by Judy Gruen
She Writes Press, 2017
If you ever go to a large bookstore you will find that one of the most popular sections is travel writing. Such books describe the challenges inherent in moving from place to place while also speaking about the beauty of seeing and experiencing places of beauty and wonder. However, travelling is only one form of journeying, and there are many journeys that while not requiring a passport, can take a person to a destination very far from where they began.
It is noteworthy that while the Torah speaks of physical journeys and hazardous travels, it places far greater emphasis on the spiritual journeys taken by our great biblical figures, and though hard to find, I am drawn to the kind of books that discuss this second category of life-journey. Such books are personal, meaningful, and can offer the reader wisdom and inspiration which they can apply to their own lives and share with others.
Judy Gruen’s The Skeptic and the Rabbi is a rare example of a memoir that is personal, meaningful, and jam-packed with wisdom and inspiration. It is a book about the life-journey of one woman – a ba’alat teshuva – who returns to her tradition, while also being a book that can speak to anyone who has undergone such a journey, and especially anyone who is currently on that journey.
Like so many American Jews, Gruen grew up with conflicting messages about her Jewish identity. One set of her grandparents no longer believed in G-d, while the other were fervent believers while often remarking how ‘shver tzu zayn a yid’ which, as Gruen observes, was both a very understandable yet deadly motto which ‘undoubtedly sparked countless thousands of intermarriages’.
Gruen wished to maintain a connection with her faith and was scared that she would remain a spiritual adolescent for the rest of her life. But as she put it, she wanted more ‘joie de vivre’ than ‘oy de vivre’ while, at the same time, she was concerned whether the Torah could be relevant to her life and anxious that any change that she would make would be chosen by her and not pushed by others.
Encouraged by her soon to be husband Jeff, and inspired by the extraordinary RabbiDaniel Lapin, Gruen began her journey of return, and in The Skeptic and the Rabbi we join Gruen on her journey of ups and downs, highs and lows.
Unlike others who have begun a similar journey, Gruen was blessed to have access to an incredibly dynamic and approachable teacher, and she speaks with great fondness of the wisdom she learnt from Rabbi Lapin and how he encouraged her to ask questions that she had not previously thought about. However, this did not make some of her struggles any easier, and much of the book concerns the challenge of growing religiously while making sure that each religious step was an authentic expression because, ‘you have to be you-ish to be Jewish’.
In The Skeptic and the Rabbi the reader is treated to descriptions of Gruen’s ‘big fat Orthodox wedding’, the challenge of being orthodox with non-orthodox parents, the quest to find a shul that is inclusive and inspiring, the difficulties of addressing the laws of kosher wine to non-Jews, how to explain the concept of a ‘kosher lamp’, the fact that children of ba’alei teshuva will know much more Torah than their parents, and the challenges faced by married ba’alot teshuvah when deciding to cover their hair.
The Skeptic and the Rabbi is an easy yet tender read. It is light yet heavy, particular yet universal, and it will bring a smile to your face and likely move you – like me – to laugh out loud on numerous occasions.
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