Jennifer Anne Moses, author of Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou (University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95) is caught in a crisis of faith. As an East Coast liberal Jew, Moses is accustomed to a world where smoked salmon and doubting God’s existence are acceptable forms of religious identity. Then her husband accepts a professorship at Louisiana State University and moves with Moses and their children to Baton Rouge. Moses’ relationship with God has always been tenuous, but now she must struggle to define her faith in a community where there is a church on every corner and one cannot walk down the street without “bumping up against Jesus.”
Throughout Bagels and Grits, Moses shuffles among aspects of her daily reality, including a regular volunteer gig at St. Anthony’s residence for AIDS patients. She slowly builds connections with St. Anthony’s residents, envying their unshakable faith in God despite terminal illness. She decorates her Baton Rouge home with the mania of someone seeking comfort under unfamiliar circumstances. She grasps for recognition as a writer in a town that does not know or care if she’s regularly published in The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, her complicated relationships with family, as well as her own battles with self doubt, shape her every experience. At the age of 40, she starts studying Hebrew in an attempt to connect with her Orthodox-raised father, to whom Bagels and Grits is dedicated. She says, “[Do you know, Daddy], that I am studying Hebrew because I wanted to have a special private language to talk to you in?” She bears the emotional and spiritual weight of a mother who is slowly dying of cancer and a grandmother whose graceful athleticism and easy charm (both traits that Moses feels she did not inherit) have been replaced by old age and illness.
Moses’ Baton Rouge rabbi tells her that “God speaks to each of us in a language we can understand,” and Moses makes her best effort to attune herself. Each of her days is bound together by her search for faith — faith that seems present all around her but that she somehow cannot touch. She seeks the type of faith that would add meaning and unbridled joy to her life. Faith that she believes could, “carry me beyond myself, beyond sorrow, beyond memory even, and right smack into the embrace of eternity.”
Moses portrays her spiritual searching and her bevy of anxieties uncensored. Her memoir is compelling, both because her story is so peculiar and also because it triggers the universal question for readers, “What do I believe?” Moses would not self-identify as the ideal guide for attaining spiritual faith — at least not the all consuming, “Hallelujah, Praise-the-Lord!” version she finds in Baton Rouge. But through her searching, she offers a model for listening to God in the way God wants to be heard — through an honest look into our own “imperfect hearts.”
Leah Koenig is a writer, blogger, and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog The Jew and the Carrot. You can read more of her work at www.leahkoenig.com