Former Obama speechwriter finds her own voice, in Judaism
Sarah Hurwitz, who says she was “kind of done with Judaism” after her Reform bat mitzvah at the age of 13, acknowledges that five years ago, if she had seen a book called “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There)” on the shelf in her neighborhood Washington, D.C., bookstore, she would have doubtless passed it by “if it was written by a rabbi or professor.
“But if I had seen that it was written by a political speechwriter, I probably would have been intrigued, and read it,” she told me the other day. And Hurwitz, who spent eight years in the Obama White House writing speeches for the president and first lady, is hoping that Jews like her, who grew up with limited knowledge of and engagement in Judaism, might do the same. That’s why she spent the last several years writing that very book (title above), available in bookstores this week from Random House.
The result is a memoir that is fresh, compelling, and insightful, blending Hurwitz’s story of professional success in the White House with her explaining how, in her mid-30s, an unlikely but deep dive into Jewish texts, history, and tradition filled a void in her personal life. Given that most American Jews don’t explore Judaism seriously as adults, this 21st-century, sophisticated primer has the potential to influence many in her Gen X generation as well as younger Jews.
That’s because Hurwitz brings her talent as a speechwriter to her exploration of Judaism. She describes her search to find “the beating heart” of an issue to make it vivid and relevant and personal.
She writes that as someone with little serious Jewish education, her goal was to find Judaism’s “beating heart for myself and others — the places where we can live and feel Judaism’s wisdom in our lives, the parts of Judaism that feel like its deepest, most important truths.”
In essence, she says, she has tried to write the book she wishes she’d found five years ago, when she “first started learning about Judaism as an adult.” Before that, she noted, “I was unable to own my Judaism, but unable to disown it either. So, I mainly ignored it. And that worked out just fine for me. After all, I was busy.”
That’s an understatement. After stints as a speechwriter on several “losing presidential campaigns,” including Hillary Clinton’s in 2008, Hurwitz was hired by then-Sen. Barack Obama for his first presidential campaign and ended up helping Michelle Obama write the speech she gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. When Obama became president, she was hired as part of his speechwriting team (about six people), and occasionally worked on Michelle Obama’s speeches.
Hurwitz says she very much enjoyed writing for the president, but “I just felt more comfortable in her [Mrs. Obama’s] voice, which is more similar to mine.” They shared a passion for issues dealing with children and women.
“She knows who she is and what she wants to say. She sounds authentic because she is relentlessly authentic,” Hurwitz said of the first lady. “The woman you saw on TV is the woman I saw in the office.”
In 2011, she made the switch and became Mrs. Obama’s head speechwriter, crafting and editing hundreds of speeches and traveling with the first lady across the U.S. and around the world for the next six years.
But with it all, Hurwitz felt something missing in her life. At 36, having recently broken up with a boyfriend and feeling lonely, she decided to take an introduction to Judaism class at the local JCC. What shocked her was seeing “the stale, rote Judaism of my childhood” transformed into “something relevant, endlessly fascinating, and alive,” she writes. She had thought of herself as “a good person,” but the Jewish ethics she studied “set a much higher bar for honesty, generosity, and basic human decency than I had ever thought to set for myself.”
She took on more classes, lectures, retreats, and personal meetings with rabbis. She interviewed dozens of Judaic thought leaders from every stream of Jewish life and began reading what grew to be as many as 200 books about Judaism, finding “deep moral wisdom” in the purpose of Jewish holidays and lifecycle rituals, in sacred writings, and the interpretations of the sages of old — as well as more recent liberal and sometimes experimental alternatives to traditional prayer.
“As I continue to learn,” she writes, “my understanding of Judaism continues to deepen and change.”
Chapter by chapter, she explains the basics — the Torah, mitzvot, prayer, Shabbat, the holidays, death — and offers her own ways of incorporating them into her life. And she grapples with the tough questions. She devotes a section to “the awful parts of the Torah,” including God’s wrath, and suggests “understanding them in new ways” through the ongoing process of reinterpreting, challenging and “re-translating [Judaism] for the times in which we live.”
And then there’s dealing with the concept of God. In one dramatic account, Hurwitz describes a spiritual retreat during which she and the other participants were each told to go into the woods, find a private spot, and speak out loud to God on successive days. Feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, and deeply skeptical, she nevertheless finds a private spot and begins to speak. After great difficulty, she finds herself, alone in the woods, declaring, “I don’t know what I’m doing.… I don’t know.… I don’t know, but I cannot do this alone.”
Like much of the book, the section is written with an openness and almost self-deprecating style that is deeply appealing. “I’m fully aware of how crazy this may sound,” she writes of the episode, which ends with her feeling loved and reassured in a way she cannot explain.
“That experience was very hard to write about,” Hurwitz said. “I’m a pretty private person but I was trying to capture it as it happened.”
She does not share her political views directly. But in presenting the mission of the Jewish people, as described in the Torah, to create a society promoting equality, “based on the belief that we are all created in the Divine image,” Hurwitz writes: “The Torah strikes me as an unavoidably political document — a passionate protest against old hierarchies and abuses of power.” She adds that while people may interpret the text to support different opinions “on issues like immigration and poverty,” she disagrees with the notion that rabbis shouldn’t be “political” in sermons that apply the Torah’s “moral lessons … to current events.”
Most of the book is a richly sourced effort to confront the stumbling blocks to living a serious Jewish life by taking Judaism seriously. (An appendix lists 40 books that Hurwitz recommends as “sources for getting started.”)
Hurwitz makes it clear that she is not a ba’al teshuva (returnee to the faith) in the Orthodox tradition. She rarely attends synagogue and does not lead a fully observant life or accept the concept of an all-powerful God who monitors our actions. But she has chosen a personal path that brings her fulfillment through studying, wrestling with, and coming to appreciate Judaism as she continues to “find my place” within it.
“I love how, even when we try to give up on Judaism, it does not give up on us,” she writes. “It took me a long time to love Judaism enough to choose it back. But I’m glad I did.” And she hopes to follow up by writing a book “about Jewish spirituality — really focusing in on the God/Divine aspects of Judaism.”
In speaking her truth after many years of writing in and for other voices, Hurwitz has opened a brave new path, suggesting “there is something in Judaism worth finding” and encouraging readers to look for themselves.
Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.