Vanessa Zoltan’s “Praying With Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as Sacred Practice” is about reading any book, not just the Bible, as sacred. Zoltan, who is a humanist chaplain and self-identifies as an atheist Jew, writes movingly of her relationship to reading “Jane Eyre” and of her own journey with spirituality and religion. All four of Zoltan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, surviving Auschwitz, and much of her childhood is shaped by being a grandchild of survivors. Below is an excerpt from “Praying with Jane Eyre,” out today (July 6).
My childhood was filled with Jews. Almost everyone I knew was Jewish. We mostly spent time with family—extended family who all hate each other now and probably hated each other back then too. Immigrant Jews, American Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews whose visits meant that I had to wear long sleeves even on the hottest of San Fernando Valley days, atheist Jews, a Jew who survived Auschwitz and then converted to Catholicism and sterilized her daughter, Jews who weren’t directly impacted by the war but who used the war to argue fervently in defense of a Jewish state. And those are just the Jews I met at my grandparents’ kitchen table.
My family would go over to non-Jewish friends’ houses for dinner or a party sometimes, but not often. When we did, in the car on the way home, my parents would always play the same game. They’d debate: Would those friends who just fed us, accepted our flowers, laughed with us, and hugged us goodbye hide us from the Nazis, if the Nazis came to the streets of Los Angeles tomorrow, March 3, 1989?
When we were really young, my brothers and I would just sit in the backseat of the car and listen to my parents dissect different data points. Was the fact that they had a living room that they never used symbolic of their ability to be organized enough to hide us successfully? Or was it a sign of rule following that would mean they would turn us in? It happened to be more art than science. But usually they came to the conclusion that the woman would save us if it was up to only her, but the man would turn us in, overriding his wife.
As I got older, I would argue with my parents. I sat in the middle seat in the back, and so would lean forward to be part of the adult conversations as my brothers mostly stayed quiet, being of much sweeter dispositions than I. I went through a phase in which I insisted that everyone would save us. I defended colleagues of my dad’s and soccer team parents of my brothers’ alike. Of course they would hide us! Then, as I got older still, I mostly agreed with my parents’ assessments. I would offer my own deadpan answers to the question if I happened to disagree. And often I would defend these poor gentiles. “They have two small kids,” I would point out. “It would be reckless of them to hide us. I wouldn’t hide us if I were them either.” I said this truthfully, and yet without true consideration.
My parents, sanely or neurotically, lived in acute fear of their children’s survival in middle class Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s and 90s. And their concerns had nothing to do with the Northridge earthquake, Malibu mudslides, the fire that evacuated me from the third grade that we did not have a carpool plan for, or the Rodney King trial and its aftermath. They found my obsessive concern over California breaking off and floating away age appropriate and my proposed solution to move across the border to Oregon adorable.
As I attended private schools, lived in gated communities, took karate, got bat mitzvahed, and had swim practice, my parents wanted to make sure we knew that we weren’t really safe because we were Jews. Jews have felt safe before. They have even felt safe for more than a hundred years in some times and places. But they were never really safe.
My parents came by this outlook pretty fairly. My father escaped Hungary in 1956 via the Jewish resettlement efforts that wound their way into Austria. My mom was born in a Paris that had been occupied by the Nazis six years prior. And even though my mother was born in France, completely legally, she is not a French citizen. They will not grant her citizenship because she was born there as a Jewish World War II refugee. Her Judaism keeps her from having a home country because she was a Jew exploiting a moment of French weakness. And then there were their parents: I am the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. Literally, all four of my grandparents spent time in Auschwitz. My mom’s parents met in Auschwitz. I met my partner on OKCupid.
So for my parents, this question of who would hide us was not an academic one. They were trying to teach us. They were modeling for us that picking friends wasn’t just about laughing around a table; it was a question of life or death. And it was a question of life or death for both parties. I was in middle school before I realized that there wasn’t a single dinner that would pass without the Holocaust at least being hinted at. Friends from school (both Jewish and non-Jewish) would be over and I’d be mortified; why did we always have to talk about it, I’d whine aloud, in front of said guest, in order to make my lack of complicity overt. The truth was that my parents couldn’t help it. The Holocaust, in all its vast complexity, was their home country. Its economy defined them, its laws resettled them, and its language was the base that they were always translating from.
