WESTPORT – Dani Shapiro is the author of seven books, including “Devotion,” a nationally bestselling memoir that recounts how Shapiro has combined Buddhism, yoga, and the Jewish faith of her forebears in a personally meaningful spiritual practice. “Devotion” was one of “O, The Oprah Magazine”’s must-read picks and a Today Show Best Book.
Shapiro will be part of the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford’s Jewish Book Festival Connecticut Bestsellers Panel on Thursday, Jan. 20.
She lives in Litchfield County. She spoke with the Ledger about her book, “Devotion.”
How did you experience Judaism growing up?
A: My background is complicated. My father was from a prominent New York Orthodox family. My grandfather was one of the founders of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and one of my uncles was a four-time president of the Orthodox Union. My grandparents founded many yeshivas in Israel, and were very philanthropic. My mother, however, was not Orthodox. She came from a very different background – her parents had a chicken farm in southern New Jersey. When my parents decided to marry, my father told my mother that it was important to him to keep an observant home, and she agreed to this. But she didn’t really believe in what she was doing – and so there was a lot of conflict over religious observance and customs when I was growing up. Most of this conflict revolved around how to raise me. My father wanted me to go to a yeshiva. My mother wanted me to be a modern American girl. The two seemed at odds with each other. And so I went to a Jewish day school, Solomon Schechter, until I was in 6th grade, and then to a prep school in New Jersey, The Pingry School, from 7th grade through high school.
For me, growing up, I equated religious belief with conflict. I didn’t see the beauty in it – or frankly, the point. It seemed to cause strife between my parents, and not to make either of them happy or more contented. The meaning was drained out of it… and all that was left was the ritual, which, drained of meaning, felt empty. And so I left.
What motivated you to write “Devotion?”
A: “Devotion” is the story of how, many years later, in my mid-40s and as the mother of a young child myself, I felt an intense need to give my son something of his heritage, something of the tradition he was born into – but I didn’t know how to do this in a way that felt real, and modern, and meaningful, and true to myself. I was feeling terribly anxious and unsteady. I needed to place my faith in something. My book is that journey – towards making peace with my heritage and finding a way to make it my own.
When I moved from New York City to Connecticut, where there were very few Jews, I suddenly realized that I felt more Jewish, because I had to think about it. As I began to explore what it was that gave my life meaning and connected me to any sense of something greater than myself, Judaism was in the mix. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with where I was. I had been raised with all or nothing, and it had left me with nothing. But it had also left me with this vestigial feeling that all is the only way. I had a secret belief that people who build a spiritual life for themselves, gathering wisdom from all different corners of the world, were just seekers of easy comfort. I don’t believe that any more.
How would you describe you spiritual path now?
A: I have a very different feeling now about my father and his rituals. He may not have been thinking about the words he was saying, or even believing some of what he was saying, I don’t know. But it was an act of devotion: Here is what I do at the beginning of my day to remind me of what matters in life. It doesn’t matter what the ritual is, it’s the fact of it.
I don’t think I had any idea, when I began to write “Devotion,” how much ritual would become important to me. Ritual, when I was a child, was something I experienced as being very punitive. Keeping the Sabbath meant that I didn’t get to be outside riding my bike with my friends. Many of the rules – not turning on and off lights, not riding in cars, not tearing toilet paper – all felt like they were a kind of punishment I couldn’t imagine what the role of ritual could possibly be in my present life. Even though I did have a number of rituals in place – my yoga practice is a ritual – I didn’t think of them in that way. I didn’t understand what the meaning and touchstone of ritual could be.
What I felt about my spiritual journey — and these are [meditation teacher and psychotherapist] Sylvia Boorstein’s words — was complicated by my Judaism. We are all complicated by where we come from. Someone once asked Sylvia why she complicates her Buddhism with her Judaism, and that was her answer: “Because I am complicated with it.” I could no more reject my Judaism than reject being female, or being a mother, or a wife, or a writer, or any of the things that most define me. What I wanted to do was to work with it. To understand how the religion and culture I was born into could be a part of my spiritual path in a relevant and authentic way.
What were some of the most meaningful questions you asked while writing “Devotion?”
A: What do we do with what life hands us? was an essential question that I found myself asking again and again, and has very much to do with making meaning. My son was very sick and he recovered; what do I do with that? My father died when I was young; how can I make my life somehow be more meaningful as a result of his death so that his death wasn’t just a tragedy?
The question of why life hands us what it hands us, and whether there’s a plan or someone up in the sky orchestrating all that, was one that I was less consumed by than: what do we do with what we’ve been given?
Dani Shapiro will be a part of a panel to speak at the Mandell JCC on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. She will be joined by authors Mark Oppenheimer and Cathleen Schine.
Mark Oppenheimer, author of “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate,” writes a regular column on religion for The New York Times. He teaches English and political science at Yale University, where he is the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative. New York Times bestselling author Cathleen Schine is the author of eight books; the most recent is “The Three Weissmanns of Westport.”
For ticket information: www.mandelljcc.org / (860) 231-6316.