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January 12, 2021 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
To many Jewish families with memories of hard times, Meyerland in the 1970s was the Promised Land. This Jewish neighborhood in Houston, Texas, was home to big synagogues, Jewish schools, a Jewish Community Center, Jewish delis and shops, not to mention a proud display of high-flying American, Texas, and Israeli flags. But for award-winning poet David Biespiel, his Meyerland hometown became more like the biblical Egypt, Mitzrayim – a narrow, constricting place that he fled forever at age 18, following a public quarrel with one of Houston’s leading rabbis.
Now, some forty years later, Biespiel is long-settled in Portland, Oregon. Nonetheless, he thinks of Meyerland as home and wonders why. He harbors fraught memories of this place and wrestles with the complexities of his Jewish education and childhood there. And yet he longs for the vast, ever-changing Texas sky, salivates for barbeque ribs, and proudly presents himself as an expatriate Texan. Perplexed by his feelings about “home,” Biespiel muses, “If home isn’t where we are, is it who we are?”
This is a central question in David Biespiel’s beautiful memoir, A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas. But such is the subtlety and richness of this contemplative and moving work that readers will find much more to ponder.
David Biespiel is the Poet-in-Residence and a faculty member at Oregon State University. The founder of Portland’s Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, he is the author of twelve books, both poetry and non-fiction prose.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1964, Biespiel moved with his family to Meyerland at age four. In many ways Biespiel’s Texas childhood sounds idyllic – the freedom to roam and explore with his beloved dog Velvet, friends, sports, success as president of a junior high Jewish fraternity, and family seders where guests were warmly greeted, “Chag sameach y’all.”
But troubles dogged the Biespiel family. When Biespiel was 12, his young, athletic father suffered a devastating stroke, leaving him unable to speak clearly. Biespiel’s parents’ marriage, already strained, fell apart. With the departure of Biespiel’s older brothers, Biespiel and his unhappy mother were left alone in the house.
Biespiel grew up immersed in Judaism. His family were “shul people,” he says, faithfully attending Shabbat services and sending Biespiel to Jewish day school. But as his mastery of Jewish subjects increased, so did his theological challenges to his teachers, perhaps partly fueled by his family’s tough situation. One day the senior rabbi, angry and frustrated, threw him out of class. Feeling both shame and triumph, Biespiel, then 17, refused to apologize, and the rabbi likewise made no effort to reconcile. When faraway Boston University offered Biespiel an athletic scholarship he gladly accepted, leaving Meyerland in search of a wider world.
As a precocious child at a family seder, Biespiel had impressed his elders by explaining why he was all “Four Sons” of the Haggadah. Nonetheless, his mother admonished him, “Just don’t become the fifth child, the one who is absent, who doesn’t come to Seder.” Sadly for his mom, Biespiel did become the “fifth child.” In his words, he is “retired from Judaism.”
Be that as it may, A Place of Exodus is suffused with Judaism – Jewish history, culture, imagery, liturgy, and religious questioning. In telling his coming-of-age story, Biespiel has captured a distinctive time and place in the millennia-old and ongoing Jewish experience. The Jewish bookshelf is richer as a result.