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Sarah Hurwitz and Alex Edelman: On Introducing Judaism

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SUMMARY

This series is sponsored by an anonymous lover of books. 

This episode is sponsored by Twillory. Use the coupon code 18Forty to get $18 off of all orders more than $139. 

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to returning guest comedian Alex Edelman, whose show has made it to Broadway, and his chavrusa, Sarah Hurwitz, former White House speechwriter and the author of Here All Along, about how to introduce people to a Judaism that is both inclusive and rigorous. 

In this episode we discuss: 

  • How does Alex Edelman write a one-man show “chavrusa-style”?
  • What, according to Sarah Hurwitz, is the difference between “writing to be read” and “writing to be heard”?
  • How does a writer bring a rich and relevant body of Jewish knowledge to the masses? 

Tune in to hear a conversation about the “neon entrance signs” of Jewish life and how every Jew can find a way into appreciating their inheritance.

Alex Edelman interview begins at 13:32.

Sarah Hurtwitz interview begins at 54:09. 

Alex Edelman is a product of Massachusetts’s Maimonides School and has been featured on Conan and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In 2020, he was the head writer and executive producer of the “Saturday Night Seder” YouTube extravaganza, which raised over $3.5 million for the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. His show Just For Us is running on Broadway! While nights tend to sell out quickly, tickets are available here.

Sarah Hurwitz is an American speechwriter. Sarah was a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, and head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama from 2010 to 2017, and was appointed to serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by Barack Obama shortly before he left the White House. Sarah is the author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

References:

Failure Goes to Yeshivah: What I’ve Learned From the Failure Narratives of My Students” by David Bashevkin

This Is My God by Herman Wouk

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories by Nathan Englander 

White nights: The story of a prisoner in Russia by Menachem Begin

The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik

God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories by Etgar Keret 

From Text to Tradition, a History of Judaism in Second Temple and Rabbinic Times: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism by Lawrence H. Schiffman 

To the End of the Land by David Grossman

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There) by Sarah Hurwitz

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

David Bashevkin: 
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring books, books, books. Thank you so much to our series sponsor and old friend who chooses to remain anonymous. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

First, I need to thank our episode sponsor. It’s something new. We usually don’t have corporate sponsorships. We usually have people listeners who dedicate episodes, but we welcome all sorts of sponsorships. It really helps us do what we’re doing. And our episode sponsor actually comes from an old friend who I worked with many, many years ago in Jewish outreach together in Birthright, really special, and he built an incredible company that I know personally called Twillory, which is spelled T-W-I-L-L-O-R-Y.com, T-W-I-L-L-O-R-Y.com. Twillory.com that has amazing stuff. I personally am a huge fan of their joggers, their sports jacket. I wear it all the time, have a bunch of their shirts, which are all absolutely fantastic.

And special to our listeners, you can get $18 off of all orders, more than $139. Just use the coupon code 18Forty, 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y when you check out. They do great work. It’s a really special company. If you’re looking for some great shirts, great joggers, great sports jackets, or all the other swag to make yourself look dapper as ever as you are reading your books outside on the porch or wherever you’re vacationing or late at night, just relaxing, again, twillory.com, use the coupon code 18Forty. And we are so grateful for their sponsorship of the episode.

This is a special July 4th episode. We always do books, books, books over the summer, and there are different forms of books, different type of books. And the reason why this episode is a little bit unusual is because we have two separate interviews in one episode. It had to do a little bit with scheduling. I wasn’t sure if one of the guests, my dear friend Alex Edelman, I would be able to schedule it properly, but we’re grouping them together. And as you will hear on the conversation with Alex, he’s actually chavrusas, he learns together with Sarah Hurwitz. I know them both really, really well, and they both represent something to me at least, which is so important. I’ve written about it and I’ve spoken about it, and that is building entryways into Jewish identity, Jewish thought that are rigorous, substantive, but are able to reach people who maybe aren’t centrally located within the Orthodox community, within the Jewish community and building what I like to call neon entry signs.

I wrote an article many years ago for Jewish Action, and I’m very proud of it. I think I wrote it maybe five or so years ago. It’s called “Failure Goes to Yeshivah: What I’ve Learned From the Failure Narratives of My Students.” I teach a class in Yeshivah University. I teach many classes. One of the classes I teach is on religious crisis, on rebuilding your own religious identity. And I ended the article as follows and it’s something I come back to over and over again, not just in the context of 18Forty when I’m visiting, when I’m speaking to people, when I’m thinking about how to construct our community. And I conclude the article on the following note, I write, “For fire safety, most buildings require neon exit signs. Our communal institutions need brighter entrance signs, and as we develop more classroom schools, shuls and even podcasts, I hope our entrances continue to outshine our exits.”

You can look up in any room, in any office building, you always have those neon exit signs. And I think sometimes in our community, unfortunately, there are too many neon exit signs, where they have reasons to leave and not enough reasons to stay. And we need neon entrance signs, creative ways to build entry points for people to engage in Jewish life in rigorous ways and thoughtful ways and self-reflective ways. I think the model of this many, many years ago, but it’s a classic and it’s everything that we’re talking about today is building new doorways to engage in Jewish life is the book first published in 1959, This Is My God by Herman Wouk. I think I’m pronouncing his last name correctly, but send in letters. I got so many letters after attempting to pronounce Jorge Borges. Did I do it better this time? Did I emphasize the S? People were outraged, so I’m always hesitant to pronounce people’s last names. Wouk is a tricky one, W-O-U-K.

He wrote a book called, This Is My God, in 1959. He was obviously, not obviously, but at the time quite obviously really like a celebrity. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for the book, The Caine Mutiny, which had come out eight years earlier in 1951 where there were movies that were based on his books and really was like a titan. And it was really fascinating to see somebody in the public square engage so openly with their own Jewish identity. There is one quote that always, always sticks with me. It’s such a powerful quote, and I just want to give a shout-out to Herman Wouk. I don’t want to say we’ve abandoned him, but I think we may have forgotten about him or we don’t remember him enough. Let me call it like it… We don’t remember him enough and how important, again, he died in 2019. He was over a 100. He was 103, I believe.

And his book, This Is My God, which again, it’s been a while since I read it. I can’t sign off on any passage. I don’t sign off on any passage of any book that I necessarily recommend, but as a neon entrance sign for what was going on in the time in the late 1950s of having people come and say, “Wow, Herman Wouk, this person won a Pulitzer Prize, there are movies based on his books, and he’s engaging so publicly with Jewish identity.” I believe in that. I believe we need more of that. We sometimes are willing to rest on our laurels of the core of our community that we’ve built over the last half a century or so, which is frankly incredible, the level of education that we’ve spoken about. But there are so many who they don’t have an entryway. The core of our community, the core of the Orthodox community, particularly in America, sometimes it’s hard to get in. The language is hard for a lot of people to even understand the basic class.

They go on to any of the websites even to understand the very basics. It could be hard to have an entry point, and we need more neon entrance signs for people to really reflect and engage in their Jewish life. And this is a quote from Herman Wouk that always stayed with me. It’s so powerful. He writes, “That religious people tend to encounter among those who are not a cemented certainty that belief in God is a crutch for the weak and the fearful. Now the belief in God may turn out to be the last trump to be a mistake. Meanwhile, let us be quite clear, it is not merely the comfort of the simple, though it is that too much to its glory. It is a formidable intellectual position with which most of the first class minds of the human race century in and century out have concurred each in his own way.”

Speaking of crutches, and this is powerful, he really says it. Freud can be a crutch. Marx can be a crutch, rationalism can be a crutch, and atheism can be two canes and a pair of iron braces. None of us have all the answers, nor are we likely to have. But in the country of the halt, the man who is surest, he has no limp, may be the worst crippled. It’s an incredible making a case for rigorous Jewish life, Jewish identity, Jewish thought, Jewish learning, and people who are making that case each in their own way, I’m not comparing any of our guests today, but I do look at all of these as neon entry signs. They may not be the way that the center of our community engages primarily in thinking about their Jewish life, but we have to have appreciation. I think we should have appreciation, and we also should know what entry points we have.

All of us have family, we have friends who are looking for entry points into Jewish life. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked like, “Hey, somebody in my life wants to know more about Judaism.” Maybe it’s a coworker, maybe it’s somebody who tangentially, a neighbor, whatever it is, and it’s sad, as I said, neighbor, I think part of what has shaped our community is that it’s become more and more rare, particularly in the tri-state area, to even have a neighbor who is not a part of the central, highly educated Jewish community. That’s another thing. We just need to be aware of how much has changed and how important it is to remind ourselves of these neon entrance signs that we build into Jewish life and Jewish learning in rigorous ways. And those entry signs, especially in the generation that we live, should be creative, should be thoughtful.

It’s not always going to work to just take something written in the same language because it’s in English and say, “Huh, try this.” It needs to reflect some of the sensitivities and sensibilities of people who were not raised centrally within the Jewish world. And that’s why I’m excited about both of these conversations, and I’m excited that we’re having them both. We’re juxtaposing them next to each other. They’re two very different perspectives, but two people who I believe have really dedicated their careers in creative ways to bringing the joy of rigorous Jewish learning out to the masses. These are people who have profiles that exist far beyond a niche part of the Jewish community. One, Sarah, who I know, who I met at a Jewish Week conference that they used to run many, many years ago, and I met her along with my cousin Alti Carper, and I also happened to have met Shulem Dean. And we all kind of hit it off from very different vantage points.

I’m a Long Island Yeshiva educated Jew, Alti’s a Lower East Side. We’ve had her as a guest editor at Chakin. Shulem, grew up in New Square and later left the Hasidic community. And Sarah grew up, as you’ll hear, definitely not in the centrally located Jewish community. And she worked in the White House as a speech writer. She was a speech writer for Michelle Obama, really at the higher echelons of political power. And what was her move after the White House? She wrote a book on Judaism, and we actually have mutual friends, a fellow podcaster, but I really know him as a friend before he was podcasting, even a mentor of sorts, David Lichtenstein. I was one time at his house for Shabbos, and I wish I could go back there, David, if you’re listening or any of your friends are listening, God willing, we’ll make it happen again.

But I used to go there quite frequently with my dear, dear friend Moishy. And I remember one of the last time that I was there, I don’t even think Moishy was there. I was just there with my wife and family. And he said, we were talking about who else has been around this shabbas table. It’s kind of like this epic pilgrimage. It’s a very special shabbas table, always questions, conversation, debate. And he said, “Ah, we had Sarah Hurwitz last week.” And I was like, “Sarah Hurwitz.” It was just such a crossing to imagine. And she’s not a part of the community where David lives, but it was charming, one of the most curious, rigorous, thoughtful Jews that I’ve ever met. And she happens to learn with another friend who I’ve never interacted with them together. My now friend Alex Edelman. Alex was on the podcast two years ago for our Purim episode.

He has a show called Just For Us, which was a one man show that is now debuting on Broadway, which is a very big deal. Anytime I open up Facebook and I’m walking the street, I see billboards ads for it all the time. He’s an incredibly gifted comedian who was raised kind of centrally within the Modern Orthodox community, but now he’s on a very different stage and in a very different place in his life, but it’s still very much informs who he is and what he shares. And I spoke to both of them about their writing process. They both write in different ways. Alex writes shows, Sarah is a speech writer, but we spoke about the process of writing and the role that Jewish identity plays in their life. I found the conversation absolutely illuminating. I hope you do as well. So without further ado, our first conversation with my friend Alex Edelman.

