Home, memory, and Texas

“Chanting Hebrew prayers inside the magnetism of Texas lore was my open range of obligation, my 254 counties of faith, my Book of Third and Long.”


A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas by David Biespiel. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Kelson Books. Available September 2020. 



I never told anyone this, but for a time I thought I would be a rabbi when I grew up. Not that I thought about it every day, but especially during my teenage years, by which time it was already too late. 


Not what you’d think of when you imagine the mystique of a deep-down Texas childhood, with the cattle and pump jacks and muggy vastness, pine pollen and red dirt, farm-to-market roads stitching together lonesome towns that get hotter after the sun sets, evangelical radio, Friday night football, Lone Star flags flying over all the gas stations, eighty thousand miles of freeways and billboards, boots and belts and ten gallon hats.


But I don’t know how else to describe it. Chanting Hebrew prayers inside the magnetism of Texas lore was my open range of obligation, my 254 counties of faith, my Book of Third and Long. Dots and dashes slashing across the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, were my hominy and grits, my leaves of trees budding in February, my hot bowls of chili, my Davy Crockett at the Alamo. The silky ink of Genesis and Exodus stained the flat drawl in my mouth, more gentility than twang, so that I felt paltry and sensuous, the verses cutting into the violent weather of my imagination with their multitudes—curved tropes skittering across the pages like a two-step, a deliberate memento and admonition of how human beings behave. 


Since my first religious experiences were passed through blood, nothing went amiss. Even in the 1970s, in Houston, we still weren’t so distant from the lesson of Auschwitz, that no one cared that Jews were being murdered. Nor were we so distant from my grandfather’s shtetl childhood, in Ukraine, before the First World War, with stories of buying a cow and taking it to the shochet, the butcher trained under Jewish law. Everybody kept kosher in Cherniostrov. No such thing not keeping kosher. On Fridays when it was the time to bench licht—to bless the lights—there used to be a man who would go on the streets and holler, Time to bench licht! Several thousand families gathered in their small homes and lit the sabbath candles to brighten the way for the Messiah to travel on a glimmering current.


With the black prayer book open in my hands, in another era, in another part of the world, when I was a boy in Texas, I too was swept away by a strong current without knowing where it was taking me. Each word quickening like a dancer who refuses to slip away unnoticed, a folk dance performed over and over without rest in the face of all obstacles. 


None of that required getting used to. I was an heir to it. Hebrew was a home that had been bequeathed. It came as naturally to my body as fingers and toes. It would have been weird not to be Jewish where I lived in Texas, or to hear someone announce he was renouncing Judaism, quitting Judaism, with no intention to practice Judaism in the future. 


Yet with all this, there was something frightening about it, of disaster to come, like a portent of thunder clouds over the lowlands.


I suppose, when I thought of becoming a rabbi, what I wanted was to give myself a life of enduring myths, and I must have thought to live as a person of faith would purify my principles. I became a writer instead. No great leap.



Not that my family came from a rabbinical tradition, but we were shul people. Torah people. People who understood that the purpose of prayer was not to make appeals to God, but to offer praise. It wasn’t that chanting Torah was going to deliver us, but make us worthy of being delivered. 


Just as we all knew that shul was the word for the Orthodox Jews’ prayer house, derived from a German and Latin word meaning school, a word that emphasizes the synagogue's role as a place of study, and just as we knew that conservative Jews typically use the word synagogue, which is a Greek translation of Beit K'nesset and means a place of assembly, and that Reform Jews use the word temple, because they consider every one of their meeting places to be equivalent to, or a replacement for, The Temple, in Jerusalem, we still just called all those places, shul. We were shul people. People who believed there was no bottom to the meaning of Judaism, who carefully examined Jewish life over and over, who understood there was no substitute for a thorough study of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, and all those competing commentaries that held the keys to psychological well-being, no substitute for laboring over the Talmud or Halakhah, the many Codes of Jewish Law, no substitute for studying the philosophies of Judaism, of reading Maimonides and Rashi and keeping a weather eye on the writings of contemporary scholars that, each generation, translate the words—someone will correct me here to say, translate the truths—of the Jewish faith into a modern idiom, grappling with contemporary questions. There would be no substitute for studying the history of the Jewish people, with those internal and external challenges for three thousand years, including defeats and victories, suffering and redemption.


We were shul people who were expected to show up, mornings or evenings, Fridays or Saturdays, at shul. They were called services, and we understood why. We knew the She’ma is a prayer that affirms God’s unity and the Amidah deals with repentance and the restoration of Israel. We knew the extra blessings for celebrating the beginning of a new month and special holidays. When Aleinu comes in the evening Ma’ariv service and when it comes in the morning Shacharit service—and again in Musaf, the extra service, and yet again in Minchah, the afternoon service.


In shul, when I was a boy, I held my skinny body in the Southland of Jewish identity with concentration. Like a tumbleweed, I cantered heel to toe, the Hebrew soft as wind in my mouth.



We ask, Where Are You From? The question is a way of finding out, what separates you from me? What distinguishes you before you got wherever you are that isn’t where you’re from? Who were you before you were this person? What is the landscape and the weather, the outlook and spirit, ambience or disposition, from where you began your journey? What inclinations make up the very source and provenance of you, the raw materials out of which you were made? Your imprint? Your cause? 


