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Thursday, April 02, 2020

 

Finding Faith with Grace: Interview with memoirist Judy Gruen

Interview by Dorit Sasson

Judy Gruen is the author of three award-winning humor books, and co-author of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and many other media outlets. She has written about culture and society, Jewish spirituality and family life for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Aish.com, Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Jewish Action and The Wisdom Daily. She is a public speaker, developmental editor and writing coach.

If you haven't done so already, check out Judy's highly acclaimed memoir The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.

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WOW: Congratulations on all the success with your extremely well-written and very relatable and humorous memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith, which I loved. I'm so curious to know... how has the book resonated with all different sects of the Jewish faith?

Judy: It’s resonated most with Jews who are already religiously observant, or who are on that path. However, I hoped to reach more non-Orthodox and non-Jews, to clear up many common misconceptions about what Orthodox life is like and to combat the nasty stereotypes and out-of-proportion media attention on the real problems within Orthodox communities. My goal was to offer a true, positive but not sugar-coated look at living a life of deeper Jewish engagement. Fortunately, I have found that the book has a big pass-around readership, and I hope that anyone who is interested in memoirs about meaningful life quests and faith stories will give it a shot.

WOW: As you know, memoir is an exercise in telling the truth, but it's also about getting the reader to care. Assuming that not every reader was Jewish and Jewish Orthodox, what did you do from a craft perspective, to get your reader to care about your very personal spiritual journey?

Judy: I wrote this book the same way I wrote my previous humor books and hundreds and hundreds of personal essays, which was to try to come across as authentic and therefore, relatable from a universal standpoint. Happily, I have heard from (and been reviewed by) Christians who also related to my story because they chose to follow a more serious faith journey of their own.

In writing about the struggle to figure out what my life should look like, trying to figure out where I belonged on the Jewish religious spectrum, I knew that I was writing about things that many people contend with: do I follow the life path that I had always envisioned, even if I begin to discover that this isn’t the best, or truest way? These are hard, hard questions, but also universal ones.

Too many spiritual memoirs can feel heavy, and I added as much humor as possible, to keep things light. Readers appreciate it when writers poke gentle fun at themselves and don’t take themselves too seriously.

WOW: How did you find time to care and write about the earlier parts of your spiritual journey? What was your Big Why?

Judy: I wrestled with the idea of this book for a few years before I decided to face my fears and write it. I knew I had to do it, though, when I saw one memoir after another getting published that really bashed Jewish Orthodoxy. These were written by people who had left their communities in pain and resentment, and while I don’t judge any of them for publishing their stories, I could not allow their stories to speak for me. Because in journalism, “if it bleeds, it leads,” those memoirs were the only ones associated with Jewish Orthodoxy that were also garnering attention in the secular media. It skewed the picture horribly.

Meanwhile, people like me, who were brought “into the fold” by successful Jewish outreach efforts, and who have come from more secular backgrounds, have changed the face of modern Orthodoxy through our participation and raising Torah-observant families. Our stories, which have been so consequential, were not being told, and when they were, the non-Orthodox media covered their eyes and ears. They didn’t want stories about the benefits of traditional religious life.

WOW: Are there any parts of your spiritual journey that you are still struggling with?

Judy: There is always struggle in life, and this includes in a spiritual life. The longer I have lived this life, the more I appreciate the brilliant framework Judaism provides for me, spiritually, morally and psychologically. The things I struggle with most reflect my own inadequacies, such as my inconsistencies with a daily prayer practice. I’m always, always happy when I take the time for prayers but I’ve been weak with that discipline. And of course I am pained and perplexed by the amount of tragedy, violence, illness and other calamities in life. I believe most people of faith struggle with the tension between our belief in God having a reason for everything on one hand, and the unfathomable nature of all the pain and suffering in life on the other.

WOW: What was the biggest takeaway you wanted for your readers after reading your memoir?

Judy: My hope is that readers will be willing to question the conventional wisdom they have lived with, perhaps for many years, particularly if those assumptions minimized or demeaned the ideas, framework, and values of a God-centered life. Our society has become more and more secularized, yet anxiety and loneliness are epidemic. Environmental doomsday-ism has become a new religion. Everyone wants to believe in something bigger than themselves, but there has been no good substitute for the kind of God-based morality and ethics we have had for thousands of years.

While every religious community has problems, a healthy God-centered religion offers spiritual nourishment that we need to thrive: a sense of identity and purpose that teaches both the preciousness of the individual while also teaching that there is something far greater beyond ourselves; self-discipline and encouragement of doing for others; respect for traditional marriage and family; and the opportunity for transcendence. A connection with God is a gift that can be reclaimed as one’s rightful inheritance.

WOW: Do you have tips for our readers who are struggling to write a memoir?

Judy: I sure do. When writing a memoir, ask yourself, “Who am I at the beginning of the story and how have I changed by the end?” Answering that question will provide an important structure for your narrative. A memoir requires a sustained focus on an aspect or period of your life that was transformative.

Second, write your first draft for you, to say everything you want to say. Then edit mercilessly to make your book appealing to the reader. My memoir is about 65,000 words and allowed me to tell the amount of story I needed to make my point and also to hold a reader’s interest. I’ve had clients give me memoir manuscripts to edit that tip the scales at more than 150,000 words, but in this age of information overload, a shorter book will ultimately be a more salable, interesting and focused book.

I highly recommend the wonderful book, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser. It includes terrific interviews with some of the best-known modern memoirists, including Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, and Toni Morrison. Time spent in reading this book will be time very well spent for the aspiring memoirist.

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Interviewed by Dorit Sasson whose upcoming memoir Sand and Steel: A Memoir of Longing and Coming Home will be released later this year by Mascot Books. Her first memoir is Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces.

Dorit is an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. Her workshop Transform Your Memories into Memoir in 5 Weeks starts June 3rd.

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