covers of "Golem Girl" and "A Place of Exodus"

Gripping memoirs by writers who aren’t exactly famous

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

We tend to gravitate toward the memoirs of public figures whose lives are already of significance to us. However, as in the case of two new memoirs, I often find the memoirs of people I’ve never heard of most compelling, precisely because reading about their experiences expands my own horizons.

“Golem Girl” is the powerful autobiography of painter Riva Lehrer. Lehrer was born with spina bifida — a condition that has been central to her experiences, identity and artistic career.

the cover of "Golem Girl"In 1958, at the time of Lehrer’s birth, 90 percent of children born with her severity of spina bifida did not live to see the age of 2, and surgical interventions were generally reserved only for those who managed to survive that long. However, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital had a young surgeon who was able to operate on Lehrer’s newborn body, the first of many surgical procedures she would undergo.

Indeed, the golem of the book’s title — recalling the legendary Jewish figure animated from clay — is Lehrer’s reference to herself as a sort of medical creation. She writes, “The day I was born I was a mass, a body with irregular borders. The shape of my body was pared away according to normal outlines, but this normalcy didn’t last very long. My body insisted on aberrance. I was denied the autonomy that is the birthright of normality. Doctors foretold that I would be a ‘vegetable,’ a thing without volition or self-awareness. Children like me were saved without purpose, at least not any purpose we could call our own. I am a Golem. My body was built by human hands.”

The notion of being “saved without a purpose” is haunting. Lehrer notes that a golem is created for a reason, as in the best known version, when Rabbi Loew of Prague summons a golem in order to protect the Jewish community from violence. What is striking for the reader is the degree to which Lehrer clearly imbued her own life with a deep sense of purpose — one that defied the low expectations our society has for those whose development deviates from what is “normal.”

Lehrer spent the first two years of her life in the hospital, without ever seeing her family’s home. She then attended a school for children with a variety of disabilities — an experience recalled with fondness, especially given the contrast between the sense of community felt within the school and the isolation and humiliation its students often experienced in the outer world.

Piled atop Lehrer’s medical and social challenges was the deterioration of her mother’s life. Upended by her own spinal afflictions and the pain medications she became dependent upon following a botched surgery, she died at 41.

Lehrer’s early adulthood was one of discovery — of sexual pleasure, of queer identity, of artistic expression and the world of disability culture. Her identification with marginalized people became a force driving her art, which focuses on people living fully in their varied bodies. Many of her portraits are reproduced in the book, accompanied by the stories behind them.

The latter part of the book discusses Lehrer’s teaching career. On the faculty at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the medical humanities program at nearby Northwestern University, she spurs students, many of whom are entering medicine, to consider anatomy in ways that honor the diversity of human bodies.

Beautifully written, “Golem Girl” helped me challenge my own thinking and prejudices. And while it inevitably includes difficult moments — I was brought to tears by Lehrer’s visit to a museum of medical specimens in which she beholds jars containing preserved fetuses with spina bifida — there is also much hope embedded in Lehrer’s efforts to transform how we understand the bodies we live in and dwell among.

the cover of "A Place of Exodus"Poet and literary critic David Biespiel, the author of “A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas,” grew up in Meyerland, Houston’s tight-knit Jewish neighborhood. In his memoir, he reflects thoughtfully on those distant years, which were imbued with religious observance and a strong sense of Texan Jewish identity.

Biespiel evokes two ideas of home. One is a sense of place, as grasped in the vivid portrayal of life in humid, flood-prone Meyerland. And the other is Judaism itself. As he writes, “Hebrew was a home that had been bequeathed. It came as naturally to my body as fingers and toes.” But Biespiel’s life did not conform to script, and he would leave his interlaced physical and spiritual worlds behind.

The breaking point was a theological disputation with his rabbi, which ended with the words, “Go! Leave! Get out! You’re out!” The 17-year-old took the rabbi’s words to heart, repudiating religious thinking and leaving “what I took to be the insularity, the monotony, and the rectitude of Meyerland.” He wandered before settling in Oregon, now an avowed secularist who had “retired from Judaism.”

The book concludes with a return to Houston that includes an unexpected reunion with the now elderly rabbi who cast him out. If the visit is unsatisfying, the lack of closure seems fitting for a book in which notions of home are frequently pondered and never settled. When Biespiel writes that “leaving Texas has always felt like my Exodus from that place of Exodus,” we are reminded that Jews have long been in motion, and feeling at home may be one of the most elusive of all ideas.

“Golem Girl” by Riva Lehrer (448 pages, One World)

“A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas” by David Biespiel (202 pages, Kelson Books)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.