The best Jewish book, according to me
Nothing but five stars (of David!) for Sarah Hurwitz's Here All Along.
“There is no right way to engage with Judaism—we just have to dive in and get started. We can’t leave the future of Judaism solely to rabbis, scholars, and Jewish professionals. While experts can certainly lead the way, the rest of us have to participate too, because…we may not like what they create.”
—Sarah Hurwitz, Here All Along
This is just one of the many quotes from Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life-in Judaism by Sarah Hurwitz that connected me even more deeply to my Judaism, if you can imagine. That’s why I’m deeming this the best book on Judaism!
But first, thanks to everyone who attended the first Drop’s book club! Our connection and love of Judaism extended from California to England as we discussed the book. For some juicy insights from our conversation, peep the bottom of this post, and be on the lookout for the next meeting. Have any book recommendations? Comment below!
I’m the first to admit this 4,000-year-old culture can be intimidating depending on your knowledge or experience. There’s so much history, holidays, and rules to remember and observe. How does one remember them all? Why are they so important to know? And most importantly, must we follow all of them to live an ideal life?
Part Judaism 101, part manual as to why it’s cool to care about being Jewish, this guidebook answers those questions throughout the following sections: the Torah, G-d, mitzvot, becoming a better person, prayer, Shabbat, holidays, and life-cycle traditions but mostly death. I’d also like to point out that Hurwitz, a former speechwriter for the Obamas and Hillary Clinton, didn’t connect to her Judaism until 36 so it’s never too late, people!
Here are my biggest takeaways from the book:
G-d doesn’t have to be a bearded man in the sky.
This topic came at the perfect time, as I’ve been having conversations with my colleagues (hi, Hannah and Eliana!) about G-d not being a man, and the Shechinah, the divine feminine. These conversations, and Hurwitz’s chapter on the various beliefs of G-d, challenged me to think beyond what I’ve been conditioned to believe. The views range from G-d being radically transcendent (Maimonides suggests that G-d is beyond human comprehension and completely separate from the created world, emphasizing the importance of understanding G-d through “His” actions and attributes as revealed in the Torah, rather than attempting to grasp “His” essence directly) to being all good but not all powerful (my favorite interpretation, even though I sometimes feel silly believing it, but that’s a whole other Drop). There’s more views than you’d expect, but you have to read the book to catch ‘em all. Maybe G-d is a Pokémon!
Study is a prerequisite for meaningful prayer.
In my Reform upbringing, we learned the songs, and they stick with you for life. You find yourself singing them automatically at shul, without even thinking about their meaning. Hurwitz talks about how study is a form of worship. It’s one thing to recite the Modeh Ani, but it’s another to understand what you’re grateful for (G-d restoring your soul after sleep). Rabbi Louis Finkelstein said, “When I pray I talk to G-d. When I study, G-d talks to me.” Like her G-d chapter, Hurwitz’s chapter on prayer taught me there’s more than one way to connect to G-d.
A refresher on the holidays but in a whole new way.
Hurwitz explains the significance of each major Jewish holiday in a way I wish I learned them in Hebrew school. Like how Passover “is the night on which we tell our children who they are.” Okay, that’s a Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quote, but Hurwitz delivered it to me on a silver platter, or in a matzoh ball soup bowl.
She also gave Sukkot, a holiday I’ve never felt connected to, a whole new meaning for me, by describing how while Rosh Hashanah may inscribe us in the Book of Life, Sukkot doesn’t guarantee that life will be pleasant or easy. Sukkot urges us to rejoice in whatever a life may look like, surrounded by people we love, delighted to simply be alive, and nothing else really matters beyond that.
Another delicious takeaway from her book is that the holidays reveal to us Jewish history, ethics, and deeper meaning that should be carried out throughout the rest of the year, not to just be celebrated and then forgotten until next year. For example, Passover teaches us to help the oppressed and Sukkot teaches us to take the bad with the good.
Shabbat isn’t just a rest from creation; it’s a creation of sacred time.
Okay, I didn’t learn anything new in the Shabbat chapter. But the way Hurwitz lists the benefits of Shabbat will make any reader turn off their phones at candle-lighting time and surrender their control over their lives to Shabbat. Am I going to list the benefits? You bet. Shabbat:
can help us stop being such control freaks and just let go for a change.
can help us fight consumerism, materialism, and workaholism.
can be a mini-holiday that injects joy into our lives each week.
can help us connect with ourselves.
can help us connect with others.
offers a vision of the world as it should be, inspiring us to improve the world as it is.
“G-d stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful only once we stop creating it and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place.” —Vilna Gaon
Lastly, you’re not alone on this journey.
Hurwitz’s anecdotes were so relatable, I found myself writing in the margins, “YES!!!” Like when she describes being on a Jewish meditation retreat and her attempt at Hitbodedut, or speaking to G-d in an unstructured manner. I had the same exact experience in 2018, but I didn’t know that practice had a name at the time.
In the Torah chapter she says that when she first read the Torah, she read it for plot. My friends and I did the very same thing, asking each other, “What’s with the talking donkey?” when the point is to extract deeper meaning. And I’ve learned there’s much meaning—and interpretation—to be found!
Lastly, Hurwitz makes the point that she’s writing a book on Judaism even though she isn’t fully observant. I often feel this way too since I write a Jewish blog and don’t keep all the mitzvot (like Jewish Imposter Syndrome). But observance level isn’t a good way to measure one’s Judaism, since once could keep kosher but frequently gossip and lie. Rather, Hurwitz emphasizes there are many ways to be a committed Jew and what matters is improving the world through Jewish values.
As for the book club discussion, even though we had different backgrounds and levels of Judaism, we all came from a place of wanting to pick and choose and not feel guilty for it! It was like Jewish group therapy!
Someone made a beautiful point that people have different learning abilities, so why can’t people have different views of Judaism and interpretations that are unique and personal to them? We liked Hurwitz’s book because she recommends this while still respecting tradition.
Someone else suggested that instead of thinking “G-d wants us to keep mitzvot,” think of Judaism as more of a guide for our lives, like Shabbat is for us, not for G-d. Picking and choosing is really for ourselves to incorporate on our journey. And lastly, Judaism isn’t all or nothing, something I write about often here!
Shabbat Shalom. May it benefit you in some way,