Why Secular-to-Orthodox Memoirs Matter
“Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
This quote from Ann Patchett sums up my feelings about writing — and it’s also how I feel about my chosen religious lifestyle. I grew up in a secular Jewish home and, as a young adult, was drawn to tradition and community; at the same time, I wrestled with the particulars of observance and identity. Today I find both solace and angst in living a Modern Orthodox life, a solace and angst not unlike the kind that bubbles up when I sit down to write.
Last week, Rabbi Avi Shafran posed a question I have often thought about: “” “Those OTD books” refers to published memoirs by “off the derech” Jews — those who have discontinued their Orthodox practice, sometimes physically leaving their former communities. Shafran points to an influx of people moving in the opposite direction, away from a secular life and towards Orthodoxy, and wonders, “Why [are there] no vivid descriptions of what impelled them toward traditional Jewish observance?”
To his own poignant question, Shafran offers two answers, both of which I partially agree with and also find incomplete: one, that Judaism frowns upon “‘settling scores’ or pointless negativity, particularly toward parents,” and two, that those who have moved to Orthodoxy “feel no compulsion to look back — they’re just happy to be home.”
Shafran’s analysis is incomplete because, first of all, there are indeed memoirs about becoming Orthodox, from my friend Matthue Roth’s “Yom Kippur A Go-Go” to Jennifer Traig’s “Devil in the Details,” not to mention all the memoirs on the shelves of Jewish bookstores like Eichler’s. (Open the search parameters beyond Orthodoxy and of course you’ll find even more, like “Surprised by God” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, another friend of mine.) Still, his question remains striking. This is a sliver of a subset of a genre, with titles that fly less readily to mind than “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman or Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament.”
The other reason Shafran’s answer is incomplete is because not only Jewish considerations block secular-to-Orthodox memoirs from the light of day, but also writerly ones. Ultimately, an Orthodox would-be memoirist is simply a would-be memoirist. Yes, honoring one’s parents is a deeply held Jewish value — but many writers struggle with how to remain true to their story while remaining respectful of their loved ones. That balancing act is a near-impossible task, and it’s not a uniquely Jewish one.
As for Shafran’s suggestion that those who have moved to Orthodoxy feel no compulsion to look back… well, it’s not true in my case, and I suspect that I’m not alone.
But, again, the question is: So where are all the books?
Here are five worries that may cause someone who became Orthodox to stop writing their memoir, or to never start — and why they should keep going anyway.
The premise stinks. Yep, it’s true. Becoming religious doesn’t have the punch of tension and conflict — on the surface — that leaving religion does. But don’t give up if that’s the story you have to tell. Figure out what the conflict and tension was for you. It’s more than “I was unhappy” — figure out why.
The mainstream publishing world isn’t interested. A commenter on Shafran’s piece pointed out that secular publishers would be hesitant to publish these books because the readership is limited, it might seem, to an Orthodox audience. I say no way. It’s only limited to an Orthodox audience if you write only for an Orthodox audience. Open it up. What is universal about your story? What will readers of any kind take away from your experiences?
Everyone in your life will be upset. While this is something all memoirists face, it might feel acute for people who are already navigating two tender sets of relationships: their friends and family from before their journey, and their current Orthodox community. Just start to write, privately. See how it goes. Don’t censor yourself out of writing a first draft — you may find your answers as the memoir unfurls.
Your story is of an imperfect “return.” Maybe you’re like me and you’re hesitant to be a poster child for Orthodox Judaism. Maybe you’re not always completely on board with your choices. Great. That’s great memoir. Write it down.
Why does it matter? It matters because you are a human being who has gone on an extraordinary journey, and your life is wildly different now than it was or five or ten or forty years ago. You see the world through the lens of this story, and you feel deeply that there is something about this way of seeing — this way of being — that others should know about too. And you’re right. We all grow when we learn to see the world through each other’s eyes.
Recently, I was sitting next to a young woman who isn’t Jewish. It was beginning to rain and I had a long walk home without an umbrella, because it was a holiday and in accordance with my not-so-new lifestyle, I don’t use an umbrella on holidays. “Why can’t you use an umbrella?” asked the young woman, reasonably enough, and the flood of thoughts that barreled through me rendered me initially speechless. Where would I start? How could I explain through this one instance the beauty of keeping these laws, while acknowledging the occasional brush with the absurd? When this conversation was over, what would she think of religious Judaism? Or of me? Secretly I wished I could use an umbrella… could I admit that while remaining an ambassador to this life?
I answered the way that I write, the way any writer writes: one sentence at a time.
Julie Sugar is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.