I appreciate the time you took to speak together. It does mean a lot to me. And you have a show that is debuting on Broadway and we’re covering this month books, books, books, which is really talking about books, writing, creative output. We’re talking to different forms of artists. And I guess I wanted to start with your process, not of getting the show on Broadway, but what does your writing process look like to originally create this show? Did you write out the entire script for the show word for word? Do you have sitting somewhere like an actual script?

Alex Edelman: 
No.

David Bashevkin: 
Does it vary from night to night? What’s the process like?

Alex Edelman: 
No, no, that’s not how I work. I work chavrusa style, that’s how I write. I write with someone I sit and argue with, and that’s how I do it.

David Bashevkin: 
Who is your chavrusa for this?

Alex Edelman: 
Well, my chavrusa is a lovely guy named Adam Brace, who died about six weeks ago actually. It’s been very tough, but he was my closest friend, and obviously I’m devastated. But there are other, Mike Birbiglia is a comedian who is really good about that. But even audiences, comedy is a process of refining. Comedy is 10% writing, then 90% editing. That’s how it works. So I write an idea that’s sort of like a bullet point. God, I wish I had one of my notebooks near me, but I write an idea as a bullet point and hold on, I’ll share my screen. How’s that?

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah, please.

Alex Edelman: 
This is a joke that I’m working on about how, I don’t know how much money costs in old movies whenever they’re like, “That’ll be $9,” in a black and white movie. I’m like, “Is that enough for a horse? Is it enough for a house? Is it enough for dinner? Is it enough for one bar of candy? I don’t know. Is it a box of milk duds? Is it a single dud?” So it’s just an idea. It will most likely be nothing because how many pages are in this master list? One second. Oh my God. There are 86 pages of bullet points.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh wow. That is quite, and you’re scrolling through now. I’m watching you do this. I see some bold words jumping out at me, but yeah, I can’t really read the jokes, but I see this is a lot of free form, eye contact at Chipotle. That’s what I see right there.

Alex Edelman: 
Yeah, you make eye contact at Chipotle. Oh, this is not a joke. It’s a recommendation. Someone said, “You’re sad. You should listen to Anderson Cooper. Talk to Stephen Colbert.” Oh, this is my, I said to my mom, “You know what, the number one place to go before you die is?” And she went “A hospital.” And it was just a line, but I jot it down because it is funny, right? It is a funny thing. And then these ideas, sometimes they’re thoughts that you know. A friend of mine was in a UOC fight and he won in the first minute and it took a long time to get to the fight. And so basically…

David Bashevkin: 
There was some disappointment that your friend won so quickly.

Alex Edelman: 
Yes. We sat in traffic for an hour, and he was in trouble for 38 seconds. And how we should get all of our money back.

David Bashevkin: 
This isn’t why you’re showing me this document. And I hope you won’t begrudge me for noticing, but I can’t help but be somewhat moved that I see. Number one, Sefaria Shabbos 31A is a tab that seems to be either be in your recent history or open, and you have something from Chabad.org, why two versions. I don’t know-

Alex Edelman: 
What is this?

David Bashevkin: 
Two versions. Why two versions of the 10 Commandments? That’s literally on your screen. I don’t know what you’ve been up to if that’s part of the show.

Alex Edelman: 
It’s not part of the show, but it is. Yeah. But look, I have my interests and my interests are diffuse, but some of them, there are other interests in that bookmark bar. But yeah, I do use Sefaria. Your listeners will be familiar with Sefaria, obviously, right?

David Bashevkin: 
Very much so. A part of this series is we are speaking to the founder of Sefaria, Josh Foer, who’s really, really a hero of the Jewish people’s. Done a lot of incredible work.

Alex Edelman: 
I’ve just did a class at Lehrhaus, which is this tavern in Boston. I just love Josh. I think he’s the type of visionary leadership that we need to advance Jewish learning and advance Jewish thought. And look, the reason I want to do your podcast again.

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah. Why did you want to do my podcast? You’re a busy guy.

Alex Edelman: 
Because the people that come up to me to tell me they know me from your podcast are Orthodox people with open minds. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t have standards or they’re not rigorous or that even, I agree with them on everything, but I think we need, I said to you last time on the podcast, I worry about that the more traditional elements of Judaism have abandoned inclusion to the more liberal elements of Judaism. And I worry that the more liberal elements of Judaism or reinventive elements of Judaism have abandoned rigorousness to the more traditional elements of Judaism. And I like the idea that you live in a world where you try to have both. I don’t say this in most of my interviews, but all of the things that I try to do somehow can be traced back to the sort of Modern Orthodoxy where my comedy is traditional, but hopefully reinventive, right?

My jokes are familiar to those who love jokes in terms of their aesthetic and structure. Also, they’re personal or there’s a bent that marks them as distinct from a Henny Yellerman bit or a Jackie Mason joke. And they take a lot of time to make, and they’re very hard to make and they require lots of feedback and tweaking and they don’t always work. But I think that approach to Modern Orthodoxy, to interrogating what it is and not just going, “This is the world. This is how we live in it, no matter what the world throws at us.” But also having a little shred of, “Okay, I exist in the world. I’m an Orthodox Jew. It means so much to me. How does that synthesize with modern society? How do I find the biting point between distinct identity and assimilation in a way that fully services both things?”

And so I noticed that a lot of the people that I was having conversations with who had come up to me because they’d heard me on the podcast, I went, “Those are the type of people I want coming to my shows. Those are the type of people that I want opening restaurants in Somerville or spending more time with.” Because my circle of people are Jews, artists, social workers, people who think deeply about the relationship that they have to their communities and their greater communities at large. So yeah, it’s a very academic answer, but whenever anyone comes up to me and says, “I know you from 18Forty,” I’m like, “Oh, this is going to be a good conversation for, we have some stuff in common.”

David Bashevkin: 
So I want to ask you about that because about to go onto Broadway and you had this one man show that really kind of blew up your profile. You had been on TV before you’d been involved in entertainment. I’m curious what your relationship is to fame in general. You’re probably more recognizable now. You have people walking up to you on the street. And I’m curious what role fame plays in your creative process? Meaning aside from how you cope with it and deal with it on a personal level, how does it deal with your creative process? Does it add another level of pressure to you? Does it make it less fun and enjoyable because the expectations are higher? What role does fame play on a personal level on the creative level?

Alex Edelman: 
I’m not famous yet, David. It’s really sweet, but I’m not famous yet.

David Bashevkin: 
You don’t get stopped on the street when you walk?

Alex Edelman: 
That’s not famous. You get recognized. Being recognized, being famous aren’t the same. I like not being famous. I’m appreciated by some people, which I in turn appreciate myself. I love being appreciated. But no, I’m not famous, which is really fame seems absolutely terrible. Fame seems like a really difficult, bitter pill to swallow.

David Bashevkin: 
Why? What do you think about it seems so terrible?

Alex Edelman: 
It’s extremely depersonalizing and it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune sometimes hardly seem worth it. I see a lot of people go through the depersonalizing aspects of fame, and I think it’s really difficult. And people who are famous, I don’t think are any more or less happy than people who aren’t noticed that.

David Bashevkin: 
But you don’t feel like, again, any creative output has some element that is a little depersonalizing. On your show…. So I don’t know that I wanted to even get into this and we never spoke about-

Alex Edelman: 
Go ahead. Go ahead.

David Bashevkin: 
We never spoke about the details. I know there was an incident that one of your shows once, I don’t know if it was hecklers and people who were coming from specifically the more traditional lines of the community, and somebody told me, they said it was upsetting. And I’m curious, to me, the only way to be successful, especially, again, not an overt hecklers, but with people who are going to be critical and feedback, you have to depersonalize yourself a little bit from what you’re creating. No?

Alex Edelman: 
No. maybe with a movie or a book, but I’m just telling a story. I’m just telling a story to people and it’s reached a nice amount of height. But I remember that guy, I remember that guy who came, he thought I was making fun of Judaism, and I was, because I love it so much and-

David Bashevkin: 
Guilty.

Alex Edelman: 
And he said to me, “What are some good things about Judaism?” This guy from the back yells, “What are some good things about Judaism?” And I said to him, “If you play your cards rate, you get to compose and perform a 90 minute love letter to it every night on stage.”

David Bashevkin: 
That’s a nice answer.

Alex Edelman: 
It’s true. It’s how I feel. And then he tried to keep talking to me, actually, and I was like, “No, no.” I said, “I’ll talk to you after the show.” And I spoke to him after the show. He was drunk, but it was a night where people are able to understand… Also not to play this card, but I’ve had questions internally about it. Is it okay that I’m up here? And Rabbi Lichtenstein came and wrote me a lovely letter afterwards. I’m like, if Rabbi Lichtenstein comes to your show and thinks it’s… And Rabbi Buchdahl from Central Synagogue and Rabbi Cosgrove and all these people have had really wonderful, is it is the right word yichus?

David Bashevkin: 
These people have, Rabbi Lichtenstein has yichus for sure. That’s the right word.

Alex Edelman: 
I just think it’s a really wonderful… And Jews, more than anything else, they feel seen by it, which is the greatest joy of the whole thing for me as a Jewish person, that Jews, by and large, there’s some Jews who don’t agree with it entirely-

David Bashevkin: 
Are you getting people who are coming to your shows who are like, I want to learn more about what it means to be Jewish. Do you have a follow-up conversation or have you had follow-ups where people are like, “Where can I actually find more?” Not in the sense of a comedy, but for many people you are the entry point to their reflection on Jewish identity. I’m curious if somebody approaches you or has approached you, Jewish or non-Jewish, where do you take them after your show?

Alex Edelman: 
My show’s not meant to be kiruv, it’s not meant to be outreach, but I appreciate if it’s… And it’s free to be encountered that way. I’m not like, “You should visit a Chabad.” But people want to talk to me about their Judaism or their experience with Judaism. I always listen. But if people come up to me, I’ve had people come up to me and go, “I’m interested in learning more about Judaism.” And sometimes I’m like, “Have you heard of Bereishit? Have you heard of the Genesis?” There are resources and sometimes I post them. Sefaria is fantastic for people. I think there are a lot of great entry points for people looking to find out about Judaism. When people ask me for resources in terms of the things that I’m talking about, about how Jews feel about existing, I refer them to Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews.

David Bashevkin: 
Part of the series too.

Alex Edelman: 
Because
It’s written with the sort of morden humor that I think is exactly what we need. And she writes great jokes. And by the way, if you speak to Dara, she’ll be like, “They’re not jokes, they’re just points.” Sarah Hurwitz wrote a great book on Jewish spirituality called Here All Along, which I-

David Bashevkin: 
I can’t tell if… Do you know what our series is like? Did somebody tip you off?

Alex Edelman: 
No.

David Bashevkin: 
Our series is Josh Foer, Sarah Hurwitz, Dara Horn, and-

Alex Edelman: 
David Badillo?