To search your past is to organize a series of queries about yourself that allow you to discover which actions and events, what behaviors and decisions, have led you to ask those very questions. Each question begs another question. Your history gets unraveled. With it, the histories of the people you shared your past with. 


Because I grew up in Meyerland, the historic Jewish section of Houston, and because I left at the age of eighteen after a public quarrel with one of the city’s leading rabbis, Jack Segal, who’d been my rabbi since I was four years old, and because I have had almost no contact for decades with most anyone down there, because I left that community and never returned, never called, not so much as mailed a postcard, I often have a bout of trepidation about going, well, home. Since 1982, I’ve been back to Meyerland but two or three times. It’s always been in passing, and always accompanied by a feeling that carries me right to the edge of dread, fatigue, hostility, and dissolution. 


Still, I love being an expatriate Texan. Texas holds the landscape, if not the mise-en-scène, of my true spirit. I miss the bright, massive skies, the swarming parade of clouds chasing the wind for miles and miles. I see nothing wrong with barbecue ribs for breakfast. My go-to cookbook is the Homesick Texan Cookbook, with recipes for pickled okra and chicken-fried steak and buttermilk pie. My oldest brother lives in Texas, on a ranch. My ninety-year-old father lives in Texas. 


And yet, the few times I have passed through, passed through Meyerland that is, I find myself, with no effort at all, able to see into my old homeland something like a sequence of moments, the map of a private history, from which I quickly and, to my mind, dangerously retrieve my ex-self, with all the old disaffection, fear, knowledge of death, scent of beauty, reflections on difficult thoughts, wonder against righteousness, and curiosity against survival, until, finally, at last, I find myself settled into a great sadness.



But for whom or what? 


I often get the question when I tell people I’m from Texas, “There are Jews in Texas?” Yes. A lot. The storied Weequahic section of Newark in Phillip Roth’s novels has got nothing on Houston’s Meyerland, which sits on a flood plain along Brays Bayou southwest of downtown, bound geographically by two historic synagogues. The first is Beth Yeshurun, the largest conservative congregation in North America, where some twenty five hundred families belong, including mine when we lived on Loch Lomond, an integrated block of Jews and Christians, after my father, mother, two older brothers, and I moved from Tulsa in 1968, the year I turned four, so my father could run a small garbage company on Wilmington Street owned by my grandfather on my mother’s side. The wood-paneled sanctuary at Beth Yeshurun seats a thousand congregants. There’s a nursery school and Day School and classrooms for Torah study, all of which I attended. A chapel for morning and evening minyan, and another for weekly services. A Jewish museum. Hotel-sized kosher kitchen. 


Three miles west along the bayou is the reform Temple Beth Israel, the oldest congregation in Texas history, where another two thousand families belong. Inside or adjacent to the neighborhood are Jewish high schools, smaller reform temples and conservative synagogues, as well as Orthodox and Sephardic congregations. Across the bayou from Beth Israel, taking up an entire block with its swimming pools and gymnasiums and health clubs, arts rooms and theater, dance studios and auditoriums, is the white colonnade Jewish Community Center that appears always to be cooling, like a birthday cake, in the smeared heat. 



More than most neighborhoods in Houston, recently Meyerland has been nearly swept away by three catastrophic floods. Ten inches of intense rainfall over ten hours fell during Memorial Day weekend in 2015 and flooded some seven hundred homes. Three people drowned, including an older married couple—the wife’s body was discovered next morning in Brays Bayou, but the husband's drifted all the way to the Port of Houston and was not discovered for nearly two days. During the Tax Day Flood of April 2016 some eight inches of rain flooded Meyerland. Another thousand homes were damaged. Then, in the summer of 2017, Hurricane Harvey crashed the Texas coastline, moved inland, then stalled, causing it to produce more than fifty inches of rain over several days in one of the highest populated areas of the U.S. Gulf coast, the worst flood in Texas history. Major highways around Houston were shut down for days. Floodwaters overflowed bridges. People set up tents on rooftops, while others motored dinghies as rescue boats through the flooded interstates to help victims evacuate their cars or homes. Makeshift aid stations sprang up in parking lots outside strip malls. Household debris was piled head-high on streets for months. Hundreds of thousands of homes were left uninhabitable. The hurricane claimed over a hundred lives. So many families, I’m told, have had to move out of their ruined homes in Meyerland that at nighttime, with electricity cut off, street after street, from Willowbend to Beechnut, is pitch dark, as if Meyerland is the latest Jewish shtetl to be wiped off the map.



A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas by David Biespiel. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Kelson Books. Available September 2020.


David Biespiel grew up in Houston. He is a poet, memoirist, critic, and the author of twelve books, among them Republic CaféThe Education of a Young Poet, and The Book of Men and Women. A contributor to The New RepublicThe New Yorker, and Slate, he has won a number of awards for his writing, including a Lannan Foundation Marfa Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Stegner Fellowship, two Oregon Book Awards, and he has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has taught at Stanford University, University of Maryland, George Washington University, and Wake Forest University. He is the founder of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters and poet-in-residence at Oregon State University.