Author reveals challenges of writing about faith in interview

Author Dani Shapiro recently gave a reading of her memoir, Devotion, at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. She was low-key, yet mesmerizing as she spoke about her personal search for spirituality. A few days later, I interviewed the 47-year-old author by phone.

Shapiro, who spoke from her home in Connecticut, was candid about her search for spirituality, her challenges in writing the book, and her continued attempts to add Jewish ritual to her life.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

Q: How hard was it for you to write about your journey of faith? I read in another interview that you were not sure how people would perceive you. Is there a danger of coming off as self-absorbed?

A: It was enormously hard. I was less worried about the question of whether it would seem self-indulgent or self-absorbed, as I was very preoccupied with the question of feeling like I had permission to explore what I wanted to explore. As a woman, as someone who was raised orthodox, it felt to me almost like forbidden territory.

Part of it was there’s such rich intellectual tradition and writings. I don’t want to do this unless I’m actually making a contribution. …

My background is as a novelist, not as a religious scholar, or as a public intellectual. I was approaching this as a memoirist, essayist, a novelist, a wife, a Mom, coming at it from a very intimate personal place.”

Q: When someone asks you now what religion you are, how do you answer? Why?

A: I’m Jewish. I’ve never not felt Jewish. In fact, if anything, I’ve always led with it because of my complicated not ‘looking Jewish.’ As a baby, I was actually the Kodak Christmas poster child. I was on billboards all over America wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. I was this Orthodox little girl.

My mother wasn’t Orthodox, and agreed to become Orthodox when she married my father. I understand so much better about my mother now, the impossibility of what she set out to do. She wasn’t doing something she believed in. She was doing it to accommodate my father’s belief. It was a disaster. They fought bitterly. It’s no wonder that I grew up increasingly conflicted about religion, really didn’t see the point. But culturally I felt very strongly Jewish, very proud to be Jewish.

There’s a being Jewish and there’s being a practicing Jew. I felt conflicted about practicing because it was so fraught when I was growing up. …

If you had told me three or four years ago that I am going to be of my volition driving 30 minutes to temple on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon to go to a Havdalah potluck, I would’ve said, no, I don’t think that’s right. It’s where writing Devotion led me. I want this to be a part of our lives.

Q: You have so many beautiful lines in your book. He was healthy, seizure-free. Untouched by an illness that – like an enormous, nearly extinct bird – had soared across the landscape of our lives, casting its shadow over us before moving on. Do such passages just flow from you naturally or do you sweat over each word?

A: They are kind of the thing you wait for. I labor over all of it. Writing is incredibly hard. When images like that come, they’re like gifts. It doesn’t always happen in a moment where I sit down, and I feel like it’s going to be this a good day. It’s often after many, many hours of frustration.

Q: For me, my journey of faith has been about finding a community to support me in the good and bad times. For you, the journey seems more about developing spirituality within yourself. Where does establishing a community fit into your religious journey?

A: That feels important to me, one of the reasons why we joined a temple as opposed to having a tutor come and getting Jacob ready for a bar mitzvah. I don’t know if a spiritual life can happen completely in a vacuum.

When I was in Los Angeles last week [late February], I was asked to speak in a Unitarian church and read from Devotion as a sermon. The Unitarians don’t talk about God in their service, and they don’t talk about Jesus Christ. God is very pointedly left out of it. It was an extremely spiritual service. It was all about people coming together in order to tap into something larger than themselves, in order to be a part of group of people all struggling, all trying to do better. There was an aspect of the service that had to do with kids being read a story, offering everything from money to groceries to people less fortunate. We all sang Bridge Over Troubled Water. There was no God in it. It was about community. When I have moments like that, that’s when I feel the most connected to what I would call God. Something is connecting all of us, and yet God is never mentioned.

Q: Establishing ritual into our busy lives is hard for all of us. Has anything changed on that score since you wrote your book? I remember well the passage about lighting Sabbath candles.

A: There’s nothing that’s kind of an absolute yes we do this every week kind of thing. That’s partly a reflection of what our lives are like. I have thought I wanted to light Friday night candles. It hasn’t happened. I think it likely will happen at some point. I want it to.

Q: Why is it important for you to create some type of ritual in your family?

A: That was something I found really surprising. It feels like a way to create the sense of meaning to pause for a moment and say, ‘This is important. We’re going to take a moment here.’ Whether it’s a mezuzah on the door or the book of Buddhist wisdom on the kitchen table, where a page gets turned every day. I call it a daily reminder.

Q: How do you explain your use of Buddhist sayings and Jewish rituals to your son Jacob? Do you fear that he might grow up confused on what it means to be Jewish?

I would’ve thought he would grow up confused on what it means to be Jewish when we weren’t doing anything Jewish.

(She then pauses the interview to ask Jacob, who is walking by her, what he thinks. He tells her that he feels “we’re mostly Jewish.”)

Q: What are the attributes that make a temple appealing to you?

A: What makes a temple feel appealing is a kind of realness, a kind of authenticity, a welcoming quality, a sense of inclusiveness. That’s what very much what I felt when I went to the temple we ended up belonging to. [Beth El Synagogue of Torrington, Conn.]

Q: What, besides a rabbi talking about A-Rod as you mentioned in your book, turns you off?

A: Rigidity, a feeling of clubishness, a sense of it being like theater rather than being some place where people are engaged with themselves and each other.

Q: Looking into the future, what do you want for your son in terms of religion?

A: One of the things I realized was I was raised with something. It gave me something to rebel against, something to think about, something that would fly into my head in moments of pain, some place to go in moments of great intensity of life, of pain, grief, mourning and joy. So much of the way I was raised gives me a sense of, ‘This is what you do in these moments.’

Some of the most spiritually kind of confused, bereft people I know are the people who were raised with nothing. At some point in life, we generally want something. It’s one thing to have something and reject it. I wanted him to have something.

Q: Intrigued by your work, I read Slow Motion, your first memoir. It was disturbing, yet fascinating. You were frank about your drug and alcohol use and your affair with an older man. You were hard on yourself, which made it possible, I suspect, for readers to then like your character. Yet, I read that book, and I read Devotion, and it is like meeting two different people. Is the Dani from Slow Motion long gone?

A: It’s an interesting thing to have two memoirs out there in the world. One is very much a memoir of my 20s, and Devotion is very much a story in my mid-40s. My situation may be much more extreme than a lot of people. I wouldn’t say Dani of Slow Motion is long gone. I would say that she’s like Sanskara, a story that’s inside of me. In order to be able to write Slow Motion, I had to feel like I was very far away from that girl. I feel like that girl grew up, thank God.

You can mess up royally in your 20s, and still really recover from it. I’ve seen people really royally mess up in their 40s. It’s a lot harder.

Q: And, of course, what’s next for you in writing? Another novel or more non-fiction?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel like I’m probably going to be talking about Devotion for a while. It’s all I can do to keep up my blog, and to keep up with the incredible mail I’m getting from people from this book.

Q: Are there lessons for other Jews from your book? What are you hoping we glean?

A: I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms as I was writing it. I wasn’t thinking about teaching anybody other than myself. What I really learned was it was the all-or-nothing way I was raised — you’re in or you’re out, you’re Orthodox or you’re nothing — that led me to nothing. Given those two options, nothing was a lot more appealing. I don’t think it has to be that way. There’s a freedom now in knowing that I can have the book of Buddhism on my kitchen table, and I can delve more into my yoga practice. I can take pieces of wisdom from other places and that doesn’t make me less Jewish.

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