David Bashevkin: 
No, no. David Badillo’s not part of this series, but he has also a great book on this. And that was a fantastic guess.

Alex Edelman: 
Sarah Hurwitz is my chavrusa, Sarah Hurwitz, and I sometimes Zoom and discuss the parsha that week, or we’ll discuss something a little more in depth. But yes, Sarah is one of my closest friends. And in the pandemic we started this chavrusa

Alex Edelman: 
Sarah is one of my closest friends, and in the pandemic we started this chavrusa and we spent some time together in DC when I was there. She’s a lovely, thoughtful, I don’t like using the word genius, but she might be up there. You may have a couple of geniuses in this series. Joshua is unmistakably one.

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah, he’s not subtle about his genius. It shines through. He’s really, really incredible.

Alex Edelman: 
No, but it’s hard to find… Jewish books are hard and I don’t enjoy many of them, frankly.

David Bashevkin: 
Making them accessible, for me, it’s sometimes being inclusive and accessible, you have to trade off exactly what you said, on the rigorousness and the substance. And then when it’s rigorous and substantive, it’s just not accessible. It’s for 10 people, it’s for 100 people.

Alex Edelman: 
It’s hard. It’s the hardest part.

David Bashevkin: 
What is your, and I want to come back to the show because I have some specific questions. I’m curious, what is in your pantheon of Jewish books?

Alex Edelman: 
Nathan Englander’s short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. That’s up there. Anything by Etgar Keret is very special.

David Bashevkin: 
I’m embarrassed, I don’t even know who that is.

Alex Edelman: 
Nathan Englander or Etgar Keret?

David Bashevkin: 
Etgar Keret.

Alex Edelman: 
Etgar Keret’s an Israeli short story writer. I tend to prefer Israeli fiction. Hold on, let me walk this over to my bookshelf.

David Bashevkin: 
You have a lovely apartment, might I add?

Alex Edelman: 
Thank you. Stop editorializing the appearances.
What’s up here? Menachem Begin’s White Nights is up here, signed by the way. Found it in a used bookstore. God, there’s quite a few… So are we talking fiction? Are we talking non-fiction?

David Bashevkin: 
The non-, let’s say, canonical books that have informed your Jewish identity.

Alex Edelman: 
Gosh, okay.

David Bashevkin: 
Just for our listeners, Alex is literally crouched on the floor by his bookshelf doing exactly what I asked him to do, which I really do appreciate.

Alex Edelman: 
Lonely Man of Faith is up here, of course, Rev Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. God in Search of Man is somewhere here, obviously. Those are canonical, aren’t they?

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah, they’re part of the modern canon, let’s call it.

Alex Edelman: 
Yeah, those are part of the modern canon. I can’t believe… yeah, Englander’s book is great. Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, which is my favorite of the Etgar Keret books.

David Bashevkin: 
And that’s been translated, Etgar Keret?

Alex Edelman: 
Yeah, I assume by the way, it’s been translated by Nathan Englander. The work of Darin Strauss means a really great deal to me. He’s a professor who writes at NYU, who’s also written about Jews in a way that I think is really… You know what? I’ve never gotten into… Oh, Yo Tropper’s books mean a lot to me, Jonathan Tropper’s books.

David Bashevkin: 
Yes.

Alex Edelman: 
These are much more fictive than anything else. There’s more Heschel, there’s Viktor Frankl. There’s Aryeh Kaplan, who I liked a lot more when I was younger than I do now, but still have great respect for, of course.

David Bashevkin: 
We republished all the works of Aryeh Kaplan with NCSY actually. I find his story incredibly moving.

Alex Edelman: 
This book is really good by a guy named Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of the Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism.

David Bashevkin: 
Yes, former 18Forty guest, of course. Yes.

Alex Edelman: 
Oh, really? Lawrence Schiffman was on 18Forty?

David Bashevkin: 
Absolutely.

Alex Edelman: 
I need to get that episode. I think Lawrence Schiffman is the bee’s knees. He’s really great. David Grossman, To the End of the Land, that had a big impact on me as a young person. And of course, my favorite book ever. My favorite book ever, ever, ever, ever is a book that I think informed my worldview is, Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.

David Bashevkin: 
Ah, an absolute… When did you begin reading? Were you kind of a hungry reader from a young age?

Alex Edelman: 
I was. And also when I was younger… By the way, I don’t know if I can say this, but I probably can. Actually, I certainly can. Jenji Kohan and I, one of the great TV writers, Jenji Kohan, we did an adaptation for Netflix of My Name is Asher Lev, which they decided not to make, but we have this script that we love and think is beautiful.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh my goodness, we need that. The Jewish people need that. If any listeners have any pull with any of the other streaming services, let’s absolutely get that.

Alex Edelman: 
We have this gorgeous script. Ben Cosgrove, who has a partnership with, I think, Mr. Foer, with a company called Leviathan, put it together. He had found us the rights, which I’ve been trying to get for years. And yeah, it’s a beautiful exercise in collaboration. I had a great time with Jenji, but yeah, My Name is Asher Lev. If you haven’t read it, it is to me the defining fictive text of… It’s Tom Hanks’ favorite book, Bono’s favorite book.

David Bashevkin: 
Is that true?

Alex Edelman: 
Yeah. It’s Tom Hanks’ favorite book. He talks about it on Alan Alda’s podcast. It’s a gorgeous little, you know.

David Bashevkin: 
That’s a great little fact there. I had no… He read and loves Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, Tom Hanks.

Alex Edelman: 
Someone said to me, “Why does Lin-Manuel Miranda love My Name is Asher Lev?”
And I was like, “Oh, why does a guy whose father is the most prominent Puerto Rican politician and community organizer in the United States care so much about My Name is Asher Lev when he wanted to be a slam poet?”

I think that’s a really great example, and by the way, I hope you’ll edit out some of the dead air while I look around my bookshelves.

David Bashevkin: 
No, no, no, this is great.

Alex Edelman: 
But Lin-Manuel Miranda, that’s a really great example of how Jewish art can be dedicated to a Jewish identity and fully faithful to that Judaism and be accessible to Tom Hanks. It’s a really beautiful thing.

David Bashevkin: 
What I really want to ask, you mentioned it in passing, I planned to ask you about it, is the difficulty, and we’ll come back to books, but I want to hear a little bit more. You know, had a friend, you described him as a chavrusa who passed away and I think he was the official director of the show, and now you are stepping out onto the stage after having lost him. I’m curious how loss affects your ability to perform comedy?

Alex Edelman: 
Well, we’ll see.

We’ll see. I don’t know. Best friend, person I should be doing this with, who should be… Dovid, I have a solo comedy show opening on Broadway. It never happens. I cannot stress to listeners who I hope aren’t as familiar with the economic and curatorial models of Broadway, but for an unfamous comedian, it never happens. It’s reserved for Colin Quinn, Mike Birbiglia, people who have been big stars. And so this is a rare… It’s like going to the moon. Maybe I get to go back to the moon, but truly, for comedy, it feels as rare as going to outer space, this, and-

David Bashevkin: 
A-

Alex Edelman: 
… and so… Hold on. The point that I’m making is I’m experiencing this very confusing set of emotions where, on one hand this beautiful thing is happening and today I have to go in 20 minutes because we’re loading into the theater today and we’re putting up the scenery and the lights and checking sound and doing wardrobe and all the little fun ins and outs of putting a show on a stage. And we’re doing it on the nicest stage, the newest theater on Broadway, which is also paradoxically the oldest theater, they just did some remodel, so-

David Bashevkin: 
Just a fun fact, Alex, I want you to know my actual chavrusa, who I learn say for Sefer HaChinuch, which is the book of all the mitzvahs on every Wednesday night. His name is JJ Bruckner. He’s actually the person who redesigned the theater that you’re performing in.

Alex Edelman: 
Wow. Wow. Well, I mean-

David Bashevkin: 
True story.

Alex Edelman: 
… I’m curious to… But all I’m saying is, I mean it’s a gorgeous theater and this is like getting to drive a Rolls-Royce for two and a half months after you’ve been in a nice car, but this is like a one of a kind Rolls-Royce. And to be doing this without the guy who got me here… I’ve worked with this guy for 11 years to get to this point, and so to not be able to cross this sort of finish line with him, after such a marathon, is the definition of bittersweet. I really-

David Bashevkin: 
It feels Biblical in a way, not to cut you off like that. Creating and yearning for a promised land that you’re never able to enter, it feels Jewish to me in the saddest way possible, but that’s kind of the unfolding story that we’re all a part of.

Alex Edelman: 
Sometime I wonder, and I’m aware this is not real, but sometimes I worry that I’ve hit the rock somehow, you know. A reference that will only make sense to the listeners of this podcast, but…

David Bashevkin: 
Yes, yes.

Alex Edelman: 
And I’m aware that that’s magical thinking that is neither correct nor helpful. Although maybe, who knows, maybe someone’s like, “You shouldn’t be consorting with all those homosexuals, Edelman!”
I was at his funeral this past weekend and it was just… Gosh, non-Jews wait a long time to bury. He died a month and a half ago with the inquest and the no shiva, just a wake where everyone got steaming drunk, and it was, I’d say, some kind of healing I suppose, but I mean, gosh, it’s a shame.

We had really this really delicious process where he would provoke, I would ask a question or I would tell him a story and he’d interrupt me to ask provocations and my answers would sometimes come out as jokes. He’d write them down.

David Bashevkin: 
And literally from those notes is how this show was now born.

Alex Edelman: 
I mean the show, every joke you find in a different way, and there are jokes that I have affection for in the show because they were answers to someone after the show or they were a thought I had on a train. There’s a line in the show that Steve Martin gave me, when he came to see it.

David Bashevkin: 
Which-

Alex Edelman: 
I can’t-

David Bashevkin: 
Can you share?

Alex Edelman: 
It’s a callback so it won’t make sense out of context.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh, it’s a callback. Okay.

Alex Edelman: 
But Steve Martin said, “You should call that back here.” And I have such a affection because when I do the joke I’m like, “I’m doing Steve Martin’s joke!” If you’re listening, the show was co-written by Steve Martin, technically, right? Steve Martin.

David Bashevkin: 
Very technically. But sure.

Alex Edelman: 
There’s a show on Broadway right now called & Juliet, which is all these Max Martin songs who’s some songwriter who is a technically brilliant songwriter. And the story is written by a Canadian television writer and apparently it’s a real good time. And the credit for the writing of the song says “Max Martin and Friends.” And if I could, I would say the show is written “by Alex Edelman and Community,” because it really is this community of conversation from which the show has arisen.

My writing process is talking to people. I do sit down and write, I sit down at that desk over there, but a lot of my writing is so-and-so said this and maybe that’s really interesting or so-and-so said this and I had a reaction to it and what was behind that reaction? And I should write for 30 seconds to see if I can discover the emotion behind that reaction, because maybe… A lot of this is panning for gold, but the river that you’re panning in is all of the conversations and reactions that you’ve had to the world that day, that week, that year. And it’s a really interesting collaborative process, which is non-linear and yields big chunks.

Sometimes, I can’t remember when I wrote the show. I’m like, did I write it in little pieces? Did I write it all at once? I don’t think I wrote it all at once. One of the jokes is a joke I’ve been trying to make work since I graduated college and finally I found the right word for it. And then all of a sudden it worked, a joke that didn’t work for four years started working.

