind, Jennifer Lang unpacks this seemingly intractable problem across 21 years of marriage and several international moves.
In 1989, the American Jennifer meets French-born Philippe in Israel. Jennifer’s visit is temporary—she wants to improve her Hebrew and visit family in between a job in France and graduate school in New York. She has promised her mother she won’t fall in love and stay. Philippe, on the other hand, has made “aliyah,” meaning to go up or ascend. In Jewish tradition, to make aliyah is to immigrate to Israel. He tells her that he’s also “gone up” in his Jewish observance. Jennifer, meanwhile, comes from a less observant family and isn’t keen on following the rules of Shabbat.
Despite their differences in nationality and religious observance, Jennifer and Philippe fall fast in love and move in together after two months of dating. They marry in 1990. From there, this “memoir-in-miniature” follows their life through the lens of their moves, catalogued on p. 11: Israel to Paris, France to California, Oakland to New York, White Plains to Israel, then back to New York, and finally a last move to Israel in 2011.
If you have spent most of your life in the same place, but love to travel, as I have and do, you may think Jennifer’s life sounds romantic and exciting. I have always admired families who pick up and move to another country or take a year’s “sabbatical” of travel around the world. But of course what seems enviable or admirable from the outside doesn’t always feel that way to the person living it. Some of the moves are for Jennifer or Philippe to go to graduate school or take a new job. But all along there is a core conflict between Philippe’s desire to live permanently in Israel and Jennifer’s wish to raise their kids in the U.S.
Anyone who has moved (much less from state to state or country to country, not to mention with kids) knows how stressful it can be. Lang conveys this transitory feeling through details:
“Back in Haifa, we unpack wedding presents. Boxes litter the living room carpet. I prop crystal vases in a glass cabinet and stack ceramic serving dishes in the sideboard. Overnight, our newlywed apartment looks grown-up and serious.”
This passage describes Jennifer and Philippe’s first home together. In the last chapter, the now-family-of-five takes one last look around their empty house in White Plains. It’s the home they’ve lived in longest, for 10 years (minus their Year of Living Differently in Israel):
“Where our children hosted countless sleepovers and birthday parties. Where they rescued a trapped possum they named Puma. Where they biked, rollerbladed, and skateboarded down the long driveway. Where they built snowmen and made forts. Where we played hide-and-seek.”
Their furniture and possessions have already been packed and sent to Israel, but still Philippe asks, “Do we have everything?” What is clear by the end of the book is that they have each other and somehow that is enough.
Overall, I was touched by this theme of love winning out. Jennifer and Philippe disagree about where to live, how long to stay in each place, and how observant to be with their faith. They go to couples therapy and their arguments sometimes seem intractable. But throughout, the reader gets a strong sense of their love for each other. It is this love, as well as each spouse taking turns compromising or giving in to the other’s wishes, that keeps their marriage and family together.
Another thread in Places We Left Behind is Lang’s personal development. We watch as she considers a job offer from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. Taking the job would give her “a significant salary and a solid career not to mention worldwide tax exemption,” but it would also mean staying in France instead of moving to Lang’s hometown in California. “Good Jewish Daughter Guilt engulfs me,” Lang writes, as she thinks about telling her parents they’re not coming after all.
In California, Lang discovers yoga, which will help her through the moves to come. She eventually becomes a certified yoga teacher in New York. We know from the Acknowledgements section that Lang started freelance writing in California, took classes at Hudson Valley Writers Center, and also attended Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wish we could’ve seen her development as a writer play out on the page. The “memoir-in-miniature” format has its charms, but also limits. This approach succeeded in connecting each chapter or vignette to the overall theme of moves, but it also functions like a peephole—we see one moment at a time, but rarely a sense of the bigger picture.
Some chapters are formatted like poems with only a few words per line and creative use of spacing. Lang also uses strikethroughs and parentheses to show her conflicting thoughts and feelings. For example, “Do I understand that he changed his lifestyle for a country? Absolutely not” and “Okay,” I say. (Am I okay?) (Just how Jewish is this man?) (Do I want to be with someone so Jewish?)” I enjoyed this visual representation of the doubts and lies we tell ourselves.
Finally, Lang tells Philippe, before agreeing to move to Israel in 2011, that she wants to do Judaism her way instead of his. This completes her character arc in the book, but I wondered how the rest of her self-growth affected her marriage and eventual agreement to live in Philippe’s preferred country.
Ultimately, Places We Left Behind is an inspiring read that will appeal to readers interested in themes of marriage, family, and faith. Lang’s creative use of formatting and typography adds another layer to her story, which shows the compromises inherent to any relationship we want to keep.
Editors’ Note: Jennifer Lang is a previous contributor at The Sunlight Press. Most recently in February we published her essay, “Home…is Not Nowhere.” In 2021 we nominated her micro essay, “Amen,” for the 2022 Best of the Net Anthology.