Former Obama Speechwriter Offers Answers to ‘Why Be Jewish?’ Question in New Book
Why be Jewish?
Nowadays, embracing Jewish identity and practice is optional, even for those who were born into it. Sarah Hurwitz’s own story is an example. By her own account, after dropping out of Hebrew school in sixth grade, she attended services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but otherwise wasn’t much Jewishly involved or engaged until, after a bad break-up at age 36, she enrolled in an introduction to Judaism class at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center.
Hurwitz — who was a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Barack Obama — was so impressed by what she discovered that she kept learning and doing. She has now written a book aimed at, as she puts it, showing others that “Judaism is worth choosing,” that it is full of “deep wisdom” and “can provide meaning, joy, and connection.”
At one point in Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing To Look There), (Spiegel & Grau, $28, 353 pages), Hurwitz, who is admirably open about grappling with anxiety, jokingly mentions an inner voice telling her to “write a book about Judaism that no one but your parents might ever read.”
I am not one of Hurwitz’s parents. I have read the book. I can report that it’s surprisingly good. It accomplishes something that’s pretty difficult: It manages to preach without being preachy, to be right without being self-righteous.
That should help it reach some of its intended audience, the 63 percent of American Jews who, Hurwitz says, do not belong to either a synagogue or a Jewish organization. Many of them face a barrier she describes as “lack of basic Jewish literacy.”
One reason this book is so good is that Hurwitz makes generally smart choices about the sources she reads and relies on. It’s a politically and religiously diverse group that includes Joseph Telushkin, Dennis Prager, Jonathan Sacks, Lawrence Hoffman, Ze’ev Maghen, Yoram Hazony, Shai Held, Avi Weiss, Shaye Cohen, Adam Kirsch, Jonathan Rosen, Art Green, Elliot Dorff, Donniel Hartman, Judith Shulevitz, and Elie Kaunfer. Just reading over that list of names — all alive today, and many of them living in America — is enough to make me cheerful about the current state of American Judaism, about which I am sometimes glum.
She draws from these sources in chapters about the Torah, prayer, the sabbath, Jewish holidays, and death. There is not a chapter about Israel, which she says deserves an entire book of its own, though there are a couple of pages describing its founding and flourishing as “a modern miracle, one that fills you with pride and awe,” and also expressing dismay about “settlement expansion in the West Bank” and “the daily treatment of Palestinians.”
My favorite chapter in the book was the one about God, a topic that American Judaism has an unfortunate habit of avoiding. She writes, “the choices are not just ‘Man-in-the-Sky-Who-Controls-Everything’ or atheism.” She rhetorically challenges those who blame belief in God for violence: “I would like to see someone argue that a godless movement like Stalinism that was responsible for millions of deaths was somehow better than the Crusades or the terror perpetrated by groups like ISIS.”
At one point, trying to describe her own experience of the divine, Hurwitz confesses that it “is beyond the reach of my skill as a writer.”
She sells her own skill short. It is formidable, and extends to the research and thinking that are essential to excellent writing. Whether that skill is or isn’t the result of a divine gift is a judgment I will leave to readers. I predict, though, that they will be more likely to think so after reading Hurwitz’s book for themselves.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.