David Bashevkin: 
Can you share which joke that was?

Alex Edelman: 
Um…

David Bashevkin: 
Or it’s like needs too much context.

Alex Edelman: 
It needs too much context. That’s the other thing. The show now is so embedded with all the other jokes in the show, but it’s in a bit about friends of mine and how they’ve decided to raise their children, and it’s a really great fun chunk to do, but it’s got some of the newest jokes in the show and some of the oldest jokes in the show, and I feel really weird about it. Meaning that I like it, it’s just really confusing.

My process is very dialogue-heavy and if you looked around this apartment, you’d see napkins with notes written on the back and there are notes on my phone and 86 pages of notes on my computer, and I record every set I ever do and listen back to it sometimes and sometimes I don’t. There’re just dozens, hundreds of recordings.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow. He’s showing me the voice notes on his phone. That’s quite a bit of voice notes.

Alex Edelman: 
And these are all-

David Bashevkin: 
It looks like you haven’t gotten back to any voicemails in a very long time. But-

Alex Edelman: 
No.

David Bashevkin: 
… those are your own voice notes.

Alex Edelman: 
Yeah, I have lots of them. It’s all really wonderful, and the creation is a joy. So, yeah.

David Bashevkin: 
I want to close because I know you have to go, you’re checking out, your really entering into this milestone and I hope we get to get together in person.

Alex Edelman: 
We will.

David Bashevkin: 
I’m curious what you think about… You just went to the moon, so to speak, to get a solo show on Broadway. The magnitude of this experience, does that have an effect on what you creatively are looking forward to doing next? You going to go back to the moon a second time? Do you want to look for a different medium? How do you recover from success?

Alex Edelman: 
How do I recover from my success in terms of creating the next thing?

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah.

Alex Edelman: 
I don’t know. I really don’t. I’d be lying to you if I said I knew what to do next. I spoke to Tom Kitt about this. Tom Kitt, he writes lyrics. He wrote the Almost Famous musical that just went to Broadway. He wrote a show called Next to Normal, which won both the Pulitzer and the Tony, really special show.
And they said, “How do I do this next thing?”

And by the way, you can put this on the podcast, but I’ll thank you that… If you’re listening, this felt like a personal conversation, but it really helped me.

And he said, “It’s not the next thing. It’s just the thing. It’s like you’re just doing things. Just keep doing things. Do the best you can on this thing, then move on, do the best you can on this thing and then move on. If it demands more work, keep doing more work.” He’s like, “It’s not the next thing, it’s just the thing.” It was a short conversation, the first time I met Tom Kitt. But it was a really… And by the way, I’ve seen him around since then five or six times, and now we have had this sort of instant friendship. I really, really, really, really like Tom Kitt. But that really helped me reframe it. It’s not the next thing, done it. It’s just the thing. I’ll just keep doing things.

I have this anxiety, I think about it every day for multiple minutes a day. It’s a baseline anxiety I carry with me almost everywhere.

David Bashevkin: 
Could you articulate the baseline anxiety? This is now therapeutic for me and it’s okay if you’d rather not-

Alex Edelman: 
The baseline anxiety-

David Bashevkin: 
What’s that baseline anxiety?

Alex Edelman: 
… is that I’ve done something very successful and has by and large run the table. It’s done everything it can do. It’s been nominated for every award it could possibly be nominated for, apart from one huge one, and hopefully it gets a chance to get seen for that award, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But this is just, how do you follow that? But you don’t, you just keep going, you just keep making things and hopefully you make a parnassah that’s decent and you make work that resonates with lots of people.

But you can’t be like, oh my God, how am I going to do something that’s successful? You just have to… How do I do something that’s good? That’s an artistic maturation in my voice. That is more mature. That artistic maturation is a huge part of this show for me. I’ve got to figure out what that maturing continues to look like. Very difficult, but I’ll just go and try to do it. And if I don’t, I went to the moon and if I do, I get to go back.

People ask me about the secret to getting a show to Broadway. The secret is…

I found myself two dozen times explaining the concept of dayenu, which is an embarrassingly basic concept for everyone listening to this podcast, but ridiculously advanced one for say a mass-market newspaper or something. But the idea that whatever you’re doing is enough. If I had just gotten to do my show with Adam in this pub above a shoe store in London, truly that would’ve been enough. And if I had just gotten to do the show off Broadway, if I had just gotten to do the show in front of Steve Martin or Jerry Seinfeld or if I had just gotten to…

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah, you know, dayenu.

Alex Edelman: 
Dayenu, truly it would’ve been enough. Truly, it would be enough, because actually if I said to you, and even cynically, if I said, “Dovid, I did this show and it only happened for a little while and I did it in this pub above a shoe store,” that’s still like 85% impressive that I did a thing. And then if I was like, it went to Broadway, that’s really cool. That means that thing was successful. But when you think about it, the fact that you’ve done a thing as a person, is just…

“I wrote a screenplay.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic.”

“For a movie.”

“Well, that’s even more fantastic.”

“And the movie got made.”

“Wow.”

“And it won an Oscar.”

I mean it’s great to, you know, but the biggest thing there isn’t winning the Oscar, the biggest thing is writing the screenplay. You just have to do the thing.

David Bashevkin: 
Alex, I cannot thank you enough. I hope I get to see this thing and I hope that all the other things that you create continue to uplift you and Am Yisroel for all the Jewish people as you’ve done until now. It really is heartening. It is a comedy show, but there’s something very serious, very purposeful, that animates what you do, that lies just beneath the surface. Anytime we speak, it bubbles up. And I hope that the next time we speak more than anything else, it’s in person with food, connecting.

Really, your friendship means a great deal to me and wishing you just continued hatzlacha and success in every thing that you do.

Alex Edelman: 
Thank you so much, and it means a lot to me. And look, I’ll see you soon, and if you’re listening to this podcast, please come to my show because the show is written for you. The show is written for Jews who are curious about their Judaism. It’s also written to entertain non-Jews. And it’s written so that no matter whether or not you’ve met a Jew before, the show is still accessible. I did the show in Wales in front of an audience of people who, when I asked how many of them had met a Jew, I think maybe 10 of them raised their hands. So the show is, like I said, it’s not kiruv, but it is something that… Look, if you’re listening to this podcast, please come on the show.

David Bashevkin: 
I wasn’t going to fight you on it. I have a very expansive notion of what kiruv is and the kind of literal sense that brings you close. And this brings you close, it brings you close to you and your art and to Jewish identity and to just not even if being Jewish, it brings you close to being thoughtful about what identity means for whatever it is in your life. So yes, go check out Alex. I’ll try to sneak in.

My wife has been begging me, “Can you get tickets again?”

I saw it one time with a friend, Jacob Sholder, shout out to him, but I’ll try to sneak in there again. We’ll be in touch.

Alex Edelman: 
You let me know when you come so we can have a quick bite and hello.

David Bashevkin: 
Absolutely. Take it easy.

Alex Edelman: 
Thank you.

David Bashevkin: 
Continued success.

Alex Edelman: 
Thank you.

David Bashevkin: 
All love, Alex.

Alex Edelman: 
Thanks, Dovid. All right, bye.

David Bashevkin: 
Alex and I, we’re able to bond over what he calls baseline anxiety, I talk about it all the time, when you’re involved in a creative endeavor. Anytime I have an episode that really hits and goes a little bit viral outside of our weekly listeners, but reaches the wider community, like the wider world or whatever it is, and that’s happened on multiple occasions of course, my baseline anxiety kicks in. What’s next? What’s next? How do I top it? And it can be very hard. It’s hard as social media’s condition. You go viral on social media, you hit the top, everybody’s sharing what you do, and now you’re like uh oh, what’s next? And I find the way that he handles it and just the way that he thinks, kind of so Talmudically grappling with his own identity, I find it personally inspiring.

You should definitely find time to check out his show when it works for you. It’s running straight through the summer into August. And really, it was an illuminating experience going to his show. I found it absolutely hilarious and it’s such an interesting crowd who comes and is connected to him. So really it’s with a lot of nachas and wishing him a continued success. And I really just appreciated his appreciation for 18Forty. It really meant a lot to me. He’s somebody who’s been on television.

I was at a show where he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert and he reached out to me and said, “I want to come back on 18Forty.”

This audience meant something to him, and it’s really a testament, not to him and not to me, it’s a testament to our listeners, the people who came up to him and said, “Oh, I heard about this from 18Forty.”

The way he spoke about it was everything that I think we’re trying to create here. Really grappling, uplifting, and centering our Jewish identity no matter the chaos of the modern world in which we live. He is doing his best at that. And I hope that his art and his future projects and his booklists give us strength to continue grappling, growing together.

Of course, we have another interview. I hope you’re on some long July 4th weekend car ride while you’re listening.

I apologize to our guests. I don’t even know if they knew that I’m joining them together, but once Alex told me that they study Torah together, I said, “You know what? This is going to work. We’re going to give this a shot, a long car ride. Why not?”

So hopefully this will get you to the mountains and back. But it is really my pleasure to introduce somebody who has a, a graciousness, a… I don’t want to use the word charisma, but there is such a welcomeness to Sarah Hurwitz.

Her book really is a neon entrance sign. I love the title. It’s called Here All Along and has the longest subtitle I have ever seen in a book. Challenge me if I’m wrong. The subtitle is Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There.) But I love the notion of Here All Along. I think a lot of our listeners, I’ve been on journeys in their life and the realization that really all of the contours and vicissitudes of our life hopefully bring us to a point where we realize Here All Along and Yiddishkeit as a family anchored in the values of Torah. This is who we are, this is what our lives are all about, and we are here all along. So it is really my privilege and pleasure. I’m so excited. I really consider her a friend, even though we only are able to email.

We email like two, three times a year maybe we’ll Zoom together once a year, every other year, but there’s such a warmth and friendship and welcomeness to her that even though we only… We met over…. It’s probably been 10 years by now, but we’ve stayed in touch and I really, really treasure her friendship and her work.

It is my pleasure to introduce our conversation with Sarah Hurwitz. She really came to national attention as the speechwriter for Michelle Obama. She wrote an absolutely phenomenal book called Here All Along. It is my pleasure to introduce my friend, Sarah Hurwitz.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Hello. It is such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me, Dovid.

David Bashevkin: 
Sarah, I’m really, really excited about this and I want to begin with your early trajectory, because before writing a book on Judaism, which is fascinating, challenging, important, you really began your career as a speechwriter. And it happens to be I have worked as a speechwriter, I am fascinated by what that work is, I’m fascinated by the process of writing itself. And I first wanted to begin with asking, and I get this question all the time, you’re a graduate of Harvard Law School. Why on earth did you decide to become a speechwriter?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So it’s really funny. I actually was a speechwriter before I went to law school. I had a couple of junior speech writing jobs after college, I had interned in Vice President Al Gore’s speech writing office when I was in college, and the guys I interned for helped me get these first two jobs. They were total failures. I really didn’t know how to speech write back then.

