The path after leaving a job as White House senior staff is usually pretty clear and well-trodden. You write a memoir full of pithy insights, detailing every informal moment shared with the first family. Fame by association is often used to catapult oneself onto the speaker’s circuit, not to mention the New York Times bestseller list.
Not so, for Sarah Hurwitz. She chose to write her book about Judaism.
Oh… so it’s about Israel? Nope. The Holocaust? Nope.
She wrote the very book she couldn’t find anywhere—because it didn’t exist. The book reads like a personal guide, for adults, revealing the most interesting, profound, and beautiful parts of Judaism.
I first met Sarah Hurwitz at GatherDC’s Beyond the Tent Jewish retreat in 2015. She generously gave her weekend time, away from the intensity of her job as head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama, to be present with our group. She led mediation sessions, reframed and illuminated Shabbat, and shared with us what she had discovered in Judaism that had surprised and delighted her.
Hurwitz had remained on my radar when in 2017, at GatherDC’s alternative Yom Kippur experience in a beer garden, she gave moving and thought-provoking talks, and revealed she was working on a book. I got a copy as quickly as humanly possible!
In the introduction of Hurwitz’s book, titled Why Bother with Judaism, it feels as if she leads us on an intimate tour of her childhood—as if she is pointing and saying,
“See over there? That’s where I tried to talk my way out of Hebrew school!” and,
“That’s where I squirmed through every lengthy service for the high holidays!”
What’s amazing about this introduction is that the reader might suddenly realize, “Hey! This is my childhood neighborhood, too. This is my story, too.” To say Sarah’s Jewish path is relatable is a serious understatement.
Jumping ahead, to her mid-thirties, we arrive at a lonely, boring, Wednesday night where, for a distraction, she turns to an “Introduction to Judaism” class. In this class she makes a startling discovery: Judaism has an incredible amount to offer about ethics, wisdom, and how to lead a meaningful life.
Part One of her book boldly summarizes the five books of the Torah in about six pages—a seemingly impossible achievement, which she accomplishes with clarity and pith. She then goes on to explain, in relevant and accessible language, the key concepts at the beating heart of the text— “in the image,” and caring for the vulnerable, stranger, or immigrant, to name a few. She reminds us that Judaism demands interpretation, debate, and reimagining. Although she started from a place of negative skepticism, she has come to “…understand that the Torah is filled with revolutionary ideas, deep insights into the human condition, and profound moral wisdom.”
In Part Two, she shares her revelation, “. . . Judaism sets a much higher ethical bar than I ever would have thought to set for myself.” This section details Judaism’s ideas and actions for prayer, shabbat, holidays and other rituals. Not to mention, generally becoming a great (or better) person. All these topics are grounded in her own personal experiences, and illuminated through exhaustive research, reading, and grappling with many scholars and experts on these topics.
Hurwitz bravely deconstructs the canon of dense, difficult-to-understand, Jewish writers and thinkers, delivering salient and powerful distillations. These distillations deftly avoid both oversimplification and dryness. Her wit, charm, and vulnerability light up every page, shining with humor and clarity. Here all Along has become a book I have bought and recommended to countless others. And, despite aggressive Marie Kondo-ing, it is nestled proudly and stubbornly in the “reference section” of my bookshelf. It most certainly sparks joy.
Sarah Hurwitz has made a profound contribution to the Jewish literary canon. Hers is a generous invitation to engage with Judaism in a deep and different way. This invitation and thoughtful curation releases you from the burden of surveying thousands of resources yourself. Sarah Hurwitz’s book is a gift to curious minds everywhere, who wonder about the universe of Jewish ideas, wisdom, and meaning.
Special thanks to my three fabulous editors who also happen to be some of the most important women in my life: Olivia Prentzel, Sylvie Mortimer, Trisha McConnell, and Kristin Richards all made this review infinitely better!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.