Head, Heart, Belly by Jennifer Lang

Haifa, 1989

Philippe drizzles a greenish, garlicy hot sauce on his falafel. Between the torrid temperature and cayenne pepper paste, he is on fire. Watching him bite into the fried cumin-infused balls causes me to salivate. The thought of his thick, fleshy lips on mine creates inner heat. 

Délicieux,” he says in his mother tongue.

Beads of perspiration form on his forehead and trickle down his face. “Spicy food,” he says, “makes me sweat.” 

My senses are on high alert. Men and women, young and old, race to shop for Shabbat at the souk before stores close midafternoon. Stalls overflow with sea-green mangos, vampire-red pomegranates and plump sweet potatoes. Stores blast brash tongue-tying trills. The smell of fresh yeasty pita wafts through the air. Everyone on wheels honks and screams, “Yalla,” or Let’s go. 

I open my mouth dentist-wide to bite my sandwich.

“Tu aimes?” Philippe asks. 

Eyeing him, I conjure a slew of adjectives—wicked smart, super sexy, eligibly single, and green-bean tall with an impish smile—and say, “J’adore.” I adore everything except his crocheted kippah and new-immigrant-to-Israel citizenship status.

After living abroad for the past two years, I’ve been hankering for my California-born-and-bred parents on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. But ever since meeting this Frenchman in the hills outside of Jerusalem last week, I’ve been weighing my options: return stateside for graduate school or stay. I feel the heavy pull between my organs brain vs. heartunderstanding both are vital but wondering which one’s stronger.

Jerusalem, 1989

On Thursday night, our two-week anniversary, I meet Philippe at the central bus station. After swishing and swirling tongues in each other’s mouths, we walk hand-in-hand to my studio in the German Colony, where my brother awaits us. On the way, I point out a few of the City of Gold’s landmarks: Machane Yehuda souk, Ben Yehuda pedestrian passage, Montefiore windmill. 

Minutes after the two men meet, my brother says, “So, boyfriend, should we help her kasher her kitchen?” 

Philippe shrugs, says sure, and offers to help. I stand aside and observe from afar. 

My brother, a zealous convert to our inherited religion, tosses Philippe a rag, barking orders: “First clear off the countertop then wipe it.” Unlike us, Philippe’s family keeps kosher; he’s never eaten shrimp (my favorite) or bacon (my brother’s favorite Before [Finding] God). “After the water’s boiled, we’ll pour it over the whole area,” he says, giving my beau instructions for completing the ritual of iruy. 

“You have two plates?” Philippe asks, meaning two sets of dishes—one for dairy, one for meat.

All I own are my brother’s castoffs. A basic conjunction bombards me: 

But why does kashrut even matter if I’m a vegetarian? 

But I don’t care whether my kitchen or any kitchen is kosher!

But am I invisible?

Philippe pours the scalding water. My brother dabs it dry. I sit on my bed and read The Joy Luck Club.  

Crêpes, Haifa, 1989

As soon as I open my eyes, I notice the crumpled sheets on the other side of our bed. Like Toucan Sam in search of Fruit Loops, I follow my nose out of the bedroom door, down the hallway, into the decrepit kitchen. With every step, the oppressive end-of-August heat envelops me. 

At the stove, Philippe spreads butter then ladles batter into a frying pan. The room sizzles. I put my hair in a ponytail to keep my neck cool, a futile move in our airless apartment. 

“Joyeux anniversaire,” he croons. Every crêpe lovers’ fancy fills the table: sugar, strawberry jam, Nutella spread. “Regardes,” Philippe says. His free hand reaches for me, reels me in like a fisherman to French-kissing distance. 

When he asked me to move in with him a month after we met, I said no, too soon, listening to my head. A month later, I changed my mind out of deference to my heart. So far, playing house suits us, minus the occasional to-be-expected bumps. Only time will tell which organ wins. 