So I went to law school thinking, okay, done. No more speech writing. And I met a guy named Josh Gottheimer, who is now a congressman from New Jersey, he was my law school classmate, and he’d been a speechwriter for President Clinton, and we started freelance writing together. And he really taught me how to write, how to speech write, how to structure a speech, how to write to be heard rather than read, which are two very different skills. And then we just got jobs on campaigns. Wes Clark, John Kerry, I became Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter in ’08. They all lost. And then I got on the Obama campaign.

David Bashevkin: 
So I’m actually curious about that process. What I have found in this, particularly in the Jewish world, our best writers are often terrible speakers, and our best speakers are often terrible writers. That’s what I have noticed. I don’t want to name names because I don’t want to make anybody feel that, but there are people who I fell in love with their writing and I’m like, oh, I need to hear them speak. And then you’re in the audience and you’re like, crest-

David Bashevkin: 
… Hear them speak and then you’re in the audience and you’re like, crestfallen. Where it’s like, “Wait, this is the person? So I’m curious with you, what’s different about writing a speech than writing, let’s say a book or an article?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So writing to be read versus writing to be heard. Two very different things. I just want to stop because what I just did is I articulated, I just uttered two sentence fragments, not grammatical. If you read them written down, you’d say, “Well, these are sentence fragments. This is not actually proper English.” And that’s just such a key difference. When you were writing for the ear, it’s a different kind of tradition. It’s an oral thing that you’re doing. You don’t have punctuation, you speak ungrammatically, sentence fragments are fine. But when you’re writing to be read with the eye, it’s more formal. It’s more contained within the boundaries of grammar and punctuation. And it’s hard for people to toggle between the two. They’re just two very different art forms. And also with speaking, you have all of the issues around delivery. How comfortable are you in your own skin?

I think so often very good writers get up and almost read an op-ed at people and it doesn’t work because it sounds too stilted, informal. And they sound like they are reciting a speech when people are like, “Good morning. It is a great pleasure and a tremendous honor to be here today.”: You’ve never once greeted your colleagues that way. You say, “Oh hey, morning, great to be here.: If you wouldn’t say something to one person, you shouldn’t say it to many people. It actually doesn’t really get better. So they’re two different skills. There’re two different forms of writing. And I think oftentimes people struggle to toggle between them.

David Bashevkin: 
So I’m curious, in the actual process, take me through a classic speech that you would write for, I don’t know, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, doesn’t really matter to me, but they tell you what? When I speech write, it’s like, “Oh, I’m speaking at this event.” Do they give you bullet points of what they want to hit upon or you’re giving them… What’s process of writing somebody else’s words?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So it depends so much on who you’re writing for that. I’m sure there are people out there who just say, “I don’t know what I want to say. Give me something to react to. And I don’t like this.” There is that kind of speaker, but I’ll say someone like Michelle Obama, the process was quite different because she’s someone who knows who she is. She always knows what she wants to say. So the process for her would be, let’s say it’s a commencement speech. I would do some research in advance on the university, on its history, its student body demographics. I’d write her a memo and then we would sit down and she’d say, “Okay, thanks. I got the memo. Here’s what I’m thinking.”

And she would just dictate a lot to me. She would dictate, “Okay, here’s the core thesis and theme that I want to put forth, and here’s stuff I want to say.” And she would just dictate paragraphs and paragraphs of language. And I would type verbatim on my computer because I really wanted to capture what she was saying. She might say data that she wants to find. She might say stories she wants to tell. She might remember quotations she wants to share. And so it’s my job to write that all down verbatim. And then I would go back to my office and arrange that into a draft. Because like a draft, a speech needs structure needs a beginning, a middle, an end. It needs to flow well. And that’s really the challenge of writing a good speech is figuring out the order in which the paragraphs will come.

David Bashevkin: 
Structure.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Structure is destiny.

David Bashevkin: 
Structure, I always tell-

Sarah Hurwitz: 
It is destiny.

David Bashevkin: 
When I’m talking about any writing, I’m like, “You don’t need the fanciest words. You don’t even need to know how grammar works. Structure, structure, structure.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
It’s hard to write a good speech with a bad structure and it’s actually hard to write a bad speech with a good structure. That’s just the truth. So once I’ve come up with a draft, I would then send it around to probably about 50 people in the White House. Fact-checkers, communications people, political policy. A lot of people would read it and just say, “Okay.” Our lawyers might say, “Hey, you know what? That’s a legal issue. You can’t say that.” A fact-checker might say, “You know what? Sarah, that’s not accurate. You need to use this statistic.” A communications person might say, “I think the press is going to misunderstand this part of it. You got to clarify.” And so I would maybe take their edits, maybe not. This is the thing where I think writers go wrong. It’s that they get edits from people and they just mindlessly type them in. And then it’s a patchwork quilt written by community and it makes no sense.

David Bashevkin: 
I call it Frankenstein writing, where it’s like all these little parts.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Writing by committee never works. You got to control your piece of writing. And so I need to figure out, okay, can I weave this in? There’s a lot of negotiation, right? A policy expert might say, “Sarah, you need to weave in these 19 policy points.” And I’ll be like, “It’s a commencement speech. No, we can have a line about the policy, but that’s it.” And then I would send that draft to Mrs. Obama and she would edit and we go back and forth. She would edit. I would edit. She would edit, I would edit. And then she would actually run through it just so we could hear it and she would edit while running through it.

David Bashevkin: 
This is a super technical question. Again, I almost need to apologize to our listeners because I’m so interested in speech writing. When you edit, is she editing by hand on top of print or do you sharing Google Docs? How is that back and forth process working?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
It’s different for different principles. She would edit by hand. She had beautiful handwriting, which was great. And you actually saw President Obama did the same thing. There are lots of photographs of drafts of speeches just covered with his handwriting, yellow legal pads, which is pages of his handwriting. So she edited by hand.

David Bashevkin: 
Do you get to take any of those home?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
No, those are presidential records. They belong to… Oh, no, no, no, no. They’re all in an archive somewhere. So no, I don’t.

David Bashevkin: 
I had a learning partner, chavrusa who published a lot of the notes of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who is one of the senior rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. And the markups by hand that Rabbi Schachter made on the notes. And you see the attention to detail. Again, this is rabbinic writing, but you see the attention to detail, thank God, I mean maybe there should be presidential records for rosh yeshiva, but we snuck a few of those pages away because they’re really, really fascinating. It’s a window to see who this person is.
I’m really curious, and I think the struggles very different for you and I, because when I’m writing, very often I’m writing for other rabbis or Jewish leaders. And the difficulty that I face, and I’m curious how you dealt with this or if you struggle with it at all, is I’ll have an awesome line or turn of phrase, and I’m also in the public square. I also want to have my own voice. I also want to publish op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and all that stuff. And I’m like, “Shoot, I don’t want to give them my best stuff. I’ll Give them right the cut right underneath.”

How did you manage, if at all, your own, I don’t want to use the word ego, but your own sense of self, you’re giving somebody else your words. It’s like being a speech writer is a little bit the Little Mermaid. You’re giving over Ursula all your best words and then you’re left voiceless, but you’re able to walk around and do your thing. Did you grapple with that?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
No, because with someone like Michelle Obama, I was never scripting her. No one puts words in Michelle Obama’s mouth, let me tell you. So I never felt like I was scripting her, rather I was channeling her. She was always the guiding force and I was taking that and channeling it. And sure, I wordsmithed it. Sure there was some language and ideas, but at the end of the day, my focus was really like, “Okay, what would she want to say?” It was trying to really channel her voice.

And keep in mind, when you are a White House speech writer, you have no self. There is no public self. You can’t do anything in your own name really. I mean, you can, it gets complicated and it’s just not really appropriate. So I didn’t have a public self or any writing self then. So anything I was doing that was my full writing life. And the thing is, I don’t do that anymore because like you, I want to write my own name. I want to say things in my own name, and I actually feel like I’m not really in a place where I want to write for other people anymore. So I don’t. I haven’t done that really since the White House.

David Bashevkin: 
For anybody who’s thinking about a career in speech writing, it is not a great parallel track to your own writing career because you’re always juggling, I don’t know how script writers even do it. Your best jokes you want to keep for yourself, sitcom writers and all that stuff. So I’m curious, when you were writing, what books and what previous speeches would you draw upon, if any to inform or you just sit with a blank piece of paper and take that initial memo and dictation go? Or were you drawing upon earlier works and earlier books, speeches to inspire you?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I would sometimes draw on American history. That was a big part of that. I think to be a good presidential or first lady speech writer, you really need to have a pretty good grasp on American history because these leaders are in the flow of history and especially leaders like the Obama’s whose existence as president and First Lady was so historic and so unusual. I think knowing history was important.

But when I was writing for Mrs. Obama, I would sometimes look at previous speeches given by First Ladies, or if she was traveling to a foreign country, I would look what have presidents and First Ladies said in this foreign country, just to get a sense of what’s culturally appropriate or whatever. But I wouldn’t say there were a lot of books I looked into. It was more people I reached out to. If she was speaking at a university, I would want to talk to students at the university. I would want to talk to administrators, faculty, alumni, just to get a sense of, okay, who are these people?

Any organization we were speaking to, I would always want to speak to the leader and some members just to get a sense of what are these people’s stories? Because Mrs. Obama always wanted to celebrate other people’s stories. That was what she was there for. She was there to say, “You all are doing amazing work and I see you and here’s what you’re doing and here’s why I’m here. It’s because I care about the same issues. Let’s talk about that.” So it was more consulting people than books.

David Bashevkin: 
And I’m curious, were there any specific speeches or lines that you had written that had your DNA and stamp on it that you remain proud of? That 10 years over, that you’re even allowed to claim? “I was actually behind that. I’m very proud of it.”

Sarah Hurwitz: 
It’s hard for me to do that because every speech was a collaboration, right? I can’t imagine any speech where Mrs. Obama didn’t guide it, didn’t provide the download and the input. So it’s hard for me to say, “Oh, that one was mine.” That’s just never the case. And the line, “When they go low, we go high.” That was her line, not mine. She came up with that. I just typed it into the speech.

David Bashevkin: 
That is absolutely fascinating. So I have a question that is really not about speech writing, but really the backdrop of the decision not to become a speech writer, but really what you do after. You now have a Harvard law degree, you spent time in the White House, your speech writing for the First Lady. What on earth possessed you when this is done to write a book about Judaism? Meaning you wrote this book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism, a very long subtitle and then, Finally Choosing to Look There. Which I think it’s a very sweet cover. What I found most fascinating is almost the choice. You had the pick of the litter, Harvard Law degree, White House, that’s the duo that you need to open up any door. And instead, I’m imagining you looking and thinking, “I could be in a company, I could be director of communications. I could be…” And you’re like, “You know what? I’m going to write about Judaism.”

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Yeah, no, my colleagues actually were asking me the same question when I would tell them I was doing this. They were like, “I’m sorry, what now? You’re going to write a book about what?” I actually, I asked one political pundit for advice, and I told her I wanted to write this book on Judaism. And she was like, “Mo, no, no, no, no, no, no. Your first book is on politics or speech writing or Michelle Obama, and then you can write that weird book that no one will ever read.” I was like, “Wow, that’s so harsh.” But look, the reality was like, look, I grew up with a very, I would say mediocre Jewish background, half-hearted. We reluctantly showed up at the shul twice a year for holidays. I went to Hebrew school, really wasn’t much. I felt like there just wasn’t much to see there. I became a bat mitzvah and I thought, “Okay, enough, I’m out. Thank you, but I’m good.”

