Writer, editor and seeker Ellen Blum Barish deeply appreciates the Jewish mystical symbolism of the number seven. Barish’s new memoir, “Seven Springs,” encompasses that symbolism as she traverses seven spring seasons in the book, the first of which begins with a car accident when she was 12 years old.
As Barish returns to each subsequent spring—many of them featuring trips back to her native Philadelphia from her home in Chicago—a reckoning takes place by the seventh spring in 2016. She reunites with Jennifer, with whom she had been in the car accident—Jennifer’s mother was driving—and the two women were finally able to talk about their long-held emotional and physical scars. Barish lost her front tooth. However, the others in the car were more seriously injured, including Jennifer, who was in a coma for a week.
Yet the accident’s psychological fallout has remained with Barish. The night following the accident, Barish recalls her parents avoiding her at home. Instead, her grandmother, Jane, arrived and provided much-needed emotional support and comfort. At one point, Jane gently bathes her granddaughter, understanding how significant her presence and touch were to initiate Barish’s healing.
Barish recently spoke to JewishBoston about remembering the accident over seven spring seasons, taking up her Judaism in earnest as a young mother and how Jewish mysticism continues to resonate for her as a lifelong student of Judaism.
You approach your childhood car accident and consider your memory of seven subsequent spring times. What did you learn each time?
Years after that first conversation with Jennifer at our 20th high school reunion, I hand wrote 75 pages—a brain dump, of sorts. Those pages were about trying to forcefully go back into memory and gently egg myself on to tell the story. When I think about how long it took to arrive at the truth, it amazes me. That was the first time I looked at the story on the page.
You rediscovered Judaism when your daughters were old enough to go to Hebrew school. What has that journey been like for you?
I didn’t grow up very Jewish. I make that point several times throughout the book. I married a man who was more observantly Jewish than I. David grew up as a Conservative Jew. There were all kinds of questions my daughters asked in the car: “Mommy, what do Jews think of God? Mommy, what do Jews think about death?” I couldn’t answer any of them. That’s when I decided I could benefit from walking into the building to get Jewishly educated. That decision began a journey of many years of ongoing adult Jewish education, which I still can’t get enough of. I was hooked on Torah, and Hebrew, and Jewish history. I had an adult bat mitzvah at 39, and that was magnificent.
The time-honored Jewish tradition of arguing with God fascinates you. What were some of your arguments, and have any of them been resolved?
I took a class called “God,” and when we got to the part where Abraham negotiated with God, I was riveted. The fact that Abraham was able to go back and forth with God and he was not struck dead opened so many possibilities—there could be change, there could be growth, there could be potential.
One of your formative experiences was at your high school’s Quaker services. What role did the imposed silence of those services play in your Jewish spiritual life?
Silence is a form of ritual in a Quaker meeting, which I experienced from seventh through 12th grades. I didn’t always sit still, and I didn’t always understand. But I eventually found the silence and stillness calming. I loved it when someone stood up and said something from their heart. I always wanted to stand up, but I was afraid to speak. That was the child’s perspective.
As I got older and my Judaism deepened, I recognized that the Torah and Talmud are all about talking, sometimes over one another. The Talmud is, to me, like a beautiful conversation on the page, of several voices all at once. But I also wanted to bring in some of that silence into my Judaism. Jewish mysticism started to appeal to me for its openness to meditation. So, I started to meditate on Jewish letters and concepts. And I liked it.
At the end of the book, you ask the question: “Does our past define us, or do we liberate ourselves from the past?” Did writing “Seven Springs” answer those questions?
I think it’s both. You can’t detach from the puzzle pieces that make up your people, life, geography, heritage and ancestors. But I have felt cellularly altered in a good way since the book came out. Wise people have shared with me that what I’m most likely feeling is true healing. I felt compelled to dive in deeper and dig around. But then there are a lot of people who are very happy not to go there because it can be painful, or they’re not ready.
I want to end with this gorgeous quote you include from Virginia Woolf: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” How did Woolf’s quote influence you as you wrote this memoir?
The articulation of truth is a practice. I also love the tikkun olam piece of that practice, and I wanted to convey that in the book. If you don’t address your past, there will not be room for you to do good in the world. That is the major change I’m feeling. There is also more space to heal now.