While there have been a spate of stories detailing the lives of those who left Jewish observance, people often wonder, where are the memoirs for those who have returned? Enter award-winning author and humorist Judy Gruen, a passionate ba’alas teshuva whose memoir The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith presents her personal journey, complete with laughs, tears, and everything in between.
Gruen, who grew up in a Conservative home in the San Fernando Valley was raised with a strong attachment to Judaism, much of which was a result of her close relationship to her grandparents. “They had the connection to Judaism. They had the connection to peoplehood and history, and I knew that there was something very deep and moving about it.” At the same time, her grandparents lived by an all too common Yiddish phrase “It’s hard to be a Jew,” a notion which made Gruen ask herself “if it’s so hard to be a Jew, why are any of us going to do it?”
As she details in her book, Gruen’s Jewish exploration came to a head when she met her eventual husband while studying at Berkeley. He had already become observant and Gruen dived headfirst into the material, but it certainly was not easy. “I prided myself on the liberal and feminist label. I was very emotionally invested in those terms, and I did not see Torah as being consistent with them. Of course, I didn’t know anything either, I didn’t know all of the dignity that was taught and ideally practiced for women, for individuals, I didn’t know it, I just had these misconceptions.” Unfortunately for many people beginning to explore their Jewish heritage, these misconceptions often hold them back from truly engaging with the material, but throughout her journey, Gruen had many notable experiences which defied those preconceived notions. She describes an intimate Shabbos experience as “this oasis in time, making space for the sacred. This is beautiful, this is peaceful. I want this too.”
However, the process of taking her experiences and feelings from her mind onto the printed page was not so straightforward. “The only stories that we are getting out to the secular audience and the non-Jewish world that came from an Orthodox place were these very pained stories.” The media has been inundated with these aforementioned stories of people leaving their observant roots, painting an expose of the hardships entailed in leading a religious life and growing up in what some consider to be insular communities. Gruen actually encourages people to share these cathartic stories because they are an integral part of reality and the human experience, but she also wants to do so with a level of tact and sensitivity: “Yes there are people who walk away, but there are people, tens of thousands of us over the past decades, who have said hello, not goodbye, and are happy to have done so.”
Gruen is passionate about sharing her story and truly believes that it is a memoir not just for Jews, but “for anyone who is considering their true spiritual North.” In fact, during the publishing process, she went to specifically non-Jewish editors in order to ensure that the book could appeal to the widest possible audience. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with the most poignant responses actually coming from readers of other faiths. She once received an incredibly encouraging note from a fan: “A first generation American finding his path to G-d, and he said how much he felt empowered by the book on his road to faith.” Even though drumming up publicity may be difficult due to media bias, the author keeps a positive attitude because of responses like this.
All in all, she emphasizes that she is “Not trying to convert anybody, just trying to explain and show the thought process, what it’s like kind of integrating into this life.” These are the kinds of stories that need to be told. These are the stories that can encourage growth and break down the negative stereotypes that are all too prevalent.