And then 25 years later, I broke up with a guy I was dating. I was 36 years old. I was really anxious and lonely. And I happened to hear about an intro to Judaism class at the JCC in Washington where I live. And I thought like, “Okay, good, that’ll fill a Wednesday night.” It was not on some deep spiritual journey. And people always wanted to make a story out of this. Like, “Oh, you were searching for meaning and you got transformed.” Very Christian, by the way, just FYI. And like, “Oh, you were saved.” No, it’s not how it worked. But I just took this class thinking, whatever. And I was just blown away by what I found. Here was 4,000 years of wisdom from millions of my ancestors about what it means to be human, about how to live a good life, about how to be a deeply good person, about how to find profound spiritual connection that wasn’t just God is a man in the sky who controls things, which I’ve never believed.

And I just thought, where has this been all my life? I didn’t see this in two dull services or a boring Seder, which was the Judaism when I grew up. And I was totally odd and I just started learning. So I took another class, I read hundreds of books. I studied with many teachers, many rabbis of all denominations. I mean, it’s quite a diverse crew that I’ve learned from. And I just thought, I want to share this tradition with people. I want people to see what they’ve been missing. So many Jews don’t even know what Judaism has to offer. And so that was the goal of my book. And the funny thing was is I really had in mind a target audience of disengaged Jews like me. And I wanted to show them, look, this is a smart, radical, countercultural transformative tradition. It’s so much smarter and deeper than you thought. I’m going to share it with you.

But the wild thing is that when it came out, I had Chabad rabbis telling me they loved it. I had so many deeply observant people be like, “Oh, this book was for me.” And I’m like, “No, no. I didn’t write this book for you.” They said, “No, no, no. Sarah, this book is for me. I don’t necessarily agree with everything you write. I don’t practice like you do, but I saw your 550 end notes. It’s like you clearly know what you’re talking about and I see your passionate and your love, and they’re just so many fresh ideas.” I’ve had so many observant people say to me, “This book made me fall in love with Judaism again. This book reinvigorated my davening it reinvigorated my this, my that.” That for me was really moving.

David Bashevkin: 
I think part of what we’ve uncovered or tapped into on 18Forty is that there is a misconception even within the Orthodox community and particularly looking when you look out and look into the Orthodox community, and I’m not saying the Orthodox community is the only observant community, but particularly the community that I’m affiliated with. That, oh, if you’re in it, then you don’t need the more contemporary resonance to pick this up, the journeying that. And it’s a total misconception I believe that the internal journey and the grappling with the received tradition rather than chosen tradition could almost be more difficult in a way because you grew up with it, you took it for granted. There’s so many sociological filters because it’s your neighborhood, it’s your family, it’s your competition in a lot of ways that could make that even more difficult.

And I want to talk about those two different struggles of, I’ve always looked at you as an insider, outsider, outsider, insider. No, within communally you have deep knowledge. You never signed a clear NFL contract with any denomination or community, which I’ve always appreciated. And I’m curious for you, in your engagement within the book, did you explore the actual lived denominational experience across the spectrum and see what is bubbling up in American Judaism right now? And what did you learn, not about what you were teaching, but what did you learn in your interactions with Jewish communities?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Yeah, I did. I definitely explored so many different ways of approaching this tradition. And I think I’ve been reflecting a lot on why has this book been so resonant with so many folks who are very traditionally observant. And I think at the end of the day, it’s that they see that I am as much in love with and have as much reverence for this tradition as they do. As much as you might…. It’s easy to… I know I’m seen as a contemporary thinker or non-orthodox, out of the box. But the truth is I actually have a strong instinct of wanting to preserve and bring to life what is there.

I always get a little uneasy when I hear someone being like, “Oh, I want to try this totally new thing and we’re going to ditch this thing and I’m going to make up this new thing because I think it’s so special, and me, me, me, me, me.” I’m like, maybe you’re not that great. Maybe this 4,000 years of tradition actually has something to teach you. Maybe it’s not about you teaching these 4,000 years of tradition. Maybe this has something to teach you.

And so as I was exploring these different traditions, I found some real resonance with observant folks, even though that’s not me. Especially seeing the power of Shabbat, just seeing the thick rich community around it, seeing what they were doing, seeing these really thriving communities that I think are missing in other parts of the world. And I was very moved by that. This has been our way for thousands of years where we don’t just ditch a tradition because we don’t like it. We really sit with it. We think about this. We dig to the bottom of it, we try to understand it, and we innovate slowly and carefully, but thoughtfully. And I think there’s something really powerful to that for me.

David Bashevkin: 
Tell me a little bit about, you said you read hundreds of books, so much of the theme that we’re doing now are the book recommendations. What are the books that jumped out at you in paving the road to writing about Judaism? You obviously didn’t jump in with a blank slate. What were those books on that journey?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Yeah, I think the ones that really helped me when I was first starting out especially, everything by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I mean, I just think he’s such a moving and inspiring writer. He’s so deeply learned. But for someone who doesn’t have a deep learned background, he’s accessible. So I thought he was wonderful. Rabbi Alan Lew, I think his books on spirituality are breathtaking. Again, such deep investigation of text in this very moving, fresh way. I mean, I think the two of them hugely shaped me. I also look at someone like Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Renewal guy, out there, but has a deep, he was a Chabad rabbis who has a very deep grounding in the text and not everything he says is my jam, but I found his creativity and his learnedness to be really exciting. So I think those were a few people that really, I think drew me in, especially in the beginning.

David Bashevkin: 
One of the big emphases in your book, and it’s something that is animates at the heart of what we do at 18Forty, and I’ve written about it, is the notion of Judaism as a family. And it’s something that we’ve always grappled with, that we’re really family first. It only became a religion secondarily, but there is a familial bond among the people. And I am curious for you, in this contemporary modern world, do you still sometimes feel adrift in your lived Jewish communal experience, or do you feel like you have found a family?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So I do feel like I found a family. I do feel like I’m very connected to so many different Jews in so many different parts of America and around the world. But I will say I’m unmarried. I don’t have kids. And I will say that the typical shul Jewish community life really does not contemplate a single 45-year-old woman. It’s not really structured around me. Even the institution like Shabbat is not really structured around someone without a family of their own.

So I do think I’m an unusual fit in that way, but it doesn’t really bother me that much. So I don’t know. I think that’s true of me. I think I have a kind of odd approach to this, but I think my approach is actually more and more common. Seeing the rise of non-denominational of Jews who don’t belong to any denomination. I’m actually not really in the minority as someone who’s unmarried. About half of Americans are not married, there’s a significant number of Jews who don’t have kids. So it’s like, okay, this is a changing demographic. I don’t know, it’s going to be interesting me to see how Jewish institutions accommodate that.

David Bashevkin: 
I’m curious, just in your experiences, I feel comfortable enough with him to mention him by name, but I could take it out if you don’t want me to mention his name. I was having a meal with a friend that I think many of our listeners may know, David Lichtenstein from Monsey, New York. And I’ve been to his house many times for Shabbat, hope to get back there sometime soon. And at the meal. And he mentioned in past, he was like, “Oh, who was here last week? Sarah Hurwitz.” When I heard that name, assumed that he was talking about the rabba, which I also found somewhat surprising given where he is communally. But he is like, “No, the speech writer. I’m like, “Oh, I know Sarah.”

And I’m curious for you, not that specific Shabbat meal, but when you spend a Shabbat, and I assume that’s not the only time within the Orthodox community, tell me what we’re doing and what we’re doing wrong. Because I assume, I could imagine that we superimpose very often the mechanics that our tried and true within our community. Certainly marriage is a very heavy topic that when you go to a meal and it’s a predominantly Orthodox group, do you find it offensive, annoying, or frustrating If it’s like, “Can we set you up?” Right away, that’s the…

Sarah Hurwitz: 
It’s so funny. First of all, I love David Lichtenstein. So deeply learned. I have such respect for his learnedness, his generosity. I mean, his Shabbat table was amazing.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh, it’s wild.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I actually felt, “Oh, it’s just like everyone’s talking and it’s so vibrant,” and I felt so welcomed. And this is the thing/ that is not the only very observant Shabbat table, which I’ve I’m sure not know spent time at. This is something… And I actually, it’s funny you like, what do you do right? What do you do wrong? I can’t really say anything’s wrong. I see something really wonderful. I see people coming together enjoy self celebrating. I think there’s a real, just such beauty there and power there. So I don’t know. For me, it’s like wonderful.

I do sometimes feel a little bit awkward because I didn’t grow up with this. So I feel like in some ways I have a little bit of that imposter syndrome where this isn’t my native language. So I always feel, it’s like when we get to the benching, every time we get to the benching, “I’m like, fine, fine. I’m a bad Jew. Everyone knows now.” It’s like I can get through the Kiddush, but my Hebrew isn’t great. There’s sort of a feeling of like, “Ooh, I’m not quite here.”

I think I do see sometimes see this tendency to assume that Jews like me are totally uninformed, nothing, don’t care, are dismissive. And you know what? Sometimes that’s true. I see it myself when I engage with Jews who are like, “Oh, I’m just a cultural Jew. Oh, social justice is my Judaism.” And it just breaks my heart because social justice is also your Christianity and your Islam and your Buddhism, and you’re being a decent person that’s not… But they don’t had access to anything more. And that was me 10 years ago.

But I think sometimes I feel that weight of assumption on my shoulders when I walk into a room and it’s almost like I feel like a talking horse. It’s like, “I know who Rashi is.” And they’re like, “Whoa, the horse is talking. Everyone just…” Or I’ll say something and they’ll be like, “What, how did you know that?” That can’t believe it. They’re like, “You’ve read Guide for the Perplexed?” I’m like, “I have.” There is that shock that someone like me might know some things and can actually participate in the discourse and they’re so surprised. I actually think it’s very sweet and I get it. So many people like me, we don’t know a lot and that’s a real problem. But my book was designed to bridge that gap and to actually speak, so to bring more togetherness in our family.

David Bashevkin: 
So I’m curious, when you write to a Jewish community, when you share with a Jewish community, and I know this because I am very active on social media, we’re a tough audience. We’re not always a super easy audience to talk to. The first time that you share anything about Judaism with the Jewish audience, I always feel like the look is like, “Who gave you the right? Who appointed you?” There’s an averse, instinctive reaction to being non-hierarchical. And we don’t like when somebody comes and be like, “Let me explain it to you.” It’s right away. All the Jewish defenses come and be like, “I’ll figure this out myself.”

