Deborah Miller talks with former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz to discuss her new memoir, Here All Along: A Reintroduction to Judaism. Deep and insightful, Hurwitz reveals her personal journey behind writing this book — from transitioning to author from speechwriter, to her path of Jewish learning and the impact it has made on her life.
Deborah Miller: How did you decide which retreats and other formal education experiences to participate in?
Sarah Hurwitz: My initial decisions about the experiences I participated in were based largely on whims and a lot of good luck. I grew up with little Jewish background, and I largely disengaged from Judaism after my bat mitzvah. Then, in my mid-thirties, I broke up with a guy I had been dating and happened to get an email from the local JCC advertising an introduction to Judaism class. I was lonely and anxious, and I signed up mainly just to fill my time, not to fulfill some existential longing or kick off an epic spiritual journey. But what I found in that class blew me away – profound ethical guidance, deep spirituality, beautiful holidays and rituals, and so much more.
I found my first silent Jewish meditation retreat (yes, those are actually a thing) in a similarly random way. I was looking for something to do over the December holidays in the months after that first Judaism class. I did some searching online for meditation retreats, and I happened to stumble upon a Jewish one. I hadn’t known it was possible to do meditation in a Jewish context, and I figured I’d give it a try. I was fortunate to have found a retreat led by some of the best Jewish meditation teachers in the world, and it turned out to be a transformative experience for me. I’ve done eleven of these retreats since then.
After those two initial experiences, I had more of a sense of what I was interested in, and I was more thoughtful about how I chose educational experiences. I generally relied on recommendations from others, and once I found teachers and organizations I liked, I became a repeat customer.
DM: What resources from your life experience (educational and professional background, etc.) were most helpful or most hindering in your Jewish learning?
SH: Having a secular education that emphasized close reading and critical thinking was helpful in my Jewish learning, which I did mainly on my own through reading books. Though I don’t think this is necessarily the best approach to Jewish learning, which is typically done in chavruta (with a partner) under the guidance of a teacher. That’s probably the ideal. But I also think it’s extraordinary that for the price of a library card, you can essentially have private lessons with some of the greatest Jewish thinkers and teachers from throughout history.
What was most hindering was coming from a career where I felt like I was generally pretty competent, being First Lady Michelle Obama’s head speechwriter in the White House, and then feeling like such a clueless beginner when studying Judaism. I still often feel this way, but I now realize that that’s OK – in fact that’s one of the things I love about Judaism. You could spend a thousand lifetimes studying and experiencing it and still only scratch the surface. It’s such a vast, deep, rich tradition, and there’s always more to learn and do.
But I also think it’s extraordinary that for the price of a library card, you can essentially have private lessons with some of the greatest Jewish thinkers and teachers from throughout history.
DM: How did you decide which books to read and in what order?
SH: I was pretty disciplined about doing my book chapter by chapter (though not necessarily in the order in which they appear in the book). For each chapter, I would read intensively about that particular subject matter before turning to writing. I would often start with more basic, overview kind of books and then drill down into more specific ones, and I often sought out books that I had seen quoted in other books. I also relied on suggestions from rabbis and scholars.
It wasn’t easy. I found that many of the Jewish books for beginners are focused on the “how-to” rather than the “why-to.” And many other books focus on one specific area of Jewish law, culture, or history and assume the reader has a fairly extensive Jewish background. It took me hundreds of hours just to put together the basics, and thousands more to get to the deeper insights Judaism offers. I wrote my book in the hopes of saving Jews like me some of the many hours I spent flailing around trying to learn on my own. I essentially wrote the book I wish I’d had access to when I first started learning about Judaism as an adult.
DM: As a writer, what differences and similarities did you experience in sharing your own story and in written form, compared with writing for others to speak?
SH: There is a huge difference between writing to be heard (speechwriting) and writing to be read (book writing). Writing that’s meant to be heard is looser and more colloquial than writing that’s meant to be read. Sentence fragments are fine, grammar is largely optional, and punctuation is used to indicate pauses and rhythm and doesn’t always conform to the traditional rules. It was a challenge for me to relearn how to use commas!
I also had to wrestle with how much of myself to reveal in my writing, an issue I’ve obviously never confronted in speechwriting for others. In fact, as a speechwriter, the goal is to be behind the scenes. It’s not about you, it’s about channeling the person you write for. And Mrs. Obama knows who she is and always knows what she wants to say, so the trick of writing for her was to ask her what she wanted to say and then type as quickly as possible on my laptop to capture her response.
But writing in my own voice about topics like God and spirituality is quite personal, and I initially hesitated about sharing some of my more private thoughts. I eventually realized that without that personal revelation, my writing felt dry and academic, so I had to push myself outside of my comfort zone (for example, the story of me talking out loud to God in the woods at a meditation retreat).
There are also many similarities between speechwriting for others and writing a book in my own voice. The basic rules of good writing are the same: Make sure you have a solid structure that allows the text to flow well; show, don’t tell – paint vivid images with your words rather than just dumping a bunch of adjectives on the page; be a ruthless editor.
I also had to wrestle with how much of myself to reveal in my writing, an issue I’ve obviously never confronted in speechwriting for others.
DM: What have been some of the most positive, surprising, and unpleasant outcomes from your Jewish journey?
SH: I’ve loved learning about the moving theology and spirituality that Judaism offers, as well as the profound ethical wisdom. Growing up, my only points of contact with Judaism beyond Hebrew school, which I didn’t love, were dull, incomprehensible services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a lifeless seder, and a Hanukkah party. And if that’s all you see of Judaism, you generally don’t walk away thinking, “Wow, Judaism offers such profound wisdom and insight on so many of my deepest life questions.”
In fact, if you had asked me what Judaism says about how to be a good person, or what happens after we die, or what we mean when we say the word “God,” I probably would have responded with a blank look, or a few clichés about tikkun olam, and there not being a hell, and God being all powerful and controlling everything, which I don’t believe, so I must be an atheist. And these are three of the most important questions that any person can ask about their life!
But when I studied Judaism as an adult, I found that Judaism has a great deal to say about these questions. I discovered numerous conceptions of God in Judaism – from thinkers like Maimonides, the mystics, Buber, Heschel, and so many others. I found that Judaism holds me to a much higher ethical bar than I would have thought to hold myself, especially when it comes to how I use my speech. And I discovered a number of Jewish afterlife conceptions.
You won’t necessarily learn about any of this in two services, a seder, and a Hanukkah party, and I guess that’s one of the unpleasant outcomes of my journey: realizing that we don’t always present Jews with the parts of Judaism that are most relevant and impactful, like the ethics and spirituality. Instead, we offer experiences which, while they might feel vaguely familiar and nostalgic, aren’t always deeply meaningful.
DM: What impacts, if any, have you experienced in your relationships with family, friends, and your Jewish community?
SH: I think the biggest impact my Jewish exploration has had on relationships with family, friends and my Jewish community is that is has vastly expanded and deepened them. Through my classes, retreats, and other Jewish experiences, I’ve met countless rabbis, educators, and fellow participants who have become some of my closest friends and most important mentors and teachers. I now have a group of friends with whom I do regular Shabbat dinners. I have teachers whose meditation retreats I attend year after year. And I have people with whom I’ve studied all across the country. I’ve found an entire universe of people who are as passionate about Judaism as I am and as interested as I am in wrestling with big questions about what it means to be human. I feel tremendously grateful for all of them!
Deborah Miller received rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, where she serves as a hospice chaplain and teacher.