Fondue, Haifa, 1994

After completing the checklist—baby asleep, table set, bread cut—our guests arrive. The smell of hot, melted, creamy cheese permeates our apartment; Tnuva’s Tal HaEmek is nothing like Swiss Emmental, which, like albacore canned tuna, milk chocolate chips, and vanilla extract, isn’t available here. 

“Bon appétit,” Philippe says. 

One at a time, we stab our chopstick-skinny forks with bread and swirl them in the black cast iron pot like a witch’s brew. 

“So unbelievable,” one friend says. 

“I’ve never tasted anything so rich,” says another.  

 “What happens if we lose our bread?” someone asks, making everyone laugh. 

I dab my eyes. Blow my nose. Sense my happy-sad pendulum swing. Days before our departure, my emotions run high, low, high, low, while Philippe remains even keeled, my rock.   

I scan our melting-pot of people—Americans, Brits, French, Canadians, and South Africans—bound together with a similar narrative: young Jews far from family, beginning our adult lives in a perplexing country, a foreign culture. We’ve been at each other’s weddings, birthday parties, baby namings and circumcision ceremonies. And now, after five unexpected years, shaped by the First Intifada, the First Gulf War, and finally, the prospect of peace, my family is leaving for two years: first for Philippe’s MBA program in Paris, then for my psyche in California. 

I gaze out the large sliding-glass doors at the Mediterranean and at the quarter-moon’s sliver of light over the horizon, and back at my husband, a mile-wide smile stretching across his suntanned face, thinking how the life we’ve built mirrors this country: beautiful but so, so challenging. 

Pizza, Oakland, 1995

As the night sky bleeds light through the window over our bed, I tell Philippe that a friend invited us for pizza on Halloween and lent us an Elmo costume for our son.    

No answer. 

“It’ll be super casual. No one we know. After dinner, we’ll take the kids around the block.” 

“Non merci.”


“Everyone at shul has been talking about it, how it’s a pagan holiday.” Ever since we landed four months earlier, Philippe has been walking 20 minutes to the Modern Orthodox synagogue for Shabbat services, begging me to come. “Plus, who knows what the toppings will be. Salami? Sausage?” 

“Are you kidding me?” 

I stop myself from stomping my feet like our toddler in full tantrum, from comparing spouse to sibling. Unlike my flesh and blood, my life partner will eat vegetarian food and certain fish in non-kosher homes and restaurants. “I don’t want to celebrate just Jewish holidays. There are others; they count too!” 

During my seven years overseas, first as an expat in France and then as an unexpected new immigrant in Israel, I hankered to blend in and belong. Strived to speak the language: curled my tongue for my French r’s, cleared my throat for my Hebrew ח’s. In my anonymity, I acted indifferent toward and disloyal to my roots, forgoing Thanksgiving and July 4, but now, back on American soil and a mother, I want to partake, to pass along some of my childhood traditions to my son. These holidays and traditions, along with my easy laugh, white teeth, good manners, make me who I am: American. 

Philippe pouts. 

“I go to shul for you. Can you please do this for me?” Such a precarious marital game we play. 

“Fine,” he says. 

On Tuesday, October 31, as I mingle with other young exhausted mothers, I eye Philippe, eating alone, far from fine. Whether he shies away from socializing because he’s reserved or uncomfortable, I don’t know. 

After dining on mediocre onion pizza and mixed green salad, we bundle up, both of us beaming at the two-and-a-half feet of soft, red, furry, huggable, squeezable, cuteness in his stroller.

House after house, we take turns holding our son, ringing doorbells, and saying “Trick or treat!” Our son is too little to understand what’s happening, but I do. 

In the name of שלום בית—shalom bayit, the Jewish concept of domestic harmony and good relations between husband and wife—Philippe and I strike deals, reach compromises. On this night, in my country of birth, where I feel one-hundred percent at ease, he struggles both socially and professionally. And in that unstable, unsettled place, he clings to our shared religion.   

I chew—on a mini-box of Milk Duds, on our complex conundrum—trying to stop my connective tissues from competing.  