So I’m curious, what if any negative feedback did you receive from the book? Were there any passages that either for people from less, let’s say Jewishly educated communities, from more Jewishly educated communities, every community wants everything to be just for them. That’s what I find so hard sometimes. And you always want everything to reflect your experience. It’s the struggle of 18Forty in a lot of ways because we’re not the largest Jewish podcast. But I like to think that we’re one of the most diverse, and I always get letters of, “How dare you speak to this person and to that person and they’re not like me and that I have an issue with their political position or a religious position.” And I’m just like, “Maybe not everything’s for everybody.” I’m curious if you got any of that kind of feedback.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
This is the wild thing. I spent months in a state of just constant anxiety just preparing myself to just get pummeled. I was like, “Everyone’s going to be mad. I’m going to anger this group and that group.” No. This thing that has shocked me is that the reception I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve gotten little things here and there people are like, “Oh, I wish you would talked more about this, or you didn’t think about that.” Which I think are generally right. I think there are things that are missing from the book, and I really-

David Bashevkin: 
Can you give examples of that? What you felt were missing?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
They’re like, “Well, why didn’t you talk more about the importance of community?” And I was like, “Oh, they’re right.” They’re right. There are certain things, like Simone was upset that I didn’t talk more about Israel and she was right. There were just certain things that you can’t do everything in a book. But let me give you an example. When I speak to Jewish audiences, here’s something I might say, and you can judge how you think it’ll be received.

Something I often say is, it so frustrates me, this old anti-Semitic slander that Christianity is a religion of love, but Judaism’s a religion of law. It’s just legalistic and nitpicky. And that so enrages me because what people don’t realize is that Jewish law is how we reflect and manifest love at a very, very high level, a very rigorous level in our daily lives. So when there is a Jewish law that says, “If you’ve loaned money to someone who’s really financially struggling and you see them coming down the street, try not to run into them. You’re going to embarrass them, you’re going to stress them out.” And you could say, “Well, how legalistic.”

Sarah Hurwitz: 
You’re going to embarrass them, you’re going to stress them out. And you could say, well how legalistic, how weedy. No, actually what that law is doing is, is it is tempting to inculcate an exquisite sensitivity to the needs and humanity of every single person. That “weediness of Jewish law” that’s actually pushing you to look closer and closer and closer at every individual human being and see how they are created in the image of God. That is what Jewish law is doing. So laws that say help the poor, care for workers. Okay, fine, that’s lovely. Having big feelings with your heart is nice. Please go ahead, but meaningless, right? But that law that says no, you see that person coming and you think, how might they feel? You actually empathize with their indebtedness, with their stress and you say, you know what? I’m not going to do that to them. I’m not going to harm their dignity in that way. That is the power of Jewish law. Now who’s going to…

Here’s the thing, that is something that the most disengaged Jew can say, “Hey, that’s really moving.” And the most firm Jew can say, “Oh, she actually studied Jewish law. She actually knows what she’s talking about. And wow, that’s an interesting point about it.” Right? So it’s like that’s the kind of thing I do with my book. So I don’t know, it’s hard to disagree with that, right?

David Bashevkin: 
Well, I think the thing for me that I find most surprising and the pushback that I assume you had gotten was not actually from the Orthodox community, that I think gives rather liberally a pass to somebody who’s like, you didn’t grow up in our community. You’re grappling with all the right questions. We agree with, let’s say, I don’t know, 60, 70% of your conclusions. You get a pass. Don’t worry. We’re not going to examine this and we’re not going to come out and put you, excommunicate you. I have to be more worried about that. You don’t have to be worried about that. What I was actually most surprised about, I think it’s actually part of what initially connected us. We met, what a fascinating group. We met, the Jewish Week used to have these gatherings. It felt a little bit like the protocols of the elders of Zion just without any power.

We went away to this retreat and there were really important, like JCC Federation people, and there were maybe one or two actual celebrities, I forgot who they were, like newscasters who were there. And I remember I was very young. I had not accomplished anything. I don’t even know why, frankly, I was there. But I had my cousin who was there, Altie Karper, who’s a former guest in this very series, and Shalom Dean was there, another former guest on 18Forty. And I don’t know, I think it was me, you, Shulem and and Alti who had the… I remember speaking with this group. And the thing that I think surprised me most about you was you worked in a predominantly democratic political universe and you’re with the Obama administration, you worked for Hillary Clinton, you worked for… You had all of the markings that somebody from a distance would assume that you are a more classic, I’m trying to say this in a way that’s not going to offend anybody, but it’s going to be very hard.

But a more classic, bleeding heart liberal in your religious sensibilities. Like you’re thinking like, tikkun olam, is like let’s start with that and work everything backwards.

I happen to be a huge fan of tikkun olam. I don’t bash it. I’m a huge fan of it. It’s filtered through so much. And I met you and I’m like, you are a non-Orthodox Litvak. Because you’re not even touchy-feely Hasidic in a way. You’re not rainbow tallit.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
No. No.

David Bashevkin: 
Big purple yarmulke. You’re not that either. And I was like-

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I know. I’m so confusing.

David Bashevkin: 
No, you were. And I was just very intrigued that you’re like intellect… And the people that I thought would be most frustrated by you are like, finally, we have a Jew from the Obama and Clinton administration who’s coming out and writing a book about Judaism. This is surely will be for us. And I feel like were there not people disappointed that you didn’t lean in to that iteration or manifestation of Judaism that is more social justice for first?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Look, you don’t need Judaism to do social justice. You don’t need Judaism to be a Democrat. I just think that those folks are getting more than enough of that in the secular world, and that’s wonderful. And of course that’s in Judaism, but Judaism has an actual specific unique approach to social justice, which so many people don’t even know about. And so I actually think they were really excited to see, oh, wait a second. It’s not just tikkun olam, yay social justice. There’s actually a deep approach to this that’s very specific and actually quite moving and useful. So I really didn’t get pushback. In fact, I got, people were really… they were like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I needed.” I didn’t know this stuff. I had no idea that Judaism had so much to say that’s relevant. 10 years ago, I knew what the Democrat and Republican Party said about criminal justice, immigration, poverty.

I had no idea that Judaism had anything to say. I knew what Catholics said about reproduction, about reproductive rights and contraception and abortion. I didn’t know that Judaism had anything to say. If you were a Jew who shows up twice a year at a shul and goes to a boring Seder, why on earth would you think that Judaism has wisdom for your life? And so when you actually say to these people, Hey, here’s 4,000 years of wisdom and it’s a lot deeper and a lot more powerful than this, whatever crap you found online or at your ayahuasca retreat. They’re actually like, okay. I think you see a lot of disengaged Jews, they are yearning for depth and they find in places that frankly I think are silly and that I don’t think are very deep. And when you actually show them something that’s deep, when you make it accessible to them, it’s transformative. But this is not an accessible tradition. It’s just not. It took me thousands and thousands of hours to get to the deepest part of it. Everything in Judaism is hyperlinked with everything else. There’s nowhere to start. And you just have to dive in and just really apply yourself. And a lot of people don’t have time. So I wanted to save them some of that time, but also really show them the depths. And that is hard to do. I will tell you, very, very hard to do.

David Bashevkin: 
You wrote this book on Judaism. I’m curious, if you were to write another book on Judaism, would you go into a different topic? Do you have another Jewish book in you or you’re looking to explore something else entirely?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So I am writing another book. I just started another book actually. I know. Surprise, which I’m very excited about. And this one is me kind of stepping back and saying, wait a second, why was it that for the first 36 years of my life, I was so instinctively averse to Judaism? Why was the Judaism that I saw for the first 36 years of my life so odd? Why was Judaism for me, three holidays? That’s very strange. Wait a second. Now that I know the credible depths and vastness of Judaism, it’s a little shocking to me what I grew up with. And so I’m really beginning to look back into history, to look back into what happened when we became emancipated, what happened in modernity with our attempts to fit in. What did we do when we made Judaism into a Christian-style religion? And I’m not talking just about what reformers did, but I’m also talking about the kind of backlash, which was what became orthodoxy. What did this kind of trauma do to us as Jews and what have we lost?

And I’m also just thinking a lot about the kind of Christian hegemony that I grew up with in America. When people say to me, I’ve recently trained to be a hospital chaplain. And all my classmates are Christian, overwhelmingly Christian, even though chaplaincy is interfaith. And it was always like, “Oh, Sarah, tell us about your faith.” I was like, my what now? And are we talking about emunah? We’re talking about commandedness you. I was constantly translating and I realized that American society, it hands people a bunch of Christian keys, hands Jews a bunch of Christian keys and says, go try to unlock Judaism with that. And it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. So I’m really thinking a lot about a lot of these themes and how they kind of turned me against Judaism and Jewish tradition and how I can reclaim this tradition and how all of us can reclaim this tradition for ourselves.

David Bashevkin: 
Do you look back and feel a sense of blame or regret? Meaning how you look back at your past? I saw online, somebody just posted a question on Twitter asking if you could have been born into any Jewish community. And they went through the full thing, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and they broke down because they’re like, and they did a lot of fun. They went through six different Hasidic sects. They’re like-

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So love it.

David Bashevkin: 
Satmar, Belz. And they said, where would you have want to have wow been born? I personally am incredibly grateful to the community that I was born in. I wouldn’t really change a thing. I’m curious for somebody like yourself, do you feel a sense of… Blame is a hard word.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Yeah definitely.

David Bashevkin: 
You’re in your parents house. I hope that you love your parents, but is there a sense of frustration of wasn’t it somebody’s job to do a better job to tell me about this sooner?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
No, I really reject the blaming and the shaming and the frustration because I don’t think this is something that I would ever pin on. Oh, Hebrew school should have been different, or the rabbi should have been different, or my parents should have been different. I really think we are all products of modernity. We are all products of this two centuries long project of Jews trying to fit into broader societies that hated them and that made them unsafe. And they very understandably tried to make themselves their Christian neighbors. They were doing that to survive. No one should be blamed or shamed or judged. I don’t judge. And some people didn’t do that and that’s great. But I come from the legacy of people who did try to fit in, and I don’t blame them. I feel heartbroken that they had to do that. I blame the broader society that made them do that.

So there’s no blame or frustration or anger. And my parents are super loving and amazing people. And were they that into Judaism? No, but they were determined to give my brother and I a sense of identity and, you know what, I’m so glad they did because that was enough so that I could come back without feeling like a total stranger. But I wouldn’t change a thing. But I love my life now. I love where I’ve gone. I have to say, I think being an outsider for so long, it gives me an ability to look at this tradition with fresh eyes and to translate it, which is very hard to do when you are deeply, deeply in it. You know, have so many assumptions that you don’t even know that you have.

David Bashevkin: 
So that that’s kind of the final point that I wanted to get to, which is we don’t proselytize in the Jewish community, but we do do in-reach. We do try to reach people who are engaged. And I could imagine, maybe not myself because I’m so not confrontational with these things, but I could imagine whether it’s a outreach rabbi or somebody bumping into you at the age of, you’re 35 years old and they finally got into the White House. And you come in, you introduce your name, which is the most Jewish name.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I know.

