Dani Shapiro writes poignant, provocative memoir

This 40-something Jewish mother and writer found a lot to love in author Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Devotion. Shapiro, a provocative, frank, and skillful writer, is also a 40-something Jewish mother. She riveted me from start to end with her story about her journey to understand where spirituality fits in her own and her family’s life. Bostonians can hear her in person this week: She will do a reading at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Shapiro, raised as an Orthodox Jew during childhood, abandoned her faith for many years of her adulthood. But when her son Jacob starts asking questions about God, the author decides it is time to explore her beliefs. She checks out Buddhism and yoga and revisits Judaism. She ends up with a mix of the three.

Her book’s poignancy often brings tears to my eyes. I relate strongly to her story because of the losses in my life – and my own search for faith. Shapiro desperately looks for peace partly because of unresolved grief from her father’s death when she was 23, the more recent death of her mother, and her son’s brush with a serious illness.

She writes about her desire to “face sacred moments” and bring ritual into her family’s life. With humor, she chronicles her attempt to establish a candle lighting ritual on the Sabbath. She buys candles, lays out matches, and places her parents’ silver candlesticks on the dining room table.

Writes Shapiro: “Friday evening came and went. Then another. And another. The candles remained unlit. Homework got in the way. We had a dinner reservation. The Red Sox game was on TV. Each week, in the battle between things and time, things kept winning.

I suspect many of us see ourselves when we read that passage, and if we are parents, we again see ourselves when Shapiro and her husband discuss whether to send their child to Sunday school. Their son may be the only Jew in his public school and his exposure to Judaism at home or elsewhere is minimal. Still, Shapiro’s husband is not thrilled about the idea of Sunday school given he hated his religious school experience. Shapiro, who spent her childhood in a yeshiva, responds that everyone has that sentiment.
The family searches for a temple, and Shapiro, in a sense, gives her readers a road map on how to add spirituality to their lives. I strongly recommend this book as a provocative, moving read. I was unfamiliar with Shapiro’s work before this, so went back and read her first memoir, Slow Motion, published in 1998.

Her first memoir chronicles her tumultuous 20s. She uses drugs, is an alcoholic, and is the mistress to the stepfather of her best friend in college. She drops out of college to pursue an acting career and lives largely off of her boyfriend. Pair that memoir with her new one, and Shapiro’s transformation seems all the more amazing. I could not put either book down for different reasons. Devotion was a story of faith from a mature, thoughtful woman. Slow Motion was a story of self-destruction and finally, redemption.

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