So even though I was born nearly forty years after its end, the Holocaust is my nationality. While I was embarrassed by the dinner conversation around my parents’ table, I was proud that my house was a waystation for those in need of a bed. Kids we barely knew, but who were in our classes, would stay with us, sometimes for weeks on end. Only in hindsight did I realize that the dad had just left the mom, so she was trying to get it together. Or my best friend, Kim, who had to share her birthday with her twin brother, would get a special birthday dinner at our house. Or a kid who just got out of the Israeli army needed to practice his English, so he would take my bed for a few months. My parents weren’t just showing us how to pick someone to hide us. They were also showing us that you let people into your house, and when you did, you baked them cake. And as much as I loudly complained about being shuffled to the couch or sharing my bed or allowing smoking in the house, I loved the bustle and the excitement of always having guests in the house.
During all this time, I also lived in other families’ houses. My father got diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was seven years old, and that tumor changed the financial and social realities of my life. I never felt like a burden to the other families that would take me in for a day or two at a time, when my mom would arrange for us to be away for various reasons. I went away for two weeks at a time with a family to a lake house they had and brought nothing other than cookies with me as a thanks. I just thought this is what people did in peacetime. We shared space. It wasn’t a commitment that I had, but a reality that childhood allowed me to believe was universal.
It was of course on a night when someone betrayed my notion of hospitality, with me as the victim, that I began to wonder about myself. I was in Northern California, and assumed I would be able to crash with an old friend. She told me I couldn’t, that her apartment didn’t have space. I replied, “Oh, no problem. I can sleep on the floor,” but she held her ground. It became clear to me that it was because there was a boy she liked who was going to come over. As I slept in a motel room that made me uncomfortable that night, I smugly seethed at the idea that I knew I would not do the same thing she had done. But then I also wondered about all the times I probably had done what she had done. She did not think she had committed a crime that night. She does not know that she effectively ended our friendship with her choice.
And while if I was in the same situation as she, I know I would decide differently, that is the point of view of the person left outside. Who was my door closed to that I didn’t realize? Who would I hide and who wouldn’t I hide? In what circumstances would I do it, and what would make me decide not to? Or what circumstances would I not even notice? If I had kids, would I use them as an excuse not to bring people in? What other excuses would I find? And I certainly wasn’t opening my home to strangers. I wasn’t sure I could exactly draw out the precise difference between my ex-friend and me, but I knew that I wanted to.
I didn’t think that my parents were necessarily trying to teach us to be the kind of people who hide others. But I also knew, with my whole body, that they were the kind of people who would absolutely hide others. They were constantly, to my great frustration and loud complaints, giving away too much money, driving too many people around, and even allowing guests to stay in the house when I was home from college with walking pneumonia. They never talked about their radical “give until way past it hurts” charity. They actively hid it from us, afraid that if we followed in their footsteps, we would not be safe. In fact, they would tell us, again and again, not to risk ourselves for anyone except each other, as they secretly sent thousands of dollars that they absolutely could not spare to my old kindergarten teacher, who had been taken advantage of in an internet scam. They were engaged in a massive sleight of hand: do as I say, and don’t look over here to see what I do.
Although they did not train us to be ready to protect other people, my parents did train us in other things: Never stand in line (your family has done enough of that for generations to come). If someone asks for something and you can safely give it, do so. Eat before you go to a party. You get to enjoy a new toy by yourself for twenty-four hours but then you have to share with your siblings. Naps and snacks can solve a lot of problems. Godwin’s law does not apply to you, for it would negate your entire existence.
There was a profound fatalism in our house that was matched only with tenderness. You never saved the best for last; you used it first. When we begged my father to quit smoking when we were kids, he would say, “I should be so lucky to die from smoking.” My father would often quote Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann essay to us. But for some reason, whenever he would say the phrase “the banality of evil,” he would stroke our cheeks, counterprogramming the idea that anyone could act toward us with anything short of love.
That is my inheritance: a family philosophy that suffering is inevitable, death is its only end, pleasure should be taken where it can, family matters, eat, and when you see something harmful happening, you should speak up but not put yourself in danger. And to this day, I disagree with almost none of what I was taught.
Excerpted from Praying With Jane Eyre Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa Zoltan. Published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.