Where We Find Ourselves: Jewish Women around the World Write about Home edited by Miriam Ben-Yoseph and Deborah Nodler Rosen (SUNY Press, $19.95) is a powerful collection of stories, poems, and essays.
All of the various contributors grapple with the definition: “Home is a place where you can sleep all night without having to worry about Cossacks at the door,” is how Diana Anhalt puts it, paraphrasing her Russian grandmother; “a place you go to (deep in the night) when you’re alone and nothing is familiar” is from Viva Hammer, an Australian writer transplanted to the U.S.; “One’s own interior place where everything is possible and where life cannot be thwarted” is the formulation by Angelina Muniz-Hubeman, a Crypto-Jew raised in Mexico City.
What emerges is the notion of home as haven, the place or activity one returns to again and again, whether in imagination or fact, for safety, peace, and possibility. Jewish ritual, orthodox or improvised, plays a large part in these home-makings: for one writer, Shabbat becomes her “ancestral haven” or “supreme Home,” while for another “a little house on the margin of days / with no Sabbath and no Seder” is a more than adequate abode of “peace and the smell a child might describe.” The Jewish homeland of Israel is also invoked, though often in a questioning tone. As one writer puts it, “Homeland? Deceit. Illusion.”
Ben-Yoseph and Nodler have organized their book into four intertwined sections: “Displacement and Exile,” “Place and Memory,” “Language and Creativity” and “Family and Tradition.” Exile and displacement are the common threads, for any 21st century Jewish woman writes against the background of the disasters of the 19th and 20th centuries. Family and traditions enter into all meditations on home, as do place and memory. The role of language and creativity may be less obvious, though it emerges eloquently: Ellen Cassedy writes in poignant detail of her rediscovery of Yiddish, “the linguistic homeland of a people without a home”; Tracy Koretsky bravely recounts how she is “finding God” in visual art rather than in a narrow orthodoxy.
All the senses are evoked as these writers call up the qualities that constitute home, the places where our embodied spirits take root. Not surprisingly, food figures centrally. Challah and honey, falafel and hummus, pot roast, fish curry, halvah, charoset, strawberry soda — scents and flavors waft through these pages. In “If Only I’d Been Born a Kosher Chicken,” performance artist Jyl Lynn Felman brilliantly plays with stereotypes of the Jewish mother to explore the dilemma of the vilde chayes, the rebellious daughter “cast out” of home with “no place to go.”
The tension between rootedness and wandering is at the book’s heart, with many contributors echoing Iranian writer Farideh Dayanim Goldin’s view that “a Jewish home” is always, essentially, “ephemeral.” For her, the sukkah, the Jewish people’s “temporary home for a week” is the reminder and metaphor for our existential homelessness. S.E. Gilman puts it even more directly: “We wander, and the shelter is the Sukkot bower that sun will wither and at night we see black space and faraway empty stars.”
Where We Find Ourselves offers significant voices that create a powerful chorus. We discover that Jewish women are indeed both at home (and homeless) throughout the world. True to the book’s title, readers will find themselves in these pages, which offer a homecoming of their own.
Joyce Zonana is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She teaches writing and literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College.