Rocks and surf on Goat Rock Beach in the evening light.© Frank Schulenburg

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!

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994