Interview'It’s a totally different perspective on Judaism'

Former Obama speechwriter turns her pen to a new book on reconnecting to Judaism

Sarah Hurwitz, who was a senior writer for both the president and first lady, returns to her roots in a new work on Jewish tradition, released just ahead of the High Holidays

Former head speechwriter for Michelle Obama and author of the new book, 'Here All Along,' Sarah Hurwitz, left pictured with the former first lady. (Chuck Kennedy/White House)
Former head speechwriter for Michelle Obama and author of the new book, 'Here All Along,' Sarah Hurwitz, left pictured with the former first lady. (Chuck Kennedy/White House)

The end of the Obama Administration was a bittersweet moment for Sarah Hurwitz. For much of that time, Hurwitz, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, had been the head speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama. Before that, she had worked as a senior speechwriter for president Barack Obama. Now it was time to say goodbye. Before the farewells to staff, the first lady imparted some advice.

“Mrs. Obama encouraged us to do something we were passionate about, excited about,” Hurwitz recalled in an interview with The Times of Israel.

Hurwitz would do exactly that. Instead of politics, it would be a project to reconnect with the Judaism of her childhood. She details this reconnection in her recently published book, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).”

The book reflects its author’s desire to “give people the foundation they need to learn — and by ‘they,’ I mean ‘myself,’” Hurwitz said. “Five years ago, I knew nothing about Judaism. [You need to] get the foundation first before learning deeply, know what the Torah is, what it says, how to read it.”

Published by Random House, the book hit the shelves on September 3, just a few weeks before the High Holidays.

“It’s really important to me to get it out now, at a moment when I think a lot of Jews are taking time to reflect, to think about who they want to be,” including their engagement with Judaism, Hurwitz said.

The past few years have been ones of transition and reflection for Hurwitz since leaving the White House and focusing on her book project.

Sarah Hurwitz, author of the new book, ‘Here All Along.’ (Courtesy)

Hurwitz’s career in politics dates back to her days as a Harvard undergraduate, when she interned in the speechwriting office of then-vice president Al Gore in 1998. After Harvard Law School, she worked as a speechwriter for Democratic presidential candidates Wesley Clark and John Kerry in 2004, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. After Clinton ended her campaign, Hurwitz began working for her former rival in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.

“I love Hillary. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Obama,” Hurwitz said. “They’re two extraordinary people.”

The 2008 primary campaign pitted Clinton, the former first lady and then-senator from New York, against Obama, the senator from Illinois who had given an electrifying convention speech four years earlier.

“I was just amazed at how welcoming the Obamas were to me,” Hurwitz recalled. “Sen. Obama called me the first week to welcome me to the team.”

Hurwitz helped Michelle Obama with her speech to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in the Obamas’ home city of Chicago.

“I loved that campaign,” Hurwitz said, adding that she felt part of a “current of history, a really special experience,” resulting in Obama’s election as the first African-American president of the US. She worked as a senior speechwriter for him from 2009 to 2010, then became the head speechwriter for the first lady, a position she held from 2010 to 2017.

Illustrative: Then president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“The first family was the greatest honor of my life,” Hurwitz said. “I could never have dreamed of this job I would have. I could never have imagined this first family, this president, this first lady.”

“They’re both very similar,” Hurwitz said of the former first couple. “People sometimes say [to me], ‘So, you script them.’ Nobody scripts president and Mrs. Obama. Both are people who know what they want to say, are very clear, very engaged start-to-finish. They direct the speech and edit heavily.”

Hurwitz recalls being part of motorcades when the first family traveled overseas, with people waving American flags. She remembered seeing “how children respond to Mrs. Obama… Kids around the world know her. She represents opportunity, possibility. They’re familiar with her struggle, growing up in humble circumstances, becoming a successful lawyer and now first lady.”

“She is an utterly brilliant woman,” Hurwitz said. “She knows who she is and always knows what to say. It’s a joy to work with someone like that. She has such a natural sense of language, storytelling, detail. She’s just so smart. She cuts to the heart of any matter.”

Illustrative: People on motor bikes celebrate American President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya by holding up a photo, center top, of the president and First Lady Michelle Obama in Kisumu, Kenya, July 25, 2015. (AP)

Hurwitz recalled that in one particularly valuable lesson, the first lady imparted how important it is to “say something true.” This resonated later as Hurwitz worked on her book manuscript, especially when she felt her writing was starting “to get technical [or] boring… It’s important to reach people where they live, touch their heart.”

Late last year, Michelle Obama published her bestselling memoir, “Becoming.” Around that time, Hurwitz was in the editing stages of her own book manuscript, which she finished this spring. The now-former speechwriter has continued keeping an eye on politics, with the first Campaign 2020 presidential primaries just a few months away.

“I think there are a lot of great candidates, people who are amazing public servants,” Hurwitz said. “I’m really curious to see how it shakes out.”