Waffles, Oakland, 1997

“Hello?” I call. 

I tiptoe downstairs, sidestepping our son’s Matchbox cars in a Madeline-straight line on the playroom floor. 

 “Shhh, c’est Mommy,” Philippe says. 

Another night of round-the-clock breastfeeding drains me. My belly howls with hunger. 

“Viens quick,” our preschooler says in his own vernacular, not surprising considering his checkered past. 

“Smells out of this world,” I say, inhaling my youth: hot and yeasty, sweet and savory. 

“Happy Mother’s Day!” my boys say.

Outside the kitchen window, the Bay Area morning fog attempts to lift. Inside, mismatched mixing bowls and plastic measuring cups are strewn across every countertop, while our newborn daughter sleeps in her baby bouncer, oblivious. 

Philippe flashes his frisky eye twinkle. My breasts leak one after the other.  

“Look what Abba got!” our son says and points at a glossy, round, white, one-waffle-at-a-time machine. 

Months ago, shortly after peeing on a home pregnancy test, I hungered for banana bread, spinach lasagna, and blueberry pancakes. Philippe’s indulgence awakens my exhausted, untouchable, new-mommy insides. 

“Let’s eat,” I say.

“Go ici,” my son says in Franglais.

Like a queen, I sit at our farm table, ready to be served waffles with a fried egg on top swimming in a pool of syrup. Ravenous and full at the same time. 

Couscous, Montreal, 2001

At El Morocco, an upscale kosher restaurant, one waiter delivers the golden semolina with dried apricots, slivered almonds, and cardamom pods, while another puts a platter of grilled vegetables simmering in a cinnamon sauce between us. We whiff the heady concoction, so different than Philippe’s tomato-turmeric based recipe.

Although couscous hails from North Africa, home of Maghrebi Jews, Philippe—and I—are downright Ashkenazi of German or Eastern European descent. Nobody on either side of our clan cooks it. His tiny balls of pasta made from durum covered with a vegetable stew and served with meatballs or chicken is always met with oohs and aahs. Exotic and otherworldly, like Montreal, where we’re spending Thanksgiving weekend, our first road trip on the east coast after relocating to New York for Philippe’s job.

In the candlelit space, his hand slides across the table for mine. The snug Moorish interiors in royal azure blue, rufous red, and seafoam green transport me to a fairy-tale faraway land.

“Maybe I should change my recipe?” he suggests. 

As he weaves his chunky fingers through mine, I feel my libido stir. The kids are safe and soon will be asleep under the watch of two Orthodox coeds, who couldn’t stop trading knock-knock jokes with our eight-year-old son and playing peek-a-boo with our four- and two-year-old daughters throughout last night’s Shabbat dinner at McGill University’s Hillel. They immediately agreed to babysit tonight. Philippe’s idea. 

“Maybe,” I say and pump his palm, no longer interested in food. “Maybe,” I pause for effect, “you’ll get lucky later.” 

שקשוקה Tel Aviv, 2007

We squeeze into a table, inches from other diners on all sides, at Dr. Shakshuka. It’s loud and lively. Light fixtures, outdated fans, and random pots—large, small, copper, aluminum, metal, hammered, smooth—dangle from the ceiling. We glance briefly at the menu but know what we want. 

Cooked in a cast iron pan, their signature Tunisian dish consists of poached eggs stewing in crushed tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions. The scent of garlic, paprika, cumin, and other unidentifiable Levantine spices makes my stomach somersault with desire. Before the waiter finishes serving everything, the kids grab the crispy French fries, while Philippe and I dole out the smoky eggplant, crunchy coleslaw and beetroot salads.   

“This is sooooo good,” our middle one says. Only ten, she’s a fierce food aficionado.

In Israel for a Year of Living Differently, we’ve rented a house in the city of Raanana to dunk our kids in public school, to bathe in language and culture. We want them to know the country, to know the place where their parents’ story started, to look at the world through a different lens. 

