Julius Lester writes in his book Lovesong: Becoming a Jew that as a young black boy growing up in the American South his favorite piece to play on the piano was Kol Nidre, the song that opens the observance of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. “When I stop playing,” he writes, “there is a painful yearning in my stomach, a wishing for something I have never had and thus do not know what it is, or a wishing for something which I had once and have forgotten what it was.” At the same age, he says, he heard on the news that Sammy Davis, Jr., had converted to Judaism. He told himself he was going to do the same thing someday.
Julius Lester’s book is excerpted in Katherine Kurs’ anthology Searching for your Soul, which is where I discovered it–through pages full of longing, guilt, and confusion, as Lester struggles, even as an adult, to understand this strange hold that Judaism has on him, the son of a Methodist minister. It’s not until age 43 that he finally converts to the faith that has attracted him all his life, and in so doing finally discovers the joy and freedom of becoming who he always was. “It took only forty years for me to believe in what I knew.”
I identify with Lester, though in my case it was not a religion but a language that obsessed me from a young age. I began learning French at age 13. But not just learning it–basking in it. I read French novels and watched the French news on television twice a day. I listened on repeat to Celine Dion’s French albums and any other Francophone CDs I could get my hands on. I read the few French magazines and newspapers available at the local bookstore. I spoke French at every opportunity, even though no one around me understood what I was saying. Even though my two younger sisters found it profoundly annoying.
In college, I studied abroad in France, spending a semester at the Université de Nancy in Lorraine. In graduate school, I lived for a year at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and began dating a Frenchman. We lived back and forth between the U.S. and France for three years before we parted ways. (That story is too long to tell here, but it’s the subject of my forthcoming memoir, When to Say Adieu. Check back for publication information soon!)
It has now been five years since I was last in France, and I feel the separation keenly. Reading French books and watching French television series (Un village français!) simply can’t replace being sur place. But the thing that is hardest is trying to explain to others why I care so much for France and French culture, why in some situations speaking French comes more naturally to me than speaking English.
It can seem to Americans that I am “putting on airs” by talking about France, or by knowing more about what’s going on in the Elysée than in the White House. I have struggled myself with trying to explain why I identify so strongly with the culture of another country, but in the end I have stopped trying to find the explanation. All I know is that the identification is there, that it has been for over twenty years, and that I don’t need a reason to live what I feel. My heart is as much French as it is American, whatever the reason, and I don’t need more of a justification than that.
But I take comfort in stories like those of Lester. Because, to me, he is a fellow traveler. He too knows what it’s like to long for a community other than the one you were born into. To identify more strongly with a foreign culture than with your own.
But reading his story also makes me wonder: how many people does this happen to? How many of us are drawn to lives so different from those we were born into that we struggle to allow ourselves to live the truth we know deep down? Where do these longings come from, and why, if we feel their truth so keenly, do we often deny ourselves their fulfillment?
I am reminded of James Hillman’s excellent book, The Soul’s Code, in which he describes the uncanny way children often seem to know what they are made for, from a quite tender age. Something in us is aware of the endpoint of our lives, not just its beginning. We have intimations of destiny, if you like.
It’s easy to tell children–and ourselves–that these convictions are just fanciful imaginings. It’s easy to give in to what’s normal and accepted, to the mundane expectations of the society that surrounds us. But maybe these intimations of destiny are given to us as a glimpse of something more. As winking stars drawing us along the path less traveled, where we have the opportunity to become who we truly are. And to learn to have faith in our inner sight.
Do you find yourself with any odd, unexplainable longings? Have you found that when you follow these longings, they lead you to amazing new experiences? Perhaps even to something on the order of the spiritual?