David Bashevkin: 
It is pretty hard like “Hi Sarah Hurwitz.” Hmm I wonder, and you’re in the throw of it. You’re in the thick of it. Is there anything that somebody could have said to you earlier that would’ve drawn you closer sooner? And is there anything that somebody could have avoided saying to you? The wrong thing to say when you’re reaching… You’re self-aware, when you’re in a room, you know what Kirav is. What outreach is? When somebody’s trying to either educate and inform or trying to convince you to sign up for, I don’t know, a program or whatever it is, what are the right things that somebody could have said to that Sarah Hurwitz in the past… you’re in the throes of, it’s not corporate life. You’re in the castle, you’re in the White House right now. Is there anything that somebody could have said? And are there things that we should not have said?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Yeah. So I really identify with the frustration that engaged Jews feel with disengaged Jews. And almost just a sense of heartbreak where you’re just throwing away, you’re throwing this away. You’re throwing away this 4,000 year birth right of hours that we’ve fought and sacrifice so hard to keep. And so I think that sometimes comes out in anger or guilt or shaming. And I’m certainly guilty of that too, where it’s like, how dare you and the Holocaust and everyone’s trying to kill us and this and that. And it’s like, that’s not a great argument. That’s just not a great argument. Judaism equals antisemitism plus Israel plus the Holocaust. Not a great argument. What would’ve been helpful from to say to me is I want you to show me why Judaism is a transformative, radical, countercultural powerful tradition that is so much deeper and more powerful than the thin secular ethic of you do you, as long as you don’t hurt other people too much, very low bar. The bar of American law is very low. It’s don’t destroy people’s property or infringe on their rights or assault them. Very low bar Judaism has this much higher bar. And I would want them to give me examples of like, okay, give me an example of a high ethical bar that Judaism has. Well, how about around speech?

Let’s talk about gossip. Let’s actually get into this and help me realize, whoa, when my gossip, I hurt people. Not occurred to me. I also would really want them to say to me, I know that you think Judaism thinks God is a man in the sky who controls things because you’ve showed up twice a year at a shul, open the seddur. And that’s what you think it shows. That is not true. In fact, to say something like that is basically idolatrous.

We as Jews do not shrink the infinite, ineffable divine into some tiny little dogma or creed or definition that our tiny little minds can grasp. We have a fundamental theological humility where we don’t do that because to do that is to create an idol, it’s to create a human shaped version, a human-sized version of God. We don’t have theology in Judaism. That’s a Christian thing. What we have is commentary. We have centuries and centuries of commentators who are articulating all kinds of ideas, experiences of the divine, many of which are contradictory. And that’s okay, right? Because if I had actually known that Judaism has a sophisticated, non-childish approach to the divine, to God. I mean even these words, divine God, these aren’t Jewish words. These are words that I’ve been sort of stuck with because I grew up in a Christian society. There are endless words for God in Judaism. I don’t even like the word God, but who knows that? How would you know that unless you’ve kind of grown up Jewishly engaged.

So I think opening up that door saying, I know you’re looking for spirituality. I know you’re doing it at Buddhism and Burning Man and SoulCycle and drugs, and yay you, go for it. But here’s something deeper. Here’s something smarter. That would’ve been very compelling to me.

David Bashevkin: 
I really appreciate it. And it’s so remarkable that you went specifically to the laws of gossip. You are not the first person to tell me that and I’m always shocked. I’ll tell you who the other two people are because it’s so interesting. One of them was with us and actually left the community that he was born up with, also a personal religious transition. And that is Shulem Deen. I was one time in a high school that brought in Shulem to talk to their high school students about writing exactly what we were talking about. And he made a very similar point. He said, you should spend more time talking about what you could only find here. And we have sophisticated laws of lashon hara, of gossip. Why don’t people talk about that more as the front end? And the other person I heard this from, and I almost fell out of my chair, I’m still not sure I agree with them, but you said the same thing, is Rabbi Breitowitz from Toronto.

He is a very famous he’s a larger than life rabbi. And I studied with him for two months and one time asked him, where would you start if you were teaching somebody Judaism for the first time, you, would you open up the Torah from the first page? Would you, I don’t know, start with the beginning of the first mission, Talmud, God to the perplex. He banged on the table and said, I would start with the laws of lashon hara. I was like, what now? And it was exactly… No, I thought, I’m like, okay, that’s crazy. So I love it, but I’m never actually going to do that. But he’s making a very similar point to what you’re saying in the way that we present in writing about this and just the work that you have done and the example that you are in really living the familial component of what Yiddishkeit is all about. You exude Yiddishkeit, which is why after all these years, it’s crazy. We’re still in touch. It’s nuts. I

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I know. Can I just say that when I first met you, I thought, oh gosh, he’s going to be really judgmental of me. He’s going to think I’m a bad Jew. He’s a Orthodox. And I was just struck by how open-minded you were. We kind of debated. And maybe debate is even too strong a word. We had a really spirited conversation where you were saying things and I was like, huh. I don’t know if I totally agree, but that’s interesting. And I would say something and you’d say, okay, I don’t know if I totally agree, but that’s interesting. And it was so thrilling. And that is so Jewish, that playfulness, that openness, that like, well, what about this bizarre scenario? What about this unusual idea? We don’t have to be afraid of those things. We don’t have to cancel them. We don’t have to shut people down. We can actually just open-heartedly, have a conversation. And I just thought like, wow, what a model of what Judaism can be like. I just think your open-heartedness and open-mindedness, it draws Jews like me in. And I think that that is just such a great model. So I appreciated that and I think that’s why we stayed friends. I think it was just that sense of mutual respect.

David Bashevkin: 
It really means the world to me. I always conclude my interviews with more rapid fire questions.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Do it.

David Bashevkin: 
You don’t have to prepare for these. My first question is, I’m curious if there is, you mentioned three already. I want to try to squeeze one or two more out of you, especially because this is really the month of books, books, books. We’re always talking about books. I am curious for you, are there any books that contributed to your religious or Jewish sensibilities? I’m not talking about a primer on Judaism. It could even be a non-Jewish book that awakened your religious sensibilities. What books would you recommend?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
As a Driven Leaf. That book just blew me away. It captured something. It captured that struggle between Judaism and, well, in that case it was Greekness, but Judaism and secularism and that struggle and just that instinctive pullback for me, very much so. I also think Dara Horn’s book, People Love Dead Jews. Hugely influential. Hugely influential to me. Those two particularly.

David Bashevkin: 
I really appreciate both. Dara is also a friend of the show. Somebody extraordinarily wonderful. My next question, if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical with no responsibilities whatsoever, to go back to school and get a PhD, what do you think the subject and title of your PhD would be?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Whoa. I think I’d get it in Jewish Studies and just really-

David Bashevkin: 
Do you have a specific area? We have to drill down a little bit.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Oh, we got to drill down. Can’t be specific.

David Bashevkin: 
I can’t let you off the hook of Jewish studies.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I think it would be Jewish thought. Jewish thought and philosophy throughout the ages.

David Bashevkin: 
Is there a specific philosopher that has drawn you in? Again, you have a mimeomedian component to you.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I appreciate some of what he said. He is my mind use is not really resonate with me. There’s a lot.

David Bashevkin: 
That’s not where you would go.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
No, no.

David Bashevkin: 
Where would you go? I’m just curious.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
I’d probably look, actually, I think Hasidism a lot of the… It’s funny when you said like, oh, you’re not Hassidish. Like, well, actually, that spiritually is probably what most draws me in. I don’t want to wear a rainbow Tallis or a big purple kippah. I’ve been very moved by Hasidic writings that I’ve read, so I would probably drill down there.

David Bashevkin: 
That is absolutely beautiful. That is, I didn’t get my PhD in Hasiddis, but I did do my Masters’.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Okay.

David Bashevkin: 
And there’s a lot to unroll there. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s sleep schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Sarah Hurwitz: 
So I usually, at 11:00 PM I start to wind down. That’s me. And I always read just a very… when I’m reading, I’m slogging through pretty dense Jewish stuff all day. And so at night I just want something that is a massage for my brain. So I actually read detective novels like murder mystery detective novels, and not really super literary ones. Like middle brow-

David Bashevkin: 
Mid breath.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Simple sentences, detective novels, who done it. And then I try to fall asleep by midnight, 12:30, and I generally get up around like 7:30 or 8:00. So I’m a big fan of the seven to eight hours of sleep at night.

David Bashevkin: 
Yes.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
And I have the luxury of getting that because I don’t have little kids. And most people who are parents do not have that luxury. So I don’t take it for granted at all.

David Bashevkin: 
Sarah Hurwitz, what an absolute privilege and pleasure to speak with you today. I hope that the next time we speak it is in person. We have a reunion of sorts, but I really cannot thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us today.

Sarah Hurwitz: 
Oh, it is a total pleasure and I too hope the next time that we speak is in person. So great to see you.

David Bashevkin: 
Alex and Sarah, in my mind, in my estimation are both two shining neon entrance signs into Jewish life and Jewish engagement. And whether it’s for you or somebody you know or somebody you love or somebody you’re just acquainted with, knowing the full gamut of our neon entrance signs is something that can be very, very helpful in bringing that pride and that connection to Jewish life, really to the masses. And the work that they’ve done in that regard is so uplifting and nourishing. I am so grateful to both of them. I want to end because I mentioned him in the beginning, and it’s somebody who I think as a community, we need people who have been created in this model. I want to end with a quote again from Herman Woo. This is from his book, This Is My God. And he writes as follows. It’s kind of very moving.

And if you don’t own a copy, you’ve never read a copy, get a copy because this book needs to be remembered and preserved. And what he represented, though he may not be famous in 2023 like he was in the 1950s. So much of what he writes about and the way he writes about Judaism really resonates through the generations that deserves to be a classic. And this is what he writes. To sum up then we are Israelites descended from the small nation, which came out of the Sinai Desert into Canan 3000 years ago with a tradition of liberation from Egypt under a lawgiver and deliverer named Moses. We are called Jews in our heritage Judaism because in the political decline in fall of our nation, the tribe which held out longest and became the surviving remnant in exile predicted by the Torah was named Judah.

Almost all living Jews stem at a remove of no more than four or five generations at most from observant Jews. Historically, Israelites who have discontinued the practice of the law of Moses have faded into the environment and lost their identity within a century or two. The attrition over the centuries has of course been enormous. The Jews who are left are mainly the sons and grandsons of those who kept the faith preserving the chain unbroken through time from the 20th century back to the sunrise of the human intelligence. Before examining this faith, we can surely acknowledge two things. First, that as a feat of gallantry, of the spirit of man, the preservation of Judaism ranks high.

Second, that if ancient lineage be a source of legitimate pride, the Jews have a right to be a proud people. And that is a moving note to conclude this episode and really show appreciation for all those, not just our guests who we spoke with today, Alex and Sarah, but all those who serve as reminders. Most of our listeners, I’m sure in one way or another, who are able to cultivate that sense of pride in Jewish identity in who we are. And continuing that chain unbroken through time from the 20th century back to the sunrise of the human intelligence and the words of human woke. And creating that neon entry sign for all those who may be on the periphery or even further out to find ways to reengage, continue to engage and continue and rebuild a new chain to continue on for generations.

So thank you so much for listening, especially to this double editor episode. This episode was edited by our stand-in friend and editor Rob Pira, our normal editor, Denah Emerson. We’re wishing her a lot of joy on her summer vacation. Denah, don’t lose our number. Stay in touch. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So if you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate review, tell your friends about it. You can also donate at 18 forty.org/donate. Thank you again to our sponsors, our episodes sponsors at twillory.com. You can use the coupon code 18Forty, that’s the numbers 1-8 followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y. Again, you get money off for all orders, over $139. New customers only. I believe it expires at the end of July, 2023. And thank you, of course, to our series sponsor, who really is helping us with all of our book content and culture, an old friend who chooses to remain anonymous.

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