But unlike our shakshuka, which means mixture in Berber languages, it’s not all good. 

Since school runs from Sunday morning to noon on Friday, our luxurious American weekend has been halved, overshadowed by Shabbat, robbing us of time to recover, to make waffles, to run errands. After lamenting to Philippe, he proposed we occasionally let them skip the last day or pick them up early to explore. 

“Listen up, guys,” I say while we munch. “Jaffa’s part of Tel Aviv, and one of the most religiously diverse areas in the country, where its Jewish and Arab residents live peacefully side by side.” I leave out the drug and poverty parts. 

“Neat,” the kids say. 

The old city is neat and unique with its ancient white stone buildings, steep hills, narrow cobblestone alleys, church spires, and mosque minarets. 

Warm and nourished, we meander through the flea market, where men and women with parchment skin and throaty voices hawk everything from old Beatles records to reupholstered furniture to antique coins. As the wind picks up and fatigue settles in, we return to the car. 

On the way home, listening to the children chatter, each one reviewing the highlights of the day, I compose a list of accessible destinations—children’s museum in Holon, Baha’i hanging gardens in Haifa, Roman remains in Caesarea—grateful for our family concessions, eager for more shared adventures. 

Samosas, Hartsdale, NY, 2009

At Masala Kraft, a kosher, vegetarian, Bombay bistro one town over from our house in White Plains, we order one of everything to share: fried potato samosas, paapdi chaat (a crispy, flour tortilla with chickpeas and yogurt), and their vegetable cutlet with tomatoes and onions on focaccia bread, an Indian-Italian fusion dish, along with mango lassis. 

“I’m starved!” one of the kids says.

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had some food,” says another. 

They whine like babies even though they’re 16, 12, and 10. But after pedaling to and from Kensico Dam for the past hour, we’re famished. 

I’m less hungry than hangry. For the past year, ever since we returned from Raanana, Philippe and I have been in therapy. What began as a Year of Living Differently turned into a territorial battle, my head and heart warring with one another, each organ vying for power. Israel pitted us on opposite ends of a spectrum, with him yearning to stay and me yenning to come home. The seven-letter D word has crossed our lips. Two days after our twentieth wedding anniversary, we contemplated a family divide: boys return to the Middle East, girls remain stateside.

When the food arrives, the flavors of fresh cilantro, sweet and spicy chutney, curry and turmeric explode in our mouths. We leave so full that no one mentions dessert. So sated that no one moans about the ride home. So thankful that we’ve got the freedom of the seventh day to balance out the restrictions of the sixth. 

“Yalla,” Philippe says, and we form a single file and follow him. 

Last in line, I pedal furiously to keep pace with Philippe, still slim and sporty and so hot from behind.   

Plantains, Jamaica, 2011

The edges of Philippe’s mouth are slick with greasy, oily, fatty plantain—an unfamiliar banana-like tropical fruit—at Woody’s Low Bridge Place, where we giggle at the roadside shack’s hand-painted slogans on every inch of its wooden walls: ‘‘Just be nice!’’ and “Don’t major in minor things” and “Smile! It makes you younger and better-looking.” We order vegetarian patties served with the leafy green vegetable callaloo and crispy homemade fries, even though the place is famous for its burgers. But the plantain is the best part, coated with butter and topped with salt and pepper. 

Every morning during our one-week getaway, a belated birthday-anniversary present from my parents, I unfold my yoga mat on our balcony and do Sun Salutations while Philippe wraps tefillin and prays, each of us content in our daily practices. One day, we tromp through the local market, gawking at the rich, earthen-colored fabrics and wall hangings; another, we hike through a mangrove forest or dive under rocks to reach a cascading waterfall. Every night, we make love like horny teenagers. I fall deeper in love with the man I married. When he plunges into the Caribbean Sea to scuba dive for the first time. When he leads me down rickety steps to Dickie’s Best Kept Secret. When he offers me a joint, trying to get me high. 

