Places We Left Behind: A Memoir-in-Miniature by Jennifer Lang
Athens. Vine Leaves Press. 2023. 160 pages.
Jennifer Lang’s memoir-in-miniature, Places We Left Behind, is a palimpsest of time and space mapped across the end of the twentieth century and global conflicts in the Middle East. It opens “[a]fter making love in . . . mismatched sheets,” and that phrase truly enfolds the essence of the entire work, which traces the development of a transcultural romance in Israel, France, and the United States.
Throughout, Lang juxtaposes visual elements and a sprinkling of Hebrew—which has its own powerfully calligraphic quality—with stricken-through lines to push readers forward and backward in time. The rational side of the narrator interrupts her more romantic musings, even as the ‘”voice of experience” revises the couple’s history in real time. There’s an intensity to this work that pulls the reader through these decades and places as if we are collectively riding on a telescoping kaleidoscope. Footnotes and translations provided on some of the more traditional Jewish customs feel embedded for the reader, but they also appear for the evolving narrator’s benefit. Lang writes, “I married this place as much as I married this person.”
After her son is born, the world seems brighter, coinciding with the history-making moment as Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat shake hands on TV. The young family moves to Paris for her husband’s master’s program, adding a layer of francophone charm. They decamp to California, then New York. In an insight that echoes the title, Lang finally admits, “No matter where we reside, one of us will always rue the loss of the place we left behind.”
This memoir traces the journey to find an authentic self inside the layers of various identities—parenthood, loving relationships, loyalty to one’s origin—as improbable as that may seem, and the path that each of us embarks upon, crisscrossing a desert of unknowing to (hopefully) at last arrive in the Promised Land.