Asked about the speeches of current US President Donald Trump, she said, “It’s a totally fair question,” but replied that “I think he takes up a lot of space. I don’t want to give him any more.”

‘Here All Along,’ by Sarah Hurwitz. (Courtesy)

Transitioning from speechwriting to book writing, Hurwitz said that her extensive past experience proved helpful when considering “the structure of a piece, determining whether it flows well,” although the degree of difficulty increased from a 2,000-word speech to a 10,000-word chapter to a 95,000-word book. And in speechwriting, she noted, “you can’t say, ‘the Muses are not coming, I need [to go to] a cabin in the woods.’”

Hurwitz’s book stemmed not from a place of calm but a time of tension — the breakup of a relationship while she was still working in the White House.

“I was feeling lonely and looking to fill time,” she recalled.

In the summer of 2014, she found a Wednesday-night class at a Washington JCC and revived a Jewish education that had stopped at age 13.

“Looking at Jewish texts for the first time as an adult was a totally transformative experience,” Hurwitz said, adding, “I was moved, challenged, on fire.”

This contrasted with her ennui while attending Hebrew school growing up in Massachusetts.

“As a kid reading the siddur, I had no background to understand this deep, sophisticated text,” she said, referring to the Jewish prayerbook. “You think that God’s a man in the sky. At age 13, you say, ‘I’m too smart, I’m an atheist.’”

However, Hurwitz said, “Jewish theology and spirituality are much more rich, [with] great Jewish [thinkers like] Maimonides, [Martin] Buber, [Abraham Joshua] Heschel, the mystics, a whole world of spiritual engagement for me.”

Illustrative: Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, February 6, 1968, including Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

Beginning with that first class at the JCC, she said, “I started learning — reading extensively, taking classes and talking to rabbis.” Hurwitz studied foundational Jewish texts such as the Torah and Talmud, as well as works by thinkers including Buber, Heschel and more contemporary minds such as Jay Michaelson, while engaging with fellow Jews across the religious spectrum.

She explored the non-traditional approach of Jewish meditation retreats, including her first such retreat with the Israel-based organization Or HaLev. Hurwitz calls the practice “extraordinary,” one that unites people of “all different Jewish backgrounds.” Its daylong sessions of silence are “such a dramatic departure from daily life,” she said. “I feel close to the divine in that space.”

She experienced another way to worship through visiting Orthodox friends’ homes for Shabbat — “an utter joy,” with “no screens, no technology, people so engaged with each other,” she said.

“I never felt judged at all,” Hurwitz said. “They know my practices. I was so warmly welcomed… Orthodox friends, Orthodox rabbis are excited that I’m passionate about Judaism, even if it’s not exactly the way they are.”

An article in The Jewish Week quotes Hurwitz as describing her reconnection as different from the Orthodox practice of becoming a baal teshuva, one who adopts a fully observant lifestyle.

Illustrative: A Shabbat meal. (Gefilteria/Shulie Seidler Feller)

When The Times of Israel asked Hurwitz about the tradition of gender separation practiced by some Jewish denominations, she said that while it is found among the 10 percent of the American Jewish population who are Orthodox, it does not reflect the 90% who are egalitarian.

According to Hurwitz, her book can benefit readers from diverse backgrounds.

“Two years ago, I would have said my book is for disengaged Jews,” Hurwitz reflected. “But some of my most enthusiastic feedback has come from very engaged Jews — friends who are Orthodox, friends who are rabbis, who say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a totally different perspective on Judaism.’ It made me remember why I love being Jewish.”

Citing the 70% of American non-Orthodox Jews who are married to non-Jews, she said, “I would also love my audience to be those married to Jews, who care about Judaism. I would love for those [spouses] to read it.”

And, she said, “I would love it to be read by seekers who are curious about religious traditions. Each of the world religious traditions has an important moral tradition to offer that we can all benefit from. I love the idea of sharing Judaism’s moral reasoning with others — not to proselytize, just to share.”

Illustrative: A 2011 marriage ceremony of an interfaith couple from Boston. (Courtesy Jared and Laurie Berezin)

Looking beyond the US, Hurwitz said, “I would hope people in Israel would be excited to read the book… It’s basically a love letter to Judaism from a fellow Jew.”

Asked whether she has gotten any feedback from the Obamas on the book, Hurwitz said that the former president and first lady have inquired on its progress the past couple of years, and that they are “really excited for me that I’m pursuing my passion.”

It sounds like that passion rings through, including on the very last page, when Hurwitz quotes Yiddish novelist Jacob Glatstein: “Inside me sits the soul of an ancestor who summons me back.” She also references the Yiddish phrase pintele Yid, meaning “the little part of a Jew,” which she defines as “a spark of Jewishness.”

“Something has to light that spark,” Hurwitz said. “It’s different for different people. Once you find a way to ignite that spark, it does light up. It’s there all along. I did not figure out how to ignite it till a little bit later in life.”

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