But I don’t need a drug. I feel my own natural high and hope it follows me home to New York. Hope it buoys me as we prepare to uproot our family and return to Raanana in August.

French toast, Raanana, 2014

While Philippe is out of the country visiting his parents, I break house rules—his rules—with my girls. On Saturday morning, I make one of my chosen comfort foods with leftover challah and serve it with his homemade strawberry jam and imported maple syrup. 

“I feel bad, but this feels so normal,” I say. My teenagers know my brother and I were raised Reform, neither keeping kosher nor believing in fill-in-the-blank. “I grew up eating Saturday morning breakfast in our backyard and miss it.”  

“It’s nice,” the older one says. “I wish we could do it this way too.” 

I scan our fruit trees—lemon and clementine, pomelo and lychee—aware that they, like returning to Israel permanently, fulfill another one of Philippe’s dreams. 

My dream, on the other hand, is to be myself, to live freely in my house, in this world. He disapproves. But we never discuss it lest it blow up into a blame game: him accusing me of corrupting our children’s faith, and me accusing him of not accepting my secular self. 

Seven summers after spending that different year in Israel, four autumns after making (yet) another marital compromise—he observes Shabbat and holidays his way, while the kids and I pick and choose—and 1,095 days after boarding a one-way flight to Tel Aviv, we stifle our struggle.

I wish our mixed marriage was more balanced. I wish we could eat—and act—however, whatever, wherever we want. I wish our decision to return to the country where we met and married were easier to digest.

“Is there more?” the girls ask.

“With pleasure!” I walk into the kitchen to make it. 

Burekas, Tel Aviv, 2018

The Erev Shabbat Friday morning energy at Levinsky market, Tel Aviv’s lesser-known, three-block-long souk that sells every spice from sumac to za’atar, hiwaj to Baharat, bursts. Hipsters sip Turkish coffees and frothy cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes. Hamotzi lechem bakery oozes fresh-from-the-oven chocolate babka odors. At the corner burekas stand, a line of families and food tours snakes down the block. 

“Hungry?” Philippe asks. 

“Toujours!” I say.

When we finally reach the window, we order one large round phyllo dough pastry filled with spinach and cheese, a hard-boiled egg, salty green olives, and piquant tomato sauce on the side. The cook cuts it into four generous pieces and hands us the plastic plate, wishing us בתאבון or bon appétit. How is it our English lexicon lacks such a thoughtful expression? We grab two empty metal chairs.

Philippe drenches his burekas in חָרִיף. Seconds after that first bite, sweat droplets streak down his face, his body’s internal, enviable mechanism still functioning almost three decades later. 

I put on my sunglasses to block out the hyperactive Israeli sun and gawk at the United Colors of Benetton scene, with faces from all over the planet belonging to locals and foreigners, Christian pilgrims and Eritrean refugees, surfers and foodies who flock to the city that never sleeps by the Mediterranean Sea. A chorus of tongues hums in my ears: Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Spanish, German, Russian, along with other, indecipherable ones.

Here, now, surrounded by a hodgepodge of humanity with the person who knows me best, longest, most profoundly, I choose yes to the whole messy and complicated package.

Since my complete coming out as an irreligious Jew, I have felt quieter inside. Philippe and I have worked hard to smooth out our differences, to stay together. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree with or anger the other one sometimes, but when it comes to who we are and our differences, especially with regards to Judaism, we accept and respect them. After twenty-eight years of passionate ups and intense downs, I know my heart has won.

“Délicieux!” we say at the same time, scraping the plate clean. 

California-born Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her prize-winning essays appear in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Midway Journal, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Assistant Editor at Brevity. Her first book, Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature, is a finalist in Foreword Reviews, American Legacy, Independent Author Network, and the Wishing Shelf book awards. This October, Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will be released (Vine Leaves Press). A longtime yoga instructor, she leads YogaProse. Findable @jenlangwrites.